(This was originally written in February for my English Class.)
The flames engulfed twelve houses in Lewiston, California. For these residents, it was their worst nightmare coming to life: wildfire! This fire, however, was not originally wild. It had been started by well-meaning agents of the Interior Department in an attempt to eradicate a weed. In the end, John Stossel reported that the fire went out of control, destroyed many homes in the area, failed to eradicate the weed, and provided more fertilizer for the weed’s descendants.
This is an all too common example of the unintended consequences of the government’s approach to solving problems. In an article entitled “The Environmental Issue From Hell” published in 2001, Bill McKibben presents a new governmental approach to what he considers “the great moral crisis of our time”: global warming. He proposes that this problem should be made a moral issue in order to motivate political action, while failing to address the consequences of such action. McKibben states that environmental activists need to “…pressure politicians to pass laws that would cause us all to shift our habits,” without specifically enumerating what laws. McKibben’s nebulous desire to use the government may result in governmental force being used in a manor that is unnecessary at best and destructive at worst.
McKibben believes that there are three major harms caused by climate change that are indicative of a moral issue. All these examples are certainly problems, and all of them should be addressed, but not all methods of addressing them are equal. An almost universally accepted axiom is that force should never be used unless it is absolutely necessary. It is simply immoral to force a change in behavior unless there is no alternative. McKibben focuses simply on the moral problem with climate change, not on what method will actually solve the problem. This acceptance of whatever policy solves the moral problem may lead to unnecessary government force in the form of regulation, taxation, etc.
McKibben thinks it is wrong to force urban conformity on nature, but he has no problem with forcing the conservative habits of 10% of Americans on the other 90% via government action. He states that “…10 percent would be enough to change the politics around the issue… forcing the system to respond.” If only ten percent of Americans thought that it was wrong to steal, then intervention would clearly be necessary to spark change in the other ninety percent. The criterion that should be applied is whether it is absolutely necessary in the case of gasoline consumption. If there is an alternative that would not require force, it would definitely be preferable and more effective. History and the study of economics reveal a very clear alternative to government force: a “laissez-faire” free market system.
Writing in 1776, economist Adam Smith stated that the individual is often “…led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.… By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society….” This “invisible hand” is especially present in the free trade of finite resources. As scarcity increases, companies will start working for alternatives and serving the public interest, all because they want to make a profit. There are plenty of examples of the “invisible hand” providing strong incentives for individuals to change their habits and benefit society.
Economists James D. Gwartney, Ph.D., and Richard L. Stroup, Ph.D., provide several historical examples. One of which was over whaling in the nineteenth century. At that time, whale oil was the standard fuel for artificial lighting. This changed when the whale population decreased, their oil became more expensive, and kerosene soon became the alternative to environmentally destructive whale oil. Could the same happen to fossil fuels without government tampering? Writing in their book What Everyone Should Know About Economics and Prosperity, Gwartney and Stroup almost directly answer McKibben saying: “Doomsday forecasters fail to recognize that private ownership provides people with a strong incentive to conserve a valuable resource and search for substitutes…” The age of oil is going to end. It will get more expensive, and industries will be pressed to look for alternatives like biofuels and hydrogen technology; alternatives, which will most likely be much more environmentally friendly.
Proponents of free markets are right on many accounts. It certainly is not a perfect system, and it is very clear that special interests cloud the judgment of otherwise rational people. Yet, this is true for Washington, as well. Looking at the governmental sector actually reveals examples of even more insanity than in the private sector. A good example is provided by Bruce Yandle, an economics professor at Clemson University, who recounts a major part of the Clean Air Act of 1977 that actually did not contribute to cleaner air. The act required costly sulfur removing “scrubbers” to be installed in all new coal plants. This was an excellent idea in theory but a nightmare in reality. After paying the expenses to install the “scrubbers,” coal plants actually were discouraged from using innovative low-sulfur coal. Washington had actually worked against the clean air ends that it intended to promote.
Not only has governmental regulation discouraged cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels, but, in a way, the government was responsible for creating the problem by propping up the oil industry. A study from the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) looked at what gasoline would really cost if the government didn’t subsidize oil. It found that oil companies receive both direct subsides, such as corporate welfare, research and development, etc., and indirect subsidies, in the form of environmental cleanup and health care costs. CTA’s conclusion was that gas may have cost as much as $15.14 per gallon in 1998 if government simply left the free market alone. According to the report, “In a country that professes a high regard for the free market system, the US oil industry is a glaring example of the gulf that often develops between public perception and reality.” Maybe it’s time to give the free market a chance in the area of oil. Would not fifteen dollar per gallon gasoline make bio-alternatives viable? Perhaps actually having a laissez-faire system could solve McKibben’s “moral crisis” without resorting to government force.
If America is truly going to find a solution to the fossil fuel problem, two points must be remembered. Firstly, we certainly don’t want to be so caught up in a moral campaign that we accept any old solution with a green label. Secondly, if it is possible to avoid using force and let the free market take care of itself, the government should. After all, no one wants to start a fire only to fertilize the weed.
Filed under: Politics & Government | Tagged: Brian Factor, Global Warming, Politics | 2 Comments »