Showing posts with label Environmental issues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Environmental issues. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

What determines opportunities for humans to flourish?



A series of recent articles on this blog has shown that some societies offer better opportunities than others for individuals to have the basic goods of a flourishing human. My aim in this post is to draw threads together to provide an overview of the links between the basic goods and determinants of opportunities to have those goods.

First, I will recap how the basic goods were identified.

Criteria
As explained in the first article in the series, I have adopted the criteria for the basic goods of “the good life” used by Robert and Edward Skidelsky: 
  • Universality: not specific to eras or cultures;
  • Finality: not just serving as a means to a more basic good;
  • Sui generis: not incorporated in some other good;
  • Indispensability: lack of the good leads to loss or harm.

Those criteria were developed by Skidelsky and Skidelsky in their book How Much is Enough (2012). Those authors also presented a list of basic goods that I used as a starting point for thinking about the items that should be regarded as basic goods.

The basic goods that I think a flourishing human could be expected to have are:
  1. The prospect of a long and healthy life.
  2. Wise and well-informed self-direction.
  3. Positive relationships with family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and trading partners.
  4. Psychological well-being: emotional stability, positive emotion, satisfaction with material living standards, engagement in doing things for their own sake and learning new things, perception of life as meaningful, a sense of accomplishment, optimism, resilience, vitality, integrity, and self-respect.
  5. Living in harmony with nature.
I think my list is comprehensive and have given reasons why I think the items included on it are basic goods. Nevertheless, my perceptions of what it means to be a flourishing human are not incontrovertible.

Some items on this list could be grouped together. Longevity and psychological well-being are both aspects of health. Positive relations with other humans and living in harmony with nature are both aspects of relationships with other living things. However, I think the differences between the items concerned are large enough to warrant separate listing.

Links between the basic goods
The chart shown at the beginning of this post suggests that the basic goods are linked together as an integrated whole when a human is flourishing.

Wise and well-informed self-direction is of central importance. As discussed in the post on that topic, self-direction helps individuals to maintain other basic goods that are necessary to their pursuit of chosen goals.  The exercise of practical wisdom helps individuals to live long and healthy lives, maintain positive relationships, manage their emotional health, and live in harmony with nature.

Psychological well-being depends heavily on other basic goods. As noted in the post on psychological well-being, much of the international variation in life satisfaction scores can be explained by factors that are closely related to other basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have. 

The causal link between psychological well-being and self-direction runs in both directions. Sanity is necessary for wise self-direction.

The prospects for people to live long and healthy lives have always depended on living in harmony with nature. That is true even in the modern world. For example, the severity of damage resulting from bushfires recently experienced in Australia may be attributed to failure to have enough regard to living in harmony with nature. In addition to the immediate threat to life posed by the fires, may people have been adversely affected by smoke, which includes particulates that can be detrimental to long term health.

Determinants of opportunities to have the basic goods
Conclusions of the posts relating to each of the basic goods are outlined below.
  • Wise and well-informed self-direction: Individuals have strong incentives to learn how to make wise and well-informed choices in societies where there is a great deal of economic and personal freedom. They are likely to have easier access to relevant information in countries with relatively high skill levels.
  • The prospect of a long and healthy life: Health spending, income growth and education have contributed substantially to increased longevity. The more fundamental determinants are the cultural and institutional factors that have contributed to economic development, including economic freedom. Long healthy life expectancy is associated with high levels of economic and personal freedom.
  • Positive relationships with other humans: The extent to which others can be trusted has an important impact on the opportunities for positive human relationships because it improves incentives for trade and other mutually beneficial activities. Trust levels tend to be higher in countries with relatively low crime rates and adherence to rule of law. Generalized trust, which gives greatest weight to trust of people who have just met and people from different religions and nationalities, tends to be greatest where people hold emancipative values, involving greater tolerance of diversity. Networks of individuals who can rely on each other for social support tend to be strongest in high-income countries.
  • Psychological well-being: Countries with the highest average life satisfaction are characterised by relatively high income levels and life expectancy, accompanied by perceptions of strong social support, freedom and low corruption. The percentage of the population who are dissatisfied with life tends to be relatively low in such countries.
  • Living in harmony with nature: The sense of kinship that people feel toward some animals living in the wild is similar to their feelings toward household pets. Human reasoning seems likely to continue to expand this sense of kinship to encompass more living things. Rising incomes make people more willing and able to afford more humane treatment of animals.

