The collectivization of anthropogenic cause
I actually had a longish post mostly done on this the other day and deleted it because it sucked. But I can’t let it go, so let me try a shorter, more concise angle on the thing and see how that floats.
I read this George Reisman post here a couple of weeks ago and something really struck me (the whole thing is good, and I suggest you take the time). Here’s the bit that’s got me stewing.
Here I want to turn to the enormous spirit of individualism that is found in von Mises. Only individuals think and only individuals act, says von Mises. It follows, of course, that it is only for his own actions that an individual should be held responsible. The son should not be punished for the sins of the father; one member of a race or nation or economic class should not be held responsible for the deeds of any other members of that race, nation, or economic class.
And so too should it be in the case of any alleged environmental damage. If an individual, or an individual business enterprise, is incapable by himself of causing global warming or ozone depletion, or whatever, on a scale sufficient to cause harm to any other specific individual or individuals, then there is absolutely no proper basis on the individualistic philosophy of von Mises for prohibiting his action. As I say in Capitalism, “To prohibit the action of an individual in such a case is to hold him responsible for something for which he is simply not in fact responsible. It is exactly the same in principle as punishing him for something he did not do" (p. 91).
The individual should not be punished for consequences that can occur only as the result of the actions of the broader category or group of which he is a member, but do not occur as the result of his own actions. Thus, even if it is true that the combined effect of the actions of several billion people really is to cause global warming or ozone depletion (neither of these claims has actually been proven—the claims of global warming have all the certainty of a weather forecast, extended out to the next 100 years!), but even if, as I say, the claims were true, it still would not follow that any proper basis existed for prohibiting any specific individual or individuals from acting in ways that only when aggregated across billions of individuals resulted in global warming or ozone depletion or whatever.
If global warming or ozone depletion or whatever, really are consequences of the actions of the human race considered collectively, but not of the actions of any given individual, including any given individual private business firm, then the proper way to regard them is as the equivalent of acts of nature. Not being caused by the actions of individual human beings, they are equivalent to actions not morally caused by human beings at all, that is to say, to acts of nature.
Are you getting that? If not, read through it again and see if you can punch a hole in it. Then stop to consider how many times and in how many contexts you hear the words "contributes to," or similar to that effect. It’s not just environmentalism, it’s in all sorts of things having to do with product liability, tort claims, class-action lawsuits and on and on.
And there you have the root of it: the collectivization of anthropogenic (man-made) cause. I don’t know if anyone has ever put that sort of a phrase to the thing, but there you have it.
So not only do we have anthropogenic global warming, for instance, where the warming part appears to have some sound observational (as opposed to modeled) basis but the man-made aspect is completely dubious; that’s bad enough, but even if we were to accept that it’s caused by the sum-total of man’s activities, such is merely a natural phenomena (man: part of nature) that must ultimately (if we are to remain moral beings) be sorted out through the individual value judgments and pursuits of individual human beings. There is simply no moral basis whatsoever upon which to assign individual culpability where there does not exist at least a large and important individual contribution to the problem or issue at hand.
Hey, don’t blame me. The metaphysics of our existence is such that we’re individually autonomous, not pieces of a larger organism collectively lumped together with specialized functions. We are singularly and individually responsible for effects, by virtue of singularly or individually causing them, or we are not responsible at all and thus owe "society" nothing at all. And where we owe nothing, society has no moral basis upon which to stop us or punish us. It only has naked force, which of course it has anyway. This just serves to strip away the false moral pretense and expose the evil for what it is.
I understand that hundreds, if not thousands of legal theories exist which seek to argue for or assign individual culpability on the scantest of connections (gun manufacturer liability; tobacco company liability, and so on).
There you have the underlying reason why it’s not only all wrong, but immoral.
Once we see matters in this light, it becomes clear what the appropriate response is to such environmental change, whether global warming and ozone depletion, or global cooling and ozone enrichment, or anything else nature may bring. It is the same as the appropriate response of man to nature in general. Namely, individual human beings must be free to deal with nature to their own maximum individual advantage, subject only to the limitation of not initiating the use of physical force against the person or property of other individual human beings. By following this principle, man will deal with the any negative forces of nature resulting as byproducts of his own activity taken in the aggregate in precisely the same successful way that he regularly deals with the primary forces of nature.
