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Monday, April 11, 2005

The Evidence Against Radical Libertarianism

I was listening to NPR the other day, and I heard some story about the EPA enforcing some standards on a business. In general, I am against the environmentalist agenda (because they make everything a crisis and do not take quality of human life into account much of the time), but out of left field, a thought hit me:

We need the EPA.

What? No way! Government regulation of business practices that a not directly related to criminal offenses? How socialist! If I am anything, I am not a socialist.

But then, I got to thinking some more - always dangerous. Earlier this year I had a great discussion with some libertarian and liberal bloggers I frequent that made me consider the libertarian position on education and a much more limited role of the government. However, when I tried to plug in the idea of environmental protection into the discussion, I couldn't see it happening.

Why not? People are lazy and selfish. I know that sounds terrible, but it's backed up by social science, psychology, and the Bible. Essentially, we do what we think benefits ourselves the most, using the least amount of resources, and focused on right now or the foreseeable future. This works against the environment in a number of ways:

1) What benefits me the most.
a) I recognize that my personal negative impact on the environment, whether it due to vehicle emissions, smoking, aerosol cans, fossil fuel spills and other such events, is infinitesimally small in the grand scheme of things. Hence, on my own, I have little motivation to not pour my oil from the oil change down the sewer, except as I feel morally bound (which as a Christian, I feel I am). Most would not feel so bound if not for laws demanding it.
b) A business is benefited the most by profits. The truth is, that very few people will buy clothes based upon the treatment of the human workers in Indonesian sweatshops - how many do you really think care if I am emitting to much carbon monoxide into the air at my factories? Even less. Hence, there is no compelling reason for me to do anything except the minimum which keeps my workers alive, the product successful and the populace from angrily destroying my plant. Thus, most environmental protections would be ignored.

2) What requires the least resources.
a) It takes a lot less effort to pour the oil down the sewer than to buy the container, seal it up, and take it to a place I can safely dispose of it.
b) Less resources used = more profits - a double whammy. Every dime I don't spend making my product and process "Earth friendly" is a gain for my company. This includes gains for the shareholders, who are the big decision makers.

3) It's all about right now.
a) Generally, we work for the reward we can see or reasonably expect to see. The personal benefits to recycling my newspaper? None.
b) While profit planning for the next 5-10 years is common, profit planning for the next 150 is non-existent. Why do we think that a company would voluntarily pursue a policy that reduces gains now for possible environmental benefits in 150 years, over even over the entire 150 years, but incrementally?

What seems clear to me is that environmental protection is a lost cause without government enforcement. Very few voters cast a ballot based upon the environment, and even less consumers spend their money based upon a company's "green" policies. As environmental protection beyond the short term disaster avoidance are anathema to profits, companies would not be environmentally friendly, in general, on their own.

I would call environmental protection a moral issue. Since I am in favor of legal enforcement of many moral issues, I have no problem with the EPA. What is strange is that those who are most supportive of environmental protection are often most against "legislating morality".


  • Well, I'm against "legislating morality" AND I'm against the EPA. But then again I'm of the opinion that we can protect the environment WHILE recognizing people's essential laziness. I think I'll write more on this when I get some time.

    By the way, check out the new blog, I just moved in.

    Eric's Grumbles Before The Grave

    By Blogger Eric Grumbles, at 4/11/2005 06:19:00 PM  

  • I switched your link earlier today, Eric. I looked at MuNuVia to try to figure out how one goes about switching, but couldn't find an 'instruction manual' or 'invite'.

    I look forward to your rejoinder. I am never disappointed by your posts.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 4/11/2005 08:54:00 PM  

  • If men were Angels, eh? I'll not quibble over the difference between legislating morality and behavior; although I feel there is a distinct difference between the two, the results are often the same---so what the say tomato, I say tomaato.
    I agree that we need the EPA, just like we need unions, policemen, and a U.N. (not the current U.N. you understand...just a U.N.). And I also agree the need for such entities are morality based because without the concept of morality, I can justify anything.
    There is an excellent example of the need for the E.P.A. right close to home. About 10 miles from Morehead (going out 32 toward Flemingsburg) is a place called Maxey Flats. For about 15 years, it was a nuclear waste disposal site. It was discovered that the trenches burying the material had collapsed, rain water collected in the troughs, percolated through the material and then leached into the drainage system of the Licking River. It is one of the largest Superfund sites.
    It is difficult to imagine the sparsely populated region ever having enough resources via a strictly capitalist system to have tackled the cleanup by itself.