Common elements among determinants
The most pervasive common elements among the determinants of opportunities to have the basic goods are high incomes and high levels of economic and personal freedom.

The pervasiveness of high incomes as a determinant of opportunities for human flourishing points to the importance of economic growth. I have recently argued that it seems likely that for the foreseeable future the aggregate outcome of choices freely made by individuals as consumers and producers of goods and services will continue to involve further economic growth, even in high income countries.

However, it is possible that, over the longer term, increasing numbers of individuals will choose a lifestyle involving stable incomes and more leisure to one with rising incomes. Such an outcome would be consistent with ongoing growth of opportunities for individuals to live the lives that they aspire to have.

Once we recognize that economic growth is only one possible outcome of personal choices in the context of expanding production and consumption possibilities, that opens the way for us to focus on the determinants of productivity growth, rather than GDP growth outcomes. The cultural and institutional factors that have led to economic growth in the past have potential to continue to raise productivity levels, and thus enable opportunities for human flourishing to continue to expand, even if aggregate demand for goods and services does not continue to grow.

Cultural and institutional factors that support individual self-direction and opportunities for mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation are important not only in enabling people to make effective use of known technology, but also in bringing about improvements in skills, innovation, technological progress and advance of knowledge that enable productivity growth to occur.

Important institutions supporting the ongoing growth of productivity include liberty and rule of law. Individuals need liberty in order to exercise self-direction, and they need trustworthy trading partners and collaborators to engage with for mutual benefit. The perception that others can be trusted is enhanced by widespread adherence to rule of law. Culture is directly important in supporting the advance of knowledge, respect for innovators, and tolerance of diversity. Culture also underpins the values supporting liberty and the rule of law.

 Conclusions
Wise and well-informed self-direction is of central importance among the basic goods of a flourishing human because it helps individuals to maintain the other basic goods. The exercise of practical wisdom helps individuals to live long and healthy lives, maintain positive relationships, manage their emotional health, and to live in harmony with nature.

At a societal level, liberty and rule of law are among the most important determinants of opportunities for individuals to have the basic goods of a flourishing human. That poses the question of why there is greater liberty and adherence to rule of law in some societies than in others.  In order to understand the determinants of opportunities for human flourishing we need to understand the evolution of cultures supporting liberty and the rule of law.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

"How dare you?"



I have stopped laughing about Greta Thunberg’s performance at the United Nations a few months ago.

At the time, I was amused by her quixotic antics in attacking world leaders. People who think they can change the world by staging tantrums do not deserve to be taken seriously. It was predictable that Greta’s outburst would have a negligible impact on climate change policies.

I was also amused by Greta’s misconceptions about the relationship between economic growth and climate change.

On reflection, however, those misconceptions are no laughing matter. They are more widely held than I had imagined, including among some people who have had a great deal more education than Greta. By making economic growth the villain, climate activists seem likely to antagonize many of the people who would like more action to be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Global climate change is perceived to be a serious problem by a high proportion of the population in many different countries. However, there is much less support for action to be taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The obvious obstacle is the additional cost to consumers of transition to alternative energy sources (including the cost of energy storage and backup to ensure reliable supplies). The advocates of zero economic growth add another obstacle by telling people they will have to make huge changes in their lifestyles to mitigate climate change. The lifestyle changes required for adaptation may seem preferable to many people.

The nature of economic growth
Misconceptions about the relationship between economic growth and climate change stem largely from ignorance about the nature of economic growth.

