More on selective libertarianism
I stand by the sentiment expressed here, but acknowledge that Jerry Taylor was entirely the wrong target. (Something I’ll acknowledge at greater length in a post I have brewing about libertarianism, energy, and environmental policy. Every time I try to write it it metastasizes to a length more appropriate to epic poetry. Concision, alert readers will have noticed, is not my forte. So … stay tuned.)
Consider, for instance, the following two responses to the just-passed energy bill.
It’s of course possible that investors are overlooking some highly attractive energy technologies. But it’s unlikely that economically attractive investments will be overlooked for long — they represent, after all, profit opportunities, and capitalists are pretty good at spotting such things. How likely is it that politicians know better than investors what constitutes a "good bet" in energy markets? Based on both common sense and past experience, the answer is — "not likely."
… in short, there’s nothing new about our current infatuation with hydrogen-powered fuel cells, "clean" coal or ethanol. We’ve been here before, but we seem to have learned nothing from past journeys.
The bill is also full of production incentives for oil and natural gas. While more of both would be nice, what more incentive does the energy industry need to produce when oil prices are already flirting with $60 a barrel and natural gas prices are triple what they were only a few years ago? There is simply no reason to subsidize oil and gas production, particularly when the companies on the receiving end of those subsidies are at the moment making truly stunning profits.
The same goes for conservation. With energy prices this high, consumers have ample incentive to economize on use. Complaints that the bill fails to do enough in this regard are complaints that consumers are either too dumb or too shortsighted to spend their money well. Some may well be, but on the whole, it’s unlikely that Congress can make more productive decisions about how to spend our energy dollars than we can. Fuel-efficient cars and appliances are out there if consumers want to take advantage of them.
"We hoped as the bill went into conference committee that two of the worst special interest payoffs would be eliminated," said Myron Ebell, CEI’s director of global warming policy. "Fortunately, conferees dropped the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which would have required utilities to use more renewable energy to generate electricity. That would have been very costly for consumers. But unfortunately, the conference report retains a huge new mandate for ethanol use. Since ethanol already receives a large federal subsidy, this mandate will hurt taxpayers and consumers. It is simply a payoff to special interests."
Here we have two devotees of free markets, opposed to government manipulation thereof. Taylor condemns the energy bill for the subsidies and tax breaks it contains — all of them. Ebell condemns it for … those provisions in service of environmental goals. Of the billions funneled to oil, gas, and nuclear: nothing.
J.H. Adler says, "If a libertarian opposes subsidies to industry A and to industry B, s/he would prefer to eliminate both, but would prefer eliminating one to none. … It’s better than nothing." But what if industries A and B both keep their goodies, and what gets cut are CO2 emissions targets, or renewable power targets, or clean-water regulations, or food stamps, or etc. etc. Is the result really "better than nothing"? I don’t see how. The result — which we don’t have to theorize about, since it’s all around us — is not a demonstrably more libertarian, or free, or market-oriented society. It’s a society further skewed in favor of the wealthy, powerful, and politically connected. Unless libertarians really do think that’s better than nothing, why are they not more concerned about this outcome?
It may be true that among explicitly libertarian organizations, opposition to government intervention in energy markets is principled and not merely partisan. Seems so here, and here. I’ll admit I’m not an expert on such groups and I probably see their output through somewhat of a filter of my own biases.
But for every Taylor there’s an Ebell with hundreds behind him, op-ed writers and bloggers and talk-radio hosts, allegedly devoted to free markets and small government but grossly selective in practice, opposing anything that would serve the goals of their partisan opponents and supporting this current administration despite its making an utter mockery of their principles. I’ve made the same point about evangelical conservatives. The current administration has been utterly consistent in its devotion to crony capitalism, with nothing but rhetoric for its principled supporters on both the fiscal and social sides.
Perhaps those supporters have held their nose and chosen what they believe is the lesser of two evils. But I think at this point, their decision has been pretty decisively proven wrong.