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When Force Masquerades as Social Science

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Maybe desperation has me grasping at straws, but I am encouraged that people usually try to camouflage their advocacy of physical force against innocent people. It means they must be at least slightly embarrassed at favoring the threat of violence against those who have remained peaceful. That can signify only their at-least-dim awareness that the initiation of force is wrong.

You can see this when they call for government measures to conserve oil and other forms of energy. Right off the bat, the idea that we need government to bring about conservation is suspect. As long as energy costs money, people will be conservationists to some degree. I’ve told the story before, but when I was growing up my father would routinely go through the house turning off lights in vacant rooms. “Why are all these lights on when no one’s here?” he would lovingly bellow. He was a conservationist, but not in the manner of Ralph Nader or the Natural Resources Defense Council. He was conserving his hard-earned money, which we kids, not having earned it, were all too casual with. But as if by an invisible hand, he was also conserving coal or oil. (I now play his old role in my own household.)

The professional conservationists and environmentally minded politicians surely know about this natural incentive not to waste energy. There’s nothing subtle about it. And even though the top environmental operatives and politicians undoubtedly pull down attractive salaries, they must understand that whatever money they save by not wasting energy can be devoted to other pleasurable things or worthwhile causes.

Since they know all this, we must conclude that they advocate government-directed conservation for one reason only: they anticipate that we won’t see the matter quite the way they do, and they aim to prevail. They clearly are not happy with how we conserve in response to the market’s incentives, which operate through the price system. Sure, we cut back when prices rise high enough. If that were the end of the story, the market might be adequate. But guess what: As soon as prices come down, we revert to our “wasteful” ways. “Paradoxically, conservation’s great success was also its downfall,” Paul Roberts writes in The End of Oil. “As oil prices fell to $10 a barrel [after the 1970s], few Western consumers saw any reason to continue conserving.” Can you believe those people?

The professional conservationists suspect that our idea of saving energy is different from theirs.

Not that we weren’t more efficient at using oil. On the contrary, while you and I were conserving, others were developing autos and appliances that used less energy per mile or task. Energy efficiency has doubled since the government-created energy crisis of the 1970s. That’s equivalent to a doubling of the supply of oil. (Yes, government mandated fuel efficiency, but to believe the market would not have accomplished that anyway is to profess ignorance of what we’ve been talking about to this point.)

As I say, the professional conservationists suspect that our idea of saving energy is different from theirs. They might have set out to persuade us that they are right and we are wrong, but that strategy always entails a possibility they cannot abide: failure. Failure is not an option. So force is their only recourse. Which means government.

A culture of force
As suggested at the outset, they have not fully purged from their souls the idea that using force against peaceful people is immoral, so they strive to couch their proposals in the value-free language of social science. Proposals include higher gasoline taxes, higher mandated fuel-efficiency standards, and compulsory redesign of appliances. The common denominator of all these things is physical force. Subsidies fall into this category also, because the money has to be taken from someone. More subtly, tax incentives — credits and deductions — also rely on compulsion. If the authorities weren’t already exacting money from you and me, they could hardly offer to reduce the exaction for complying with their conservation goals.

The need for conservation is presented as strictly a scientific concern, which is to say, a value-neutral matter. The conservationists have perused the data and done the calculations. Assuming their numbers are right and their arithmetic is flawless (they have computers), there is nothing left to argue about. Facts are facts.

The conservationists’ mission is prescriptive, not descriptive, or else governmental force wouldn’t be necessary to carry out their objectives.

This, of course, is balderdash. The conservationists’ mission is prescriptive, not descriptive, or else governmental force wouldn’t be necessary to carry out their objectives. What they fail or refuse to grasp is that the concept “waste” is not an objective category. One man’s waste is another man’s indispensable use. We all know this at the level of common sense. I constantly observe people using their money (i.e., scarce resources) in ways I would never use it. “What a waste,” I might think if I didn’t know better. If those people were compelled to do things my way, they would not experience their forced abstention from spending as saving but as deprivation. From their point of view they would be right.

Value and choice
Value is subjective, not in the sense of being arbitrary (poison is poison whether you believe it or not), but in the sense that the degree to which things are meaningful and useful depends, within limits, on a person’s highly individualized context. (This issue is subject to great confusion, which can be glimpsed in the fact that what Ayn Rand called objective value Ludwig von Mises called subjective value.)

Since people typically want to live both today and in the future, they are constantly confronted with the need to balance present and future consumption, that is, consumption and conservation. There is no one right answer. The optimum balance will differ person to person, as well as for the same person at different times. Since no one can know the future with certainty, one’s own estimates can prove gravely mistaken. Considering the precariousness of personal planning, imagine society-wide planning by a force-wielding authority! Those who advocate such a thing display what F.A. Hayek called “a pretense of knowledge.” If I tell my neighbor to stop using gasoline for what looks (to me) like an unnecessary drive in the country, he’d dismiss me (as he should) as a busybody. If an economist does essentially the same thing, he is lauded as a dedicated scientist who serves his country well.

In the end we merely have a difference of opinion. Most of us are raised to understand that a difference of opinion does not justify hitting little Johnny across the street. If you can’t work it out, you go your separate ways. That simple, sensible lesson too often gets forgotten when adults gain sophistication and issues are obscured by politics and other pseudosciences. Then differences of opinion indeed warrant hitting and worse — as long as it’s done by officers of the state whose authority is traceable, however remotely and imaginatively, to a vote of the people.

This article was originally published in the September 2004 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.