When economists talk about economic growth, defined as an increase in the amounts of goods and services produced, some environmentalists just think of increases in the amount of stuff they don’t like. A little further thought might enable them to acknowledge that much additional stuff is being produced these days under environmentally friendly conditions. They might even be particularly fond of some additional stuff e.g. organic food, solar panels, electric cars and batteries. There are also some services they might like, such as health and education. 

Greta and her followers are probably concerned that economic growth requires us to dig up more and more natural resources until there are no more to be discovered. If that was true, it would be easy to understand why they might see endless economic growth as a fairy tale. However, growth in capital stock - created by transforming natural resources into equipment, buildings and infrastructure - typically accounts for only a small proportion of economic growth. In the 1950s, research by Robert Solow, a Nobel prize-winning economist, showed that only one-eighth of the increase in gross national product per man-hour in the United States between 1909 to 1949 could be attributed to increased capital stock. The remaining seven-eighth, which became known as the Solow residual, was attributed to technical change. Subsequent research has shown part of the Solow residual to be associated with improvement in labour skills, with the remainder, often described as total productivity growth (or multifactor productivity growth) being attributed to innovation, technological progress and the advance of knowledge.

Economic growth will probably end one day, but there doesn't seem to be anything inherent within the growth process that must bring that about. How do Greta and her followers propose to end economic growth? Do they propose to require people to take the benefits of technological progress in the form of more leisure, rather than more goods and services? Or do they propose to stop the advance of knowledge and innovation? 

The former approach seems more likely. It is certainly not unprecedented in human history for the advance of knowledge to come to a virtual standstill for long periods. However, it would be surprising to see the environmentalists of wealthy countries advocate policies to make that occur.

Environmental impacts of growth
If economic growth is largely about innovation, technological progress and the advance of knowledge, does it necessarily have adverse environmental impacts?  Of course not! In recent years, a significant amount of research, development and innovation has been directly related to development of alternative energy or other environmentally friendly activities.

Much of the other innovation that has occurred over the last decade or so - for example, improvements in communication technology - seems to have been benign in terms of its environmental impacts. It is possible to think of technological innovations that have raised environmental concerns, e.g. fracking and genetically modified crops, but that could hardly justify the blanket ban on innovation that is implicit in a zero economic growth scenario.

My view of growth
At this point some readers might have gained the impression that I am an advocate of endless GDP growth. That is not so. My reservations about GDP as a measure of well-being, and of GDP growth as a societal objective have been on display in articles I have written over the past 15 year (for example one on the priority given to economic growth in Australia, and one on the concept of Gross National Happiness).

As discussed previously on this blog, I advocate growth in opportunities for human flourishing - that is, growth of opportunities for individuals to live the lives that they aspire to have. If increasing numbers of individuals choose a lifestyle involving stable incomes and more leisure to one with rising incomes, I can see no reason to object (unless they want me to subsidize their lifestyle choice). In my view, there is certainly no case for governments to require or induce people to work harder or longer to foster growth of GDP.

However, it seems likely, even in high income countries, that for the foreseeable future the aggregate outcome of choices freely made by individuals as consumers and producers of goods and services will continue to involve economic growth. That outcomes seems likely, even in the presence of the minimal restrictions on individual freedom are necessary to achieve widely accepted environmental goals.

Those who urge the introduction of policies to stop economic growth are contemplating a great deal more interference with the rights of individuals to manage their own lives than could possibly be justified to pursue widely accepted environmental goals.

Bottom line
Despite substantial reductions in the cost of alternative energy that have occurred over the last decade or so, the cost of transition to alternative energy still seems to be a major obstacle to effective international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Those who make the false claim that economic growth is incompatible with widely accepted environmental objectives are adding a further obstacle to effective international action.

Instead of frightening people by urging governments to impose huge changes in lifestyles on citizens, perhaps environmental activists could pursue their goals more effectively by making a case for further government funding of research to help make alternative energy more affordable.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Does the modern world offer opportunities for people to live in harmony with nature?



