The Human Prospect
November 1, 2012
This essay is essentially a brief
version of "A Dim View of
a six-part series of essays at this site.
The prospects for future generations are bleak, as long as the dominant
economic and political ideologies of the industrial world prevail. These
ideologies are systematically individualistic, anti-social, and
short-sighted regarding consequences for the future. This bundle of
ideologies, which we will refer to as “libertarianism,” dismisses the
physical and environmental crises facing humanity, insisting that economic
incentives and individual human ingenuity (Julian Simon’s “ultimate
combined with the privatization of economic resources will suffice to solve
these global problems without collective government “interference.”
These crises are well-known, but rarely fully appreciated. So a reiteration
might be in order. "Peak oil," the permanent reduction of petroleum
production, is upon us, and there is no reasonable prospect that new energy
sources will pick up the slack soon enough. And yet high-energy use
agriculture is essential if seven billion plus and growing human beings on
this planet are to be fed. And then there is climate change. In about forty
years (and probably sooner) the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summer,
and the resulting increase in ocean temperature will accelerate the melting
of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps, which, in turn, may cause the sea
levels will rise from twenty to thirty meters. If so, then New York, Miami,
Hamburg, London, St. Petersburg, and hundreds of other coastal cities will
have to be evacuated along with entire island nations and half of
Bangladesh. Global warming and ocean acidification is causing the
destruction of coral reefs, which sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide, and
the reduction of phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic food pyramid and the
source of half of the atmospheric oxygen upon which all terrestrial life
As I will endeavor to demonstrate in this essay, libertarian doctrine is
ill-equipped to deal with these emergencies. In league with the coal and oil
industries, it resists research, development and implementation of
sustainable energy sources, it denies the very existence of human-caused
global climate change, it sanctions the ravaging of the natural environment,
and it forbids collective national and international institutional responses
to these crises. Accordingly, if libertarian doctrine is allowed to continue
to dominate US politics and the international economic order, it will
devastate the future.
At the outset, I should point out that many self-described libertarians
principles that are endorsed by freedom-loving individuals worldwide, this
writer included. With John Stuart Mill, they proclaim that “over himself,
over his own mind body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”3 Thus they
oppose government restrictions on free-speech, the press, religion,
association, drug use, sexual behavior, etc. In short, along with most
Americans, libertarians endorse the personal freedoms enumerated in the Bill
of Rights. Governments, they insist, exist to protect the personal rights to
life, liberty and property. Not very controversial.
The controversy arises in the further insistence by the libertarians that
the protection of life, liberty and property, the so-called “negative
rights,” is the only legitimate function of government. Regarding economic
activity, what Robert Nozick dubs “capitalistic acts between consenting
adults,” government has no place. Neither is government entitled to promote
“social benefits,” least of all with funds obtained through taxation.
I will contend that libertarianism beliefs, as enumerated below, are dogmas,
accepted on faith and unsupported by empirical and historical evidence,
practical experience, or sound argument, relying instead on anecdote and
repetition. There are compelling reasons, founded on solid empirical
evidence and readily recognized by ordinary experience, to reject these
dogmas. Furthermore, for the sake of future generations, it is essential
that these dogmas be rejected. They are the dragons at the gateway to the
future that must be slain of we are to leave a worthy legacy to our
These are bold claims. So that I will not be accused in turn of dogmatism, I
will in this essay offer evidence and argument in their defense.
This essay will focus on economic libertarianism and privatism, both of
which, I will argue, put the fate of future generations in great jeopardy.
Social Atomism and Privatism. Libertarianism is a radically
individualistic doctrine. The optimal libertarian social order is an
aggregate of individuals in voluntary association, privately optimizing
their personal satisfactions and secure in their "natural rights" to life,
liberty and property. In fact, libertarians dismiss the very concepts of
"society" and "the public." As Margaret Thatcher famously remarked, "there
is no such thing as 'society', there are individuals and there are
families,"4 and Ayn Rand proclaimed, "there is no such entity as 'the
public.'"5 Lest these stark pronouncements be dismissed as fringe opinions,
consider in addition the following observation of David Boaz of the Cato
For libertarians, the basic unit of social analysis is the individual.... .
