Academic journal article The Cato Journal

Science, Public Policy, and Global Warming: Rethinking the Market-Liberal Position

Academic journal article The Cato Journal

Science, Public Policy, and Global Warming: Rethinking the Market-Liberal Position

Article excerpt

A survey of market-liberal or libertarian publications and websites finds a large and growing literature on the issue of global warming. Almost without exception, this literature conveys a comforting message: Our planet is in good health. The markets that regulate resource use are working well. The only real dangers come from ill-considered policy initiatives that, if implemented, would do more harm than good. It would seem that the message is well received by its audience--it is repeated, embellished, and applauded with little variation.

In this article, I take a contrarian position, not so much with respect to the science of climate change as with respect to the arguments used by market liberals in support of their message of comfort and complacency. One problem area concerns the proper use of scientific evidence in reaching conclusions regarding public policy. It seems to me that market liberals are often reckless in the degree of certainty they professes regarding climatological hypotheses that are, in fact, still controversial and in early stages of development. A second problem concerns the use of cost-benefit analysis. Market-liberal writers are prone to make cost-benefit arguments regarding climate policy that they would never accept in other contexts. Third, the literature on global warming is often weakly rooted, if rooted at all, in the core principles of classical liberalism from which modern market liberalism has evolved. Instead, it is, for the most part, indistinguishable from what is said by conservatives. It might even be said that there is no market-liberal position on this issue--only an echo of arguments made by Republican patriots and the carbon lobby.

In short, the whole issue of global warming policy, as viewed by market liberals, needs to be revisited. This can best be done by going back to some of the classical liberal sources, particularly Friedrich Hayek and John Locke, from which modern market-liberal thought is derived.

Hayek on Liberalism, Conservatism, and Science

A good place to start the rethinking process is with Hayek's essay, "Why I am Not a Conservative" (1960). Hayek identifies a number of traits that distinguish conservatism from market liberalism ("liberalism" without a modifier, in his terminology):

* Habitual resistance to change, hence the term "conservative."

* Lack of understanding of spontaneous order as a guiding principle of economic life.

* Use of state authority to protect established privileges against the forces of economic change.

* Claim to superior wisdom based on self-arrogated superior quality in place of rational argument.

* A propensity to reject scientific knowledge because of dislike of the consequences that seem to follow from it.

Hayek points out that it is wrong to represent the political spectrum as a line, with leftists at one end, conservatives at the other, and liberals somewhere in the middle. Instead, he represents the political playing field as a triangle with socialists, liberals, and conservatives each occupying their respective corners.

When the political left advances proposals for increased state intervention in free markets, liberals tend to see conservatives as their natural allies. This was especially true in the 1940s and 1950s, the background for Hayek's 1960 essay, when socialism seemed to be on the ascendancy. In Hayek's view, the alliance of liberals with conservatives was reinforced by the fact that, in the America of his time, it was possible to promote individual liberty by defending long-established institutions, not just because they were long established, but because they corresponded with liberal ideals.

In our own day, alliances between market liberals and modern conservatives are still possible, but as the nature of conservatism has changed, issues have emerged where market liberals' natural allies are found on the political left. …

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