Hayek on evolution and global warming

I’ve been working on a piece on why so many on the right have embracing delusional thinking about global warming, and I ran across a great quote from Hayek’s Why I am not a Conservative, cited by Jim Henley in relation to the debate currently going on in the US right about evolution and creationism/Intelligent Design. Hayek’s statement reads just as well if you replace “evolution” with “global warming”.

Looking at the NYTimes debate, it’s notable that debate at AEI (at least as reported by the Times) is about whether evolution is or is not politically favorable to conservatism, with ev psychists and Social Darwinists pitted against the Christian right. It’s only in the last para that the reality-based community has anything to cheer for (also quoted by Jim).

As for Mr. Derbyshire, he would not say whether he thought evolutionary theory was good or bad for conservatism; the only thing that mattered was whether it was true. And, he said, if that turns out to be “bad for conservatives, then so much the worse for conservatism.�

And here’s Hayek:

I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories.

But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic� explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position.

Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

43 thoughts on “Hayek on evolution and global warming

  1. I have been looking for a free market libertarian solution to Global Warming for a while now and I have been struck by the fact that it just does not seem to exist. Every time I look up the writing of a thoughtful conservative free marketeer on Global Warming all I ever find is skepticism and combined with talk about the unseen benefits of Global Warming. At this point no matter how much you doubt Global Warming is human caused you would have to concede there is some sort of non-trivial possibility that it really is a serious problem we can fix by reducing greenhouse gas emmissions.

    If free market response to Global Warming continues to be this weak it risks entirely discrediting itself. After all, no matter how good libertarian sounds in theory, its not going to be an attractive ideology if by its own admission it has nothing to offer on what could possibly our greatest challenge over the next 50 to 100 years.

  2. John, I don’t know your reasons for arguing against the Iraq war, so I don’t know if you were “obviously correct”.

    The war was very successful. The peace has been an unmitigated disaster. Maybe it would have gone better with better management, but that’s a weak counterfactual argument; it may also have gone just as badly but for different reasons.

    So in hindsight, I now think such adventures are better left on the drawing board. Cut taxes instead. Or if you have to spend the money, do something useful like fixing social security or health insurance.

    These views are pretty standard on the “right”. They won’t get you barred from any blogs, except rusted on bushites.

  3. If you read the post, you’ll see that it was directed mainly at rusted on bushites, of whom there are still enough to dominate the US Republican party.

    Of course, in Australia, creationism isn’t compulsory for rightwingers. It’s striking, though, that Bolt and McGuinness, both self-proclaimed atheists, are soft on creationism. Quadrant has run pieces critical of “Darwinism”, and Bolt’s old blog (which now seems to have vanished) was neutral at best on the topic.

  4. To swio (comment 26): try “Natural Capitalism” by Hawkin, Lovins and Lovins (available for free at http://www.natcap.org).
    Their argument can be summed up in a phrase: tax the things we don’t want not the things we do. In other words, they advocate shifting the tax burden to greenhouse gases, pollution and natural resource use taxes and away from income tax, payroll tax and other disincentives to business. Sort of Neo-Georgist.
    The argument continues that getting rid of pollution as a response to taxes will in itself reduce government spending in other fields; for example if we had much cleaner air we would have lower hospital bills due to the decline in respiratory disorders, if we had greener, more “natural” environments to live and work in then we would reduce rates of stress and mental illness, if we had less harmful chemical use in industry there would be fewer industrial diseases/accidents/chronic illnesses, if we had much better energy efficiency it wouldn’t be necessary to have as many wealth transfers to the poor (to pay their heating bills as is the case for Health Care Card holders now), etc.