Groups don’t have plans or intentions. Only individuals are capable of
choice... [At] the conceptual level, we must understand that society is
composed of individuals. It has no independent existence.6
The implications of social atomism are radical in the extreme, for if there
is no such thing as “a public,” it follows that there are no “public goods”
or “public interest,” apart from summation of private goods and interests.
Moreover, if there is no society, it follows that there are no “social
problems,” there is no “social injustice,” and there are no “victims of
society.” Since there is no such thing as a “public,” taxation for the
support of such so-called “public” institutions as education, libraries, the
arts, parks and recreation, is coercive seizure of private property, or
Spontaneous Order. “The great insight of libertarian social analysis,”
writes David Boaz, “is that order in society arises spontaneously, out of
actions of thousands or millions of individuals who coordinate their actions
with those of others in order to achieve their purposes.”7 Because an orderly
society arises “spontaneously” out of the free associations and activities
of individuals, without the support, investment or coordination of any
overarching institutions (e.g., governments), a well-ordered society is a
“free gift,” for which nothing is owed (e.g., in taxes ) by the component
individuals for its maintenance.
Market Fundamentalism. “The wisdom of the market place” – prices that arise
out of the numerous free transactions between autonomous individuals – will
always exceed the “wisdom” of regulated markets, controlled and coordinated
by superordinate (namely government) agencies. Milton and Rose Friedman
clearly enunciate this central dogma of libertarianism:
A free market [co-ordinates] the activity of millions of people, each
seeking his own interest, in such a way as to make everyone better off...
Economic order can emerge as the unintended consequence of the actions of
many people, each seeking his own interest."
In the phrase “the activity of millions of people, each seeking his own
interest...” we see the concept of social atomism at work. And in the
clause, “economic order can emerge as the unintended consequence...” we find
a reiteration of the concept of spontaneous order.8
Minimal Government. Libertarians fully endorse Ronald Reagan’s pronouncement
at his first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our
problem, government is the problem.” Government has no function other than
to protect and secure each individual’s natural and inalienable rights to
life, liberty and property. Any additional functions of government, for
example public education, public parks, museums, support for the arts,
scientific research, welfare payments, foreign aid, are illegitimate, and
taxes levied to support these functions constitute theft of private
Privatization and the Repudiation of “the Commons.”
Public accommodations such as schools, parks, and physical infrastructure are managed better,
and the natural environment is better protected, under private ownership.
Accordingly, the libertarians contend that all environmental problems derive
from common ownership of such natural resources as pasturage, fisheries, and
even air, water and wildlife. The solution? Privatization of all such
resources. Does this sound extreme? Consider the following from Robert J.
Smith (my emphases):
“The problems of environmental degradation, pollution, overexploitation of
natural resources, and depletion of wildlife all derive from their being
treated as common property resources. Whenever we find an approach to the
extension of private property rights in these areas, we find superior
"All," "whenever" -- no qualifications evident here.
The environmental devastation in the former communist countries, the
libertarians argue, proves the rule: that which is the property of everyone
(i.e., the state) is the responsibility of no one. In contrast, they argue,
resources will be best protected when the costs of environmental degradation
fall upon the property owner. Accordingly, when the environment and its
resources are privately owned, there is no need to urge the owners to
practice "good ecological citizenship" for abstract altruistic reasons or
through the threat of government sanctions. Instead, the libertarian
believes, self interest and economic incentives will suffice to motivate the
property owner to maximize the long-term value of his property.
Thus in the United States today, we find that public assets and institutions
such as roads, bridges, prisons and schools are being privatized. Even much
of the military is being “contracted” to private corporations.
Neo-Classical Economic Theory. Libertarianism is the policy extension of
neo-classical economics, which describes with elaborate mathematical
modeling the behavior of a hypothetical individual (“economic man”) in an
hypothetical environment (“the perfect market”). “Economic man” is
fundamentally an egoist, exclusively motivated to maximize his satisfactions
(“utilities”) in his economic transactions. “The perfect market” is
characterized, in part, by these properties: perfect information, no
transaction costs, many participants who never collude (“perfect
competition”), no externalities, and finally, of course, all participants
are “economic men.”
