Third Party & Independents Archives

My Libertarian Environmentalism

I am guessing many Libertarians would not agree with this legislation, but I do. Democrats in the House of Representatives have recently reached a deal regarding the increasing of miles per gallon (MPG) standards on automobiles to an industry wide average of 35 MPG by 2020, which would be the first increase of MPG regulations by congress in 32 years.

Of course the classic Libertarian reaction would be to point out that the market is the best way to go about these things. If consumers want vehicles with better MPG standards, then they would be demanding them with their pocketbooks and credit cards, and for most things that is the right approach. If a person wants to live with a diet low in trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium, then buy food items low in all of these things and quit worrying about what the person behind you in line at the grocery store is buying. Certainly this approach can be applied to most things... but not the environment.

Anyone who thinks that global warming is a myth, at this point, is either living under a very big rock or is simply choosing to ignore all of the evidence around them. Air pollution in some of our larger metro areas is a very big problem. Fortunately, I live in Carson City, Nevada, where the air is crisp and clean and smells of Nevada sage and California pine... it's a wonderful combination (pardon my shameless home-town pop), but this is not the case in many of our cities. I am sure Atlanta, for example, is a wonderful city (go Hawks), but is living with a 'smog alert' for 15% of the year to date really acceptable to our citizens? I am not sure I would want to catch a Braves game in August!

Any Libertarian will tell you that the first (and possibly only) job of government is to protect its citizens. Traditionally, this has meant things like a healthy military for the defense of our country from foreign powers and a healthy police force for protection of our citizens from crime. We libertarians like to preach the doctrine of personal responsibility... do want ya want provided it doesn't interfere with the rights of others. This is something to which I fully subscribe. If driving vehicles releasing voluminous emissions did not interfere with the rights of other citizens to live their lives... then by all means, go for it. But this is, unfortunately, not the case. Pollution is man-made... air pollution interferes with my right to breathe air into my lungs that will not harm me... and worse, pollution interferes with your right to breathe air into your lungs that will not harm you. So, what's the solution?

Again, it is government's job to protect its citizens. The market has obviously failed in respect to air pollution. When companies and individuals continue to interfere with citizens' most basic of rights to breathe clean air, it is absolutely the job of government to step in and correct the behavior.

The Declaration of Independence talks about the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Since the breathing of clean air by citizens (I don't know about illegal immigrants! ;-) ) is essential to the 'life' clause above, should the government not step in to ensure your rights are recognized? Isn't that its job?

Posted by Doug Langworthy at November 30, 2007 11:59 PM
Comment #239763

Doug, I generally agree with the gist of your argument. Personally, 35 mpg is too low for a 2020 target date. The technology already exists to move that figure from between 40 and 45. And by 2015, the probability is very high that and industry wide average of 55 to 60 mpg will be doable. But, I won’t quibble stand in the way of this compromise of 35. But, the minute it passes, I and others will begin lobbying to increase it by 10 mpg in the same time frame.

There are infrastructure issues that must accommodate significant increases in mpg, and if the manufacturers were to carry the load of that cost, their higher mpg vehicles would be priced out of range of the bottom half of consumers, who would hold on to their 20 mpg vehicles significantly longer, polluting the air for far longer. This is where the government has a role to step in and facilitate and subsidize that infrastructure by reprioritizing its spending. Not by increasing spending and deficits.

I find it difficult to accept your blanket statement that it is government’s role to protect the people. I need to qualify it before accepting by saying it is government’s role to protect the people when they individually or as individual states, cannot protect themselves.

Individually as citizens or states, we cannot protect ourselves from foreign invasion. Hence, it is the government’s role to establish and maintain a military capable of that role.

It is partial misunderstanding that the police protect the public. Certainly their presence is a deterrent to crime which is why the COPS program was so successful until Bush and the GOP defunded it, and crime began to rise again. But, anyone who walks a dark street in an unfamiliar city or neighborhood expecting the police will keep them from harm is a fool of the first magnitude. Police are primarily a deterrent and apprehension force, not a preventive force against crime. Hence, while we need police in a huge way, it is ultimately the responsibility of each individual to protect themselves through prudent behavior and decisions and vigilance and preparation.

