Along with ‘Inequality’ and ‘Democratic socialism’, ‘Sustainability‘ is one of the words that captures the essence of my generation. A sustainable project, event or business is met with “wow”s and “oooh!”s, an indicator of its owner’s moral righteousness and altogether praiseworthy character.
But its meaning is far from clear from all but its most fervent supporters. Dealing with the extraction of resources, the use of ecological reserves or harvesting of crops, a process is allegedly ‘sustainable’ if the naturally occurring regeneration exceeds the current levels of extraction. Simply put, don’t use more than what is (annually?) renewed. Moreover, a process branded as sustainable usually involve a mix of some other virtue signalling activities of our time: carbon emission neutrality or offsetting; at least a superficial concern for one’s environmental impact; energy produced in ‘renewable’ ways (read: nothing but solar, wind or hydro); or the use of recycled materials.
If this sounds unobjectionable and self-evident to you, this piece is for you. Despite the fancy branding, the SDGs, the fervor of self-proclaimed do-gooders, is the ‘sustainability’ of an activity really what we care about?
There are at least two major confusions with the assessment of activities as sustainable or its despised opposite: unsustainable. First, and most frequently occurring, is the belief that we aim to pursue our current endeavor in the same way for all eternity. If you think about it, the indignant objection of unsustainability is often quite meaningless, worthy of nothing but a ‘so what?’ response; everything we do at any given moment is in a sense “unsustainable”:
- if I keep typing on my computer I will eventually starve;
- if I keep lifting weights or endlessly running on that treadmill, I will collapse;
- if I keep eating this chocolate cake of mine, I will be sick.
So? Everyone who has ever engaged in those activities understand that there are ends to them, that we’re only doing them for a particular purpose for a certain period of time, and that extrapolating snapshots of reality is quite silly; I do not intend to continue this activity until the brink of whatever physical boundary there might – or might not – be. Until I approach some “safe” distance to that brink, I’ll happily indulge in my chocolate cake, lift my weights or type away at my keyboard. In economic speak we are trading off one resource for another, until saturation or the fulfillment of some other aim becomes more important (prime example is Environmental Kuznets Curves).
The other confusion is to believe that economic systems cannot change and that humans cannot adapt. It is emphatically irrelevant that there is a physically limited amount of oil in the ground, since price systems and their incentives effectively ration oil use according to urgently-induced needs and encourage substitutes when those are needed. More importantly, the price system for raw materials incorporate and incentivize technological improvements that 1) through discovering new deposits literally expands “the” amount of resources, 2) shape cost-effective processes to hard-to-access deposits we couldn’t profitably exploit before, 3) improve the bang for our buck, i.e. how much output we can squeeze out of a given quantity of material. Thus, there might ultimately be a physical limit, but not an economic limit.
Let me give an iconic example: chopping down trees quicker than the forest grows. Such an activity seem pretty ‘unsustainable’ since the declining size of the forest implies that one day there will no longer be a forest. So what? There might be urgent present reasons for doing that (say, for instance, no other source of heat/fuel for cooking or no other source of income) that are very likely to change in a fairly short time frame (ie, before complete deforestation has occurred); the current prices of pulp or firewood may be meaningfully higher than their anticipated future prices (‘selling’ off some capital assets would therefore be fairly prudent); there might be future technological innovations that a) (re-)grows forests quicker, b) offers a better substitute to the current use of wood, c) allows us to cheaply make use of more from what we chop down.
Almost any practice taken as a snap-shot in time is literally ‘unsustainable’. Naively believing that they will mindlessly continue linearly into the future is quite silly; hailing processes that don’t as righteous and ‘sustainable’ is similarly silly. Human societies and their economic process are dynamic systems capable of (read: constantly) change.
By saying that something is unsustainable, my generation wants to convey the idea that these activities are immoral and that they shouldn’t continue. It’s a naive and erroneously nonsensical conviction.
We tend to think about innovation as inventions and particularly about the inventors associated with them: Newton, Edison, Jobs, Archimedes, Watt, Arkwright. This Great Man Theory of incredible technical innovation is mostly implicitly held by quite a few of us, celebrating these great men and their deeds.
Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist and The Evolution of Everything among other credentials, has spent a lot of time and effort in recent years arguing against this theory. In his recent Hayek Lecture to the British Institute of Economic Affairs he convincingly outlines his case: so many independent innovations take place roughly at the same time by different people. The Great Man Theory leads us to believe that hadn’t it been for Edison, we’ll all be in the dark and humanity deprived ofall the benefits that came with the innovation.
