Libertarians for Government Intervention?
Perhaps the most common argument about the philosophy of global warming and fossil fuels comes from those who favor libertarian principles and the free market. Many individuals and groups argue that “solutions” to the climate-change problem will cause government growth, but “that government is best that governs least” (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849), and that the government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers.
Reading the 21-page document from US President Obama’s administration outlining policy responses to CO2 and climate change, as introduced in the previous module, may suggest how many regulations could be written to deal with this issue. And, more regulations generally bring more government.
Despite such a clear example, however, this argument really is more nuanced. A libertarian's desire for less government may actually recommend response now to fossil-fuel CO2.
Enrichment: To learn more about how government intervention was implemented in our pioneering past, see the Enrichment titled Scarcity and Government Intervention in Colonial Massachusetts.
First, as described in the previous module, there is no requirement for complex regulations to respond to climate change. Indeed, a carbon tax on fossil fuels, at the point where they are extracted from the ground or imported into a country, could be simpler than some of the taxes it might replace. Most fossil fuels currently have some tax or impact fee levied on them, so many of the mechanisms to implement a carbon tax already exist. And there are far fewer producers of fossil fuels than there are people earning wages, so replacing wage taxes with carbon taxes could make many things easier.
An additional issue is that, in times of shortage or crisis, governments often become more active or intrusive—the recent recession led to “stimulus” activities in many countries, as did the depression of the 1930s, and natural disasters frequently motivate government efforts. Thus, careful actions to avoid shortages and natural disasters may limit government rather than promote it.
The strong scholarship showing that ignoring climate change leads to a suboptimal economic path, and that rising CO2 is likely to increase natural disasters of many types, is surely relevant. The statements from the US military that global warming is expected to make more work for them also suggest that ignoring climate change may increase government intervention.
Hence, free-market proponents or libertarians might argue that their goals are better served by guiding simple and transparent policy responses to climate change rather than by opposing all responses.
An argument often coupled to limiting government is that responses to climate change should be avoided because governments should not be in the business of picking winners and losers. This argument might be applied to favor government actions that are general rather than specific. For example, people who do not want the government to specifically promote certain groups might favor a carbon tax rather than loan guarantees to start-up companies.
More generally, a little careful reflection will show that any significant government action gives arelative advantage to some people or groups over others. And, deciding to continue with current policies is a significant government action, which also gives arelative advantage to some people or groups over others. Thus, governments cannot avoid “picking winners and losers” at some level.
A silly and extreme example of government actions benefiting some people more than others may be a useful starting point. Suppose government-supported doctors stop an epidemic and save the lives of millions of people. In the short-term, the government has caused money loss for gravediggers, undertakers, shop owners selling sympathy cards and flower arrangements, the real estate agents and auctioneers who would have disposed of the property of the deceased, lawyers who would have handled the estates, and many others.
Perhaps more seriously, consider the history of the construction of modern storm and sanitary sewers, and clean water supply in London in the latter 1800s and in many other cities. This massive effort ended cholera outbreaks that had brought huge death tolls, and otherwise greatly improved public health and well-being. But, modern sanitation also ended whole professions such as “night-soil hauler” (those who gathered human waste and sold it to farmers as fertilizers), while making new professions—the government actions unequivocally created winners and losers. Furthermore, the transition to modern sanitation was greeted with many of the same arguments about government intervention, individual liberty, and natural processes that now address climate-change issues, including The Economist editorializing against aspects of the transition, as mentioned earlier.
Earth: The Operators' Manual
Video: Toilets and the SMART GRID (4:00)
A fascinating case study on the transition from "night-soil haulers" to sanitary sewers is dramatized in this clip.
Pushing this analogy a little further, suppose that after scientific arguments were brought forward linking poor sanitation to death from cholera, the lawmakers of London had decided to do nothing to improve the sewers, and a huge cholera epidemic had then engulfed the city. (One additional and somewhat outlying epidemic did occur before the cleanup was completed, but no more epidemics occurred after the full system was in place.) It seems highly likely that the families of the deceased would have viewed the decision, which favored business-as-usual rather than cleanup, as a policy decision with very clear losers. And, it seems highly likely that the families of the deceased would not have been happy with that decision.
The analogy to the modern situation with CO2 is not exact. When London was deciding about sewers, the scientific knowledge showing that human waste in drinking water spread cholera was not nearly so strong as the scientific knowledge we now have showing that CO2 from fossil fuels in the air changes the climate; the Londoners did not have knowledge of the mechanism causing the illness, for example. But, “clean this up or you might die next week” tends to provide a stronger motivation than “clean this up or risk a suboptimal economy over the next decades”. The issues of attribution of extremes are very relevant here, though; people now are dying in disasters that cannot be said to have been caused by climate change, but that are being made more likely or worse by climate change.
Enrichment: For more on the history of winners and loses from interactions with governments, see the Enrichment titled Public-Private Partnerships in Oklahoma.