A MASTER MORALITY
If libertarian dogma is, as I claim, extreme and as unfounded on historical
evidence and pracical experience, how are we to explain its apparent success
in the United States, and beyond in the industrial world?
Quite simply the success of libertarianism derives from the fact that it
serves the interests of powerful and wealthy individuals and multi-national
corporations, who promote it lavishly with publications, think-tanks,
endowed university chairs and corporate mass-media.
Libertarianism is, to borrow Nietzsche’s label, a “master morality.”10
However, "master morality" predates Nietzsche and the libertarians, and in
fact is as old as class structure in human society. Whenever a sovereign
class claims and enforces its perceived "right" to rule over all others,
that "right" is accompanied by an ideology that purports to justify the
privileges and powers of the ruling class. Until the Eighteenth Century and
the Age of Enlightenment, that justification was found in the doctrine of
"the divine right of royalty" -- the claim that The Almighty Himself had
bestowed upon royalty, the right to rule. That doctrine was followed by John
Calvin's claim that an individual's wealth and power was "proof" of God's
grace upon that person's eternal soul. Then came the "Social Darwinism" of
the late Nineteenth Century, whereby wealth, power and privilege were
regarded as the "natural" result of the survival in society of the "fittest"
individuals and corporations. Libertarianism is but the latest of a long
line of ideologies which, in John Kenneth Galbraith's words, "is engaged in
one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a
superior moral justification for selfishness."
IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS.
Clearly, libertarianism, as summarized above, is ill-suited to serve the
interests of future generations. Its radical individualism forbids
collection action, still less collective personal sacrifices, in behalf of
the remote future. With its embrace of market fundamentalism and its roots
in neo-classical economics, libertarianism clearly rests upon an economic
foundation, and economics, especially of the neo-classical variety is
systemically myopic. For example, the ruling motivation of businesses and
corporations is return on investment to the stockholders. Indeed, in the
United States, that objective is written into law: it is called “fiduciary
responsibility.” Accordingly, the corporate officer who deliberately
sets out to “serve humanity and the future” would find himself facing a
lawsuit from the stockholders. And, according to the law, he would lose.
Investors are typically not interested in having their investments yield
returns centuries in the future, just within their lifetimes, and much
sooner than that, if you please.
Economically based political systems such as libertarianism prefer to assess
policies though cost-benefit analysis, which is to say, by monetizing
values.11 And money, as everyone knows, depreciates through time. This
depreciation is called “the discount rate.” Thus, assuming an annual
discount rate of 5% a dollar today is worth 95 cents in a year (present
value), which is why banks must offer interest rates if their customers are
to defer spending that dollar at time present. With the compounding of
discount rates, cash value in the remote future soon decreases to
insignificance. Place cash value on a human life (as insurance companies and
law suits do), at an annual discount rate of 5% the value of a human life
today is equal to two lives in fourteen years, one hundred and thirty-one
lives in one hundred years, and more than a thousand lives in two-hundred
Additional reasons to doubt the capacity of libertarianism to address the
responsibility to future generations will become apparent as this essay
CRITIQUE OF LIBERTARIANISM:
A Society is More Than the Sum of its Component Parts. In defense of the
libertarian dogma of social atomism, Frank Chodorov writes:
Society is a collective concept and nothing else; it is a convenience for
designating a number of people... Society disappears when the component
parts disperse... When the individuals disappear so does the whole. The
whole has no separate existence.13
Herein, Chodorov commits the elementary logical fallacy of equating
necessary conditions with sufficient causes. True, “when individuals
disappear so does the whole.” But it doesn’t follow that the whole is
“nothing but” a random collection of the parts. Analogously, without notes
there is no Beethoven Eroica symphony, and without words, there is no
Hamlet. But the Eroica and Hamlet are more than a summation of their
component parts. Those parts have been selected and organized by geniuses.
