On the Wrong Side of History

Fear is the kryptonite of liberty. A fearful person, thinking he or she has no alternative, reaches out for any solution that promises to control what they find threatening. Often, my students initially embrace government-based solutions to problems before they understand how the market process works. For instance, they may support increased healthcare regulation fearing that market processes are incapable of solving the healthcare problem. Further, like most people, students support a clean environment. Initially they are likely to believe that more government regulation is the only way to get there. Yet, at the same time, students seem to me to be naturally inclined toward liberty. When freedom-based solutions are presented, they are quite receptive.

With that in mind, listening to some libertarians comment on the Gulf of Mexico BP disaster is painful to me. They sound more like Rush Limbaugh than  principle-based advocates of liberty. My students, at least, would soundly reject their inflammatory rhetoric.

Lew Rockwell is the chairman of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His web site, one of the most visited libertarian websites in the world, is well worth visiting daily. Recently, Lew wrote:

A wildlife biologist visiting my town is “saving birds” in the oil spill, as he did after the Exxon Valdez leak. When the media is around, he and his colleagues are seen carefully cleaning birds, though this is virtually always futile. When the media are absent, they simply twist the poor animals necks, since they are dying. The whole business costs about $5,000 per bird.

I’m not sure how Lew would know this. Surely, Lew has not spending his days observing this wildlife biologist. Lew’s post was informal, but I can’t help but wonder on what basis he calculated the $5000 per bird? Has Lew learned that the government is paying the biologist $5000 a bird? If not, why does Rockwell need to disparage the efforts of the biologist?

Sadly, Lew’s biting remarks might have been influenced by the great libertarian teacher Murray Rothbard.  In July 1989, Rothbard wrote of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Rothbard’s essay was recently republished at Rockwell’s site. In the essay, Rothbard observed,

The problem, of course, is that environmentalists don’t give a tinker’s dam about paying for external costs. They have their own agenda, scarcely hidden any more. Look at all their bellyaching about the poor birds, and the sea otters, and the salmon, etc. Look at their whining, too, about the beauty of the pristine blue water now befouled with black or brown oil slicks.

(Well, hell, maybe a coating of black on blue waters provides an interesting new esthetic experience; after all, once you’ve seen one chunk of blue water, you’ve seen them all.) The environmentalists are in pursuit of their own perverse and anti-human value-scale, in which every creature, animal, fish, or bird, heck even blue water, ranks higher than the wants and needs of human beings. The environmentalists welcome this trumped up “crisis,” because they want to shut down the Alaska pipeline, which supplies a large chunk of domestic American oil; they want to reverse the Industrial Revolution, and get back to pristine “nature,” with its chronic starvation, rampant disease, and short, ugly, and brutish life span.

Now, protecting the environment is hardly “perverse and anti-human,” and lumping all environmentalists into one category is a straw man tactic. Ironically, notice the win-lose mentality in Murrays’s critique of what he claims is the win-lose belief of environmentalists: “Every creature, animal, fish, or bird, heck even blue water, ranks higher than the wants and needs of human beings.” Even if environmentalists did take Murray’s straw man position, Murray’s implied position—that the needs of human beings trump everything else and are separable from the needs of the environment—is equally absurd. Can it really be that the interests of human beings are separate from the interests of the environment?

Suppose that with more offshore oil drilling and more tolerance for pollution the price of oil could be reduced to $.50 a gallon. Should we sign up for the deal? Would human beings really win while the environment lost, or would both human beings and the environment ultimately lose?  Murray is implying that a utilitarian deal, where energy prices are reduced, is a free-market position. Those who have read Murray’s writings know that he took a profound position against utilitarianism. Yet, somehow, Murray seems to have had a blind spot here.

Albert Einstein wrote:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Einstein was neither an economist nor a libertarian, but do his words offer us guidance? Einstein offered us an elegant pointer to what both quantum physicists and the perennial spiritual wisdom teach—namely, there is order (invisible to our senses) which connects everything. This order, which quantum physicist David Bohm called the implicate order is as important to our understanding of freedom as is Hayek’s spontaneous order.

A study of history readily demonstrates that over time human beings have been following Einstein’s advice. The decision in Western civilization to move away from the tribe and, instead, to organize society around the rule of law is a reflection of a decision in our minds to widen our circle of concern and compassion. In tribal societies, those outside your own tribe are considered others unworthy of your respect. In contrast, societies organized by the rule of law usually become more inclusive as fewer individuals are seen as outsiders or others. Indeed, the free market—by fostering trade and specialization—forces an awareness of our inherent interconnectedness and, indeed, an understanding that there are in reality no separate interests. Can a business succeed long-term if it cheats its customers? The answer is “yes” only if the government protects it from competition.

