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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Who Are the Real Climate Change Deniers?

Seems to me that the real climate change deniers are those who say that but for human beings, the climate would not change or change very much.

Friday, August 27, 2021

TGIF: Safety Can Be Hazardous to Our Health

Kudos to Glenn Greenwald, a rare leftist voice of sanity on so many issues, for opening his recent article this way:

In virtually every realm of public policy, Americans embrace policies which they know will kill people, sometimes large numbers of people. They do so not because they are psychopaths but because they are rational: they assess that those deaths that will inevitably result from the policies they support are worth it in exchange for the benefits those policies provide. This rational cost-benefit analysis, even when not expressed in such explicit or crude terms, is foundational to public policy debates — except when it comes to COVID, where it has been bizarrely declared off-limits.

He goes on to write that the "quickest and most guaranteed way to save hundreds of thousands of lives with policy changes would be to ban the use of automobiles, or severely restrict their usage to those authorized by the state on the ground of essential need (e.g., ambulances or food-delivery vehicles), or at least lower the nationwide speed limit to 25 mph." (Watch the video version.)

But no one advocates any of those restrictions, and anyone who did would be dismissed as a fringe character. But why, considering how many lives would surely be saved (1.3 million worldwide)? It's not because opponents don't care about human life; it's because people understand that the costs in so many ways would be far worse the benefits:

It is because we employ a rational framework of cost-benefit analysis, whereby, when making public policy choices, we do not examine only one side of the ledger (number of people who will die if cars are permitted) but also consider the immense costs generated by policies that would prevent those deaths (massive limits on our ability to travel, vastly increased times to get from one place to another, restrictions on what we can experience in our lives, enormous financial costs from returning to the pre-automobile days). So foundational is the use of this cost-benefit analysis that it is embraced and touted by everyone from right-wing economists to the left-wing European environmental policy group CIVITAS....

Exactly so. Once you put safety not just first but above everything else you're able to come up with the most insane proposals for reshaping society. Heaven help us from those who are concerned only about safety.

Risk is integral to life, social life included. As Thomas Sowell puts it, there are no solutions, only trade-offs--you can't do only one thing. So each of us does cost-benefit analyses all the time in everyday life. As individuals we could be completely protected from other people simply by living as hermits. But few choose to do so for entirely understandable reasons. Instead we live among others, taking reasonable precautions. Indeed, some of the most admired places to live are the most densely populated places on earth. We accept the costs because the the benefits dwarf them--so much so that we don't normally have to explain it to other people.

But some people forget to apply this common sense in particular matters. Greenwald's target is draconian COVID-19 policy: "It is now extremely common in Western democracies for large factions of citizens to demand that any measures undertaken to prevent COVID deaths are vital, regardless of the costs imposed by those policies." Yet, he continues, "It is impossible to overstate the costs imposed on children of all ages from the sustained, enduring and severe disruptions to their lives justified in the name of COVID.

"However, "The latest CDC data reveals that the grand total of children under 18 who have died in the U.S. from COVID since the start of the pandemic sixteen months ago is 361 — in a country of 330 million people, including 74.2 million people under 18."

Children, of course, are not the only ones who have suffered from lockdowns and lesser restrictions on their activities.

Unfortunately, opponents of these blunt-instrument, liberty-violating approaches, such as the authors and signers of the Great Barrington Declaration, are smeared, if not as uncaring sociopaths, then as blind ideologues or sell-outs.

Greenwald also properly see a class conflict in how the COVID policy has affected people:

The richer you are, the less likely you are to be affected by these harms from COVID restrictions. Wealth allows people to leave their homes, hire private tutors, temporarily live in the countryside or mountains, or enjoy outdoor space at home. It is the poor and the economically deprived who bear the worst of these deprivations, which — along with not having children at all — may be one reason they are assigned little to no weight in mainstream discourse.

He emphasizes that "this is not an argument in favor of or against any particular policy undertaken in the name of fighting COVID. What it is, instead, is an attempt to highlight the pervasive and deeply misguided refusal to assign any costs to the harms caused by anti-COVID policies themselves."

Consider the "precautionary principle," the admonition that nothing should be allowed unless it's proven to be totally safe. Now think of where mankind would be today had our ancestors had adopted this principle. The human race would be considerably smaller. Has it ever occurred to its advocates that the precautionary principle cannot even pass its own test?