Now to the nub of your blanket statement. If it is true, as you postulate, that it is government’s role to protect the people, without qualification, a slippery slope is created in which the government can and will for a variety of good and bad reasons, protect individuals from themselves, against their will. That leads to encroachment and serious compromise of liberty and pursuit of happiness, as in outlawing feel good substances which have little to no impact on others by responsible people. Also it negatively impacts liberty and privacy as in a woman’s decision to become a mother or not on purely secular and legal principles.

So, while I don’t disagree with you that it is a primary responsibility of government to protect the nation and its inhabitants, there are qualifications to that concept embedded in the Constitution, as in certain rulings on the 10th and 14th Amendments regarding due process and State’s rights, as well as the Preamble itself which, sets the aspirations for all text subsequent to it, such as liberty, where the exercise thereof neither denies others their liberty nor undermines the integrity and endurance of the nation as a whole. Some Libertarians ignore this central purpose of the Constitutional legislative prerogatives and responsibility to protect the integrity and endurance of the nation as a whole.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 1, 2007 5:24 AM
Comment #239764

I am reading the NY Times article on the compromise. A very interesting read full of pregnant implications.

The Big Three automakers have warned that complying with the new fuel economy rules will cost them tens of billions of dollars and rob consumers of choices.

The Big 3 are full of crap. If the consumer has a choice between 22mpg and 35mpg, where is the loss of choice? DuH! Additional costs for redesigning and retooling are costs the Big 3 should have incurred voluntarily decades ago to remain competitive with Toyota, Honda, Mistubishi, Hyundai and others. Having forgone those investments in future demands and expectations, for the sake of higher exec salaries and investor profits, the piper now has to be paid. If it weren’t for good hard working people employed by the Big 3, I would say let them go bankrupt, their capital assets be bought out entirely new companies able and willing to compete with foreign car makers for our own consumer market.

But even if they [Big 3] meet the law’s mandate, the fuel efficiency of the American car fleet will still lag far behind that of other major industrialized countries.

Under Bush’s trade deal with China, the Chinese are breaking ground on a new auto manufacturing plant in Mexico just across our border, and will begin exporting Chinese/Mexican made cars to the U.S. as early as 2012. The Big 3’s piper dues are only beginning to roll in.

The Oil and Utility corporations are also objecting to this Bill, ardently. Electric cars and hybrids and eventually Hydrogen cars will mean radically lower demand for oil, which translates to lower profit margins, especially if the rest of the world adopts such technologies. This bill will force them to buy companies and patents developing the maintenance and new fuel technologies. But, here’s the deal: they would have to have moved there anyway, whether the Big 3 changed or not, because consumers are going to buy into the lower maintenance costs and fuel efficiencies whether it be from the Big 3, or foreign manufacturers. Their lobbyist fighting of this bill has only one motive, to stall the inevitable changeover which will increase their transition overhead costs in a marketplace that won’t tolerate significantly higher prices. They pony up or lose market share to other companies foreign and domestic which already are. It’s not like they haven’t seen record profits to date. Did they really expect those levels to remain in perpetuity? Get real.

It contains not only the fuel-economy rules, which will alter the American auto fleet, but will divert vast tracts of farmland to produce ethanol and other renewable fuels and bring a bonanza for solar and wind power.

What’s not to love about this? Only one thing potentially. The subsidies for ethanol, and only if those subsidies are not sunsetted to expire as lower carbon emission technologies are brought to market. The gamble here is that the farming lobby will work their will on the government to lock America into ethanol, which is only a transition fuel until a very low or zero carbon emission replacement is developed for mass use.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 1, 2007 5:56 AM
Comment #239775

Increasing fuel economy has little long term effect on oil usage since it is part of a dynamic equation. As the price per mile driven drops, people drive more miles. Higher standards drive up the cost of cars (fixed cost) while not addressing the cost of fuel (variable cost). It is exactly the wrong thing to do.