Living in harmony with nature is one of five basic goods of a flourishing human. That is the opinion expressed in an earlier article on this blog. However, some further explanation may be required to persuade some readers that living in harmony with nature meets the criteria of a basic good.

Meeting criteria
Living in harmony with nature is obviously closely linked to survival of hunter gatherers and subsistence farmers, but it might appear less important in the modern world. That is debatable, given the potential for environmental impacts of some human activities to be detrimental to human health and well-being.

It is also beside the point. Living in harmony with nature would not be a basic good if it served only as a means to a long and healthy life. Basic goods are not a means to some other good.

Similarly, the question of whether living in harmony with nature is integral to psychological well-being is beside the point. Basic goods are not components of other goods.

Basic goods are final goods.  As I see it, living in harmony with nature is an indispensable final good of flourishing humans because humans have deep-seated intuitions about their kinship (relatedness) to other living things. Anyone who doubts whether flourishing humans have such intuitions should look at some videos of animals meeting challenges of various kinds. Could any flourishing human not be pleased that this video of ducklings climbing steps has a happy ending?

The nature of kinship
The kinship that flourishing humans feel toward other living things is similar to their positive relationships with other humans. In fact, people often value the lives of household pets more highly than the lives of other humans. Some research by Jack Levin et al suggests that adult victims of crime receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full-grown dog victims. The explanation offered for adult dogs receiving more empathy than adult humans is that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves while adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable, not unlike puppies and children.

Living in harmony with household pets may not be the first example that comes to mind of living in harmony with nature. Nevertheless, the sense of kinship with some animals living in the wild seems to be similar. Steven Pinker suggests in The Better Angels of our Nature that species that are lucky enough to possess the geometry of human babies may benefit to a greater extent from our sympathetic concern than other mammals (p 580).

Environmentalists have suggested that this results in disproportionate concern for a few mammals. Nevertheless, some environmentalists make the most of every opportunity to exploit fears that cute mammals are becoming endangered species. Koalas are a prime example. There would be few Australians who do not feel sadness about the large number of koalas killed in recent bushfires in eastern Australia, but claims that the koala population is now “functionally extinct” are probably exaggerated.

Opportunities offered by the modern world
The concept of an expanding circle of empathy, developed by Peter Singer, suggests that humans are likely to continue to expand their sense of kinship to encompass more living things. Singer suggests that altruism began as a genetically based drive to protect one's family and community members, but our capacity for reasoning has enabled an expanding circle of moral concern to develop. Those concerns seem likely to result in increasing numbers of people deciding to forgo meat products, without hectoring by climate change zealots claiming that we need to do so to save the planet. In my view, rising incomes play an important role in enabling people to give practical effect to their empathy for animals, for example by being willing and able to pay to ensure more humane treatment.

It is often observed that the move toward urban living has tended to separate people from the natural environment, but that lifestyle is likely to be more in harmony with nature than a lifestyle in which large numbers attempt to live in natural environments, but end up destroying the natural qualities that attracted them. As discussed on this blog a few years ago, the idea of locating human activities away from the natural environment, makes sense to decouple human development from adverse environmental impacts.

In How Much is Enough, Robert and Edward Skidelsky suggest that gardening provides a practical illustration of living in harmony with nature. They suggest that a good gardener “knows and respects” the potentialities of nature:
“His relation to nature is neither vulgarly instrumental nor grimly sacrificial. It is a relation of harmony”.

Gardening offers some potential to live in harmony with nature even in an urban environment. For example, it is often possible to select ornamental trees and shrubs, and to construct water features, with a view to attracting native birds into a garden. Even vertical gardening offers some scope to live in harmony with nature. On a larger scale, the story behind the mistletoe pictured at the beginning of this article illustrates some possibilities. An experiment is being conducted in Melbourne to use mistletoe to turn common street trees with no biodiversity benefits, London plane trees, into virtual wildlife sanctuaries.

