Collectivism, Climate Change, and Economic Freedom

by | Mar 28, 2006

The question of how to deal with climate change, in turn, is subsumed by the broader question of how should human beings deal with physical reality in meeting their needs and wants.

An individual kills someone—for money, out of jealousy, as an act of revenge, or because he doesn’t like his victim’s looks. A chorus of left-“liberals” rushes in to excuse his act, especially if he is poor. He is not responsible, they say. The real criminal is “Society,” for having allowed him to live in the conditions that led him to kill.

Another individual owns a refrigerator, an air conditioner, and an automobile or SUV. This time, a chorus of left-“liberals” rushes in and pronounces him guilty. He is allegedly guilty of causing “global warming,” by virtue of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by the burning of the fossil fuels required to produce and operate his goods.

The “innocent” killer is not to be punished but “rehabilitated.” The “guilty” owner of the appliances and automobile or SUV, however, is to be punished. He is to be prohibited from continuing with his evil ways. He is to be compelled by the force of law to do his part in reducing global carbon dioxide emissions, which means, he is ultimately to be deprived of his goods or, at best, to be made to accept radically smaller, less effective substitutes for them.

Clearly, there is something very wrong here. What is wrong is the influence of the philosophy of collectivism.

Collectivism considers the group—the collective—to be the primary unit of social reality. It views the collective as having real existence, separate from and superior to that of its members, and as thinking and acting, and as the source of value. At the same time, it regards the individual as an essentially inconsequential cell in the superior, living collective organism. It is on this basis that the loss of an individual’s life is considered to be of no great consequence, with the result that whatever the killer of an individual might be guilty of, it is viewed as not all that serious in the first place. And then, the killer’s actions, it is held, do not emanate from within himself but from the collectively determined circumstances in which he lives.

By the same token, if the collective, consisting of billions of individuals consuming fossil fuels over two centuries or more, is responsible for releasing enough carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere to raise the average surface temperature of the Earth, then each and every individual now alive and who consumes fossil fuels is held to be responsible for the phenomenon, because no distinction is made between the individual and the collective. This is the basis on which the owner of the appliances and vehicle is held to be “guilty.” His individual emissions of carbon dioxide are seen as part and parcel of the emissions of carbon dioxide by all the members of the carbon-dioxide emitting collective taken together and as responsible for their effect.

There is a different, diametrically opposed philosophy, which has all but been forgotten. It is rarely, if ever, taught in our “culturally diverse” educational system, whose diversity consists in the teaching of numerous varieties of collectivism and the employment of many varieties of collectivists, all the while almost totally excluding this fundamentally different point of view. The name of this different philosophy is individualism. Its most important advocates are Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand.

According to individualism, only individuals exist; collectives consist of nothing but individuals. Only the individual thinks; only the individual acts; only the life of the individual has value and is important. All rights are rights of individuals.

On the basis of individualism, the life taken by a killer is the worst possible loss to the victim and an enormous loss to anyone who loved him. Moreover, that loss of life is the result of action that the killer chose to perform and did not have to perform. He is therefore responsible for a terrible loss and deserves to be severely punished, even to the point of losing his own life.

In contrast, no individual, and no voluntary association of individuals acting for a common purpose, such as a business corporation, is responsible for any perceptible rise in the surface temperature of the world or for any harm that could result to anyone from such a rise. When it comes to global warming, the human individual is innocent! Nor is the human “race” guilty. There is no human race apart from the individuals who comprise it. Any attempt to punish an allegedly guilty human race reduces to the attempt to punish innocent individuals.

Thus everyone must stand back and keep his hands off our appliance and vehicle owner. He has done absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, the very existence of his possessions implies that he has done a considerable amount that is right and good. He has improved his own life and probably that of family members and friends by his acquisition and use of his goods. And he has had to do good to others, in order to be able to earn the money that enabled him to buy his goods. To earn that money, he had to produce goods and services that others judged to be of more value to them than the money they paid him.

The conclusion that follows from this is that we should wish this individual well and hope for his continued and even greater success and good fortune in the future, and wish the same for all other peaceful individuals. This is known as having good will toward one’s fellow man.

Having introduced the perspective of individualism, let us now concede for the sake of argument that there actually is global warming and that the currently prevailing estimates of its future extent and consequences for rising sea levels are all perfectly accurate. (In case anyone has forgotten, those estimates are a rise in average temperature of 4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, accompanied by a 1 to 3 feet rise in sea-levels by that time, culminating in a cumulative rise in sea-levels of 13 to 20 feet in following centuries.) Let us also concede that if the human race did not exist or existed in the much smaller numbers and abject poverty and misery characteristic of the pre-industrial era, there would be no global warming or at least significantly less of it.

We have shown that this global warming, and any damage it may do, is still not the product of any individual human being. Nor is it the product of any such actual entity as “the human race.” There is no such actual entity. At the very most, global warming is a cumulative, unintended byproduct of human behavior for which no one is responsible.