COVID is only the latest example of how the obsession with safety can be hazardous to our health. It is by no means the only one. The other most prominent case relates to fossil fuels and climate change. As I discussed recently, if the economic way of thinking--that is, the cost-benefit trade-off approach--informed the discussion of the environment and our place in it, that discussion would look very different. Why? Because people would realize that the elimination or radical reduction of fossil-fuel use worldwide literally would shorten billions of lives, and make the rest of them miserable. Even a small benefit from oil, gas, and coal would outweigh that cost. But in fact the benefits are immense.

Friday, August 20, 2021

TGIF: Thinking about Energy

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its sixth "assessment report" earlier this month. As usual it generated its share of alarmist headlines. The report is several thousand pages long, and I'm certainly not qualified to digest, much less judge, it. I do think it's wise, however, to view the headlines and politicians' statements about it critically. The poppycock quotient of rhetoric about the supposedly looming environmental catastrophe is extremely high, not to mention toxic.

At the risk of being accused of cherry-picking, I will point out that one expert on the matter, by no means unfriendly to the IPCC, Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado, writes, "Instead of apocalyptic warnings about 'immediate risk' a top line message of this report should be: Great News! The Extreme Scenario that IPCC Saw as Most Likely in 2013 is Now Judged Low Likelihood. I am actually floored that this incredible change in such a short time apparently hasn’t even been noticed, much less broadcast around the world."

Instead, Pielke notes, UN Secretary General António Guterres said the report is "a code red for humanity" and that "billions of people [are] at immediate risk." To which Pielke replies: Not only is this wrong, it is irresponsible. Nowhere does the IPCC report say that billions of people are at immediate risk."

That's from a guy who says if the IPCC didn't exist, we'd need to invent it. (Pielke has a follow-up article here, and Nick Gillespie of Reason interviews him here.)

I don't want to leave the impression that we nonspecialists should be agnostic on the climate question. The most prominent of the political solutions to the problems (real or imagined) associated with climate change would be unimaginably expensive for the world. So new problems--associated with poverty and liberty--would thereby arise. As Thomas Sowell points out, in our world, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. This is woefully unappreciated. I recall hearing an environmentalist say that the first law of ecology is: you can't do just one thing. But he apparently forgot it in the next moment. That's also a fundamental law of economics--and indeed all of life.

We face choices, and we must always ask those who propose "solutions": at what cost--not just in money terms but in terms of human life and well-being?

Enter Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress. (He has a sequel on the way, Our Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas--Not Less.) Epstein's work is in the tradition of Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource, whom Epstein acknowledges in his book. See a summary of Epstein's book here.)

What I want to draw attention to is not his case for fossil fuels per se, which I find persuasive, but his "framework"--a word he is appropriately fond of--for thinking about energy and the environment. The importance of how one frames an issue may seem obvious, but how many people actually ask what the right framework is? Because of its dubious framework, Epstein sees the campaign against fossil fuels as riddled with bias, sloppiness (or vagueness), and an animus toward human beings. The last seems to account for the others.

Before we can decide whether something is good or bad, we need a standard. Good for what or whom? Moreover, in environmental matters it makes a difference whether you see mankind as an invader and destroyer of benignly stable nature or as a species that flourishes by taming often dangerously volatile nature, that is, making it a safer, more hospitable place.

In this regard, Epstein stresses the basic Simonian point that human beings don't find and then deplete natural resources; rather they create them out of mere stuff, which does not come with a user manual. That makes human intelligence the "ultimate resource" (Simon's term), a fact that an astounding corollary: as technology increases our efficiency in creating and using resources--as we learn to make more with a smaller quantity of resources--we in effect increase the supply of those resources, which we can use to make new things we couldn't afford yesterday. In a way, human intelligence frees us from physical limitations. That takes the bite out of scary depletion scenarios.

You can see the implications for the controversy over energy. It is not enough to say that a given type of power has risks. We must be unbiased, meaning that we must look at the pros as well as the cons and compare them to other forms of energy; we must be specific about the magnitudes and probabilities of any actual risks; and, most important, we must judge the energy form by what it does on net for human welfare, not whether it interferes with nature. To live is to "interfere" with nature. For human beings, to live is to transform nature. What matters is whether change improves the prospects of human flourishing or undermines them.

Within this context Epstein goes on to the vindicate fossil fuels and argue that we need more (as well as nuclear and hydroelectric energy, which, oddly, are also opposed by most CO2-phobes). Oil, natural gas, and coal have provided abundant, inexpensive, and reliable energy that has been and remains life-saving. After all, energy underlies all production. The biggest challenge is to get them to the billions of people in the world who have no electricity or very little energy.

