Bastiat anticipates climate science denialism

I’m working on the environmental policy chapter of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons, which is a reply to Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, which in turn is a repackaging of Bastiat’s What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen. Hazlitt was aware of the difficulties posed for laissez-faire by pollution, and chose to avoid the issue. But, on Googling Bastiat + pollution, I came across a remarkable package in which Bastiat anticipates the climate change debate and takes the denialist side in advancee.

Suppose that a professor of chemistry were to say: “The world is threatened by a great catastrophe; God has not taken proper precautions. I have analyzed the air that comes from human lungs, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not fit to breathe; so that, by calculating the volume of the atmosphere, I can predict the day when it will be entirely polluted, and when mankind will die of consumption, unless it adopts an artificial mode of respiration of my invention.”

Another professor steps forward and says: “No, mankind will not perish thus. It is true that the air that has already served to sustain animal life is vitiated for that purpose; but it is fit for plant life, and what plants exhale is favorable to human respiration. An incomplete study has induced some to think that God made a mistake; a more exact inquiry shows a harmonious design in His handiwork. Men can continue to breathe as Nature willed it.”

What should we say if the first professor overwhelmed the second with abuse, saying: “You are a chemist with a cold, hard, dried-up heart; you preach the horrible doctrine of laissez faire; you do not love mankind, since you demonstrate the uselessness of my respiratory apparatus.”

This is the sum and substance of our quarrel with the socialists. Both they and we desire harmony. They seek it in the innumerable schemes that they want the law to impose on men; we find it in the nature of men and things.

Bastiat gets the problem (carbon dioxide + methane) right, though not the primary sources (burning fossil fuels and burping cows) or the way they damage us.

What’s striking, though, is his a priori faith that everything will be OK because of Divine Providence, whicn ensures that human activity tends towards harmony. If that fails, and a laissez-faire economy does in fact produce unsustainable pollution, his whole case collapses.

Of course, it’s possible to salvage a version of laissez-faire in the way suggested by Coase, using newly created property rights. But this requires the admission that property rights are a socially constructed set of rules, enforced by coercion, rather than a category inherent in the natural relationship between people and things. It’s precisely this admission that propertarians have been unwilling/unable to make, and why they still rely on magical thinking like that displayed by Bastiat.

26 thoughts on “Bastiat anticipates climate science denialism

  1. In this matter, I think we can let Proudhon have the last word.

    Proudhon declared to Bastiat: “Your intelligence is asleep, or rather it has never been awake…You are a man for whom logic does not exist…You do not hear anything, you do not understand anything…You are without philosophy, without science, without humanity…Your ability to reason, like your ability to pay attention and make comparisons is zero…Scientifically, Mr. Bastiat, you are a dead man.”

  2. Here is the thing, no Chemistry Professor talks like that above. Only a god-fearing chemist that graduated from a Christian college or a philosopher would say those words. What a chemistry professor would probably say is that “over the past (say) six years we have been collecting daily (or monthly) data on the composition of air and the number of particles in (say) ten different locations and analysing those data we have come to the conclusion that with all statistical significance the composition of the atmosphere we are breathing is moving towards X, and if this trend continues it poses hazard Y.” I think those words above are very bad imitations of a scientist.

  3. In this case, I think that Bastiat gets it right. Why? Because humans, and the air that comes out of our lungs, are part of a greater system, one that has supported plant and animal life for eons, in a cycle in which animals take in O2 and produce CO2 and plants take in CO2 and produce O2.

    Burning fossil fuels and deforestation, both on a large scale, are not part of that system. Those human actions increase the production of CO2 and reduce the production of O2 at the same time. It is possible, although unlikely, that we will get a runaway feedback cycle that leads to a new system like that of Venus, a very hot planet with clouds of CO2. We are changing our system in ways that we would not do by simply breathing.

  4. @Billikin
    You’re giving Bastiat too much credit. You give good reasons for thinking that the first scientist is wrong and the second scientist more likely to be right, but Bastiat doesn’t.

    If the figurative analogy of Bastiat’s parable is reduced to its literal equivalent, the result is something like this.

    The first paragraph points out that sometimes people present a view about what’s happening and what should be done about it.

    The second paragraph points out that sometimes other people argue that the first set of people are wrong.

    At this point in the argument, the question which suggests itself is this: if people disagree about what’s happening, how can we find out who’s right and who’s wrong?

    Bastiat’s third paragraph asks us to consider the significance, in these scenarios, of accusations of bad faith and lack of proper motives. Note that he writes ‘What should we say if …?’ but doesn’t answer the question. Although he avoids stating it explicitly, the conclusion obviously being advocated for is that we should not trust the side of the debate that makes accusations of bad faith and lack of proper motives.

    But this is nonsense. It’s common in debates for there to be a mixture of motives on both sides; that tells us nothing about which side is right on any substantive factual point. Likewise, the fact that allegations have been made from one side about the other side’s motives aren’t evidence about which side side is right on any substantive factual point (whether the allegations are true or false; most often they’ll be partly true and partly false).

