Economists and Environmentalists: Divergent Values?

Following Simon, the author of The Bet suggests that the disagreement between environmentalists and economists may be due to a divergence in values. People in Ehrlich’s camp believe that values can exist outside human minds and claim priority over human values. Although Sabin does not go there, the practical implication is that people in Ehrlich’s camp feel justified in imposing their ideal society on those who don’t share their values, which they disguise under the mantle of science. Hence the environmentalists’ inclination to boss people around.

This is from Pierre Lemieux’s new review of The Bet, a book on an infamous bet between an economist and a biologist in 1980 (the economist won).

One could easily replace ‘economist’ with ‘libertarian’ and ‘environmentalist’ with anything and could find the same debate being played out. This observation of mine, if correct, prompts a number of questions (such as “why aren’t all economists libertarians?” or “why are libertarians so pugnacious?”), but so does the loser of the bet’s reaction to his loss (you’ll have to read the review to find out!).

The Bet is by Yale historian Paul Sabin. Here is the link to his book.

6 thoughts on “Economists and Environmentalists: Divergent Values?

  1. “Although Sabin does not go there, the practical implication is that people in Ehrlich’s camp feel justified in imposing their ideal society on those who don’t share their values, which they disguise under the mantle of science.”

    I always find this alarming. The imposition of values is no less disturbing under the mantle of science than it is under the mantle of religion or anything else. Scientific method can do many things but answering questions of right & wrong is not one of them.

    • A noble acknowledgment Professor Amburgey.

      While reading this essay, I kept coming back to the Piketty debate currently raging across the high-end blogosphere. Here’s why:

      The biologist who lost the bet to the economist continued to advocate for the same policies he called for prior to the bet. Can you believe this? Even after he was publicly proved wrong, and forced to pay up for his mistakes, he called for draconian laws to be enacted in order to conform to the worldview that lost a bet.

      This ties in to the Piketty debate, I think, because of the way the Left has reacted to the criticism of Piketty’s work. There have been criticisms of his data, his methodology, his ethics, and his prescriptions. To date, the Left has been obstinate in its insistence that nothing is wrong with his work. When data discrepancies were found in the work of Rogoff and Reinhart on government debt and growth, the graduate student who found the discrepancies was invited to numerous prominent talk shows around the country. Rogoff and Reinhart admitted their mistake, accounted for it, and then stated that the mistake did not alter the fundamentals of their conclusions.

    • “This ties in to the Piketty debate, I think, because of the way the Left has reacted to the criticism of Piketty’s work. There have been criticisms of his data, his methodology, his ethics, and his prescriptions.”

      Criticism of data & method are always in order. Criticism of ethics is appropriate in some instances but I believe them to be very rare. Criticism of prescriptions is far and away the most difficult and complicated because they so often mix facticity with values, assertions of cause & effect with statements of good & bad.

    • Again we are in agreement Uncle Terry, but I’d really appreciate it if you could comment on my sentence just after the one you quoted. Here it is again:

      To date, the Left has been obstinate in its insistence that nothing is wrong with his work.

      We both agree that criticism is important. Where I am more unsure of your position is on whether or not you think taking criticism into account is important. If so, what is your reaction to the Left’s broader obstinance concerning data discrepancies and sloppy methodology (we’ll leave out the ethical and policy criticisms for now)?

      Does this obstinate ignorance tell you anything? Does the post-lost bet crusade of the biologist tell you anything?

  2. While all economists aren’t libertarians I have found that most libertarians who have a solid understanding of their own beliefs are in fact economists; or at the very least relatively well read in economic theory. The free market is a corollary to a free society.

    • Yeah, this has always been an interesting fact to me. Having a decent grasp of the laws of supply & demand and comparative advantage will definitely alter your worldview, but I cannot figure out why people continue to remain statists even after grasping the basics.

      I think Dr Lemieux’s essay touches on this continued statism: People want to impose their values on everybody else (for their own good, no less).

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