Like chemical compounds with properties distinct from those of their
component elements, the Eroica and Hamlet are what philosophers call
“emergent entities” – wholes that are more than the sum of their component
So too with societies and publics. If it can be determined that benefits to
individuals (“each”) can result in harm to the whole (“all”), and vice
versa, then we can clearly distinguish the components of society from the
“emergent” society-entity. Examples of these rules -- “good for each, bad
for all” and “bad for each, good for all” – are abundant in ordinary
experience, and irrefutable. Here are two examples: antibiotics and traffic
laws. It is well-known that the widespread use of antibiotics reduces the
potency of these drugs by selecting surviving “super-germs.” Accordingly,
casual use of an antibiotic for an inconvenient but non-threatening
infection, while good for the individual patient, is bad for the population
at large: good for each, bad for all. The solution, a public policy
restricting the use of antibiotics to life-threatening illnesses: bad for
each, good for all. Similarly, traffic laws (in particular, stop signs and
traffic lights) restrict the freedom of each driver while facilitating the
travel of all drivers. Libertarians who doubt this should try to drive in a
large city during a power outage.14
Market Transactions Have Consequences for Non-Consenting Third Parties.
Libertarians extol the unfailing benevolence of “the invisible hand of the
market,” which spontaneously bestows its largess upon society, unplanned and
automatically as ordinary citizens go about their business. But in so doing,
they fail to acknowledge “the back of the invisible hand,” called “market
failures,” which are routinely recognized and taught in introductory
Prominent among these “market failures” are “negative externalities” – harm
to the “third parties” to economic transactions, the “stakeholders,” who are
impacted by these transactions without their informed consent. These include
individuals residing downwind and downstream from polluting industries,
taxpayers who must pay for the medical costs of smoking, citizens at risk of
injury or death from toxic chemical releases, homeowners near airports, and
most recently, the tax-paying public, present and future, that has been
presented the bill for rescuing Wall Street.
In addition, there are harms to the “second parties” – the customers who are
not informed of the consequences of their purchases. These include
teen-agers induced to take up smoking, consumers of insufficiently tested
drugs, etc. If the stockholders of a corporation are dissatisfied with the
profit-making of the corporation, they can fire the managers, or sell their
stock and invest it elsewhere. But who, other than the government, speaks
for the third-party stakeholders and the swindled second parties? The costs
to these innocent victims of “the free market” do not figure into the
profit-maximizing plans of corporations, unless those costs are imposed by
force of law and regulation or perhaps even outlawed. And this, of course,
means a constraint upon “the free market” by the only agency that can
legitimately act in behalf of these victims: the government.
I do not wish to suggest by this critique that all markets are useless or
still worse, intrinsically evil. Markets can be very effective, efficient,
and yes, moral means for distributing goods and services, and “maximizing
utilities,” as the economists put it. Without question, many markets are
worthwhile. Arguably most markets are. But not all markets. Markets are not,
without exception and without constraint, the unfailing answer to all social
“Spontaneous Order” is a Myth. Aside from the police, the military and the
courts, enacted to protect our natural rights to life, liberty and property,
all social institutions, the libertarian assures us, will arise
“spontaneously,” without government initiative or regulation, out of
voluntary human interaction. As the libertarian, David Boaz writes:
... order in society arises spontaneously, out of the actions of thousands
or millions of individuals who coordinate their actions with those of others
in order to achieve their purposes... The most important institutions in
human society – language, law, money and markets – all developed
spontaneously, without central direction.15
While “spontaneous order” may be true of natural languages, Boaz's claim
that law, money and markets arise "spontaneously" and thrive without
deliberate governance, is resoundingly refuted by both history and practical
experience. In fact, few if any complex human activities can take place
without rules and the active enforcement thereof. For example, all team
sports require referees. Even markets operate under sets of rules, and
sanctions against those who violate these rules. And we are now, to our
profound regret, discovering what happens when markets are allowed to
function "spontaneously" without regulation.
Furthermore, the need for law may, as Thomas Hobbes argued, arise
“spontaneously.” But most assuredly, the content of the law does not. The
body of law is formulated and enacted in legislatures, and is then enforced
by courts and the police – government agencies, all.
Government is an Indispensable Institution. Impatience and frustration with
governments, by both businesses and ordinary citizens, is understandable.
But it is also fundamentally irrational. That animosity is reflected in the
sport fan’s shout, “kill the umpire!” But the fan fails to appreciate that
the moment the umpires leave the field, the game is over, and nobody wins!
