Left and Right

The Alternative to Ideology

By Jerry Taylor

Niskanen Center

When we launched the Niskanen Center in January 2015, we happily identified ourselves as libertarians. Sure, we were heterodox libertarians, but there are many schools of libertarianism beyond those promoted by Charles Koch’s political operations. The school we identified with was a left-libertarianism concerned with social justice (a libertarian perspective that I’ve defended in debates with more orthodox libertarians here and here). That worldview lacked an institutional voice in 2015. Our ambition was to create a space for it and, in so doing, redefine what it meant to be libertarian in the 21st century.

I have abandoned that libertarian project, however, because I have come to abandon ideology. This essay is an invitation for you to do likewise — to walk out of the “clean and well-lit prison of one idea.” Ideology encourages dodgy reasoning due to what psychologists call “motivated cognition,” which is the act of deciding what you want to believe and using your reasoning power, with all its might, to get you there. Worse, it encourages fanaticism, disregard for social outcomes, and invites irresolvable philosophical disputes. It also threatens social pluralism — which is to say, it threatens freedom.

The better alternative is not moral relativism. The better alternative is moderation, a commodity that is rapidly disappearing in political life, with dangerous consequences for the American republic.

My hope is that I might best convince you to leave ideology behind by holding up a mirror to an ideological culture that is likely not your own — the world of libertarianism — and discussing the reasons why I left it behind. I suspect that, for those who hold to an “–ism,” the ideological culture of my old world doesn’t look too terribly different from your own.

I do not aim here to settle old scores or to criticize friends and former colleagues. After all, the beliefs that I find wanting today are the very beliefs that I myself held for most of my adult life. I simply mean to put in stark relief the pitfalls of ideological thinking, to illustrate those pitfalls in the world I know best, and to make the case for something better.

Ideology = Motivated Cognition

The first pangs of doubt about my old ideological attachments arose from my loss of faith in the case against climate action. As I began to express doubts about the narratives offered by climate skeptics, I found it impossible to offer an argument that resonated with my libertarian colleagues. But just how, exactly, does an ideological commitment to limited government, free markets, and individual dignity inform an understanding of atmospheric physics or paleoclimate records? And what does libertarianism have to contribute regarding the case for hedging against incredibly dangerous risks stemming from the misuse of a common pool resource, such as the atmosphere?

Libertarians have nothing at all to contribute to the conversation about the science of climate change as libertarians. They could, however, marshal ideological insights to suggest the best means of addressing global warming if it indeed turns out to warrant a policy response (as I believe it does). For libertarians, that could mean a carbon tax, but for other, more hardline libertarians, it could mean that greenhouse gas emitters should be held liable for climate-related damages via common-law legal proceedings.


Categories: Left and Right

8 replies »

  1. About 2013, an MIT person proposed a method that would inject about 1 million tons per year of Sulfur Dioxide into the high atmosphere (about 60,000 feet above ground level. This would counteract the heating caused by greenhouse gases, primarily CO2.
    https://www.technologyreview.com/s/511016/a-cheap-and-easy-plan-to-stop-global-warming/ and

    From the latter:

    “A pair of Harvard climate scientists are preparing small-scale atmospheric experiments that could offer insights into the feasibility and risks of deliberately altering the climate to ease global warming.

    “They would be among the earliest official geoengineering-related experiments conducted outside of a controlled laboratory or computer model, underscoring the growing sense of urgency among scientists to begin seriously studying the possibility as the threat of climate change mounts.

    “Sometime next year, Harvard professors David Keith and Frank Keutsch hope to launch a high-altitude balloon, tethered to a gondola equipped with propellers and sensors, from a site in Tucson, Arizona. After initial engineering tests, the “StratoCruiser” would spray a fine mist of materials such as sulfur dioxide, alumina, or calcium carbonate into the stratosphere. The sensors would then measure the reflectivity of the particles, the degree to which they disperse or coalesce, and the way they interact with other compounds in the atmosphere.

    “The researchers first proposed these balloon experiments in a 2014 paper. But at a geoengineering conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Keith said they have begun engineering design work with Arizona test balloon company World View Enterprises. They’ve also started discussions about the appropriate governance structure for such an experiment, and they plan to set up an independent body to review their proposals.