    Here's a little about Maxey Flats in case you'd like to read about it.

    much more in-depth here:

    My brother has a saying whose depth of truth I come to understand more all the time: A vice is a virtue in extreme.

    By Blogger David Hunley, at 4/12/2005 05:45:00 AM  

  • You can only move to MuNuviana if you are invited. It's a private blog host.

    Remind me that I owe a post on how to protect the environment without the EPA. The concept is simple. We all do what is rational, in the context of our situation. So, we merely need to make it rational to not pollute and to clean up if we do pollute. You're absolutely right that without some mechanism to force protection it is normally rational to choose to pollute. However, the EPA really hasn't changed what is rational for the polluter. More in depth later.

    By Blogger Eric Grumbles, at 4/12/2005 10:15:00 AM  

  • I promised a response. It's up, but it's long. Rational Behavior

    By Blogger Eric Grumbles, at 4/13/2005 03:02:00 AM  

  • It's excellent - other readers should zip right over. To me, it was a totally unexpected angle. I'll comment there when I get back home.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 4/14/2005 01:13:00 AM  

  • Glad you liked it and I'm looking forward to your comments.

    By Blogger Eric Grumbles, at 4/14/2005 01:33:00 AM  

  • If anything, I think this makes an even stronger case for the need of the EPA---or an EPA-like entity---if for no other reason than to establish the framework by which damages are sought. If we do not have an outside arbiter to establish what constitutes pollution, how are we going to seek damages against a polluter? I can only assume that, at some point, the court relied on an external definition (probably the EPA's own data) to determine that arsenic was, in fact, a pollutant. If we didn't have an agreed upon idea of what constitutes a pollutant, a person could say the scent of a freshly mowed lawn was a pollutant...or the pollen of a dandelion in one neighbor's yard could be considered "property damage and personal injury" to his next door neighbor.
    And the attempt to distinguish between changing morality and modifying behavior is moot on this point. I can certainly understand the rationale of the criminal that steals my car...I can even understand that it was in his best self-interest...but frankly, I don't care whether or not I can change his rationale or his idea of self interest---I just want my car back, and I want the help of a trained, established police force to prevent it from being stolen again. I cannot possibly stand constant guard to prevent it from being stolen myself. The example of forcing the child to apologize implies that the only reason a child should be forced to apologize is to make the child feel apologetic; I doubt that is the reason most parents force their children to do is more likely (and the reason I'd do it) is to show the harmed individual that there was an outside, greater force that had determined the action was not "right". I'd like for my child to feel apologetic after having wronged an individual but it is not the only reason for forcing the apology.
    To return to the arsenic point; what if there were no force except for the self-interest of the owners of that stack to keep it from spewing arsenic? And what if it the owners rationalized that since they personally didn't live in the neighborhood, it was in their self-interest to continue as they were and not clean up polluted property? You cannot escape that you relied on an outside force somewhere to get what you needed done...even your concept of personal property rights have to be agreed upon by an outside force, otherwise it's your opinions against the opinions of your neighbor.
    And if "Duty to something larger than oneself is the group's equivalent to individual self-interest" cannot the reverse be true...that the self-interest of the group is the equivalent an individual's self-interest? And the acknowledgement of something larger than oneself would seem contrary to the notion
    I suppose we could modify or reduce the argument to the point that we don't need the EPA as it is now per se...or that it shouldn't have enforcement powers (although, I suspect they rely on the courts to actually carry out enforcement), but we will still need an EPA like entity to establish guidelines or to define a set of standards that are agreed upon by a group.

    And this..."Well, if you want optimal behavior, the way to get it is not through coercive regulation and law. It is through structuring the situation in such a way that the optimal behavior is the rational choice." I think this is just another difference that makes no difference. Please don't dismiss this out of hand just because I cannot express it correctly. How could that structure be designed that did not involve some sort of coercive regulation? And what is wrong with inducing the optimal behavior so that a rational choice is made by saying "I will not throw you in jail or fine you many millions if you don't stop!" Pretty coercive eh? Yet it is a structure that leads to a ration choice and optimal behavior---as defined by an outside group anyway.