    Bastiat describes an example of the kind of behaviour which is sometimes referred to metaphorically as ‘playing the man and not the ball’; but accusing somebody of playing the man and not the ball is itself an example of playing the man and not the ball. If you are aware that somebody is playing the man and not the ball, you should be able to respond by continuing to play the ball and not the man.

    Bastiat’s use of a parable instead of literal language disguises the duplicitous nature of his position. In the fourth paragraph, where he’s returned to more literal language, he suggests that the position of his side should be preferred to the position of the socialists, their opponents, on the grounds of the socialists’ bad faith and lack of proper motives (the socialists have ‘schemes’ they want to ‘impose’, but ‘we’ — that is, Bastiat and those who side with him — rely on the harmony of nature). So, if you put together Bastiat’s third paragraph and his fourth, he is arguing, in effect: ‘You can tell that we are right and they are wrong because they accuse us of bad faith and lack of proper motives, and also by their bad faith and lack of proper motives.’

  5. Personally, I just like Proudhon’s flaming of Bastiat… if it’s true and not apocryphal. Clearly flaming right-wing idiots has a long and venerable tradition. I approve.

    Is it unfair to call Bastiat an idiot (metaphorically speaking)? I think not. Bastiat reads like he was essentially a forerunner of glibertarian neocons. His stuff is glib and illogical in the extreme.

  6. No, Bastiat was not an idiot or an idiot savant.

    But sticking with some of his ideas after 170 years worth of evidence to the contrary has piled up would be a bit idiotic though.

  7. Bastiat’s analogy has both professors analysing God’s work. You would think that we have moved on from such a flawed logic?

  8. @Jim Birch

    I don’t think Bastiat was thinking for himself at all. His faith based reasoning or “magical” thinking was clearly heavily derivative of Judaeo-Christian theology. How is that thinking for himself?

    Someone who thinks for him or her self does derive thought strands from traditions (that is unavoidable) but that person then compares, contrasts, finds inconsistencies and critically explores inconsistencies along with conducting experiments and/or taking notice of empirical evidence. This is since Francis Bacon anyway. Bastiat shows little sign of doing that, in this case anyway.

  9. I agree Ikon. Bastiat was not thinking for himself. Darwin is an example of someone who thought for himself. They were from the same era; Darwin (1809 – 1882) and Bastiat (1801 – 1850).

    I’m reading a book about Charles Darwin by Randal Keynes a great great grandson of Darwin, who “takes us into the family’s private world and draws on a wealth of previously unseen material to tell Annie’s story…. revealing the personal experience from which he drew his most deeply held ideas.” Annie was the daughter who died aged 10.

    One of the most significant of Darwin’s ideas and an example of original thinking and one that caused him considerable anxiety according to the author was that the God of the Bible could not possibly exist.

    The difference between Darwin’s reasoning and Bastiat’s small minded attempt to justify his unreasoning prejudices is stark and another thing…..why is Darwin’s atheism not considered an integral part of the Western civilization that ‘we’ want to maintain and should be proud of?

  10. @Julie Thomas
    Yeah well I guess the non-existence of the God of the Bible might have caused him some consternation because his wife Emma was very conventionally devout. I understand Charles had to keep much of his thinking unknown to her.

    But if you want a truly great book about evolution, Darwin and some very cute moths, you should read: Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy & the Peppered Moth by Judith Hooper.

  11. Ibsen said everything anybody needs to know about the denialist mindset in his play An Enemy of the People.

  12. @GrueBleen

    Yes lots of Darwin’s relatives were devout Christians and he did keep his views from them for their peace of mind not for his own. It was clearly anxiety that he suffered from and not just consternation. His physical symptoms are those that would now be diagnosed as stemming from anxiety.

    The particular aspect that worried his wife and that convinced Darwin according to what he wrote in his journal, that he should not reveal his thoughts on the non-existence of God to her although she was involved in his other cognitive interests was her very real fear that he would not go to heaven so they could be reunited after death if he was an unbeliever.

    Thanks for the book recommendation but the thing that I found interesting in the quite tedious and not well written book I am reading is not the technical aspects of evolution of which I have read lots and lots about but the actual words that the author makes available from Darwin’s letters and writings and from these I imagine that I can see or imagine how the personal life of a thinker influences not only their political beliefs but also their scientific pursuits.

  13. Sorry for this rant but I read the article and can’t help but respond.

    Bastiat is even more tedious and badly written than my book on Darwin and his daughter Annie and has nothing to offer. As well as the bit about the air we breathe, he is so full of irrational and plainly wrong assumptions about ‘human nature’. In writing style and the viewpoint he takes as an autonomous fully rational being, he has set out the writing style that Hayek and all the glibertarians have adopted; programmatic and subtly – or not – disparaging and patronising toward other viewpoints that are irrationally regarded as irrational.

    But it’s really interesting the way Bastiat clearly makes a division between society and economy and how much he reveals about his un-examined and unsupportable assumptions about fraternity, justice and the natural social order. He says “This is the sum and substance of our quarrel with the socialists. Both they and we desire harmony. They seek it in the innumerable schemes that they want the law to impose on men; we find it in the nature of men and things.”

