Friday, April 16, 2010

Dumbest Smart Thing I’ve Read in a While

Robin quotes Matt Yglesias:

In the spectrum debate, a commons is considered a “left-wing” position, while property rights are considered “right-wing.” In contrast, in the carbon debate you find right-wingers advocating a “carbon commons” while left-wingers advocate a property-like regime called cap and trade.

… To borrow an idea from Robin Hanson, I think it’s useful to think about political conflict in terms of valorized figures. On the right, you see a lot of valorization of businessmen. On the left, you see a lot of valorization of pushy activists who want to do something businessmen don’t like. Formally, the right is committed to ideas about free markets and the left is committed to ideas about economic equality. But in practice, political conflict much more commonly breaks down around “some stuff some businessmen want to do” vs “some stuff businessmen hate” rather than anything about markets or property rights per se.

Where to begin?

First, while I can’t speak for them, I’m pretty sure that the Left identifies with specific activists, not activists in general. Just ask them for their opinion of the NRA or the Tea Party.

Second, Yglesias is being disingenuous when he suggests the Right tries to valorize businessmen. The elite economic Right along the National Review – Megan McArdle axis is much more interested in maximizing both freedom and utility than they are in privileging one class of people over another.

It may be true that the popular Right sometimes sound as if they “valorize” businessmen, but even here the exceptions quickly accumulate.  There is outrage aplenty among the Tea Party activists over tricksy banksters carting off the national wealth, for instance.   In any case, while their economic anecdotes may echo the frustration of many businessmen, the focus is on jobs destroyed and/or not created in response to the government, oh, say, capping carbon emissions.

Turning to Yglesias’ charge that the Right behaves inconsistently in opposing cap-and-trade, I am willing to concede him half a point: his example illustrates that property rights don’t always have the power to resolve conflict that the Right often claims on their behalf.  But this limitations specifically occurs when there is a dispute as to the extent of one person’s property interest in another’s activity.

At one extreme is the property owner who decides to construct an oil derrick on his front lawn in a residential neighborhood.  Does his activity materially impact his neighbors’ quality of life?  I am reasonably certain that anybody who thinks the neighbors don’t have a property interest in their neighborhood’s quality of life is not a resident of that neighborhood.

At the other extreme would be a cap-and-trade scheme on the world’s stock of, say, iPods: no new iPods can be manufactured except to replace an existing iPod, and the current holders of iPods are given an “iLicense” that can be freely traded.  Would such a scheme be “free market”?  Again, I am reasonably certain that any actual “free marketer” would say that the “commons” has nothing to do with it:  the world’s iPod carrying capacity is essentially unlimited.

The fundamental issue separating the Left and Right on the subject of carbon emissions is whether they are more like the first case or more like the second.  Is there a limit to the ability of the earth’s organic life to convert CO2 into O2?  The Right may be right or wrong about this, but this is the issue, not a sudden preference for commons over property.

1 comment:

Professor Hale said...

I see the carbon emmision trading scheme as just another type of fraud. Someone wants to use the power of government to force me to buy something that I neither want nor can use so that the person I must buy it from may become wealthy at my expense. Such person has laready proven that his is unable to trade with me in the free market by selling me stuff I want.
Further, the commons argument getts stretched when one part of the commons gets rented to benefit private property interests of one class over another. In effect, the commons is merely being used as a wealth transfer conduit. Those who will profit from this scheme are all for it and those who will be eternal "payers" are not. The only way it can get off the ground is by force.

There is nothing free market or protective of private property about it.