    I'm sorry that this is just riffing...even if I had the ability to do this justice, I'd be hard pressed for time. That's why I simply stated that since men are not Angels, hoping that my point was made. Regardless of how much we value individual freedom and self-worth, the time will come, if we are to ever mingle with a single other person, we will have to establish and outside set of rules that we agree upon.
    Show me a single action (other than thought) that you can take that doesn't rely on an outside force to allow you to take that action. Recently, people were not even allowed to feed their own daughter because of an outside force.

    By Blogger David Hunley, at 4/15/2005 12:18:00 PM  

  • David,
    I beleive that the premise of Eric's position toward the EPA was not that it wasn't necessary, but that it is necessary to regulate the environment, not to protect it.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 4/15/2005 12:50:00 PM  

  • Ahgh! I went to hit the preview button and hit 'publish'. Believe, not beleive, of course.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 4/15/2005 12:51:00 PM  

  • Oh, for crying out loud Hammer...I understand perfectly what he meant. And I hope you understand what I mean when I say "A difference that makes no difference is no difference!" You say Eric's premise toward the EPA was not that it wasn't necessary, but that it is necessary to regulate the environment, not protect it. Regulate? By who? The state? After this?

    But the preponderance of choice will be rational, much more so than in a state regulated context

    And this?

    But so have many bad things. Ronald Coase, a Nobel prize winner in economics, demonstrated clearly that government regulation was nearly always worse than no regulation would have been in the modern American and British states. He also stated clearly that regulation might have good effects, but that he personally could not find a single example of a positive government regulation.

    And this?

    Well, if you want optimal behavior, the way to get it is not through coercive regulation and law.

    And what about the "regulations" required to fix this situation?

    The problem today, of course, is that you and I are not really allowed to use our private property rights to create a situation where it is more expensive for our neighbor to pollute than not pollute

    Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters? Are we going to need governmental regulations or not? Whether we call it EPA (which I've already said wouldn't have to be given enforcement strength or even called the EPA) or property rights judgments awarded via a court...we're still going to need regulations...yet, again this... He also stated clearly that regulation might have good effects, but that he personally could not find a single example of a positive government regulation.

    Now you've decided to hone in on the "regulate" not "protect" aspect...okay, if you want to say that the purpose of that regulation doesn't necessarily mean to "protect" can I argue?...then this would indeed make sense:

    So this The EPA is not necessary to protect the environment. The EPA is necessary to regulate the environment. These are two entirely different things.

    but what's the purpose of this discussion to begin with then, if we're not regulating to protect? What are we protecting...the right to act in your own self-interest---which one is enabled to do through court regulations? Regulations again? Do I need to paste here again what was said about regulations?

    And saying "given a free market which has obtained equilibrium between market forces, individuals will make rational choices within the context of that market."
    Is no different than saying communism would work if it ever obtained the perfect equilibrium of "from each according to their each according to their need." It's a Xanadu we're never likely to live in---thus, that famous phrase "If men were Angels..."

    And, actually, I think the thought process that led to the premise is faulty. This for instance....

    This is founded on the concept that each individual acts in their own self-interest in all cases. The concept of altruism is, in this view of human behavior, not applicable because even behavior that is apparently altruistic is founded in something that the individual feels is in their self-interest, within the context of their decision making. can come to any conclusion that you want by denying the existence of something that might preclude this conclusion. In this case, the possibility of altruism is denied by expanding the term self-interest to include it is in your self-interest to sacrifice for your children, the group, the species, the whole darn world? Do you understand what I'm saying? How can you possibly counter that argument? using the little qualifier Not every individual, every time. ..but wait, he's already co-opted that qualifier and still denies the possibility of altruism.

    Now've got to believe that I truly want to understand things, to get to the truth. If I've totally misunderstood something, please point it out to me if you have even the slightest amount of time to do so. I would very much appreciate it.

    By Blogger David Hunley, at 4/15/2005 10:09:00 PM  

  • David, think about what the word "altruism" means and think look at people's actions and behaviors, not from your own context, but from their context. Take into consideration duty (which is not the same as altruism).

    Also, I didn't say I can't find an example of a "good regulation", Ronald Coase did.