Allow me to elaborate on this. Here we are. We enjoy an incredibly marvelous industrial civilization, whose nature is indicated by the fact that because of it vast numbers of human beings can travel at breathtaking speeds for hundreds of miles at a stretch in their own personal automobiles, listening to symphony orchestras as they go—indeed, can fly over whole continents in a matter of hours in jet planes, while watching movies and drinking martinis; can walk into darkened rooms and flood them with light by the flick of a switch; can open a refrigerator door and enjoy delicious, healthful food brought from all over the world; can do all this and so much more. This is what we have. This, and much, much more, is what people everywhere could have if they were intelligent enough to establish economic freedom and capitalism.
But all this counts for virtually nothing as far as the environmentalists are concerned. They are ready to throw it all away because, they allege, it causes global warming and ozone depletion, i.e., bad weather. And the best way, they say, for us to avoid such bad weather, and thus to control nature more to our advantage, is to abandon modern, industrial civilization and capitalism.
The appropriate answer to the environmentalists is that we will not sacrifice a hair of industrial civilization, and that if global warming and ozone depletion really are among its consequences, we will accept them and deal with them—by such reasonable means as employing more and better air conditioners and sun block, not by giving up our air conditioners, refrigerators, and automobiles.
More fundamentally, the answer to the environmentalists is that the appropriate response to environmental change, whether global warming or a new ice age, is the economic freedom of a capitalist society. Sooner or later, such environmental change will occur—if not in this new century or even in this new millennium—then certainly at some time in the more remote future. At that time, it will require vast changes in human economic activity. Some areas presently used for certain purposes will become unusable for those purposes. Conceivably, they might even become uninhabitable. Other areas presently uninhabitable or barely habitable, will become much more desirable. Major changes in the comparative advantages of vast areas will take place, to which people must be free to respond.
As I wrote in Capitalism,
Even if global warming turned out to be a fact, the free citizens of an industrial civilization would have no great difficulty in coping with it—that is, of course, if their ability to use energy and to produce is not crippled by the environmental movement and by government controls otherwise inspired. The seeming difficulties of coping with global warming, or any other large-scale change, arise only when the problem is viewed from the perspective of government central planners.
It would be too great a problem for government bureaucrats to handle . . . . But it would certainly not be too great a problem for tens and hundreds of millions of free, thinking individuals living under capitalism to solve. It would be solved by means of each individual being free to decide how best to cope with the particular aspects of global warming that affected him.
Individuals would decide, on the basis of profit-and-loss calculations, what changes they needed to make in their businesses and in their personal lives, in order best to adjust to the situation. They would decide where it was now relatively more desirable to own land, locate farms and businesses, and live and work, and where it was relatively less desirable, and what new comparative advantages each location had for the production of which goods. Factories, stores, and houses all need replacement sooner or later. In the face of a change in the relative desirability of different locations, the pattern of replacement would be different. Perhaps some replacements would have to be made sooner than otherwise. To be sure, some land values would fall and others would rise. Whatever happened individuals would respond in a way that minimized their losses and maximized their possible gains. The essential thing they would require is the freedom to serve their self-interests by buying land and moving their businesses to the areas rendered relatively more attractive, and the freedom to seek employment and buy or rent housing in those areas.
Given this freedom, the totality of the problem would be overcome. This is because, under capitalism, the actions of the individuals, and the thinking and planning behind those actions, are coordinated and harmonized by the price system . . . . As a result, the problem would be solved in exactly the same way that tens and hundreds of millions of free individuals have solved much greater problems, such as redesigning the economic system to deal with the replacement of the horse by the automobile, the settlement of the American West, and the release of the far greater part of the labor of the economic system from agriculture to industry. (pp. 88-89)
A rational response to the possibility of large-scale environmental change is to establish the economic freedom of individuals to deal with it, if and when it comes. Capitalism and the free market are the essential means of doing this, not paralyzing government controls and “environmentalism.” And both in the establishment of economic freedom and in every other major aspect of the response to environmentalism, the philosophy of Ludwig von Mises and Carl Menger must lead the way.