The gardening concept may also have some relevance to the preservation of natural habitat. The idea that wilderness can be preserved merely by declaring an area to be a national park is a myth. Wilderness areas have not been free of human intervention in the past and may require careful monitoring and management to maintain existing biodiversity. For example, in Australia, the traditional custodians of the land used fire to create an environment suitable for the animals they hunted and to avoid a build-up of undergrowth that could fuel destructive bush fires.

Conclusions
Living in harmony with nature is one of the basic goods of a flourishing human because humans have deep-seated intuitions about their kinship with other living things.
The sense of kinship that people feel toward some animals living in the wild is like their feelings toward household pets. Human reasoning seems likely to expand this sense of kinship to encompass more living things. Rising incomes make people more willing and able to afford more humane treatment of animals.
Living in harmony with nature is consistent with urban living both because there is potential for substantial biodiversity in urban environments and because of the potential it offers for larger areas of natural wildlife habitat to be set aside and protected from the adverse effects of human activity. Ongoing monitoring and management is necessary in those areas to maintain existing habitat that is an outcome of past human interventions.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Why do many individuals voluntarily moderate their contributions to global environmental problems?



I think serious consideration should be given to the question of why many individuals voluntarily moderate their own contributions to global environmental problems. Prospects for human flourishing may well depend on the increased willingness of many more people to moderate their individual contributions to climate change. Voluntary contributions may not be enough, but what people are willing to volunteer to do themselves can be expected to have an important influence on the extent to which they are willing to impose regulation on others.

A decade ago I suggested that people who voluntarily reduce their contributions to climate change deserve our respect, but I referred to them as environmental puritans. I remember being told that terminology wasn’t respectful. Religious zealotry certainly doesn’t provide a complete explanation of  such behaviour.

Voluntary action by individuals to moderate their contributions to global problems is difficult to explain in conventional economic terms because people must know that their personal actions will have a negligible impact on global problems.

So, why does it happen?

The most cynical explanation I can think of is virtue signalling. Some firms and individuals engage in the behaviour because they obtain additional profit, or just personal satisfaction, from admiration they receive by appearing to be virtuous. Even though virtue signalling isn’t particularly commendable, good outcomes can flow from it. If companies can make higher profits by presenting an environmentally friendly image, good luck to them. If community organisations can further their objectives by bestowing honours on people whose motive is to be admired by other members, good luck to them too (provided, of course, we are not talking about organisations that infringe the rights of non-members e.g. terrorist organisations).

Leaving cynicism aside, the most obvious explanation is that people are willing to moderate their behaviour because of genuine ethical intuitions or considerations. It feels like the right thing to do and/or they consider such behaviour integral to their values and their flourishing as individual humans. It is reasonable to speculate that such ethical feelings and considerations are strongly linked to perceptions of personal identity.  Those who perceive themselves as giving a high priority to environmental protection tend to see themselves as citizens of the world. For example, of those U.S. respondents to the World Values Survey conducted a few years ago who identified with the proposition “looking after the environment is important to this person”, 83% saw themselves as “a citizen of the world”. The corresponding percentages were much lower for people who didn’t perceive looking after the environment to be important.

As shown in the chart at the beginning of this post, the percentage of people who perceive of themselves as citizens of the world is quite high in many countries. I don’t claim to know much about what is going on in the minds of those people. My guess is that when people say that they see themselves as citizens of the world, they are recognizing that they have a common interest with other humans in seeking solutions to global problems. It seems reasonable to expect people who see themselves as citizens of the world would be more likely to moderate their personal contributions to global environmental problems without requiring inducement than those who identify solely as members of local communities, ethnic or religious groups, or nations.

As implied earlier, some people who moderate their own contributions to global environmental problems seem to be puritanical in their beliefs about appropriate behaviour towards the environment. That could be because of they are deeply religious, whether as followers of contemporary religions or as Gaia worshippers. It is hardly surprising to see religions urging their followers to have regard to the global environment and the well-being of future generations of humans, and to see some of adherents become environmental zealots.

