Sunday, June 18, 2006

Coercion Addiction

Tibor R. Machan

In a recently published missive I had expressed skepticism about Al Gore’s story of global warming and climate change. So not surprising I received some harsh rebukes for this.

I am not a trained climatologist and so I rely in my understanding on those who make themselves clear to me and also embrace certain principles as they propose solutions to problems they identify. Now this means, very briefly, that the sort of call to arms found in Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth” and similar offerings is unacceptable.

As an example of his predilection to go to government for solutions, Al Gore is most upset with George Bush for refusing to increase government regulation of whatever has an impact on the environment. Gore’s solutions, in other words, are exclusively coercive—give more power to the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (under his leadership, of course) and we will then be on our way to solving the problems he and his team of experts have identified.

What Gore & Co., ignore is not environmental but economic science and sound principles of political economy. Economist have successfully shown the inefficiency of government intervention for purposes of solving nearly any problem at all. For his work on this issue, James Buchanan received the Nobel Prize in 1986. He developed “public choice theory,” a set of principles he and his colleague Gordon Tullock laid out in their book, Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (University of Michigan Press, 1962). It shows beyond any reasonable doubt—certainly less doubt than what Al Gore gives us—that when one entrusts problem-solving to government agents, one can expect that there will be mismanagement because bureaucrats promote their own vested interest and agendas when they hold their positions, not the so called “public interest.” (Part of the problem is that in most cases what some group labels “the public interest” is actually the private or vested interest of that very group. Yes, even scientists working for government exhibit this behavior pattern—they are very interested in garnering government grants and subsidies whether the work these support has anything at all to do with the welfare of the citizenry.)

OK, now it follows from this that whatever problem is at issue, calling upon governments to solve it is very risky if not outright delusional. My own skepticism about Al Gore & Co. isn’t so much about the diagnosis but the cure, although even the diagnosis shows plenty of evidence of special pleading. (Nearly all the predictions are put in terms of what “may” happen, not what will.)

But most of all what is of very serious concern is how readily the likes of Al Gore will toss aside considerations of due process and civil liberties, not to mention private property rights, just so as to implement what they call “precautionary” policies, ones that do as much damage to the principles of a free society as any part of the Patriot Act. In another words, Al Gore & Co., are—and pardon my derivative language here—addicted to government.

Now there are those who will cavalierly dismiss my concerns as right wing, oil-interest-driven ideology that simply blinds the likes of me to what is imperative for humanity’s survival and welfare. Au contraire!

It is, instead, the folks lined up with Al Gore who show an unwavering, dogmatic commitment to handling all problems by means of coercion, the governmental way. (There is a wonderful book about this, Jonathan R. T. Hughes’ The governmental habit: Economic Controls from Colonial times to the Present [Basic Books, 1977; republished by Princeton University Press, 1991].) To test whether I am right about this, just ask anyone who joins Gore & Co., what their solutions involve. They involve state imposed restrictions, higher taxation, an environmental disaster czar, and similar measures that are not becoming of a free society but of a top down tyranny.

Until and unless those showing great concern for the environment demonstrate that they understand the public choice problems of reliance on government and they respect the rights of individual human beings as they approach the problem, they do not deserve respect. Some of what they produce may be diagnostically sound but as to their cure, forget about it.
Machan is the R. C. Hoiles Professor of Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at Chapman University's Argyros School of B&E and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, CA. He wrote Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature’s Favorite (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

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