A phenomenon for which no human being is responsible is an act of nature. That is the category to which all global warming belongs. It is an act of nature. It is an act of nature whether it comes about, as it did more than once in geologic time, in the absence of human beings from the planet, or in the presence of human beings. To repeat, it is an act of nature even when it is the unintended cumulative byproduct of the actions of billions of human beings. None of those human beings is responsible as an individual and there is no human “race” that is responsible.

With the interfering cobwebs of collectivism out of the way, and seeing global warming now as a phenomenon of nature, we are in a position to consider the question of how human beings should deal with global warming and with the wider question of how they should deal with climate change in general. For someday, there certainly will be climate change. If not global warming in this century, then, certainly, in some other century. And if not global warming, then a new ice age, which, according to some accounts is already overdue, and which mankind’s carbon dioxide emissions may have served merely to postpone.

The question of how to deal with climate change, in turn, is subsumed by the broader question of how should human beings deal with physical reality in meeting their needs and wants. It is part of that question.

And that question has already been answered—by the science of economics—and answered beyond all honest dispute. The only way for human beings to meet their needs and wants in an efficient and progressively improving way is if they produce under a system of division of labor and monetary exchange, which in turn rests on a foundation of private ownership of the means of production and economic freedom. The name for this system, of course, is capitalism. (A much smaller number of human beings than are now alive could survive without this system, as our ancestors survived, namely, as essentially self-sufficient farmers. But they would live in the poverty and misery of our ancestors, and, as stated, their number would be relatively small—a billion or so versus our present six billion or more.) For the present number of human beings to survive and to be able to enjoy the comforts, conveniences, and luxuries now found throughout the modern, industrial economies of the world, capitalism and its economic freedom are essential.

Economic freedom is what is required to cope with global warming, global freezing, or any other form of large-scale environmental or social change. If global warming turns out to be a fact, the free citizens of an industrial civilization will have no great difficulty in coping with it—that is, of course, if their ability to use energy and to produce is not crippled by the environmental movement and by government controls otherwise inspired. (This applies even to responses to natural disasters, such as hurricanes and floods, that allegedly will occur in connection with global warming. The response of a free market would be typified by that of the Biloxi, Mississippi gambling casinos in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Within months of being freed of restriction to riverboats and being allowed for the first time to locate on land, they sprang into existence ready and eager for action, in the midst of otherwise unrelieved devastation and paralysis, as most property owners waited for government aid from FEMA. The casino owners were fortunate in being ineligible for such aid and so took immediate action on their own. On this subject, see my blog post of March 14, 2006.)

The seeming difficulties of coping with global warming, or any other large-scale change, arise only when the problem is viewed from the collectivist perspective of government central planners. It would be too great a problem for government bureaucrats to handle, as is the production even of an adequate supply of wheat or nails, as the experience of the whole socialist world has shown. But it would certainly not be too great a problem for tens and hundreds of millions of free, thinking individuals living under capitalism to solve. It would be solved by means of each individual being free to decide how best to cope with the particular aspects of global warming that affected him.

Individuals would decide, on the basis of profit-and-loss calculations, what changes they needed to make in their businesses and in their personal lives, in order best to adjust to the situation. They would decide where it was now relatively more desirable to own land, locate farms and businesses, and live and work, and where it was relatively less desirable, and what new comparative advantages each location had for the production of which goods. Factories, stores, and houses all need replacement sooner or later. In the face of a change in the relative desirability of different locations, the pattern of replacement would be different. Perhaps some replacements would have to be made sooner than otherwise. To be sure, some land values would fall and others would rise. Whatever happened, individuals would respond in a way that minimized their losses and maximized their possible gains. The essential thing they would require is the freedom to serve their self-interests by buying land and moving their businesses to the areas rendered relatively more attractive, and the freedom to seek employment and buy or rent housing in those areas.

Given this freedom, the totality of the problem would be overcome. This is because, under capitalism, the actions of the individuals, and the thinking and planning behind those actions, are coordinated and harmonized by the price system (as many former central planners of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have come to learn). As a result, the problem would be solved in exactly the same way that tens and hundreds of millions of free individuals have solved much greater problems than global warming, such as redesigning the economic system to deal with the replacement of the horse by the automobile, the settlement of the American West, and the release of the far greater part of the labor of the economic system from agriculture to industry.

This is not to deny that important problems of adjustment would exist if global warming did in fact come to pass. But whatever they would be, they would all have perfectly workable solutions. The most extreme case would be that of the Maldive Islanders, in the Indian Ocean, all of whose land might disappear under water. The population of the Maldive Islands is less than two hundred thousand people. In 1940, in a period of a few days, Great Britain was able to evacuate its army of more than three hundred thousand soldiers from the port of Dunkirk, under the threat of enemy gunfire. Surely, over a period of decades, the opportunity for comfortable resettlement could be arranged for the people of the Maldives.