Not so. There were a great number of contemporary inventors who came upon versions of the lightbulb (Ridley cites 21 or 23 or them, depending on whom you include) around the same time as Edison. The story can be repeated for most other great inventions we know of: laws of thermodynamics, calculus, most metals, typewriting machines, jet engines, the ATM, Oxygen. Indeed, the phenomenon is so common that it has its own term: simultaneous invention.
It seems, in complete contrast to the Great Man Theory, that history provided a certain problem, a sufficient number of people working on solving it at a certain time, and eventually similar inventions taking place around the same time. The process is, Ridley concludes, “gradual, incremental, collective yet inescapable inevitable […] it was bound to happen when it did”.
Interestingly enough for those of us schooled and fascinated by spontaneous orders and bottom-up social and economic phenomena, the Great Man Theory is remarkably similar to other beliefs about the world. It is a symptom of the same reasoned short-comings that makes us humans susceptible to believing in zero-sum thinking, top-down organizing and “design-implies-a-designer”. Instead of grasping the deep insights of gains from trade, spontaneous order or evolution, we are tempted by the militaristically directed organizations that we believe we understand rather than the emergent order of many independently acting individuals’ trials and errors.
Precisely this bias makes us susceptible to the mistake Mariana Mazzucato has become famous for wholeheartedly embracing: the idea that, whatever the innovation, government probably did it. That government innovation is productive – or at least more productive than is commonly presumed – and indeed societies can greatly benefit from ramping up government R&D spending. Nevermind incentives, track records or statistical robustness.
Indeed, what Ridley points to is precisely that valuable and life-changing innovation cannot be directed. Admittedly, some innovation does occur in labs, but only a vanishingly small part. Mazzucato and other top-downers could have benefited greatly from listening to Ridley (or reading his book The Rational Optimist; or reading Demsetz’ devastating 1969 article ‘Information and Efficiency’).
Coming full circle and espousing the Hayekian insights, Ridley notes that the price is everything. Specifically the reduction in prices is what matters for innovations to be spread and adopted rather than the ideas themselves. Very little happens in terms of adoption and transmission until prices start to fall dramatically (hint, hint, Bitcoin… or nuclear energy, or renewable energy…). Like the printing press and the steam engine, interesting things start to happen when prices fall – not because an innovation is particularly cool in some subsection of society.
Innovation is a deeply decentralized yet deeply collective process. We face similar challenges that occassionally come to similar conclusions – and history would in all likelihood have progress exactly the same had we not had a Newton or Edison or Jobs.
I’m getting tired of reading and listening to so-called libertarian or conservative people saying that “in theory socialism is beautiful.” No, it’s not. In theory, socialism can be summed up as “the end of private property.” This is how Karl Marx summed it up. The genius of Ludwig von Mises is precisely in the fact that he did not have to wait until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, to realize that this does not make sense. When the Soviet Union was still a young country sweeping intellectuals around the world, von Mises made the following remark: without private property, there is no supply and demand. Without supply and demand, there is no price formation. Without prices the economic calculation is impossible. And that is precisely what happened in the USSR and happens in countries that follow the path of socialism: without the compass of free market prices, governors can not make decisions about allocating resources. Socialism is the death of rationality in economics. Socialism is rubbish in practice because before that it’s rubbish in theory. Please stop talking nonsense. The free market, on the other hand, is beautiful in practice because first of all, it is beautiful in theory.
Well folks, another year has come and gone. 2017 was Notes On Liberty‘s busiest year yet. Traffic came from all over the place, with the most visits coming from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and India. (In the past, India and Germany have vied for that coveted 5th place spot, but this year India blew Germany out of the water.)