This is true with every organized team sport, and as history demonstrates
conclusively, it is true of all human societies that have attained a
civilized condition. All complex human activities proceed according to
rules, and rules can only operate effectively if there are sanctions against
those who violate them. In civilized society the rules that apply to
citizens and collective entities such as corporations are called "laws," and
virtually all political ideologies endorse the concept of "the rule of law."
But "the rule of law" is an empty letter without sanctions and enforcement.
The principle, “all complex human activities proceed according to rules”
applies no less to markets, which cannot operate without rules and sanctions
against fraud, collusion, embezzlement, etc. And what institution
establishes these rule and punishes those who violate them? Government, of
The greatest strength of the anti-government message lies in the fact that
to some degree it is true. "Aren't governments shot-through with waste,
fraud, and abuse?" Of course they are! And so too is every human institution
under the sun, including corporations. But the inference from imperfection
to uselessness and even malignancy is, to say the least of it, a "stretch."
No Police Department can completely eliminate crime, and no Fire Department
can completely eliminate fires. They are imperfect institutions. Do we then
propose their abolition? Certainly not! Instead, we strive constantly to
So it is with governments. The founders of the American republic were well
aware of the abuses of government, having successfully struggled to
overthrow a foreign tyranny. And so they tried, with the Articles of
Confederation, a minimalist government - which failed. But then, having
learned from this failure, the Founding Fathers adopted a Constitution for a
government of laws, with checks and balances, and with a Bill of Rights
explicitly stating the limits of that government ("Congress shall make no
law..."). However, even before the Bill of Rights and the body of the
Constitution itself, we find the Preamble, which clearly recognizes that
government has a function: namely, "... to form a more perfect Union,
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common
defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to
ourselves and our Posterity..." Nowhere in that document, did the founders
say or suggest that all this could be accomplished entirely through the
unregulated activity of self-serving "economic persons" in the market place,
Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Least of all did they indicate any
endorsement of Margaret Thatcher's infamous observation that "there is no
such thing as society, there are individual men and women, and there are
If, as the libertarians insist, it is the legitimate function of government
to protect the lives, liberties and property of its citizens, then it is
clearly the function of government to regulate the activities of private
individuals and corporations that threaten these lives, liberties and
property – in other words, to protect the interests of those aforementioned
non-consenting third parties to economic transactions. As history testifies,
entrepreneurs do not like to be told that the internal organs of
unconsenting citizens are inappropriate catchments of their toxic chemical
residues. Meat packers don't like to have government inspectors around while
they are making sausages. Drug companies do not like to be told that they
can't put opium in their cough medicine, and that they cannot put a drug on
the market before it has been proven both safe and effective. Mine owners
have fewer qualms than government inspectors about putting their workers'
lives in peril. Broadcasters don't like to be told that the public airwaves
that they are freely given must contain some "public service" content, or
that opinions other than their own deserve a fair hearing. And most
conspicuously, Wall Street bankers do not want “government bureaucrats”
looking over their shoulders as they gather up junk bonds and sell them as
Libertarians will insist that they have an alternative to government
regulation: the courts, one of the few institutions assumed by the
libertarians to be indispensable in their minimalist state. Thus Martin
Anderson writes, “"just as one does not have the right to drop a bag of
garbage on his neighbor's lawn, so does one not have the right to place any
garbage in the air or the water or the earth, if it in any way violates the
property rights of others."16 Tibor Machan adds: "any pollution which would
most likely lead to harm being done to persons who have not consented to
being put at risk of such harm would have to be legally prohibited."17 If you
happen to be one of those “unconsenting third parties” harmed by “the free
market,” Then sue the culprits. This, presumably, will suffice to deter
irresponsible economic behavior.