But what about the predicted apocalypse? We need to realize that the environmental alarmists' record of predictions, which stretches back to antiquity, is pathetic. Moreover, the current state of the world does not support the dire scenarios. I'll pick just two examples that Epstein emphasizes. First, deaths from the climate (extreme temperatures and extreme events) have been plummeting: a "98% decrease in the rate of climate-related deaths since significant CO2 emissions began 80 years ago." Second, CO2, the most-feared greenhouse gas, is plant food not pollution. The earth is greening.

In summary, he writes, "Fossil fuel use doesn’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous, it takes a dangerous climate and makes it safe." As a result, billions of people are alive today who otherwise could not be. Cutting back on fossil fuels would require an enormous human die-off. Who wants to volunteer? (No, unreliable and unscalable wind and solar apparently won't fill the gap.)

This doesn't mean that particular problems can't arise: remember, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. The problems, however, should be addressed specifically (tort law has a role), while understanding that individual rights and freedom, private property, competitive markets, entrepreneurship, and the profit motive are the best ways to discover the best remedies.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Afghanistan Aftermath: No Firings? No Resignations?

Joe Biden, who says the buck regarding Afghanistan stops with him in the White House, claims that the Taliban's final takeover of the capital, Kabul, provoking mass panic reminiscent of Saigon, 1975, happened more quickly "than anticipated." If that's true--spoiler alert: it ain't--then we taxpayers should demand the mass firings and resignations of anyone in the America intel apparatus having anything to do with Afghanistan. We should also demand our money back. Intel isn't cheap.

The U.S. government has been in that country for nearly 20 years with a political, military, and intel presence. The American taxpayers are forced to cough up about $85 billion a year for the lying, spying, killing, and torturing agencies benignly called the "intel community." I realize that not all of that targets foreigners; some of it is devoted to spying on us. But still...

So even if Biden were telling the truth, it would mean that we've just witnessed a colossal failure and the clearest demonstration of incompetence imaginable.

What will be the consequences? There will be none.

Of course, Biden was lying, just as Trump, Obama, and Bush 2 and their people systematically lied to the American people about Afghanistan. This has been documented over and over. About this there can be no doubt.

Friday, August 13, 2021

TGIF: Evict the President

President Biden has reversed himself under pressure from his progressive flank and has given the go-ahead for a new moratorium on renter evictions throughout most of the United States for individuals making up to $99,000 a year (couples, $198,000). The twist is that Biden acknowledges that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reports to his secretary of health and human services, has no legal authority for the action.

Most courts have agreed about the lack of authority, syndicated columnist Jacob Sullum reports, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in June that congressional authorization would be required for an extension of the moratorium beyond last July. Despite that statement, the Supreme Court refused to lift a court's stay of another judge's ruling against the CDC's move. Biden apparently figures that by the time the court thwarts him, he will have accomplished his objective of giving relief to renters.

Doesn't that make Biden's order an impeachable offense? Shouldn't White House eviction proceedings begin in the Senate? Fat chance. Since it's a non-Trump who now flouts the revered rule of law, it's evidently okay. But let's not forget that the first CDC moratorium on evictions came last year, while Trump was still in office. (Some states and localities had already imposed their own moratoriums.)

CDC chief Rochelle Walensky says the moratorium will save lives: it's "the right thing to do to keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings where COVID-19 spreads." In this case, that wins cheers from people who would condemn a similar statement ("it's the right thing to do if X") in the harshest terms had it come from an administration of the opposing party. That's what passes for principle in politics.

Many objections could be made to the CDC order. It could be pointed out, for instance, that allegedly dubious estimates of the lives already saved and to be saved by a moratorium are used to justify it. In at least one case, the data used in a study were not released for independent verification. "These shoddy one-off studies are just ammunition for people who want to put a link saying 'studies prove' in their otherwise completely speculative articles," Aaron Brown, a professor of statistics at New York University and the University of California, San Diego, said in a Reason commentary and video.

But even if the studies were trustworthy, would that justify a government's agency's nullification of landlord property rights through its own interpretation of the Public Health Service Act? And even if that interpretation accorded with the legislation's stated intention, where did Congress's power come from? These questions should matter in a society theoretically committed to the rule of law and individual rights, but they don't matter much anymore.

If Congress and the CDC had the power they claim, imagine the floodgates that would open to wholesale violations of personal liberty. We have lived through the lockdowns rationalized by a pandemic, but that might end up looking like child's play. Once we accept the government's public-health assertions as grounds for mass house arrest and deprivation of property, we're in big trouble.

It could also be noted that, by and large, landlords do not constitute an especially wealthy class and might well make less money than their tenants. Those property owners will suffer or try to raise rents on other tenants who are not in default--or both. But even if that were not the case, so what? As a rule, wealthy people have rights too, though I can think of places where that idea would be scoffed at.

