Monday, December 04, 2006

Extortion and exhortation 

At one point not too long ago, say ten years before now, the Competitive Enterprise Institute was a very small group of free-market policy analysts. Even now they have advertise only twenty policy experts. Yet the Wall Street Journal points out today that this group is sufficiently armed against "the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, the U.N. and EU, Hollywood, Al Gore, and every politically correct journalist in the country" that two Senators are extorting one of their large financial backers to stop funding them.
The letter is of a piece with what has become a campaign of intimidation against any global warming dissent. Not only is everyone supposed to concede that the planet has been warming--as it has--but we are all supposed to salute and agree that human beings are the definitive cause, that the magnitude of the warming will be disastrous and its effects catastrophic, that such problems as AIDS and poverty are less urgent, and that economic planners must therefore impose vast new regulatory burdens on everyone around the world. Exxon is being targeted in this letter and other ways because it is one of the few companies that still thinks some debate on these questions is valuable.
The local paper thinks enough of the issue to exhort its readers to see Al Gore's movie. They end their editorial by asking:

You'll learn how much you contribute to pollution along with ways to contribute less.

So even if you don't buy into global warming, who wouldn't want to do that?

Why do I think what you won't learn is the cost of 'contributing less' to pollution? I often use this piece of the Armchair Economist by Steven Landsburg to make the point:

But in the 25 years since the first Earth Day, a new and ugly element has emerged in the form of one side's conviction that its preferences are Right and the other side's are Wrong. The science of economics shuns such moral posturing; the religion of environmentalism embraces it.

Economics forces us to confront a fundamental symmetry. The conflict arises because each side wants to allocate the same resource in a different way. Jack wants his woodland at the expense of Jill's parking space and Jill wants her parking space at the expense of Jack's woodland. That formulation is morally neutral and should serve as a warning against assigning exalted moral status to either Jack or Jill.

I have no problem with exhortations by an editorial -- that is in fact what they are supposed to do -- but it is also up to us in economics to point out the value judgments made in their arguments, such as we have less of a right to live than our grandchildren.

Al Gore the private citizen can make a movie, give away copies and exhort all he wants; he should be complimented for the effort and dedication. But the two senators are using the jackboot to stop the opposite viewpoint from finding the same space in the public arena of ideas. Does that make sense to anyone?