August 27, 2020


The Alternative to Ideology (JERRY TAYLOR, OCTOBER 29, 2018, Niskanen)

The first pangs of doubt about my old ideological attachments arose from my loss of faith in the case against climate action. As I began to express doubts about the narratives offered by climate skeptics, I found it impossible to offer an argument that resonated with my libertarian colleagues. But just how, exactly, does an ideological commitment to limited government, free markets, and individual dignity inform an understanding of atmospheric physics or paleoclimate records? And what does libertarianism have to contribute regarding the case for hedging against incredibly dangerous risks stemming from the misuse of a common pool resource, such as the atmosphere?

Libertarians have nothing at all to contribute to the conversation about the science of climate change as libertarians. They could, however, marshal ideological insights to suggest the best means of addressing global warming if it indeed turns out to warrant a policy response (as I believe it does). For libertarians, that could mean a carbon tax, but for other, more hardline libertarians, it could mean that greenhouse gas emitters should be held liable for climate-related damages via common-law legal proceedings.

But my old colleagues at the Cato Institute (where I worked at the time) were not interested in engaging in those "if/then" conversations. They were only interested in a fight to the death over climate science. Carbon tax advocacy was removed from the institutional table in 2007 when my former colleague David Schoenbrod used the institute's byline in a Wall Street Journal op-ed suggesting a carbon tax, an act that infuriated management and led to his resignation. The common law approach to address climate change was rejected once and for all in 2010, when the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief in American Electric Power Company v. Connecticut, arguing that "it is unconstitutional for courts to make complex policy decisions that should be left to the legislature -- and this is true regardless of the science regarding global warming." Cato's institutional position was thus adaptation (learning to live with warming), which is only defensible if scientific alarm over the risks posed by climate change is unwarranted.

This problem extended beyond the realm of climate change. Over and over again, libertarian friends and colleagues were engaged in fierce, uncompromising debate about empirical matters that had nothing to do with libertarian principles or commitments. Is the Keynesian multiplier consequential? Is Thomas Piketty correct that returns to capital are greater than the rate of growth? Do tax cuts pay for themselves? A libertarian could take either side of those disputes without having to recant any of their principles or fundamental beliefs. But to cross the party line on these or an ocean of similar empirical matters was to risk unemployment.

The point is that what ideologues fiercely believe about empirical arguments has little to do with their ideological priors. It has to do with the policy implications of those empirical arguments given their ideologically-driven preferences.

We should not shrink from the truth based on what that truth might mean for our pre-existing beliefs. I know libertarians well and they tend to accept this in theory, but like all ideologues, they have difficulty accepting it in practice. Libertarians do not care for government because they believe it is inherently coercive and destructive of individual liberty. Hence, they are highly motivated to dismiss arguments that might suggest an important need for government, or evidence that offers a cautionary warning about the negative consequences that might follow from a curtailment of governmental power.

Reason, as David Hume famously noted, is a slave of the passions, and libertarian passions point in one direction and one direction only: hostility to government. This passion is a powerful engine of motivated cognition, which invariably leads to weak policy analysis and dogmatism.

Posted by at August 27, 2020 6:00 AM