Speaking of Vincent, 2017 was his year. He had Tyler Cowen (MarginalRevolution), Mark Thoma (Economist’s View), Anthony Mills (RealClearPolicy), Barry Ritholtz (Bloomberg), Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), John Tamny (RealClearMarkets) and Pseudoerasmus (a well-regarded economic historian) all link to his thoughts multiple times over the course of the year. His Top 10 list for best papers/books in recent economic history (Part 1 and Part 2) were legitimate viral sensations, dominating the top 2 spots on NOL‘s most-read list. Other huge posts included “Did the 30 Glorious Years Actually Exist? (#5),” “The Pox of Liberty – dixit the Political Economy of Public Health (#9),” “James Buchanan on racism,” “The GDP, real wages and working hours of France since the 13th century,” “Did 89% of American Millionaires Disappear During the Great Depression?,” and “A hidden cost of the war on drugs.” My personal favorite was his “Star Trek Did More For the Cultural Advancement of Women Than Government Policies.” Dr Geloso’s thoughts made up 40% of NOL‘s 10 most-read 2017 posts.
My favorite posts from Edwin this year were his analyses of Dutch politics – “Dutch politics, after the elections” and “North Korea at the North Sea?” – but the reading public seemed to enjoy his posts on Ayn Rand, especially her thought on international relations, and his summary of Mont Pelerin Europe more than anything else. Van de Haar’s day job is in the private sector, so his blogging is understandably light (especially given his incredible publishing output in academic journals). I look forward to what looms ahead in 2018.
Federico’s most recent post on artificial intelligence and the law got love from some major outlets, including FT‘s Alphaville blog and 3 Quarks Daily. His question “Does business success make a good statesmen?” and his report on a Latin American Liberty summit are worth reading again, but my personal favorites were his comments on other Notewriters’ thoughts: first jumping in to add some historical clarity to Bruno’s post on Latin American conservatism and then to add layers onto the debate between Mark and Bruno on the Protestant Reformation. Federico has been invaluable to NOL‘s welcoming, skeptical culture and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with in 2018.
Barry was generous enough recount the situation in Turkey after the coup earlier in the year, and fruits of this endeavor – Coup and Counter Coup in Turkey – can be found in six parts:
- “First of a series of posts on Turkey since 15th July 2016 and background topics“
- “Immediately after the coup and party politics“
- “Gülenists and Kemalists“
- “The Kurdish issue in Turkey“
- “Jacobins and Grey Wolves in Turkey“
- “Presidential Authoritarianism in Turkey“
Dr Stocker also began writing an appendix to his six-part series, which resulted in a first post on authoritarianism and electoral fixes. Barry is hard at work on a new book, and of course the situation in Turkey is less than ideal, so I can only hope he has a bit more time in 2018 for NOL.
Michelangelo had a banner year at NOL. His #microblogging has been fun, as were his post analyzing relevant data from his surveys: What libertarians think of climate change, for example, or urban planning in Oregon. Michelangelo also utilized NOL to play around with concepts like race, marriage markets, data, Spanish language services, affirmative action, and freeware, to name a few. My absolute favorite Michelangelo post this year was his excellent “Should we tax churches? A Georgist proposal.” Michelangelo is a PhD candidate right now, too, so if he ever gets some time to himself, watch out world!
Rick also had a banner year at NOL. His post arguing against Net Neutrality was one of the most-read articles of the year here (#4), and many of his wonkier thoughts have been picked up by the sharp eye of Anthony Mills (RealClearPolicy) and the excellent Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling). Rick is my favorite blogger. Posts on cycling in Amsterdam, subsidies, management and measurement, linguistics, more subsidies, and my personal favorite of his for the year, “Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared,” always make me think and, more importantly, smile.
Bruno’s blogging was also amply rewarded this year. His thoughts on some of the problems with postmodernism brought in the most eyeballs, but thankfully he didn’t stop there: Articles introducing postmodernism and highlighting the origins of postmodernism also generated much interest. RealClearWorld picked up his post analyzing Brazil post-Rousseff (he had more analysis of Brazilian politics here and here), and his post delving into whether Nazism is of the left or the right provoked quite the dialogue. Dr Rosi was at his best, though, when prompted by Mark to further advance his argument that the Protestant Revolution played an integral role in the rise of the freedom of conscience. Times are tough in Brazil right now, so I can only hope that Bruno continues to play a vital role as a Notewriter in 2018.
Chhay Lin, now in the private sector, had his post about Bruce Lee’s application of Taoist philosophy head to the top of reddit’s philosophy sub, and his post on Catalonia and secession got love from RealClearWorld and Lew Rockwell (Political Theater). I hate to be *that* guy distracting a man from making his money, but I hope to see Chhay Lin pop in at NOL much more often in 2018!