The key to success is to make oil more expensive. That encourages people to demand better fuel efficiency AND does not encourage increase milage. You can buy a car today that gets 45+ miles to the gallon. They do not need to be invented. People just are not buying enough of them.

Put a tax on carbon. That is the libertarian solution. It is the minimum government solution, the most elegant solution and the one that has the best chance of achieving the goal.

Posted by: Jack at December 1, 2007 11:44 AM
Comment #239776

Ah, Doug,

You haven’t lived until you’ve smelled the fragrance of the clean crisp smell of sea air and petrochemicals in the early morning in Pasadena, Tx. Carson City has nothing on us! But to each his, I guess.

Good article and great adds by David.

Posted by: alien from the planet zorg at December 1, 2007 11:47 AM
Comment #239783

David said…

“…without qualification, a slippery slope is created in which the government can and will for a variety of good and bad reasons, protect individuals from themselves, against their will.”

Absolutely. There is certainly a slippery slope, without it the choices would be complete anarchy or complete totalitarianism… anything less than either of these less-than-desirable choices involves a slippery slope. Protecting the air citizens breathe, IMHO, falls well within the qualification of where government should be protecting its citizens.

As to how much the government should involve itself for the protection of its citizens in this case it open for discussion… and I am sure we would disagree.

Posted by: Doug Langworthy at December 1, 2007 12:59 PM
Comment #239786

Jack, you are applying purist economic concepts to the real world, and coming up with an unsound conclusion: “As the price per mile driven drops, people drive more miles.”

WRONG! The miles people drive to the store, to their work, to their child’s school or soccer field, remain fixed. The number of hours truckers may drive and therefore the miles they may legally cover in a day, is fixed. Taxi cabs will not drive more miles if oil prices fall. People MAY drive a bit further for vacation if oil prices drop, but, that difference would be insignificant.

Those who have created efficiencies in their driving miles will not alter their habits if oil prices drop - they will still save money by keeping the same efficiencies.

There are areas of human behavior which will accommodate supply and demand economic theories, but, this isn’t one of them. Its a one-way street, largely, higher prices will induce driving efficiencies, but, lowering oil prices after habituated efficiencies have been created by higher prices, will not alter those habituated accommodations significantly.

Economic theory in cases like this must incorporate other disciplines of study of human behavior if it is to have any predictive value.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 1, 2007 3:23 PM
Comment #239788


I’m very glad to hear that a libertarian is in favor of the government working to improve our environment. By the way, our concern here is not merely about the environment; it is about what happens to our entire Earth.

35 mpg is nothing to boast about. Japan already has a 45 mpg standard. Even China today has a 35 mpg standard. The number Congress should advance is at least 60 mpg. And not in 2020. Now.

Posted by: Paul Siegel at December 1, 2007 3:41 PM
Comment #239798

We need to shoot for at least 50 mpg (even if it means down-sizing vehicles). People driving around in monstrous 4-to-8 ton SUV’s is ridiculous (especially when they are the only person in the vehicle).

Posted by: d.a.n at December 1, 2007 5:57 PM
Comment #239811

Jack said,”As the price per mile driven drops, people drive more miles.”

I agree that this will help keep the consumption of oil high because some people will tend to be less conservative. Some will decide to not buy a hybrid or alternative fueled vehicle. Another factor is that there will be an increase in the number of people driving each year as more and more young people take to the road.

Posted by: jlw at December 2, 2007 1:33 AM
Comment #239815

This is the House version and I am sure that it will be DOA in the Senate. The Senate Republicans want a bill that promotes an increase in the use of domestic fossil fuels. The Democrats want a bill that encourages the development of alternative energy sources. The Republicans will fillibuster this version to death.

Posted by: jlw at December 2, 2007 2:31 AM
Comment #239816


The system is dynamic. If you look at energy efficiency (energy per unit of GDP) improvement from 1972 until today, you find no pattern related to these sorts of laws. On the other hand, you find a big pattern related to prices.

When the price of gas went up recently, hybrids sold better, ridership on public transportation rose and you could even see the effect on home prices in exurbs. That commute from Harper’s Ferry to DC looks a lot less attractive if fuel prices are high. I mention this because two of my coworkers acually changed their home buying plans because of fuel prices.

