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Libertarians and global warming

June 15th, 2008

I had a set-to with Jonathan Adler of Volokh about DDT recently, so I was pleased to note this piece on free-market environmentalism and climate change, which makes a number of points I’d been thinking about following debates over at the Australian Libertarian blog. Rather than recapitulate Adler’s post, I’ll make a number of points of my own regarding the response of (most, though not all) libertarians to climate change, which I think are in the same spirit:

* First, I’m a bit surprised to find libertarians mostly on the wrong side of this debate. Global climate change is one of the few instances where lots of environmentalists (not all, by any means) are supporting a property-rights based solution (tradeable emissions permits), despite starting from a position (in the leadup to Kyoto) of almost uniform opposition to anything that didn’t rely primarily on direct and detailed regulation. it seems as if the ideological opponents are upset because the government-created nature of the property rights in question will be self-evident, rather than obscured by a century or two of history.

* I’m struck by the reliance of most libertarian critics, such as Indur Goklany, who debates Adler here, on consequentialist benefit-cost arguments in favor of climate inaction. As Adler says, it seems odd to find libertarians saying that it’s OK, for example, to completely wipe out the property of Pacific Island nations, on the basis that there will be a net social benefit for the world as a whole from doing so.

* If emission permit trading is rejected on ideological grounds (I can’t exactly figure out what these are, but I’m not well equipped to arbitrate on ideological disputes among libertarians) it doesn’t seem as if any the other solutions commonly proposed by the FME camp are applicable. Take for example the Coasian favorite of tort action. For a global congestion problem, this would require everyone in the world to sue everyone else, presumably in some newly created world court (Goklany disputes this, saying, in effect “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, a principle that renders any sort of response to pollution impossible)

* This has led lots of libertarians, and others on the right, to write as if the mainstream scientific view on global warming renders libertarianism untenable, or, more succinctly[1] “global warming equals socialism”. If only it were so easy! Even it the scientific evidence weren’t overwhelming, it’s surely a big problem for a political viewpoint if its viability depends upon assumptions about cloud feedbacks. As I’ve said, I don’t think any such concession is necessary. A successful response to global warming is vitally important, but it doesn’t imply (or, I should note, preclude) radical changes to the existing social order.

fn1. This is from a conservative, not a libertarian, but the same sentiment is evident among many libertarians.

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  1. June 24th, 2008 at 18:23 | #1

    Your suggestions are in the light of contrary evidence. Smokers pay more than their personal and external costs through taxes. The excise creates organised crime and more violence. An efficient tax system based on taxing inversely proportional to elasticity needs to be applied to all goods and is not possible because of information costs.

    Heroin and cocaine were once legal, without any specific tax applied to them.

    Specifically taxing a good is a quasi prohibition and only serves the purpose of raising revenue (for what) and discriminating against users.

    Your argument is optimistic. While large revenues could be made on carbon taxes, Governments have chosen failing trading schemes or have even thought about personal carbon rationing. Revenue gains are not necessarily a motivation for legalisation, nor are they a predicate for legalisation.

  2. John Mashey
    June 25th, 2008 at 06:52 | #2

    Science says:

    1) Most people who are addicted to nicotine got that way by starting when they were 12-21, and especially 12-17, i.e., generally before it’s legal.

    2) It is much easier to “wire” a brain for addiction while it’s developing.

    3) People vary in their development of judgment, but science (and common experience) expect that younger kids typically lack judgment of longer term consequences, think they’re invulnerable, are easily swayed by peer pressure, etc.

    The tobacco archives say:
    4) Tobacco companies have long been very well aware of 1), 2), and 3).

    5) Tobacco companies are *brilliant* marketeers, and also brilliant at coopting governments.

    So, although most societies claim to try to let children grow up, but protect them from bad long-term consequences, the net effect is:

    PIT THE BEST MARKETEERS IN THE WORLD VERSUS JUDGEMENT OF 12-17-YEAR-OLDS.

    Smart libertarians stay away from this; dumb ones hang right in there with the tobacco companies [and that's in the Archives as well]. In CA, they’ve done a fine job of marginalizing themselves, even given the general “live-and-let-live” ethos here.

    If Libertarians want to show themselves *not* be unthinking cigarette sock-puppets, they’d propose workable, measurable policies that simultaneously:

    A) drop the smoking rate of 12-X-year-olds to ~0%, perhaps with the exception that if a kid’s parents file an official form saying they think it’s OK, then it’s their issue.
    B) allow anyone over X years to start smoking if they want to, where X is spec’d by medical research to allow for most brain development to be completed.