    Last, the EPA (or whatever you choose to call it) is not needed. Was the lawsuit I took part in enabled by EPA regulations? No, it was actually hindered. The EPA refused to do anything. We brought suit based on damage to our property values, not based on EPA regulations against allowable levels of arsenic. As part of the lawsuit we included a trustee who would administer the awards to first clean up the damage and second compensate the property owners for lost property values. EPA regulations played no part, just damage to our property value, which was not dependent on the EPA. It was only dependent on several reputable firms testing soil for arsenic.

    Nothing special beyond a normal class action lawsuit for damages was needed.

    Of course, it is hard, in a world where every action and reaction is governed by law masquerading as regulation to see this, perhaps.

    By Blogger Eric Grumbles, at 4/16/2005 01:40:00 AM  

  • My 30 year old dictionary defines altruism as:
    Unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others. Behavior by an animal(?) that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits he survival of the species.

    Altruism delineates a difference between self and species of self; the concept of self-interest makes no such distinction. Without distinctions of any kind, the concept of self-interest can (and probably must) be allowed to encompass the entire universe. I say "probably must" because if we do make a distinction between species and any other thing, while at the same time melding the idea of self and species---then could not the idea of altruism be granted the species? And around and around we go!
    Perhaps I'm jumping ahead here and assuming too much. Let me try to make sure. The idea of altruism of an individual is discounted on the basis that an individual's actions can be attributed to the survival of the species, which effectively makes the two the same doesn't it? How can it be otherwise? The lack of distinction must be a two way street or else I can say that altruism occurs at the point you make that distinction. I still assuming too much? You're saying that every action of an individual has an impact on the species as a whole if you say that every altruistic act is merely a matter of self-interest...that's every action now...whether it be lounging in the shade or defecating in the forest--unless you want to make a distinction of some kind some where. Does this sound like gooble-gook? It is, I think, unless you want to construct and limit a distinction as you have done with the term "duty". You define duty (however you define it, its clear you do) as a distinct activity but won't allow altruism to be defined as distinct activity by the same reckoning. Do you see what I'm saying?
    It is the same with the discussion concerning EPA. The fact that the EPA hindered your court activity doesn't nullify the need for the EPA---just illustrated that it didn't do what some feel it is supposed to do. We still need an entity to help protect the environment (unless we want to say that the actions of polluters are merely expressing a self-interest that will help the species). And we still need an "authority" of some kind or else your property rights wouldn't have been recognized in the first place.
    While you are far better at it than most, this all is just an exercise in shifting through minutia, making distinctions, and splitting hairs to support your position---while not allowing others to do the same. This is not a condemnation, you understand...or even a disapproval (not that that matters to you I'm sure), but it is what it is...and that's a clouding of the fact that every thing IS black and white.
    Oh, I know it wasn't YOU who said that stuff and that it was Coase...but since you didn't say otherwise, I assumed you agreed with it.

    By Blogger David Hunley, at 4/17/2005 08:05:00 AM  

  • David,
    Just so you know, the dominant theory in social psychology is that there is no such thing as altruism - except when an individual sacrifices their own life. Even for things that have no obvious self-serving purpose may have, for instance the desire to feel good about oneself or the desire to please or obey a diety. The "group correlate" that Eric describes is unobservable in a scientific context.

    However, I don't think that affects his theory at all.

    My remaining argument for the "need" for the EPA is that someone must be the decision-maker when it comes to determining what is harmful to the environment. Isn't that part of what the EPA does - sets standards for environmental issues? Someone who is not beholden to business or environmentalists needs to do this, and I am doubtful that the free market ever creates disinterested parties - for the very reasons that Eric delineates here.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 4/17/2005 11:23:00 PM  

  • I'm not enough of a social psychologist to show you, empirically, why altruism isn't a valid concept, but we can certainly make anecdotal observations supporting the idea. As far as what Coase says, I think I agree with him, but he is arguing purely economically. That is, there has been no observable, economically beneficial government regulation in the modern era. What is the justification for environment regulation? Is it a fuzzy moral argument or is it a property rights argument? If it's a property rights argument then Coase is important. Since he won a Nobel prize for his work on government regulation and economics I am loathe to argue with him ;-).

    By Blogger Eric Grumbles, at 4/18/2005 05:33:00 PM  

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