    This innate knowledge about what is in the nature of men and things is something I still see among the right wing Christians and the glibertarians but never any explanation of how they know that what they judge to be in the nature of men and things is the truth.

    One of the main problems that I find with this sort of writing that is not present in Darwin’s thinking is the absence of any discussion of how women and children and child raising fit into the ideal economy that will bring about harmony.

    Bastiat used the term fraternity and ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ throughout as in; “The law can indeed force men to remain just; in vain would it try to force them to be self-sacrificing.” without of course any attempt to explain what self-sacrifice could possibly be and his only specific reference to women is when he writes “Are we to believe that women will cease to be self-sacrificing and that pity will no longer find a place in their hearts because self-sacrifice and pity will not be commanded by the law?. I’m a bit confused here about self-sacrifice. 😦

    He says that “the right of each is limited by the absolutely similar right of all the others”. This attitude is only rational with reference to a group of men with similar abilities who are unencumbered by any responsibility to the rest of humanity; that is to women, children or a wider family/society.

    Living in a family and actively participating even if only as an interested observer in the upbringing of the children, which Darwin did, made it clear to him although he didn’t do much thinking about this as part of his grand theory, that there isn’t an absolutely similar right of all others.

    Children need different things for justice to be done. The idea of ‘from each according to the ability to each according to their need’ is absolutely the only rational rule that can be used to raise children of different ages and different abilities, and is the basis of the idea of justice and equality for all.

    When Bastiat says that “One knows what justice is, and where it is. It is a fixed, immutable point, again he is talking about that autonomous man who never actually evolved but exists as an ideal of men who imagine that they are the high point of evolution.

  14. @Julie Thomas
    Hmmm, well that’s saved me from wasting any time reading Bastiat – I love it when that happens. (Just to be a tad facetious about it: the time it would take for me to read Bastiat is a far greater percentage of the rest of my lifetime than it would be of yours.)

    Though you quote him as saying (inter alia): “…self-sacrifice and pity will not be commanded by the law?”. Now I think we probably all know of soldiers who have been conscripted “by the law” and who turn out to exhibit both great pity and great self-sacrifice, even unto youthful death. So I can’t say I have any acceptance of his thoughtless exposition.

  15. @Julie Thomas
    Well I think you’re missing out on a great read: the central theme of the book is the attempt by various ‘natural selection’ believers (eg Ron Fisher, J B S Haldane and a cast of dozens) to find a real life – ie ‘observably empirical’ example of ‘real world’ natural selection (as opposed to, say, the thousand and one incarnations of drosophila).

    The example taken is the melanisation – and later de-melanisation – of the peppered moth as it selectively adapted to the covering of its daytime tree roosting places by black sooty smoke in the English industrial countryside. It full of irony, humour, human struggle – with each other and with nature – and excellent information on evolution and the cast of weirdo characters who expounded it and opposed it. And it’s funny, too – Hooper is a great science write.

  16. I don’t know if I am giving Bastiat too much credit or not. However, in “What is seen and what is unseen” he shows himself to be a systems thinker. And I think that that holds true in this case as well. His remarks about socialism have nothing to do with climate denialism. Bastiat, along with his fabled professors, believed in God. That was hardly unusual at that time and place. The first professor is not a systems thinker, but looks only at part of the whole picture and extrapolates based on that. The second professor points out that error and rightly describes the CO2 – O2 cycle. Yes, the second professor thinks that God established that natural cycle, but again, that opinion was usual for that time and place.

    We cannot from that assume that Bastiat, or any other thinker who believed that God had ordained that cycle, would be a climate change denialist today, as there is plenty of evidence that humans have upset the balance of nature. It is just as plausible that a believer would think that humans are sinning by not taking proper care of the planet, by disturbing the natural and divine order.

  17. @John Brookes

    We are not talking about selfishness, but about breathing and burning fossil fuel.

  18. @Billikin

    I don’t think postulating “What is seen and what is unseen” shows a person to be a systems thinker. In this context “what is unseen” contains an implicit assumption of metaphysical dualism: separation of res extensa, res cogitans and “God”, to use Descartes system. It assumes that “what is unseen” is a realm not governed by the discoverable laws of the “seen realm”, the latter being the empirical realm of verifiable phenomena. Ordered complex systems thinking simply cannot be realized in total when there are “special” realms posited which do not obey standard physics and thus all potential feed-backs cannot and could never be identified and quantified.

  19. Anyway, it’s good to know that the Pope has said “that one of greatest sins is that of hypocrisy and ……. based a sermon around the idea that in his acutely religious mind; “it is better to be an atheist than a bad Christian.” ”

    He said “that atheists are not going to be excluded from Heaven, and setting aside the absurdity of an atheist wanting to go to Heaven, the Pontiff did what he does best and bluntly explained his point without condemning atheists – fake Christians like America’s religious right were not so fortunate.”

  20. @John Brookes

    How do you not see it as selfishness? I’m looking at a bloke, who, faced with an argument that he should stop doing what he wants to do, comes up with an argument that is without foundation, in order to justify him being allowed to continue doing what he’s done.

    So he’s a bullshit artist using bullshit to give him what he wants. That is selfish in my books.

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