Libertarians Can’t Save the Planet

As promised, my article on climate change and the death of libertarianism/propertarianism, in Jacobin.


Global warming is the ultimate refutation of Lockean propertarianism. No one can pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while leaving “enough and as good” for everyone else. It has taken thirty years, but this undeniable fact has finally killed the propertarian movement in the United States.

8 thoughts on “Libertarians Can’t Save the Planet

  1. No comments yet? Tends to confirm the hypothesis, as with JQ’s last post on nuclear power.

    A good piece. Allow me one extreme nitpick. ” … hired guns who won their spurs …” This is a mixed metaphor. True that cowboys and gunslingers in the Wild West wore spurs, but there was SFIK no rite of passage in putting them on for the first time. That was part of the theatre of mediaeval knighthood in Europe.

  2. Libertarianism, like rock and roll, will never die. It is obviously much wider than propertarianism.

  3. Warning, sarcasm ahead.

    Summary of Libertarianism.

    Proposition: “My rights are more important than your rights.”
    Proof: “I’m me but you are only you.”
    Method: “Rights will be defined by what I have more of.”

  4. Some very interesting statements from Herman Daly.

    “Regarding quantification ecological economists distinguish growth from development. Growth is increase in size by assimilation or accretion of matter – it is quantitative. Development is qualitative improvement in design, priorities, or purpose. Growth is easier to measure than development, but development is more important for the future. Sustainable development, so-called,is qualitative improvement without quantitative growth in scale beyond ecosystem capacities for waste absorption and resource regeneration. By accepting ecological limits, we force the path of progress away from quantitative growth and on to qualitative development. Some argue that because economics deals with growth in value (GDP), it does not really encounter physical limits. While it is true that value cannot be expressed in simple physical units, it is also true that value of production is measured in units of “dollar’s worth”, not dollars, and a dollar’s worth of anything is a physical quantity, namely that quantity that can be purchased for one dollar. Aggregating many diverse “dollar’s worth”quantities into GDP does not erase the physical dimensions. The eagerness to defend “growthism”gives rise to many lame arguments.The key to understanding ecological economics is its pre-analytic vision of the economy as an open subsystem of a larger ecosystem that is finite, non-growing, and materially closed (though open with respect to solar energy). This immediately suggests three analytical questions that do not arisein standard neoclassical economics:

    1.How large is the economic subsystem relative to the containing ecosystem?
    2.How large can it be?
    3.How large should it be?

    These lead to the further question:4.Is there an optimal scale beyond which physical growth in the economic subsystem begins to reduce total welfare by diminishing the sources of ecological services faster than it increases the sources of production services? …

    ….because if the economy grew into the void, it would encroach on nothing, and its growth would have no opportunity cost. But since the economy in fact grows into and encroachesupon the finite and non-growing ecosystem, there is an opportunity cost to growth in scale, as well as a benefit. The costs arise from the fact that the physical economy, like an animal, is a “dissipative structure”sustained by a metabolic flow from and back to the environment. This flow, which we have called “throughput”(adopting the term from engineers) begins with the depletion of low-entropy useful resources from the environment. It is conformed to or followed by the processes of production and consumption, which, despite the connotations of the words, are only physical transformations of existing matter. The flow ends with the return of an equal quantity of high-entropy polluting wastes. Depletion and pollution are costs. Not only does the growing economy encroach spatially and quantitatively on the ecosystem, it also qualitatively degrades the environmental sources and sinks of the metabolic throughput by which it is maintained. I can’t stress enough just how important it is to understand that thisforces a continual co-evolutionary adaptation between the economy and the ecosystem. If that adaptation is made in such a way that the throughput remains within the natural capacity of the ecosystem to absorb wastes and regenerate resources for a very long time, then the scale of the economy is considered “sustainable.” ”

  5. Come on. A dollar’s worth of streamed video from Netflix consists of immaterial bits of information. The photons and electrons that carry the video are material, but they are an insignficant component of the price. GDP is neutral between value in matter and value in information.

  6. James Wimberley,

    I am not sure what point you are making. Is it the dematerialization* point? And how are you applying the point? If you are making the dematerialization argument to suggest our economies can keep on growing indefinitely, then you are mistaken. It goes back to Daly’s differentiation between growth and development. If you are making the dematerialization argument to suggest our economies can keep on developing, if not indefinitely but for a very long time, then you are making a valid point.

