Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Reclaiming Libertarianism part 3: Science, Global Warming, and Libertarianism

Libertarianism -- it’s the political philosophy that holds individual liberty as the highest political value. It’s informed by good economics and good political science to try to identify the institutional arrangements that will best support the objective of maximizing freedom. We also know that an institutional framework that promotes freedom also fosters general prosperity; thus libertarians focus a great deal of attention on the properties of institutional frameworks.

So here’s a question: what is the libertarian position on the relative merits of prostatectomy vs. standard radiation therapy vs. proton beam therapy for treating a moderate case of prostate cancer, Gleason score 3+4?

Ridiculous question, don’t you think? Why would a political philosophy have a position on a question like this? It’s first a question of medical science – what treatments have demonstrated effectiveness and what are the associated risks? And second it’s a matter of personal characteristics and preferences – what best suits a particular patient, what are the costs, what does his doctor suggest given specifics of the case? Political philosophy has nothing to say on the matter.

So here’s another question: what is the libertarian position on whether or not anthropogenic global warming (AGW, or climate change induced by greenhouse gas emissions from human activity) is occurring?

Again, what a ridiculous question. Why would a political philosophy have a position on a question like this? It’s first a question for physics, atmospheric science, and climatology. Other sciences – such as geology and biology – have something to contribute as well. And of course, political philosophy has nothing to say on the matter. If manmade greenhouse gases are changing the earth’s climate, then they are, and if they aren’t, they aren't, and it doesn't matter whether one is libertarian, progressive, conservative, Marxist, or anything else.

That should be obvious. Well, welcome to the asylum.

Unfortunately, climate change is an issue where a number of today’s libertarians have gone off the rails into libertoonism, arguing that denial of climate change is a part of libertarian doctrine. (A quick set of definitions: as I’m using the terms, climate change denial consists of ignoring scientific method and evidence, or of abusing them. It’s essentially a religious position. Denial differs from skepticism; skepticism – a requirement of rational thought – approaches questions with an open mind and critical eye, and treats method and data seriously.)

If you meet someone who adamantly maintains AGW is nonsense and this person has not carefully and fairly studied the science, in depth, you know you’re facing a denier, someone for whom the position is religious, not a conclusion of careful reason.  If you're doing this -- stop it at once!  And no, cherry-picking the evidence doesn't count as "careful and fair."

Let’s start with an anecdote: I was at a dinner party with a number of friends, some libertarians and some not. At one point someone said something like “you’re libertarians, so that means you don’t believe in climate change, right?” Before I could answer "no," two of my libertarian friends agreed and began explaining with near religious fervor why AGW is bogus.  Neither had any training at all in any relevant science other than undergraduate physics. Neither had studied the literature on climate change. Neither had a single argument connecting libertarianism to climate theories. I found this quite disturbing (i.e. deeply embarrassing) and began pointing out that a position on AGW is a position is climate science, not political philosophy, that adopting a libertarian position implies nothing about one's belief in AGW, and besides, most of the scientific evidence seems to be on the side of AGW.

Here’s the problem: my libertarian friends knew very little about climate, but instead of admitting this, they made absurdly strong statements about the falsity of AGW.  I later asked one about this and he basically admitted that he didn't want it to be true, because it’s a hard problem to solve, and even worse, because leftists believe it.

What?! You're kidding, right?  There’s a question in physical science...and you choose your position simply to be opposite of what your political opponents think?  Because your opponents identify a problem and use it to promote bad solutions that promote their political agenda, you therefore deny the existence of the problem itself? You've got to be kidding!  That's totally nuts!  What if the problem is real?

Even worse, though, was the tendency to then claim that this position is the libertarian one. OK, so then if it turns out that AGW actually is occurring, that refutes libertarianism? If it proves to be a fact that human-generated greenhouse gases are warming the climate, then it’s no longer true that liberty is the highest political value and that freedom advances human well-being? You’ll give up being libertarian, right?  Good grief!

Please, transcend the madness!

In fact, there are all sorts of problems with central planning "solutions" to AGW. And these are perfectly legitimate targets for libertarian theory. A rational response of libertarian theorists to AGW would be to figure out how a libertarian society could cope with such a problem if it proves to be real.*  Most of the serious solutions proposed for AGW make use of property rights and market forces anyway. Market forces don’t go away simply because governments ignore them. But then, “external costs” don’t go away simply because they’ve not been internalized.