It also seems reasonable to speculate that more people will voluntarily moderate their personal contributions to global environmental problems when they observe others doing likewise. They know their own personal contributions will have a negligible impact on global problems, but they don’t consider them to be futile because they feel that their contributions are part of a collective effort. Those who seek to provide an example for others, by making an unusually large contribution, may see their contribution as having a potential snowball effect.

The motivations of many of those who voluntarily modify their contributions to global environmental problems are only weakly contingent on the behaviour of others. Their behaviour seems to be motivated primarily by benevolence towards future generations of humans and other species. There is no social contract regarding voluntary moderation of contributions and there is no possibility that every human would agree to moderate their behaviour in this respect in the absence of regulation. An individual cannot induce others to moderate their greenhouse gas emissions merely by threatening to cease moderation of their own behaviour if their example is not followed. By contrast, Elinor Ostrom observed that in a successfully managed commons where access to shared resources is limited, individual participants make contingent self-commitments. The willingness of participants to follow a set of rules that has been devised collectively is contingent on other participants making a similar commitment and acting accordingly.

An important factor involved in voluntary moderation of relevant behaviour is belief that human action is causing detrimental climate change. People, like me, who believe that there is a low probability of catastrophic climate change within the next 30 years, or so, might also be willing to moderate their behaviour voluntarily as an insurance policy for following generations, provided the cost of insurance – for example, use of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels - is relatively low. More people can be expected to join the movement to moderate their behaviour if they perceive that environmental catastrophe is becoming imminent and/or if it becomes less costly to reduce the exposure of their children and grandchildren to global environmental risks.

Is coercion ever justified?

The benevolent private behaviour of environmentalists with respect to global environmental problems is often combined with advocacy of government action to compel others to modify their contributions. Any lover of liberty would find such coercion difficult to endorse, but there are strong precedents for it. One readily defensible movement that has acted similarly in the past is the movement for abolition of slavery in the 19th Century. As well as endeavouring to ensure that they did not profit from slavery, members of anti-slavery organisations advocated government action to abolish it.

If concerted government intervention is needed to avoid a global climate catastrophe, and if there is enough support by governments and citizens of enough countries to ensure that effective action can be taken, it would be difficult to argue that no action should be taken that would infringe the liberty of those individuals opposed to the intervention. Please note that there is more than one big “if” in the preceding sentence. I just want to make the point that it does not make sense for anyone to insist on the primacy of liberty if human survival is really at stake. In order to flourish, our descendants need to survive.

Do conservatives understand the motivations of world citizens?

The observation that environmentalists often combine benevolent private behaviour with advocacy of government action, seems somewhat at odds with a claim made by prominent conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, in Green Philosophy: How to think seriously about the planet, published in 2012. Scruton suggests:
"Nothing in politics stands still, and increasingly left-wing environmentalists are dissociating themselves from the campaigning NGOs, and preferring the small-scale work that both supports and expresses the low-impact way of life. The movements for low carbon communities, slow food and permaculture have recruited many who identify themselves as ‘on the left’. Indeed, this shift away from radical, government-shaped solutions should be welcomed by conservatives, since it promises the thing that environmentalists of both persuasions need, which is a way of sharing our problems and co-operating in solving them."

I think that may be wishful thinking. From where I sit in Australia, I don’t see left-wing environmentalists increasingly dissociating themselves from campaigning NGOs. There are some environmentalists who would identify as having leftish views who are disgusted with the antics of environmental NGOs and Green politicians and want nothing to do with them. But I don’t see a general trend in that direction. I do see a trend toward more alliances between radical environmentalists and people who could be considered to hold conservative views. I see alliances between farmers and radical environmentalists to prevent fracking to extract of coal seam gas, because that may contaminate ground water. I see alliances between residents of leafy suburbs and radical environmentalists to prevent higher density housing projects. I also see more people with conservative views supporting independent political candidates who want a greater national contribution to international efforts to combat climate change.

