A Free-Market Energy Blog

A War on CO2? Civil Libertarians, Beware!

By Robert Murphy -- September 14, 2009

“It seems clear that the first major penalty man will have to pay for his rapid consumption of the earth’s nonrenewable resources will be that of having to live in a world where his thoughts and actions are ever more strongly limited, where social organization has become all pervasive, complex, and inflexible, and where the state completely dominates the actions of the individual.”

– Harrison Brown (1954), quoted in Anne Ehrlich, Paul Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1973), p. 388.

Free-market writers such as Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman have stressed that it is impossible for a government to restrict economic freedoms while retaining civil or “personal” liberties. For example, even if a democratic yet socialist government assures its citizens they have “freedom of the press,” that assurance is hollow because the government owns all the newspapers and radio stations. It’s also naive to say that citizens have the right to protest the government, if that same government has the power to reassign workers to Siberia (because they deem it best to maximize national “economic output”).

Because of these realities, people who call themselves progressives should rethink their commitment to more government control over energy markets. It’s not simply a matter of abstract property rights and fairness for shareholders of oil companies. If the government can’t be trusted to snoop on our phone conversations or emails–and I wholeheartedly agreed with the progressives who were alarmed at the erosion of civil liberties under the Bush Administration–then by the same token, how can that same government be trusted to fairly administer energy markets with only the fate of the planet in mind?

This is not a vague “right-wing scare story” that I’m cooking up here. For example, in a recent Spiegel Online interview, “Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the German government’s climate protection advisor, [proposed] the creation of a CO2 budget for every person on the planet…”

In another example of climate concern bumping up against personal liberties, a new report issued by the London School of Economics concludes that “family planning should be seen as one of the primary methods of emissions reductions.” Relying on a UN estimate that 40 percent of all pregnancies are unintended, the report calculates that “[i]f these basic family planning needs were met, 34 gigatons (billion tonnes) of CO2 would be saved–equivalent to nearly 6 times the annual emissions of the US and almost 60 times the UK’s annual total.” (Note that the quotations come from the news article, not the report itself.)

I also remind readers of an episode last year when there was an outcry when California regulators sought the ability to remotely control individual household’s thermostats during energy emergencies.

Now in fairness, the proponents of these proposals are appealing to threats to the general welfare. If the more alarming estimates of the climate’s sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions are accurate, and if the more alarming estimates of the damage this will inflict on humans are also accurate, then yes “something needs to be done.” By the same token, it really would be catastrophic if extreme loads caused the entire California electrical grid to collapse, and so “something needs to be done” to prevent that.

But even so, progressives are wrong when they automatically jump to the conclusion that “what needs to be done” is to give government officials sweeping new powers over the private sector. Every progressive understood the naivete when the loudest proponents of the Patriot Act etc. said, “Hey, there really are terrorists trying to kill us. We need to give the FBI these new powers rather than bury our heads in the sand and pretend there’s no problem.” In response to this “give-the-government-more-power-to-save-us” view coming from some Bush loyalists, the progressives responded that these new powers would open up a Pandora’s box of potential abuse, and that they wouldn’t solve the problem of terrorist attacks. Well, that’s exactly what many of us have been saying to the same progressives concerning government “solutions” to climate and energy issues.

Water Rationing

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal detailed just how Orwellian these policies can become. Look at what ends up happening when politics, not markets, ration water usage:

Los Angeles, suffering from its third year of drought, has tried just about everything to get people to turn off the tap.

It forbade restaurants from automatically offering water to patrons. It jacked up water rates. This summer it established Mondays and Thursdays as only two days when residents are allowed to use sprinklers. Then, it rolled out the water cops.

David Jones of Los Angeles’s Water Conservation Team issues a warning citation Friday because the homeowner allegedly was watering his flowers on the wrong day of the week and at the wrong hours of the day. The city also has an anonymous hotline and email address to report water wasters, a practice some residents embrace and others disdain….

M. Pantoja is one of the city’s 15 wandering water cops, officially known as the Water Conservation Team. They collect tips through an anonymous hotline, patrol neighborhoods and try to catch people in the act of violating any of the city’s numerous water-saving edicts. That could mean anything from washing down asphalt to failing to repair a broken sprinkler head. First offenders are given a warning. Repeat offenders face a $100 fine.