    “We would like to have the first flights next year,” he said at the Forum on U.S. Solar Geoengineering Research, held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    “In an earlier interview with MIT Technology Review, Keith stressed that the experiments would not be a binary test of geoengineering itself. But they should provide useful information about the proposed method that he has closely studied, known as solar radiation management.

    “The basic idea is that spraying certain types of particles into the stratosphere could help reflect more heat back into space. Scientists believe it could work because nature already does it. Large volcanic eruptions in the past have blasted tens of millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the sky, which contributed to lower global temperatures in subsequent months.
    [end of quote]

    • I wouldn’t trust it. This planet has been around much longer than we have, we’re just naked little monkeys; we’ll probably screw it up somehow. A volcano can do this? Perhaps an asteroid impact? Some lovely catastrophe is bound to happen soon enough, then we’ll have a nice little winter.

      • “I wouldn’t trust it.”

        Well, that depends on what you mean by “trust”. If you mean, “accept without further proof”, I would agree with you. However, I believe the computer simulation of this process is much simpler than that of determining the amount of ‘global warming’ is going on. And, they would be able to start and stop this injection process, on a daily basis. They will probably be able to confirm, in a year or less, if the process is operating as they anticipate.
        Further, the SO2 that has been injected into the high atmosphere will be automatically diffused into the lower atmosphere (say, down to 8,000 feet Above Ground Level), and then washed out, by means of ordinary clouds and rain. This process is automatic and predictable.

        “This planet has been around much longer than we have, we’re just naked little monkeys; we’ll probably screw it up somehow. ”

        I have no doubt that this process, if tried, will be carefully monitored all around the world …as it should be. If we “screw it up”, that will relatively soon be apparent, and they will be able to stop the experiment fairly quickly.

        “A volcano can do this?”

        Yes, and I believe that science knows that this has actually occurred multiple times in recorded history. Mount Tambora, in 1815, comes to mind. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Tambora
        Also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1815_eruption_of_Mount_Tambora

        Mt. Pinatubo was another one.

        ” Perhaps an asteroid impact?”

        This has already happened, if you are talking about particulates. Volcanoes tend to have lots of sulfur dioxide being ejected by the eruption. Some very powerful eruptions eject the SO2 to altitudes high enough to accomplish this cooling process.

        ” Some lovely catastrophe is bound to happen soon enough, then we’ll have a nice little winter.”

        See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_Without_a_Summer

        The year after Tambora erupted.

        From that article:

        “Comparable events

        This section does not cite any sources. Please help improve this section by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (May 2018) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)

        “Toba catastrophe 70,000 to 75,000 years ago

        “”The 1628–1626 BC climate disturbances, usually attributed to the Minoan eruption of Santorini

        “The Hekla 3 eruption of about 1200 BC, contemporary with the historical Bronze Age collapse

        “The Hatepe eruption (sometimes referred to as the Taupo eruption), around AD 180

        “Extreme weather events of 535–536 have been linked to the effects of a volcanic eruption, possibly at Krakatoa, or Ilopango in El Salvador.
        The Heaven Lake eruption of Paektu Mountain between modern-day North Korea and the People’s Republic of China, in 969 (± 20 years), is thought to have had a role in the downfall of Balhae.

        “The 1257 Samalas eruption of Mount Rinjani on the island of Lombok in 1257

        An eruption of Kuwae, a Pacific volcano, has been implicated in events surrounding the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

        An eruption of Huaynaputina, in Peru, caused 1601 to be the coldest year in the Northern Hemisphere for six centuries (see Russian famine of 1601–1603); 1601 consisted of a bitterly cold winter, a cold frosty late (possibly nonexistent) spring, and a cool wet summer.

        An eruption of Laki, in Iceland, was responsible for up to hundreds of thousands of fatalities throughout the Northern Hemisphere (over 25,000 in England alone), and one of the coldest winters ever recorded in North America, 1783–84; long-term consequences included poverty and famine that may have contributed to the French Revolution in 1789.[36]

        The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa caused average Northern Hemisphere summer temperatures to fall by as much as 1.2 °C (2.2 °F).