    A lot of green economists would add that governments these days shamefully subsidise environmentally destructive practices. Eg in Aus that lead mine in the NT who have just screwed over their aboriginal partners has never returned a cent in taxes but gets a $5 million a year subsidy. Queensland until a couple of years ago subsidised farmers to clear native vegetation. The tasmanian woodchipping industry is vastly subsidised. Australia’s water-wasting farming practices are only possible because the Agrarian Socialist (oops, I mean “National”) party applies pressure to supply farmers with water at far below market rates. Etc. If we cut all those subsidies to environmental destruction we would reduce govt expenditure and hence taxes, enabling new enviro-friendly business to grow and employ the workers displaced from the “dirty” industries.

  5. Mugwump takes issue with my Cobban quote above, saying “I think you’ll find small businesses are generally far more efficient than large businesses�.

    We can, of course, argue about “efficiency�. But a Productivity Commission paper of August 1997 entitled “Small Business Employment� gives shares of employment and of value added by small businesses in various industry sectors. That report shows that, overall, the small business share of employment (private, non-farm) was 39% and the corresponding share of value added was 33%, giving a ratio of 84.6%. In other words, small business value added per employee was significantly lower than the National average for all firms.

    Since these Productivity Commission figures were sourced from the ABS (Cat.No.1321.0), I tried to find some more recent ones. The most recent one I could find (for free) was 2001, which quoted an employment proportion of 36% and a share of value added of 28%, giving an overall small business value added per employee of 78% of the National average, actually worse than the 1997 result.

    Both issues of 1321.0 show large sectoral variations, with small business in some sectors actually outperforming the National average value added per employee. But overall I think the Cobban quote holds up.

  6. Thanks for the link Gordon,

    I should say that I am fairly strongly leftist myself – I’m inclined to regard the existence of so many subsidies as giving the lie to the idea that capitalism means a free market. If it’s all handouts and rorts then I’d rather a left-wing handout and rort policy. But I think that the environment is rather more important and certainly more scientifically informed than the left/right division.

  7. gordon, all those figures show is that small businesses tend to operate in lower-margin industries. Not a surprise really: big business inefficiencies and opportunity costs mean they have to focus on the higher margins.

    In general, small businesses that are less efficient than their big business competitors will disappear. That’s exactly what happens in industries with large economies of scale, eg there are no mom-and-pop car manufacturers.

  8. “I’m inclined to regard the existence of so many subsidies as giving the lie to the idea that capitalism means a free market. If it’s all handouts and rorts…”

    which is precisely why we don’t want leftists running the country. Try running your own small business, James. Then you could tell me where all the handouts are that I am obviously missing out on.

    The biggest handouts by far are welfare payments.

  9. Actually James, my small business is doing very nicely. Thanks for asking.

    Most handouts in Australia are spent on welfare of one form or another, or public servants (which one could argue is a form of welfare – guaranteed jobs for the underachievers from the middle class). I don’t know the numbers but as a fraction of the overall government take corporate handouts are very small.

  10. Mugwump explains the lower efficiency of small business by saying that small businesses tend to operate in lower-margin industries. I’m not sure what that means, but I can quote the explanation suggested by the Productivity Commission in their paper linked in my previous comment:

    “Overall, small firms tend to have lower value added per employee, reflecting the combined effect of:
    . generally lower wages (which in turn are likely to partly reflect underlying
    differences in the quality of human capital — and the nature of tasks that
    are performed by small business);
    . lower physical capital intensity; and
    . perhaps less skilled management.�

    I’m a bit worried about Mugwump’s comment that “Most handouts in Australia are spent on welfare of one form or another, or public servants…�. The Productivity Commission did a report on this about 10 years ago, and found that Commonwealth, State and Local Govt. assistance to industry totalled about $15b. annually. I don’t know whether these figures have ever been updated, but I would suggest that $15b. was about $830 for every man, woman and child in Australia back then. Yes, there is such a thing as business welfare.

  11. $15b out of a combined government spending in Australia of nearly 40% of GDP, or $400b,

    Which rather confirms that: “Most handouts in Australia are spent on welfare of one form or another, or public servants…�

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