Even the prospective destruction of much of Holland, if it could not be averted by the construction of greater sea walls, could be dealt with by the very simple means of the United States and Canada joining with the European Union in extending the freedom of immigration to Dutch citizens. If this were done, then in a relatively short time, the economic losses suffered as the result of physical destruction in Holland would hardly be noticed, and least of all by most of the former Dutchmen.

For densely populated, impoverished countries with low-lying coastal areas, like Bangladesh and Egypt, the obvious solution is for those countries to sweep away all of the government corruption and underlying irrational laws and customs that stand in the way of large-scale foreign investment and thus of industrialization. This is precisely what needs to be done in these countries in any case, with or without global warming, if their terrible poverty and enormous mortality rates are to be overcome. If they do this, then the physical loss of a portion of their territory need not entail the death of anyone, and, indeed, their standard of living will rapidly improve. If they refuse to do this, then nothing but their own irrationality should be blamed for their suffering. The threat of global warming, if there is really anything to it, should propel them into taking now the actions they should have taken long ago.

Indeed, it would probably turn out that if the necessary adjustments were allowed to be made, global warming, if it actually came, would prove highly beneficial to mankind on net balance. For example, there is evidence suggesting that it would postpone the onset of the next ice age by a thousand years or more and that the higher level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is supposed to cause the warming process, would be highly beneficial to agriculture by stimulating the growth of vegetation. Growing seasons too might be extended. Furthermore, any loss of agricultural land, such as that which is supposed to take place in low-lying areas as the result of higher sea levels, would be far more than compensated for by vast quantities of newly useable land in central Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and Greenland.

Whether global warming comes or not, it is certain that nature will sooner or later produce major changes in the climate. To deal with those changes and virtually all other changes arising from whatever cause, man absolutely requires individual freedom, science, and technology. In a word, he requires the industrial civilization constituted by capitalism. What he does not require is the throttling of his ability to act, by the environmental movement. If it really is the case that the average mean temperature of the world will rise a few degrees in the next century as the result of the burning of fossil fuels and of other modern industrial processes, the only appropriate response is along the lines of being sure that more and better air conditioners are available.

In absolutely no case would the appropriate response be that of the environmentalists, who seek to throttle and destroy industrial civilization by means of massive restrictions on the use of energy. The environmentalist solution to global warming is the diametric opposite of economic freedom and the pursuit of material self-interest that it allows and the economic success that that pursuit brings. The environmentalist solution is the massive violation of economic freedom and the imposition of massive economic sacrifice, in the insane belief that the way to cope with the destructive forces of nature is to deprive man of his means of coping with them, as though he, and not nature were the cause of those destructive forces, as though nature, left to itself, were benign.

Yes, man’s economic activity can sometimes have negative by-products, on the scale of droplets of harm compared with tank-car loads of good. There have been two centuries of the most rapid economic progress and improvement in the history of the world, elevating the lives of hundreds of millions of people above that of the kings and emperors of history, and holding out the potential for the whole population of the world to be similarly elevated. If the price of this scale of good is to be the existence of higher sea-levels and some very bad weather, that is a tiny price indeed. And the answer to the bizarre fears of such things is that under capitalism, man will deal with any such negative forces of nature resulting as by-products of his activity in precisely the same successful way that he regularly deals with the primary forces of nature.

Primitive man, the ideal of the environmentalists, was incapable of successfully coping with climate changes. Modern man, thanks to industrial civilization and capitalism, is capable of successfully coping with climate changes. To do so, it is essential that he ignore the environmentalists and not abandon the intellectual and material heritage that elevates him above primitive man. The grandchildren of those who endured World War II and its massive air raids and battles on land and sea, to preserve the freedom and way of life of the Western World from tyranny, should not now run away in terror from the threat of hurricanes and floods. Moreover, adopting the program of the environmentalists and throttling the production of energy, will not save the condos in South Florida or the Malibu beachfront, or any thing else of value. They will be useless without the energy production required for people to access them and enjoy them. And when hurricanes and floods come, as they inevitably do, those who have adopted the environmentalists’ program will simply be unable to cope with them.

Marxian “scientific socialism” was collectivism in its boisterous, arrogant youth. Environmentalism is collectivism in its demented old age. It will be much easier to overcome than was Marxism. Marxism, however falsely and dishonestly, at least promised major positives: the unlocking of human potential and the achievement of future material prosperity. Environmentalism is reduced to trying to find terrified people with less than the mentality of children, to whom it can offer the prospect of avoiding wind and rain. It is the intellectual death rattle of collectivism. When it has been overcome, a world-embracing capitalist economy will be able to come into existence and be capable in fact of achieving unprecedented economic progress and prosperity across the entire globe.

To learn about every aspect of the case for capitalism, read my Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. Originally published at the blog of George Reisman. Copyright 2019 George Reisman. All rights reserved.

George Reisman, Ph.D., is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics and the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. See his author's page for additional titles by him. Visit his website and his blog Watch his YouTube videos and follow @GGReisman on Twitter.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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