It's not that libertarians shouldn't argue about whether AGW is true or not, and not that there’s no room for skepticism. Rather it’s that a particular position on climate science is not a part of libertarianism, and also that one should not speak with dogmatic certainty about something one understands poorly.  Climate change denial is certainly not a proper part of libertarianism.

So far this is just a personal story; so how prevalent is climate change denial among libertarians? I don’t know.  My impression is that it is more common among conservatives than libertarians, but even with libertarians it’s sufficiently common that others have noted it, e.g. “Stand Up Economist” Yoram Bauman and Matt Bruenig.  (Breunig's piece is particularly worth reading because it is a fundamental challenge to libertarian philosophy.  I think he's entirely wrong, because Coase's work on incomplete property rights and transaction costs addresses this challenge head on.  But that's a topic for another post.)

Why does this matter?  It matters because climate change denial is anti-scientific, and when libertarians make anti-science arguments they discredit libertarianism.

Here's an example.  A few years back I heard economist Walter Williams lecturing at Hillsdale College.  It was the kind of lecture at which Williams excels -- basic economic principles, illustrated with clear examples, delivered with with passion -- when suddenly, Williams went off the rails and launched into the craziest denunciation of anthropogenic global warming I've ever heard:

"The very idea that mankind can make significant parametric changes to the Earth has to be the height of arrogance. How about a few questions because temperature is just one characteristic of the Earth. The Earth’s orbit is another."

"If all 6.5 billion of us, all at once, started jumping up and down for a little while, do you think we’d change the Earth’s orbit or rotation? Do you think mankind could change the direction and timing of the ocean’s tides? Is there anything that mankind can do to stop or start a tsunami or hurricane?"

"You say, 'Williams, it’s stupid to suggest that mankind could change the Earth’s orbit or rotation, ocean tides or cause or stop a tsunami or hurricane!' You’re right and it’s also stupid to think that mankind’s activities can make globalized changes in the Earth’s temperature."

Say it ain't so, Walter!  My heart sank on hearing this: one of my heroes, off the deep end into the worst sort of libertoonistic madness imaginable.  I hoped it was a one-off, maybe the hallucinatory effects of food poisoning from a bad salad at dinner or something.  But unfortunately he's put this crazy argument in print, in his syndicated column, and it's all over the internet.

Why make such crazy arguments?  Williams himself is stupid here.  How can any reasonable person hear such inanity and take Williams seriously after that?  And there's the tragedy.  Williams does know a great deal about economics, and especially the economics of race and discrimination.  But now he sounds like an idiot.  He makes himself an idiot.  So far as I can tell, he has no training at all in any science relevant to climate, nor is he known for his work in econometrics, math modeling, or some other branch of economics that might be relevant.  He's just making stuff up because he doesn't want it to be true, because it’s a hard problem to solve, and because leftists believe it.

This kind of denial is anti-scientific, and when it's associated with libertarianism it gives the impression that libertarianism itself must be anti-scientific.  That global warming is real is a majority opinion in science,** overwhelmingly so.  The vast majority (89%) of members of the American Meteorological Association seem to believe in global warming.  Sure, that's not proof of global warming, but by all rights it should shut up deniers who think it's easily dismissed.  It's not religion, "herd mentality" (note PL's comment at the end), nor conspiracy.  The "hockey stick" in temperature time series, shrinking glaciers in both the northern and southern hemispheres, sharp changes in insect populations and behaviors, evidence from ice core drilling,  changes in polar ice caps, all are independent pieces of empirical evidence, from different branches of science, for anomalous climate change.

Libertarianism is political philosophy.  Leave climate out of it.
* Here's an example of a serious proposal by legal scholar Jonathan Adler.  See also this and this and this.

** I know, I know,  9,029 people with Ph.D.'s in science and related disciplines have signed a petition stating that there's "no such thing as AGW" (more precisely, they don't deny climate change, only that they are not convinced it is catastrophic).  Well, considering that each year the United States cranks out 30,000 new science Ph.D.s, nine thousand is a tiny number.  Of scientists I know personally who have studied AGW, every single one believes in it.

Photo credit: NASA, from the website of Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

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