Courts and torts as a substitute for government? Hardly. Courts are
government. Their task is to apply laws legislated and enforced by the
government. The primary difference between the “torts and courts” response
to corporate irresponsibility and regulation is that the former is reactive
and the latter is proactive. And as the old proverb correctly observes, “an
ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Hence “the precautionary
principle,” widely in use in Europe and condemned by libertarians.18
Libertarianism violates the Principle of Equal Liberty for All. Libertarians affirm, with John Stuart
Mill, the “like liberty principle:” namely, that each individual is entitled
to the maximum liberty consisted with the same liberty for all. Libertarians
affirm this principle, and then fail to acknowledge that libertarian policy
violates the “like liberty of others.” In other words, they fail to
recognize that their liberties exact “liberty costs” upon others. For
example, the “right to property,” so highly valued by the libertarians, can
infringe upon the life, liberty and property of others, as in the case of
the segregation laws in the American south, prior to the enactment of the
“liberal” public accommodation laws. In addition, the liberty of some can
exact “welfare costs” upon others namely, poverty, loss of access to medical
care, loss of educational opportunities. And since, as Franklin Roosevelt
observed, “a necessitous man is not a free man,” welfare costs translate
into liberty costs.
One of the books of the libertarian economist and Nobel Prize winner, Milton
Friedman, is titled "Free to Choose."19 That title reflects the libertarian
conviction that the individual is the best judge of his own welfare, and
that the welfare of all will be best realize through an exchange of personal
and private "preferences" in the free market and through the assured
security of one's life, liberty and property.
In response to Milton Friedman's celebration of the "freedom to choose," one
is immediately led to ask: "freedom of whom to 'choose' -- and at whose
expense?" Given the libertarian's uncompromising fidelity to property rights
and his faith in the free market, those with property and with the wealth to
enter the market have the "freedom to choose," in direct proportion to their
wealth. And at whose expense? Presumably, those without the tickets (i.e.,
cash) to enter the marketplace or to own property. This would include the
very young, the very poor, other species, ecosystems, and future
Neo-Classical Economic Theory Has No Application in the Real World. This
theory describes the hypothetical behavior of an imaginary individual
(“economic man”) residing in a mythical environment (“the perfect market).
Since neither exist, this theory does not describe the real world.20 If it
did, then neo-classical economists would be able to predict economic
activity in that real world, and they are notoriously unable to do so. If a
neo-classical economist could merely predict the behavior of the stock
market with 60% accuracy, he would be able to retire fabulously wealthy at
forty. I know of no such fortunate neo-classical economists.
Values precede, and are independent of, economic costs. Throughout the
industrialized world, economic values dominate in the assessment of
government policies. The gross domestic product and other economic
indicators are the measure of the success or failure of official policies.
And as we noted above, in recent Republican administrations, executive
decisions and administrative regulations must show a positive cost-benefit
ratio if they are to be implemented, and cost-benefit analysis figures
prominently, if less than absolutely, in Democratic administrations.
The dominance of economic values in public policy decision-making have
prompted some economists to fall off the deep end by suggesting that all
values can be measured in terms of money. For example,
Myrick Freeman: “All goods that matter to individuals must be capable of
being bought and sold in markets.21
William Baxter: “Environmental problems are economic problems, and better
insight can be gained by economic analysis.22
Freeman, Haveman and Kneese: “In principle, the ultimate measure of
environmental quality is the value people place on these services ... or
their willingness to pay.23
Steven Edwards: "anything that is valued instrumentally ... can in principle
be handled by economics, be it acts of friendship or love."24
A moment’s reflection, however, might reveal that these economists have put
the axiological cart before the horse. Ask such an economist, “what is the
value of this?” and he will likely reply, “what are you willing to pay for
it?” But the intelligent response must be, “I can’t tell you what I am
willing to pay unless I first assess it’s value.” Such assessments logically
precede the assignment of price.
It would be unfair to include the libertarians among those who hold that all
values can be reduced to economic prices. After all, their primary value is
liberty, a non-economic value. Even so, with their unqualified endorsement
of the free market and their defense of property right, economic values
dominate their ideology.
Accordingly, it would be instructive to list a few human values that are
independent of economic pricing. Among them:
Demonstrable Truth, the primary value of the scientist and scholar. An
authentic scholar will say, "show me your evidence." and if it is
well-founded and your argument is sound, then you will convince me." Never
will he say, "how much are you willing to pay to have me believe you?" And
even the editors of economic journals, when they select submitted papers,
require sound arguments, not bids.