I believe people make intelligent decisions in the long run based on the factors available to them. Energy prices clearly induce changes in behavior. In 1998 when energy prices were low, SUVs and long commutes made sense. People responded.

The left seems to believe that people cannot think for themselves. A conservative like me has confidence in his own judgement and - in the long run - in the judgement of my neighbors when it comes to making the choices in their lives.

As I wrote above, you can buy a car TODAY that gets 45+ miles to the gallon. Why don’t people do that now? Maybe because it is cheap not to?

Posted by: Jack at December 2, 2007 2:59 AM
Comment #239826

Guys I know hate mini vans. They went to SUVs so the family can fit, you look good, and can tow a trailer.
Recently my wife and I passed on buying a suv and bought a x over with a big enough motor to tow, better milage, and four wheel drive for the snow. Dealers can’t get rid of low mileage SUV’s when gas prices are high. This is factual.
The high mileage standards will handicap business people who need the extra power or four wheel drive to tow and get to work.
If the tech was there and reliable, most people would buy high mileage cars (provided they had enough power.) This would be a big sales point to compete with other auto makers. I am sure Honda would get right after it. There is no conspiracy toward gas guzzlers. The opposite is true.
The term “A government must protect its people” creates a false delema. It is a popular phrase today for justifying all kinds of intrusion by government.
Is the pollution in Atlanta caused only by cars? What particular pollutant is it? Should public transportation be improved? Why can’t they make their own laws like California does? If they won’t, and it is their own fault, is the option there to move to Nevada?

Posted by: Kruser at December 2, 2007 10:01 AM
Comment #239834

Kruser, no, you are wrong. First, the 35mpg is a fleetwide average. Meaning, there will still be vehicles with muscle and grip, which will get better mpg than today, but, not near 35 mpg. It’s one small step for mankind, one small step for the environment, one small step toward rational, intelligent governance. Profit isn’t the be all and end all of government, contrary to the standard the GOP has governed by (32% interest rates, sub-prime lending practices, preferential bankruptcy law for the very wealthy, 10’s of billions, if not hundreds of billions of tax payer dollars lost to wasteful no-bid government contracts and rip off scams like refurbishing obsolete fighter jets at many times the cost of newer ones.)

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 2, 2007 12:34 PM
Comment #239835

Jack, I don’t disagree with your last comment. Only the your comment before that, that if oil prices drop people will revert to wasteful previous habits. Ain’t true. Your economic theory breaks down on that point. When people develop new habits that save money, dropping the cost does not cause them to revert to non-money saving previous habits. There is no benefit gained to do so. Even if prices fall, they continue to save money with their new habits.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 2, 2007 12:39 PM
Comment #239836

jlw, your comment to Jack appears to forget that the chief reason for not buying a new fuel efficient vehicle is cost, and less well off folks will buy used, less fuel efficient vehicles at substantial up front savings. But, as more and more fuel efficient vehicles make up the used car lot inventories, even the less well off folks will be driving them in 5 to 10 years. Which makes the 2020 target date of this legislation absurd but less absurd than not elevating the standard at all.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 2, 2007 12:44 PM
Comment #239853


Less well off folks seem to have little problem buying costly cars. I make good money. I have a Honda Cvic Hybrid that cost 20K new. It was more than an ordinary Cvic, but less than many other types of ordinary cars people buy. Generally, my neighbors and relatives, most of whom make less money, own nicer cars and/or more than one.

The poorer people will tend to buy used cars. Used cars used to be new cars. It just moves the choice a couple years back. It does not change the relative values.

I agree with you that people do not change their good habit when prices drop. But they do make other choices when making changes. We Americans burn a lot of fuel because we drive a lot of miles. Europeans live in more compact areas. Americans USED to live in more compact cities. Cars and cheap fuel allowed for urban sprawl. When choosing a location for a house or buying a car, the cost of the travel is a factor.

