Beware of the New "Limits to Growth" (and looking for ReaganVision?CarterVision)
Government policies that arrest economic recovery and diminish economic growth reduce our carbon footprint. Indeed, human misery and carbon reduction are positively correlated in a growing world where consumers demand red-meat energy–oil, gas, and coal. The Malthusian wing of the Obama Administration knows this, and they might just be hoping that the recession will last long enough so that folks question their long-standing belief of economic growth. Rising expectations among the masses is the bane of interventionists and Malthusians everywhere.
So get ready for the end-of-growth mantra from the Left as time marches on and Obama’s economic recovery plan keeps the economy from recovering.They will say that government tried and failed with his stimulus plan, so now we need to adapt to a economically constrained but environmentally ‘richer’ lifestyle. Maybe this is just what a lot of anti-capitalist environmentalists mean by “sustainability.”
But history should not be forgotten. Jimmy Carter bought into the “limits to growth,” and a new voice emerged who spoke of a new morning in America.
In the 1980 presidential campaign, candidate Ronald Reagan dismissed Carter’s call to address energy shortages with “sacrifices and changes in every life.” “People who talk about an age of limits are really talking about their own limitations, not America’s,” Reagan said.
But President Malthus spoke of the dangers ahead in his farewell address:
There are real and growing dangers to our simple and our most precious possessions: the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land which sustains us. The rapid depletion of irreplaceable minerals, the erosion of topsoil, the destruction of beauty, the blight of pollution, the demands of increasing billions of people, all combine to create problems which are easy to observe and predict, but difficult to resolve. If we do not act, the world of the year 2000 will be much less able to sustain life than it is now.
Reagan cast an altogether different light toward the nation’s problems in his inaugural address of January 1981:
We’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope. We have every right to dream heroic dreams.
Reagan also rejected the central planning mentality that had grown alongside energy problems and asked a question:
In this present [energy] crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?
Reagan walked the talk by deregulating petroleum a week later. “Ending price [and allocation] controls is a positive first step towards a balanced energy program,” he announced, “a program free of arbitrary and counter-productive constraints, one designed to promote prudent conservation and vigorous domestic production.”
All this was quite different from pessimism and despair’s call to action. Noted one historian at the time:
The contrast with both traditional conservatism and post-Humphrey liberalism could not be more striking. Gone are the dour conservative prescriptions of austerity and self-sacrifice and returning to the past. Gone is the Carter-era pall of limited resources, complexity, and a world in which “more is not better.” Reaganism is kinetic, expansive, and endlessly (critics would say mindlessly) optimistic about the future.
[This post is taken from chapter 11, "New Light," of my new book, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy. Citations can be found on p. 403]