    Of course, the tobacco companies will do *anything* to avoid A), because their business plans depend on hooking people while their judgment is poor. All this dancing around over tax rates is avoiding the single real issue:

    do you protect kids from long-term damage, or not?

    FYI: Quit gives smoking rates for schoolkids in Oz.

    As of 2002 (maybe have improved since then), 23% of kids aged 16-17 were *still* smokers, after years of anti-smoking campaigns.

    “Between 1999 and 2002, tobacco company promotions for cigarette brands included point-of-sale advertising, gifts with purchase and Formula One motor racing. Some of these forms of tobacco advertising have been banned in some states and territories, but the tobacco industry has continued to promote their brands to young people through dance parties, nightclubs, fashion shows, email and the internet.”

    As it stands, although education, non-smoking-areas, and sometimes ferocious commercials help, so far, one of the most effective ways to lessen teenage smoking is simply to raise the price…

    Find another way that actually eliminates teen smoking and lets adults do what they want … or else admit that adult smoking rights are paramount, even if that means that kids wage an unequal battle with tobacco marketeers, thus assuring a supply of adult addicts to keep paying.

  3. July 1st, 2008 at 10:37 | #3

    1) It is the parents responsibility generally.

    2)Your brain develops until you are 25.

    3) That’s just an assertion.

    4) Not much of a point when rejoindered at 1), 2) and 3).

    5) Every company in the world has the same access to the same marketers. Just pay the market rate. Marketing cannot make you stuff you want to buy. If you believe this, a marketer has conned you and they are trying to extract monopoly prices for their services which may or may not work. The bastards.

    “PIT THE BEST MARKETEERS IN THE WORLD VERSUS JUDGEMENT OF 12-17-YEAR-OLDS.”

    Plenty of kids never smoke. Just where are cigarettes marketed these days? Has it even made a difference?

    “Smart libertarians stay away from this; dumb ones hang right in there with the tobacco companies [and that's in the Archives as well]. In CA, they’ve done a fine job of marginalizing themselves, even given the general “live-and-let-liveâ€? ethos here.”

    How is live and let live, being realistic about marketing and letting parents look after their own children “marginalised”?

    This is all presupposed on the bogus assertion that marketing can make you do things against your own will and judgement. It can’t.

    “If Libertarians want to show themselves *not* be unthinking cigarette sock-puppets, they’d propose workable, measurable policies that simultaneously:”

    If were sock puppets, where is the money? Please make sense in the future.

    “A) drop the smoking rate of 12-X-year-olds to ~0%, perhaps with the exception that if a kid’s parents file an official form saying they think it’s OK, then it’s their issue.
    B) allow anyone over X years to start smoking if they want to, where X is spec’d by medical research to allow for most brain development to be completed.”

    Uh huh. That’s going to work. Precocious kids don’t mind the fact that what they are doing is already illegal and they pay black market rates.

    You reckon you’re going to stop 18-25 year olds from smoking?

    This is as unworkable and controlling as the alochol prohibition movement.

    “do you protect kids from long-term damage, or not?”

    Where is your evidence that jacking up the tax rates that cause black markets, murder and racketeering actually stop people under the age of 25 from smoking?

    “As of 2002 (maybe have improved since then), 23% of kids aged 16-17 were *still* smokers, after years of anti-smoking campaigns.”

    What has this got to do with the downright regressive tax rate?

    “Find another way that actually eliminates teen smoking and lets adults do what they want … or else admit that adult smoking rights are paramount, even if that means that kids wage an unequal battle with tobacco marketeers, thus assuring a supply of adult addicts to keep paying.”

    There is no “battle”. Quit has good marketers itself. Your figures show this.

  4. July 3rd, 2008 at 18:54 | #4

    I think it is the nature of people to always get far too scared about issues far too quickly. Smoke will kill you. Alcohol will kill you. Drugs will kill you. Terrorists under your bed will kill you. Riding bikes without a helmet will kill you. Greenhouses gases will kill you.

    I’m hoping that terrorists don’t start threatening us with releasing co2. The western world would die of fear!

    Libertarians are often libertarian because they are skeptical of the following idea “hey… be really scared… you’re all going to die… now hand over a few billion to a politician and everythin will be OK”.

    Having said that… there was an australian libertarian who discussed various carbon tax options in a recent document published by the CIS.

  5. July 3rd, 2008 at 19:05 | #5

    Mashey — I’ve met plenty of non-libertarian adult smokers who are getting tired of the nanny staters too. They’re not tobacco lobby shills. Just people.

    Freedom means the freedom to make mistakes. If you want to influence people, use free speech like the rest of us.

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