Zak has been busy with a number of different projects, as well as attending Michigan-Ann Arbor full-time. He still managed to have one of his posts, on “libertarian” activist hypocrisy (#10), highlighted in the Guardian, the UK’s premier left-wing mouthpiece. His post on The Nancy MacLean Disgrace earned him plaudits from the online libertarian community and Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), and his posts on open borders and income inequality show just how much of a bad ass he has become. I had a tough time trying to pick out my favorite Zak article of 2017, so I’m just gonna highlight all three of them:
- “Immigration, Cultural Change, and Diversity as a Cultural Discovery Process“
- “Why I’m No Longer A Christian…“
- “Against Libertarian Populism“
They’ve all got great self-explanatory titles, so do yourself a favor and read ’em again! Hopefully Zak can continue to work NOL in to his many successful ventures in 2018.
Jacques continues to amaze me. He’s been retired from academia for – as far as I can tell – at least a decade and he’s still producing great material that’s able to reach all sorts of people and places. His post on the Ottoman Empire and libertarianism (#6), which was featured at RealClearWorld and much-shared in Ottomanist corners of Twitter – took aim at popular American libertarian understandings of decentralization and seems to have landed pretty squarely on target. My favorite post of Dr Delacroix’ this year was about French Africa (also featured at RealClearWorld), but his late-year book review on Christopher De Bellaigue’s 2017 book about Islam might end up being a classic.
Bill’s 2017 here at NOL was productive and he continues to impress. His “Speech in academic philosophy: Rebecca Tuvel on Rachel Dolezal” brought in thousands of readers, but it was not his ability to draw crowds that I found impressive. His ability to tackle tough concepts and tough issues came to the forefront this year: drug use, “vulvæ,” more drug use, party culture (my personal fave), schooling (another personal fave), more schooling, and music (personal fave). Bill’s ability to weave these trends together through the lens of individual freedom is so much fun to read and important for fostering a culture of tolerance and respect in today’s world. I can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store for him!
Nicolás came out firing on all cylinders this year. With excellent dialogues between himself and Vincent, as well as between himself and guest blogger Derrill Watson (who I hope will be back for more in 2018), Dr Cachanosky’s passion for teaching has shown through clearly and brightly. I hope 2018 – his first full year with NOL – is filled with much more hard-hitting but insightful blogging from Nicolás.
Ash brought the heat, too. Check out the subject matter of his first few posts here at NOL: “A Right is Not an Obligation,” “Physical Goods, Immaterial Goods, and Public Goods,” “The Economics of Hard Choices,” “Markets for Secrets?,” “A Tax is Not a Price,” and “A Radical Take on Science and Religion.” Like Nicolás, Ash’s first full year at NOL is coming up, and if 2017 is any indication, readers can look forward to an interesting and engaging 2018.
Mark’s first full year here at NOL was a definite barnburner. His debate with Bruno on the Protestant Reformation (#8) brought in a bunch of eyeballs, including from RealClearHistory, while his “The Return of Cyclical Theories of History” also brought in thousands of readers, thanks in large part to Robert Cottrell’s excellent website, the Browser. Dr Koyama’s review of Aldo Schiavone’s The End of the Past also caught Mr Cottrell’s eye and the attention of his readers. Mark’s post on geopolitics and Asia’s “little divergence” is well worth reading again, too. Like Zak and Bill’s posts, I couldn’t choose just one favorite, so I give you two:
- “Political Decentralization and Innovation in early modern Europe“
- “Some Thoughts on State Capacity” (an especially good criticism of American libertarian understandings of the “state capacity” literature)
We’re lucky to have Mark here at NOL.
Kevin, like Ash and Nicolás, brought the ruckus for his first few posts here at NOL. Kevin’s very first post at Notes On Liberty – “Rules of Warfare in Pre-Modern Societies” (#3) – ended up on the front page of RealClearHistory while his “Paradoxical geniuses…” earned a spot on the Browser‘s prestigious reading list. Not a bad start. Kevin will be finishing up the second half of his first year of law school (at Duke), so I doubt we’ll see much of him until June or July of 2018. My personal favorite, by the way, was Kevin’s “Auftragstaktik: Decentralization in military command.” His posts on taking over Syria – Roman style, the median voter theorem, and inventions that didn’t change the world also got lots of love from around the web.