At Rockwell’s site, Jim Davies recently wrote:

I was very disappointed to hear how the D.C. Mafia had subjected BP to what the possibly vertebrate Joe Barton (R-TX) called a “shakedown” for $20B to compensate those hurt by its oil spill, but had also made the company agree not to cap that sum (meaning the bill may be higher yet) and to let a government nominee administer the payments (meaning it is almost sure to be higher yet). Coupled with yet more apologies outside the White House, and inside Congress to the monotonously loathsome Henry Waxman (D-CA), this looked like an abject capitulation; for it has not yet been established that BP is even to blame for the spill, and the law – which government wrote – limits its liability anyway to $75 million. That was the basis on which BP hunted for oil, and on which its owners invested their money. Now that it has voluntarily exceeded that limit by a factor of at least 267, who can ever trust its word again?

Looking past the name-calling, there is much that a libertarian should find repellant in the comments of Davies. As I have observed in this blog, the law wrongfully limits liability to $75 million, but the cap is set aside in cases of “gross negligence or willful misconduct.” I would not want to be a BP lawyer arguing that neither negligence or misconduct occurred in this case. But more importantly, to defend the limit on liability is to defend special privilege. Suppose the government passed a law that automobile drivers from Auburn, Alabama, would be subject to only $75 of damages for any accident that they caused. Suppose an Auburn driver caused a catastrophic  accident. Would a libertarian conclude that the government is unfairly shaking-down the Auburn driver if it demanded more than $75 from the driver? In the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the government’s liability limit allowed BP to behave recklessly. It is puzzling why a libertarian would not be stressing the heart of the matter.

According to a May 2010 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, “more than 80% see problems with America’s two-party system—with 31% believing it’s seriously broken and that America needs a third party.” As I have written many times in this blog, the growing public dissatisfaction with politicians is not necessarily salutary for advocates of liberty. We are likely see a splintering of the political process; unprincipled populists of all ideologies are likely to gain ground as segments of the public embrace ad-hoc fear-based solutions. Further reduction in our liberty is the most likely result.

Decades from now, when liberty is again on the ascendancy, we may be emerging from years of relative economic deprivation and from the hardships caused by war. We will have had to suffer through the pain of seeing that win-lose solutions posed by unprincipled populists do not work. Human beings will be ready to understand that all living things are inherently connected. We will know that win-lose solutions to problems are antithetical to the cause of liberty.

As advocates of free markets—where win-win transactions are the normal occurrence—libertarians should now be advocates of win-win solutions, not win-lose solutions. It would be tragic if libertarians—who have been on the right side of history on so many issues—were to be on the wrong side of history now.

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5 Responses to On the Wrong Side of History

  1. John A Wood says:

    A deeply insightful article.

  2. Lyn says:

    At the same time, Lew is the poster of this clip showing an exchange between Judge Napolitano and Shep Smith, in which the precise point being made by Napolitano is that the liability cap should not exist. So is Lew’s other rhetoric (as quoted in your essay) in conflict with this recognition of the underlying cause of the disastrous decisions of BP? Or is it merely augmented or balanced out by it?

  3. Thank you, John.

    Lyn,

    I don’t think I can answer your question as I don’t really know what is in Lew’s mind.

    Today we were informed at Lew’s site by Erwin Haas: “I don’t understand the commotion over oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico when a drilling operation went sour. Oil has always oozed out of the ground to foul land, lakes, and oceans. That’s how people first discovered the stuff.” Personally I am dismayed at such comments. Will an open-minded individual searching for alternatives to more government embrace such “oh, well” rhetoric?

    I might also observe how astonishingly little– given the gravity of the situation– has been posted at Lew’s site about the BP disaster. Today was an exception with two essays on the subject.

    In any case, the point of my piece was really not about “Lew” or “Murray” but about the mindset that is represented by the quotes I selected. I attempted to provide an alternative to that mindset, albeit given the blog format in sketchy form.

    • Lyn says:

      Yes, Barry, my question was too rhetorical.
      The mindset is not at all clear. It’s difficult to reconcile the clear gravity of the content of some of his and others’ references, with the polemical tone in the rhetoric.
      Btw, I listened to an old lecture by Rothbard, in which he stated that only a single cubic kilometer of material had ever been mined out of the earth. I can’t give you a precise date for the lecture, but it was difficult to fathom that statistic as accurate, even if it were decades old. (This does all point to the perennial problem of finding reliable, accurate data.)
      In terms of the current debacle and coverage, I would find it more useful to learn about the vagaries of laws that lead to exploitation of resources on public lands and waters, and the moral hazards they promote. Beyond those you (and Judge Napolitano) have pointed out regarding liability caps, I wonder what the costs are to access these public lands–what are the user fees, rents, royalties, etc.? And of course, a philosophical debate about the legitimacy of gov’t-owned and -leased properties, vs private ownership, would also be very fertile ground for substantive exchange.
      Thanks, Barry, for your efforts to articulate the true root cause(s).

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