Community values. A complete human being is both an individual with consumer
preferences, and a citizen with loyalties and moral aspirations, which
frequently over-ride the self-serving, "utility maximizing" motives of homo economicus. The governing impulse of the consumer is "I want." The governing
impulse of the citizen is "we need.”
Distributive Justice. As economists and utilitarian philosophers have long
acknowledged, "economic efficiency" and "utility maximization" do not, by
themselves, touch upon the essential moral issue of the just distribution of
wealth. Economic theory is silent on the question of whether the wealth of
the cooperative enterprise which is society, goes to those who most deserve
it. "Just desert" is a moral, not an economic, concept.
Love, Friendship and Loyalty that is bought is less valuable than that which
is given freely. Mark Sagoff makes the point with characteristic wit and
eloquence: "A civilized person might climb the highest mountain, swim the
deepest river, or cross the hottest desert for love, sweet love. He might do
anything, indeed, except be willing to pay for it."25
As noted earlier, because of the discount rate and the profit motive,
economic values are intrinsically short term, and are thus ill-equipped to
address the rights and provide for the needs of future generations. On the
other hand, the non-economic values listed above along with empathy,
adherence to principles of justice, and a timeless sense of community with
all humanity and nature might, with the establishment of just institutions,
yield morally appropriate polices for future generations.
VANQUISHING THE DRAGONS AT THE GATE
The emergencies ahead – peak oil and the transformation to sustainable
energy, climate change, sea level rise, population growth, and still more
crises yet unforseen – will require massive social, industrial, political
and economic reorientation and reconstruction, on the scale of mobilization
for a major war – what William James called “the moral equivalent of war”
(better, “the moral alternative to war”). As in warfare, these threats must
be addressed with coordinated planning on an international scale, informed
by advanced scientific research and implemented by radical new technologies.
Moreover, a global community must be motivated by more than profit and
guided by values quite independent of the market place. Absent all this,
future generations will be bequeathed a ruined planet and will face this
devastation without the natural, economic and educational resources to deal
In the face of these daunting challenges, the libertarian regime of minimal
government, of unconstrained “free” markets, of spontaneous solutions by a
benevolent “invisible hand” arising out of a summation of private
self-serving activities is, to say the least unequal to the task before us.
Still worse, given the dominance of libertarian dogmas in contemporary
politics and the enormous financial resources supporting them,
libertarianism is a an active hindrance to the implementation of solutions
to these crises – a “dragon at the gate” to the future. Returning to the
warfare analogy, the libertarian “solution” to these crises would be
comparable to facing an invading army by demobilizing the military, firing
the generals, scrapping the military strategies and then issuing rifles to
each individual citizen and telling them “you are on your own.”
Fortunately, as history testifies, oligarchies such as the one that has
arising in the United States in the past three decades, contain within
themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Wealth and power have but one
consuming imperative: more! Eventually, as despots throughout
history have discovered, “more” becomes too much and they are overthrown.
Such is the case in the United States today, where the top one-percent own
almost 35% of the national wealth, up from 20% in 1976,26 and the income of
that same one-percent increased by 275% since 1979,27 while the income of the
remaining 99% remained essentially even. But even that maldistribution is
apparently not enough, as wealth continues to flow to that one-percent from
the national treasury and from the remaining ninety-nine percent.
This trend cannot be sustained, and thus the United States is set upon a
course which, if unaltered, guarantees its decline. The ruling oligarchy, by
looting the public treasury, slashing taxes on the wealthy, and
impoverishing the vast majority of its fellow citizens has caused the
deterioration of the nation’s physical infrastructure, a neglect of the
education of its citizens and with it basic scientific research, a
dismantling of the manufacturing base, and decline of the middle class.
In response to this decline, the “occupy” movement has emerged
spontaneously, beginning in Wall Street in New York City, is spreading
throughout the world. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has adopted an ideal
slogan: “We are the 99%.”
Confronted with this growing and hopefully peaceful revolution, the
established governments may face the stark choice: lead, follow, or step
History has a way of surprising us and accomplishing “impossible” results.