Nick’s post on public choice and Nancy MacLean (#7) earned a nod from Arnold Kling (askblog), Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling), Mark Thoma (Economist’s View), and pretty much the entire online libertarian community, while his post analyzing the UK’s snap election earned a spot at RealClearWorld. Dr Cowen’s thoughts on school choice and robust political economy, as well as a sociological analysis of Trump/Brexit prompted by Vincent, all garnered love from libertarians and scholars around the world. My favorite Cowen post was his question “Is persecution the purpose?”
Overall, it was a hell of a year here at Notes On Liberty. I’m really looking forward to 2018. Here’s to a happy, healthy you. Oh, and my proudest piece this year was “North Korea, the status quo, and a more liberal world.” HAPPY NEW YEAR!
In a previous post I comment on a too common economic fallacy, that a natural disaster is good for the economy because of its alleged impact on GDP. Economic fallacies are not the only misconceptions gaining momentum during a natural disaster, but a confusion between reality and fiction becomes also quite common. The issue of price gouging provides a good example of this situation.
After a natural disaster, the price of certain goods such as water or gas, increases significantly. This is seen as an immoral exploitation by merchants who are taking advantage of the people affected by the natural disaster. Even though in this post I want to comment on another issue, it is worth mentioning that the now limited resources should be allocated to those in most need (rather than, for instance, to whoever happens to be the first one in line.) And unless someone has a crystal ball, there is no way of knowing who is in most need without changes in relative prices.
The mention to reality versus fiction refers to the fact that the critics of price gouging seem to (implicitly) assume that the natural disaster did not occur. It is plausible to assume that an event like this would (1) shift the supply to the left [reduce supply of goods] and (2) shift the demand to the right [increase the demand of goods.] At the usual (or “normal”) price these goods are in serious shortage.
This means that in the event of a natural disaster the option is between (1) having goods at a higher price or (2) not having goods at the “normal” price. This is the new reality. The old and normal reality does not exist anymore. To limit price gouging results in a lower price in the store, but not goods on the shelf. This would not help those in need. The fiction consists in thinking that a larger supply can be secured without an increase in the price (why should we assume supply is horizontal when these goods usually have a low elasticity?) An efficient policy would secure the provision of goods rather than secure a low price without the goods. Reality, rather than fiction, should be the first driver of a policy designed to assist during a natural disaster. As Milton Friedman insisted, a policy is to be valuated by its results (or design), not by its intentions.
The first rule for an efficient policy should be to not get in the way of changes in relative prices. Otherwise help will become erratic and inefficient. It might be more efficient, for instance, to make use of firms specialized in logistics (i.e. firms such as Walmart) and subsidize the demand than start a price control policy. For instance, a tax credit or a check can be sent to those affected by the natural disaster allowing them to pay the now higher prices. Similarly, a subsidy can be given to those firms bringing goods to the damaged areas (who says the government has the monopoly of charity or that the only one who can do it efficiently?) A policy on these lines would be more efficient than interfering with relative prices.
However, some opponents of price gouging seem to be more interested in damaging merchants than in making sure resources will be efficiently allocated among the ones affected by the natural disaster. Those who do not oppose price gouging do so because they have the affected ones first in line. It is not about merchant’s revenue, it is about allocating goods efficiently. Damaging the merchants should not be more important than worsening the situation of those in need.
According to The Economist, the latest US federal budget includes incentives for “congestion pricing” of roads.
Ostensibly, this is about reducing congestion. But some municipalities like the idea of charging for roads because it represents a new revenue stream. This creates an incentive to charge a price above cost. When a firm does this, we call it a “monopoly price.”
But when a government monopoly forces you to pay a fee to use a good or service, do not call it a price. It is a fee that a government collects by fiat. In other words, it is a tax.
A price is a voluntary exchange of money for a good or service. The emphasis on voluntary is important, because it is this aspect of the price that enables economic calculation for what people really want. Even a free market “monopolist” (however unlikely or conceptually vague it may be) engages in voluntary exchange.
On the other hand, a bureaucrat “playing market” by imposing fees on government-controlled goods and services will not have the same results as a market process. For starters, unlike a person making decisions on their own behalf, a government bureaucrat has to guess at costs. Under a voluntary system, a cost is the highest valued good or service you voluntarily give up in order to attain a goal. But the bureaucrat is dealing with other people’s money.
To “objectively” determine costs, in order to set “fair” prices, is a chimera. In the words of Ludwig von Mises, “[a] government can no more determine prices than a goose can lay hen’s eggs.”