San Antonio Water System spokesman Greg Flores said the “Water Wasters” hotline receives more than 200 calls a day about residents defying Stage 2 restrictions, which include no watering on the weekends.

Those complaints result in a warning letter. But a band of off-duty police officers and water officials patrol problem areas looking to catch people in the act and issue tickets. Fines range from $50 to more than $1,000.

Los Angeles’s goal is to reduce water use by 15%, and it must meet a state-mandated water reduction target of 20% by 2020. “The last major drought was about two decades ago,” said David Nahai, the head of the city’s Department of Water and Power. “People may have forgotten that we live in a semi-arid area.” He said the numerous different limits he has put in place serve mostly to remind residents about the scarcity of water in Southern California.

Not everyone is thrilled. At 10:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Susan Ryan stood under the low hues of her porch light watering her lawn. “We’ve got the drought czars wandering around the neighborhood,” she said. She was busted once for a faulty sprinkler. The next time will bring a fine.

The above events might sound more like nuisances than totalitarianism, though $1,000 fines are not chump change. But do progressives really feel comfortable with the government sending out roving cops, and setting up snitch hotlines, to crack down on people for watering their lawns on the illegal days? Wouldn’t it be better for all to let the price system work to ration demand to (scarce) supply “as if led by an invisible hand”?

We should also remember Jimmy Carter’s thermostat regulations that set maximum winter temperatures and minimum summer temperatures in buildings. That got a little personal for the American way of life too. Price and allocation deregulation proved to be the cure for that energy crisis–just as price and allocation regulation created the supply/demand imbalance that inspired government conservationism.


As with the progressive complaints against Big Brother in the War on Terror, the same applies in the War on Carbon: once you concede the principle that the government can coercively interfere with people’s daily lives, then just about anything goes–and will go when the proponents can cite “saving the planet” as their goal. Progressives who remember being branded as “traitors” simply for worrying about civil liberties should refrain from calling their opponents in the climate change debate “traitors to the planet.” (Paul Krugman recognizes the similarity–and labels those who disagree with him as traitors to the planet anyway.)

The physical science of climate change is not anywhere near as “settled” as we have been told for so many years. But even if it were, it does not automatically follow that we should get behind the 1,428 pages of Waxman-Markey. To frame the climate change issues in this way, would be akin to saying, “Either give us the Patriot Act, secret CIA prisons, and waterboarding, OR you have to convince us that no terrorist in the world wants to kill Americans. Those are the two positions you are allowed to have in this debate.”

That is a false choice. Of all people, self-described progressives are supposed to say “question authority” and “fear your leaders.” So why is it the progressives who so eagerly want to hand over control of energy markets to the government?


  1. Charles  

    What I find most interesting in this whole debate, is that those who stand to gain the most, as in big energy suppliers, and bankers, accountants and financial advisors, etc, are also those who are generally most despised by progressives. It appears that the whole of AGW cultism will deliver most aid to its proponents natural enemies. Do they not understand what they are supporting?


  2. rbradley  

    Good point–the policy activists are in the corporate welfare business. And to an extent also the ‘greenwashing’ business.

    I hope the ‘left’ rejects political capitalism for free-market capitalism.


  3. Markus Stocker  

    I think, the idea to buy emission quotas is interesting (see Spiegel article,) but instead of government-to-government transactions I would like to see individual-to-individual transactions. As someone, e.g., who doesn’t own a car, why should I not make a profit by selling my unused CO2 quota to someone who used up her quota? Perhaps hard to implement. Any thoughts?


  4. Andrew  

    “Of all people, self-described progressives are supposed to say “question authority” and “fear your leaders.” So why is it the progressives who so eagerly want to hand over control of energy markets to the government?”

    Because they don’t believe those things at all. Their objective is nothing more than power in their hands. It would be incredibly naive to believe that the left used anti-war and similar opposition in anything more than a political way. Unfortunately, I suspect that many libertarians, fed up with the over reaches of the Bush administration, took the bait.


  5. simone  

    Please do not confuse who funds those fools who push these absurd notions. Look at who bankrolled Obama.


  6. Potpourri  

    […] I explain that civil libertarians should be as skeptical of the War on Carbon as they (correctly) are about […]


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