    However, Jevon’s Paradox applies to “dematerialization” (so-called) as much as it does to resources themselves. Increased efficiency can lead to increased use in absolute terms. In a growth economy we still tend to use more and more matter and energy in absolute terms, despite increasing efficiency.

    “Dematerialization” is a misnomer of course. Nothing is dematerialized. You refer to “immaterial bits of information”. Information is not immaterial. Information is a pattern in material (using “material” to mean both matter and energy or substance). Furthermore, information which is information to the human brain needs both encoding and decoding. The encoding and decoding require matter and energy; machines built of material and requiring energy to run. This includes the human brain which is built of material and requires energy to run. One cannot ignore the material requirements for an “information society”. They are very substantial.

    We have to stop growing materially. At the same time, we need to keep developing. Thus, we need to stabilize and perhaps even de-grow population and our “crude” built infrastructure. “Crude” built infrastructure roughly speaking is stuff made out of concrete, steel, asphalt, wood and like materials.

    *Note: – “In economics, dematerialization refers to the absolute or relative reduction in the quantity of materials required to serve economic functions in society. In common terms, dematerialization means doing more with less.” – Wikipedia.

  7. The death makers won’t save the planet… Barr makes libertarians look like pussy cats. Trump’s sword and shield is apt. And sorry catholics “unabashedly political, McCloskey liked to say, “A liberal Catholic is oxymoronic.”

    …”Three blocks from the White House, on K Street, is a storefront with signs in its windows advertising “solidarity” and “mercy and justice.” The building houses the Catholic Information Center, a bookstore and a chapel where federal workers and tourists can attend morning and evening services. On a recent weekday afternoon, a sign announced an upcoming debate between conservative writers, called “Nationalism: Vice or Virtue?” A skateboard with an image of the Virgin Mary hung not far away, in the hope of attracting a younger crowd.

    “Led by a member of the archconservative group Opus Dei, the center is a hub for Washington’s influential conservatives. Its rise began in 1998, with the arrival of a charismatic new director, the Reverend C. John McCloskey, a forty-four-year-old banker turned priest. Hard-charging and unabashedly political, McCloskey liked to say, “A liberal Catholic is oxymoronic.”

  8. Here are American economics associations ranked with a libertarian score.

    A handy reference – maybe others know of Klien’s work already. I agree with this remark “we believe that science and ethics are advanced when individuals are open about their character and perspective and informed about those whom they read or listen to.”

    This paper also has an “intersections” chart enabling writers in economics to see where persuation maybe best be targeted, or leverage felt.

    Is there similar research in Australia? 

    Characteristics of the Members of Twelve Economic Associations: Voting, Policy Views, and Favorite Economists 

    Daniel B. Klein1, William L. Davis2 Bob G. Figgins3 , and David Hedengren4 

    The Private Enterprise, Public Choice, and Austrian Associations
    Three of the associations—the Association for Private Enterprise Education
    (APEE), the Public Choice Society (PCS), and the Society for the Development ofAustrian Economics (SDAE)—have party scores below 1.00, which means they tilt to the Right: 0.50 for APEE, 0.48 for PCS, and 0.0 for SDAE. Only four respondents were members of the SDAE. It is important to note that among the 38 respondents who checked membership in any of those three associations, the party score is 0.47. Thus, the subset of economists who have been members in the three Right associations seems to lean to the Right only about as much as the whole population ofeconomics professors leans to the Left! As for liberalism scores, the four SDAE respondents nearly reached libertarian perfection, with a score of 3.94. The 20 APEE members scored 3.30 and the 27 PCS members 3.02. As economics is the only discipline among the humanities and social sciences for which the professoriate is not highly dominated by Left voting and corresponding policy views (Klein and Stern 2005; 2009), these three scholarly associations are probably quite exceptional among all humanities/ social science associations for their liberalism and Right voting.

    “Concluding Remarks: 
    Up with Characterology Today, major books such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and
    Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion exemplify a trend toward awareness of the dominating role of subterranean sensibilities, or what David Hume might call the passions. A candid understanding of human psychology leads one into a study of character. Important features of character include political-party orientation and policy views, as well as admired figures. In this paper we have used such variables to characterize the members of twelve economic associations. For reasons articulated by Gunnar Myrdal (1969), we believe that science and ethics are advanced when individuals are open about their character and perspective and informed about those whom they read or listen to.”

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