I am usually “transit oriented”, but one time in my life, I lived far from work and commuted by car. I commuted from Londonary NH to Medford MA. I figured out that the lower cost of housing in NH offset the cost of commute and the decision made sense. Today the equation would be different. I made a logical decision back then at one price level. I would make an equally logical but different choice today at a new price level. Incentives and choices matter. A cheaper cost per mile, whether from lower gas prices or better milage, would merely have extended my commuter range up past Manchester.

Posted by: Jack at December 2, 2007 4:41 PM
Comment #239886


You missed that the standards only apply to cars and light trucks/SUVs, not to heavy-duty work trucks. And I’m sorry, anyone who thinks Suburban Assault Vehicles deserve the same efficiency loophole that a Ford F-350 does is smokin’ and not sharin’.


Your logic, as far as fuel costs and commute distances go, is about 2 years out of date. With the housing market doing it’s long-predicted soap bubble impression, no one in their right mind is going to be moving to the exurbs anytime soon. In fact, experts think that it will be 2010 before prices get back to where they were. Without the allure of cheap new housing, no one is going to be “extending their commuter range” in the near future.

One more note. I have yet to see anyone mention the beneficial effect raising our efficiency standards will have on our trade deficit. First, if American consumers have the choice of buying a Ford or GM or Chrysler that gets 40 mpg, that will cut down on imports. Second, if we bring up our standards to meet with what Europe or China or Japan has, it will open export possibilities. Either way, the Big Three will benefit in the long run, even if it costs them money in the short run, and anything that shrinks our trade deficit is a good thing. Shrink it enough, the dollar strengthens and energy prices drop. Good for everyone.


Posted by: leatherankh at December 3, 2007 12:10 PM
Comment #239918

Surprise,surprise! Bushco just announced their intention to veto the energy bill.

Posted by: BillS at December 3, 2007 9:55 PM
Comment #239943


The Libertarian approach to any regulation should focus on some sort of cost/benefit analysis. From reading your article you base the need for regulation on the impact to the environment. But is there any data that suggests that there is a correlation between CAFE standards and auto emissions?

One argument against a correlation (already made above) is when gas is cheaper, or when cars are more fuel efficient, the first thing that happens is people will drive more miles. And more miles means more emissions. Is there any evidence for or against this assumption?

My personal opinion is that CAFE standards do nothing more than add a tariff on imports and have little effect on U.S. companies via their negotiation of “loopholes”. Unless our government is willing to mandate the consumer buying decision the Impala will still outsell the Aveo on your local Chevy lot even though it costs more and gets less fuel mileage. That’s just opinion though, and I welcome any evidence that CAFE standards result in more small car sales or in improved air quality.

Posted by: George in SC at December 4, 2007 10:15 AM
Comment #239968

George… all good questions.

I can say that, from my personal experience, the amount I drive my automobile has in no way changed with the current price of gasoline. I understand one person’s habits in no way predict a trend, but for me, nothing has changed…

That said, I do agree that one way to help reduce emissions is through some of the methods discussed above. At some point cost becomes prohibitive… of course, the argument could be made that why should the affluent get to pollute with reckless abandon while the poor do not?

The gist of my piece doesn’t really touch on the merits of 35 MPG, other than it reduces emissions. Should it be more? Should it be less? I dunno… no, my point is that within libertarianism there is the notion that the government’s job in protecting the environment is minimalist, and I happen to think just the opposite.

Posted by: Doug Langworthy at December 4, 2007 2:37 PM
Comment #239977


Again it’s that “the merits of 35mpg, other than is reduces emissions” that I am talking about. If there is no cause and effect between the regulation and the desired benefit then I think you only have costly regulation.

As for libertarianism and regulation:

One need not take a position one way or another on the worthiness of the benefits of regulation to acknowledge that there are costs associated with them. But I think that intelligent decision-making requires that we take their costs into account.

Walter E. Williams

Posted by: George in SC at December 4, 2007 3:57 PM
Comment #239983

George… absolutely agree.

Reducing emissions reduces pollution which will make air cleaner to breathe, thereby protecting citizens, which, ultimately, is the government’s main function.

Posted by: Doug Langworthy at December 4, 2007 6:03 PM
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