The lives and struggles of Mohandas Gandhi, of Nelson Mandella, of Andrei
Sakharov and of Martin Luther King testify to this fact. “First they ignore
you,” observed Gandhi, “then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then
you win.” But as the example of these great men testifies, “history” must be
assisted. It requires the wisdom to find and use pressure points – the
“hinges of history.” We may be coming upon such a time.
Then what is to be done? This late in the essay I can only pose the
have endeavored to identify and refute a few dogmas that stand in the way of
a just provision for future generations. Whether or not the generations now
alive reject these dogmas and leave a worthy legacy to our successors
remains to be seen.
The future is in our hands.
Notes and References:
1. Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource, Princeton
2. Lauren Morello,
Population Drops 40 Percent Since 1950," Scientific
American, July 29, 2010.
3. John Stuart Mill,
On Liberty, Chapter 1.
4. Thatcher, Margaret,
The Downing Street Years,
Harper Collins, London. p. 626.
5. Ayn Rand,
The Virtue of Selfishness, New York:
Signet, 1964, p. 103.
6. David Boaz,
Libertarianism: A Primer, New York: Free Press, 1997
7. Ibid, p. 16.
8. Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose, New York: Harcourt,
Brace, Jovanovich, 1980, pp.13-14.
9. Smith, Robert J., "Privatizing the Environment,"
Spring, 1982, p. 11.
10. Here I am adopting from Nietzsche a label and a concept, not a moral
philosophy. While Nietzsche defended “master morality,” in this essay I will
criticize and reject it.
11. Upon taking office in January, 1981, one of President Ronald Reagan’s
first executive acts was to require that all administrative agencies justify
their proposed regulations with cost-benefit analyses. Similarly, in
January, 2001, when George W. Bush assumed the office of the President he
withheld implementation of fifty federal regulations pending a determination
that their benefits exceeded their costs. For my critical analysis of
cost-benefit analysis see Chapter Ten, “Prices and Values,” of my online
book-in-progress, Conscience of a Progressive.
12. I examine the ethics of discounting at considerable length in my paper,
“In Search of Sustainable Values” in The International Journal of
Sustainability, 6:1, 2003,
available online at this
13. Frank Chodorov,
"The Rise and Fall of Society," 2007. quoted by
David Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer, New York: Free Press, 1997 p. 96).
14. I present numerous additional examples in “Good for Each, Bad for All,”
Chapter 5 of Conscience of a Progressive,
15. Boaz op cit, p.16.
16. Anderson, Martin, from an untitled
Christian Science Monitor article,
January 4, 1989. Quoted by Walter E. Block, ed., Economics and the
Environment: A Reconciliation, (Vancouver, Fraser Institute, 1990).
17. Machan, Tibor, "Pollution an Political Theory," Regan (ed.),
New Introductory Essays in Environmental Ethics, New York: Random House,
1984, p. 98.
18. In my essay, “Wih Liberty for Some,” I present six additional reasons
why “torts and courts” fails to prevent negative externalities. The essay
appears in Environmental Philosophy, edited by Zimmerman, Callicott,
Warren, Klaver, and Clark, Prentice Hall, 2004, p. 430. Also
online at this site.
19. Milton and Rose Friedman: Free to Choose, New York: Harcourt, Brace,
20. For a defense of the claim that “economic man” and “the perfect market”
do not exist in the real world, see my
“Market Fundamentalism” in A Dim View
of Libertarianism", this website.
21. A. Myrick Freeman, "The Ethical Basis of the Economic View of the
Environment," The Environmental Ethics and Policy Book, Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth, 1994. P. 307, 309.
22. William Baxter,
People or Penguins: The Case for Optimal Pollution, New
York: Columbia University Press, 1974, p. 15, 17.
23. A. Myrick Freeman, Robert H. Haveman, AllenV. Kneese,
The Economics of
Environmental Policy, New York: Wiley, 1973. 23
Steven Edwards, "In Defense of Environmental Economics," Environmental
Ethics, 9:1 (Spring, 1987), p. 79.
25. Mark Sagoff,
The Economy of the Earth, Cambridge, 1988, p. 69.
26. G. William Domhoff,
"Wealth, Income, and Power, Who Rules America?"
"Trends in the
Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007." Congressional
Budget Office, October 25, 2011.