        The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 led to odd weather patterns and temporary cooling in the United States, particularly in the Midwest and parts of the Northeast. An unusually mild winter was followed by an unusually cool, wet summer and a cold, early autumn in 1992 (cooler-than-normal July, August, September, and October in 1992). Enhanced rainfall occurred across the West Coast of the United States, particularly California, during the 1991–92 and 1992–93 rainy seasons, and the American Midwest experienced elevated levels of rainfall, and consequent major flooding, during the spring and summer of 1993.

        • Yes, I am aware of many of those events. Unpleasant, certainly unpleasant, but absolutely necessary. Only through death and calamity can the stage be set for a new era of life on Earth.

          Not that I disregard anthropogenic causes of global warming or climate change, as we humans are also a force of nature. Just another animal. Nor would I deny any individual the legal right to perform these experiments. But I sure as hell wouldn’t want them near my neighborhood, anymore than I’d want a volcano or asteroid impact in my backyard.

          Temperatures go up and down on our planet, civilizations rise and fall, people live and die, for one reason or another. That’s an ecosystem for ya. But humans have a habit of shitting where they eat, meddling in things they ought not, and poorly monitoring these activities until too late. Our oft-touted self-awareness is a bit of a joke.

          More likely than not, these experiments will poison or freeze to death several species. Thousands of people will die from the effects of harsh weather. Not too different from what we’re already doing, just a different means to the same end. Catastrophic warming and cooling will happen in one way or another, regardless of what we do.

          So I just don’t see the point in spending time or resources on these climate control projects when a volcano or asteroid can do the job for us. Patience is a virtue, y’know?

          • Unfortunately, or fortunately, mankind generally cannot control events such as giant meteors or volcanos: Mankind cannot cause them to occur, nor can it stop them from occurring. And it cannot limit them to a specific level of effectiveness.
            Injecting a specific amount of SO2 into the high atmosphere, presumably using airplanes, and stopping the process exactly when desired, remains possible. And, I have little doubt somebody will do it.

            • Just because we think we can safely meddle doesn’t mean we should. An asteroid or volcano will be exactly as effective as it needs to be, whether or not we agree with the outcome. Humans will be reminded where we stand at some point hopefully very soon.

              Like I said, folks can try these experiments all they want, but I pity the fools. There are much better ways to spend our time and energy. Methinks you have a bit too much faith in humanity, or at least academics.

              • I too am not convinced that “global warming” (now called “climate change”) is actually a problem. But I recognize the POSSIBILITY that it MIGHT be a problem. When I first saw that proposal by the MIT person of this SO2 injection process, I recognized that it contained a likely solution to whatever level of problem that eventually might be discovered.
                We could just assume that there will not be a problem. Currently, scientists are computer-modelling the climate effect that might exist. Eventually, they will probably come to a conclusion, as to what level of problem.
                But, there are likely going to be feedback loops, and it might not be easy to reverse through that. For that reason, I think that we (mankind) should at least prepare for the possibility that we will want to neutralize some of the heating that has already occurred, and perhaps drop the temperature down a bit.
                I think we should at least prepare for this possibility. It should be cheap, and more importantly, POSSIBLE with today’s technology.

                • You don’t need a damn computer model to see what’s going on.

                  I’m not saying climate change isn’t a problem. I’m just saying it is a NECESSARY problem. Catastrophe and even extinction are part of a healthy ecosystem; out with the bad genes, in with the new. But of course, a catastrophe will be seen as a problem by the species nearing extinction.

                  My point is that a volcanic eruption, asteroid impact, or other natural disaster is probably inevitable. Injecting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere is a choice. My mother coerced me into spying and shoplifting for her, so I won’t look to her for advice, but my mother-in-law always tells my husband to make good choices. We humans have better options.

                  Rather than wasting resources on experimental new technology, which causes as many problems as it solves, we should accept our role as dust in the solar wind. Our ancestors knew better. Adapt our behavior to our environment instead of trying to “fix” this current period of global warming, which just so happens to be aggravated by our species this time.

                  We should prepare for the possibility that heating, cooling, and flooding will occur regardless of our input. Perhaps invest in better warning systems, evacuation plans, and stockpiles of key resources. Realize that our current academic “Golden Age” is as brief as any other.

Leave a Reply to Jim Bell Cancel reply