Some might say that people who have trouble paying their rent have suffered because of the government's lockdown response to the pandemic. I assume that's true in some cases. The problem is that when politicians do bad things to people, the perpetrators don't suffer the consequences. Rather, the costs of restitution, even when justified, fall on innocent parties: taxpayers, consumers (through inflation), and in this case, people who rent homes to others.

It goes without saying that the moratorium is popular with those who on principle oppose private property. But it doesn't go nearly far enough for some people. We've heard calls not for just a temporary stay, but for the abolition of rent and "landlordism" (and mortgages). "Cancel the Rent" protests have been staged around the country.

Opposition to the freedom to rent one's property to others is a classic case not only of disparaging freedom but of failing to look for what the 19th-century French liberal political economist Frédéric Bastiat called the unseen, or secondary, consequences of economic policy. One might feel good at the thought of rent being outlawed, but no one who thought for more than a moment would believe that would be the end of the story. Since the owners would be dispossessed, who would build housing henceforth? But more likely, any ban on renting would be gotten around by calling rent by another name. Why? Because property owners and would-be renters would want the relationship: it yields mutual gains. Not everyone wants the responsibility or burden of owning a home; much depends on a person's stage of life and plans. The rental market permits much-appreciated flexibility. This would be true even if government did not make housing so expensive through elitist land-use controls like zoning and other regulations.

The long-term answer to the housing issue is the free market--which means repeal of all special-interest interventions that keep prices high. The short-term answer is to remove all the pandemic restrictions on economic activity. Meanwhile, let landlords and tenants work things out for themselves.

Friday, August 06, 2021

TGIF: Why Wouldn't Government Grow?

One of the least mysterious things in life is why the government grows. The better question is why it ever shrinks. People who devote lots of time to thinking about the importance of individual liberty know that government is inimical to human flourishing. So they notice every sign of state growth. But most people rarely if ever focus on liberty or government per se because they understandably are busy with the usual cares and aspirations of life. Even if they occasionally sense that something ominous is afoot, they can do little about it. They might as well attend to things that are more under their control.

Besides, most people believe what they were brought up to believe by their parents and teachers: that the U.S. government system embodies liberty because the people "govern themselves" through the representatives they have chosen. When they complain about the government, their ire is typically directed at specific bad apples or even a bad regime. They are rarely mad at the system itself. All will be put right when good people replace the bad. But when replacements occur we don't see significant reductions in the power and scope of the state. Things are bad enough with domestic policy but much worse with foreign policy. The picture is bleak indeed. 

Meanwhile, the people in power have a general interest in increasing that power, not to mention their wealth and prestige. So with rare exceptions they are accelerators of, not brakes on, the growth of government power. (The Public Choice school of political economy focuses on the incentives for the growth of government.) Sometimes a political figure touts his or her preference for less power in a particular matter (sincerely or not), but such a figure usually favors more power in other matters. Over the years the number of politicians who actually have wanted less government across the board has been depressingly small.

Those in power are supported in their quest for more by an array of private interests who hope to gain by the exercise of that power. Lots of people are unsatisfied with the gains they could make through purely voluntary exchange, so they seek to augment them with the help of politicians and bureaucrats and at the expense of others. These "rent-seekers" may not think of this as violating other people's freedom because they believe, like nearly everyone else, that this is what a self-governing people may properly do. It's as though the state were the governing body of a voluntary service organization. Members vote on what policies they want, and then they go along with the majority decision.

That's how most people see the situation. But the state is not such an organization. It's a force-wielding wealth-transfer machine with a dash of security services for public appeal. The role of court ideologues, the government schools, and the mass media is to tell the people how good and indispensable the government is. In fact the state is the consequence of conquest: no one ever explicitly consented to it, and it's impossible to opt out (that is, while staying put). How can anyone withdraw consent never given? And if one cannot not consent, what does it even mean to consent? (See Charles Johnson's "Can Anyone Ever Consent to the State?")

So as Jefferson noted, "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground." This doesn't mean a specific power can't be rolled back on occasion. We've seen the removal of legal barriers to racial integration, marijuana possession, gay marriage, and other legitimate activities, but despite this, it's hard to see a significant reduction in power in recent times. The invasive PATRIOT Act is nearly 20 years old and has been reauthorized more than once. The politicians used the pandemic to justify extraordinary and alarming interference with our liberty. New powers are in the offing, such as regulation of social-media companies.

Does this mean there's nothing left to do but despair? I have no easy answers, but let's hope not. The fight for liberty is the noblest fight, and we must find ways to kindle the love of liberty in others.