Sunday, March 2, 2008

Ronald Bailey on global warming

After reading about libertarian science journalist Ron Bailey's recent conversion to the man-made global warming camp, I asked myself the question that I often ask myself when reading about libertarians and global warming: why the hell wouldn't you believe in it? It's obvious to most conservatives and libertarians that communism and central planning would produce horrific environmental tragedies: the tragedy of the commons would destroy communally-owned property, and the state wouldn't have proper incentives or knowledge to maintain the environment that it controls. However, they fail to apply that logic to the American economy. Though we might indeed be one of the freest economies in the world, it would be absurd to say that the economy is totally free. In fact, the sectors of the economy which emit the most carbon – transportation, energy production, and "buildings" – are incredibly subsidized and regulated, often with environmentally damaging results.

Since at least the beginning of the 20th century, various levels of government have decided that America's mode of transportation should be almost exclusively the automobile. Before World War II, in cities, the majority of urban commuters' journeys were made via mass transit (mass transit, but rarely public transit). This all changed when local governments began instituting low density zoning regulations and building tax-payer funded roads free for public consumption, and when state and federal governments began ponying up the cash for extensive highway systems. Given that low density development, roads, and police officers patrolling roads are all complementary goods for the automobile, it's no wonder the technology took off. Throughout Americans cities and suburbs, medium or high density development is all but impossible in a lot of places, and this is an obvious prerequisite for profitable mass transit. Today, the largest public works project in the nation's history is the Interstate Highway System, governments still don't cover anywhere near the full cost of their roads with gas taxes, and the overwhelming majority of the trips made by Americans are made in cars (definitely over 90%). Due to the intense network effects associated with transit and land use, it's no surprise that the entire transportation industry has been co-opted by the state, and that it is impossible to run a profitable transit firm that doesn't rely heavily on government subsidies (as do all auto manufacturers and even privatized highways).

Now, this is clearly a problem from an economic point of view, but more relevantly, it's a huge problem from an environmental point of view. The direct effects of road travel are pretty large: over 25% of all carbon emissions in the US come directly out of the tailpipes of cars and trucks. The indirect effects are even larger: low density development encourages larger living spaces, which require more materials to construct and more energy to heat. They are also less efficiently heated/cooled than stacked spaces (i.e., tall buildings) due to the fact that they're surrounded by the elements, whereas an apartment on the 25th floor of a 50-story building is much better insulated.

So, I come away from that article wondering primarily why free market adherents are so blinded to government intervention in transportation (a complementary good to...everything) to the point that they can't fathom that our supposedly free market system could ever result in a poor outcome. But secondly, how come Ron Bailey doesn't see this, and instead decides that the way to deal with the issue is a carbon tax? Or does he recognize that it's a problem of government intervention, and believes simply (and perhaps correctly) that these state policies are too ingrained to change? (How do you explain to the American people that the American dream of owning your own single-family home in the suburbs and two SUVs parked in the driveway is a sham?)

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