Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Liberal vs. Conservative on Climate Change

A member if the studio audience has asked:

I am interested, in these posts, to see this developed from the perspective of what you think is a realistic "conservative" perspective. However you seem to be describing the "liberal" perspective, could you please explain why you call it "conservative"?

Well, I call it conservative because it is grounded on the principles of free and open markets and an inalienable human right to property. There is nothing in this argument about a right to health care or a job, no safety net for the poor, and no micromanaging of the economy.

It is really interesting that what I have been arguing - based on free trade and individual rights - is seen as 'liberal' and condemned as 'socialists' by a large portion of the population. Those people, in turn, are defending a set of attitudes that I think can more accurately be called "corporate feudalism".

Corporate feudalism is a doctrine that replaces the principle of property rights with one that gives the corporate lords and ladies widespread political permission to violate these rights - to perform actions harmful to the lives, health, and property of others with impunity - when there are profits to be made.

Let me illustrate the difference by adding some liberal components to the issue of climate change that can't be defended using the principles of free markets and individual responsibility.

Recall that, using principles of a free market and individual responsibility, the goal is to internalize the actual costs of greenhouse gas emissions by raising the price (through an emissions tax) by an amount that - as close as we can get - matches the value of those costs. That revenue is then to be used strictly to compensate those harmed for the harms suffered.

Let us assume that this is $1.00 per ton of carbon.

The liberal then steps up and offers the following.

First, this increase in energy costs will harm the poor. Energy costs are a higher portion of their costs of living. A liberal position that I would defend would say something like, "We should increase the tax to $1.20 per ton of carbon and use the extra revenue to provide energy assistance to the poor."

Second, while we are at it, let us add another $0.10 to the tax and use it to pay for climate change research, so that we know what we are doing.

Third, we can't just internalize the costs of harm done and compensate those harmed and leave the free market to work out the details. We are going to mess around with the details as well. For example, we will establish a goal that, by 2025, 25% of our energy will come from renewable resources. The conservative would condemn these types of government fine tuning. The percentage of energy that comes from renewable resources will be whatever percentage the free market settles on after costs have been internalized.

Fourth, some liberals have argued for using the government to pick and choose energy companies for direct government support in terms of loan guarantees or actual grants. Here, too, the conservative argument would be that, once costs are internalized, the free market should be let alone to decide which companies succeed or fail, and the government ought not to be interfering in those decisions.

Fifth, some liberals will bring into the debate values that simply do not exist - values that are as imaginary as any religious values. For example, there are some who think that any form of human change introduced into the environment represents an intrinsic evil. Rather than treating environmental values as an economic good to be traded like all others, they assert that it has a special value that justifies all sorts of special burdens be placed on others. The conservative would object to these arguments.

Personally, I the liberal is right with respect to the first two points, and the conservative is right on the last three.

However, in saying this, remember that I am talking about the property rights, free market conservative. I am not talking about the corporate feudalist that dominates today's political scene. The corporate feudalist - the typical Republican conservative we see today - sidesteps much of this debate with their objection to any attempt to limit the corporate masters' political liberty to inflict harms when it is profitable to do so is wrong.

4 comments:

Kristopher said...

i was wondering the same thing thanks for the explanation

mojo.rhythm said...

Third, we can't just internalize the costs of harm done and compensate those harmed and leave the free market to work out the details. We are going to mess around with the details as well. For example, we will establish a goal that, by 2025, 25% of our energy will come from renewable resources. The conservative would condemn these types of government fine tuning. The percentage of energy that comes from renewable resources will be whatever percentage the free market settles on after costs have been internalized.

Why do you disagree with industrial planning? Because it thwarts individual freedom and property rights, or because it will be less effective than letting markets do their thing? Government long-term industrial policies don't have to be a bad thing. After all, Japan combined markets with planning to develop itself after WWII, and hey presto! It transformed into a first world economy faster than any other nation on Earth was able to.

Furthermore, isn't publicly funding climate science R&D "messing around with the details" in a massive way? After all, progress in research would be much, much slower if left entirely to the private sector and corporate funding. Many of the scientific discoveries and ideas that we take for granted today would still be in their baby stages if the state sector had not conducted massive R&D through public universities and the Pentagon; especially during the post-WWII boom.

Fourth, some liberals have argued for using the government to pick and choose energy companies for direct government support in terms of loan guarantees or actual grants. Here, too, the conservative argument would be that, once costs are internalized, the free market should be let alone to decide which companies succeed or fail, and the government ought not to be interfering in those decisions.

What if firms are "picked and chosen" literally by a competition set up by the government? For example, the government could offer a $200M grant to the team of scientists, or the business that employs the team of scientists, who come up with the cleverest and cheapest way to improve the efficiency of the current design of solar panels, the winner decided by an elected board of expert judges from all the relevant fields. After all, private firms like Google do things like this all the time. No reason the government can't put some skin in the game as well.

Fifth, some liberals will bring into the debate values that simply do not exist - values that are as imaginary as any religious values. For example, there are some who think that any form of human change introduced into the environment represents an intrinsic evil. Rather than treating environmental values as an economic good to be traded like all others, they assert that it has a special value that justifies all sorts of special burdens be placed on others. The conservative would object to these arguments.

Me too. Nature is a very beautiful thing, but from a purely ethical standpoint, it only has instrumental and aesthetic value.

faithlessgod said...

My disagreement is that you are making liberal arguments but claiming they are what a conservative should be making since conservatism supports the status quo, and is very often related to corporatism, or corporate feudalism as you put it. No argument there. Then when you start talking about what you label "liberal" arguments they are, to some degree, more like socialist arguments.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

First, I would say that "liberal" is a genus that includes "socialist" as a species.

Having said that, it is also the case that language changes. "Liberal" once meant an advocate of free markets and individual responsibility. That was when "conservatives" defended classical feudalism - the divine right of kings and the feudal system of land holdings - even as the noble class transitioned from huge land holdings to huge government monopolies.

Note that the idea of a "private corporation" was originally a contradiction in terms. A "corporation" was a King's grant of monopoly over some aspect of trade or manufacturing. At that time, the view of so-called "liberals" advocated the equal moral status of all individuals and private markets - a view now called "classical liberal" to distinguish it from "contemporary liberal" position.

We may be phasing into a period where "liberal" once again shifts its meaning - back towards the classical definition as distinguished from socialism - and flanked on the right by the corporate feudalism of the contemporary political right (which ironically also includes a medieval position on the relation of church and states).