Monday, May 9, 2011

Why do libertarians not hate geoengineering?

It would seem to be a check list of everything that offends libertarians -- a large, expensive, centralized program that makes no use of market forces, instead working under the assumption that only the government can solve your problems.

By comparison, carbon taxes (under which I'm including cap and trade approaches) would seem to be the ideal libertarian solution to an acknowledged externality -- you let prices reflect the true costs and benefits then let market forces do the rest. Even regulation would seem more acceptable -- banning certain products and practices certainly wouldn't be a libertarian's first choice but there is at least some room left for choice and innovation in the search for substitutes.

With geoengineering, the government dictates an exact and inflexible solution and asks us to have faith that secondary effects will be anticipated and accounted for. I am not what you would generally call a libertarian, but I do have a healthy respect for market forces and worry about the unintended consequences of large government initiatives so, in this case, I support the libertarian position.

What I don't understand* is why so many libertarians (like John Tierney) and advocates of market forces (like Steven Levitt) wax rhapsodic over an idea that violates pretty much all of their stated core beliefs.

Anyone out there have any thoughts on the matter?

* 'Don't understand' might have been a bit of an overstatement. I do have a theory on this (I pretty much always have a theory), but it's the subject for another post.


  1. I'd guess because they are focussed on The (financial) Market and not the global system. A carbon tax is a governmental intrusion on that. Maybe geoengineering is seen as a minor adjustment needed to fix a minor flaw in the free market.

  2. I don't certainly don't consider geoengineering a libertarian position. And as far as I can tell, most of its advocates are only advocating small-scale research at this point.

  3. Michael,

    With the possible exception of nationalizing major sectors of the economy, geoengineering is probably as far from a libertarian position as I can imagine. Despite this, we generally seem to see prominent libertarians and freshwater economists discussing the topic in positive (Levitt, Tierney) or neutral (McArdle, Cowen, Sumner) terms. It's true that many of these pundits would prefer a carbon tax, but they seem fairly willing to accept geoengineering as a "plan B."

    Even if the advocates are taking a tentative, let's-just-leave-the-door-open position, that still strikes me as grossly inconsistent with libertarian values.