It is easy to understand why Roger Scruton would like to see left-wing environmentalists dissociating themselves from campaigning NGOs. He suggests that oikophilia, the love of the oikos, or household, is the motive that captures what conservatism and environmentalism have to offer each other. He explains:
“It is a motive in ordinary people. It can provide a foundation both for a conservative approach to institutions and a conservationist approach to the land. It is a motive that might permit us to reconcile the demand for democratic participation with the respect for future generations and the duty of trusteeship. It is, in my view, the only serious resource that we have, in our fight to maintain local order in the face of globally stimulated decay”.

However, Scruton’s response to the slogan, ‘think globally, act locally’, seems odd. He suggests that while many environmentalists acknowledge that local concerns must be given a proper place in our decision-making, they tend to balk at the suggestion that “local loyalty should be seen in national terms, rather than as the small-scale expression of a humane universalism”. He suggests that were conservatism to adopt a slogan, it should be ‘feel locally, think nationally’. He argues that doesn’t mean that conservatives are all belligerent nationalists: They think in terms of the nation state because “they recognize that, in the current environmental crisis, there is no agent to take the needed measures, and no focus of loyalty to secure consent to them, other than this one".

I am uncomfortable with the idea that local loyalty should be seen in national terms. National loyalties overlap with local loyalties in some respects, but most environmental problems seem to be either local or global. Humane universalism seems to me to be a mark of civilised behaviour.
Nevertheless, I accept that the national state is the only governance system available which has potential to deal with global problems that cannot be resolved by the voluntary actions of individuals. That doesn’t mean that I have a great deal of faith in the capacity of nation states to resolve such problems.  Perhaps voluntary action enhanced by blockchain technology offers more hope over the longer term.

Roger Scruton is correct in his assertion that conservatives think in terms of nation states. They are statists. But that is also true of Green politicians and their ardent supporters, who argue vociferously for greater action at a national level to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. In attempting to push individual nation states to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a national level, Green politicians have caused a backlash from voters concerned about rising energy prices and the unfairness of being asked to make greater sacrifices than those being made by people in other parts of the world. If Green politicians want effective action to avert the global climate change disaster that they greatly fear, they will need to adopt more effective political strategies that are capable of winning support from voters who are sceptical of claims of claims of imminent environmental disaster, but are prepared to make modest contributions to global efforts as a form of insurance for the benefit of future generations.

How does Roger Scruton make a useful contribution?

Roger Scruton’s comments about the difficulty of negotiating and enforcing international agreements to combat climate change are insightful. He notes that the Montreal Protocol concerning action to combat depletion of the ozone layer of the atmosphere was successful because CFCs could be eliminated “without seriously disturbing the economy or the way of life of any signatory nation”. He notes:
“Greenhouse gases are not like CFC gases. As things stand they can be eliminated only at great economic and even greater social cost, and few nations are prepared to pay that cost. By devoting their sparse supply of global goodwill to negotiating futile treaties against emissions, the nations are wasting assets that could be spent on co-operative research into renewable energy."

I think Scruton is both too optimistic and too pessimistic in suggesting that “unilateral action on the part of a competent and law-abiding state”, such as the U.S., may end up being the only way the global environment can be defended. I take his point that the British Navy played a crucial role in ending the transnational market in slaves, but it is too optimistic to think that the U.S. could achieve much to combat climate change by acting alone. It seems too pessimistic to imply that there are no circumstances where international cooperation could result in effective action against climate change.
Roger Scruton actually points to a potentially productive avenue for international cooperation:
 “If treaties are to be effective at all they must surely be of this kind – treaties that offer only benefits, which minimize the incentives to defect, and which compensate for the principal failure of markets in the matter of global environmental problems, namely that they do not invest sufficiently in the needed research.”

Where does this lead?

The important point is that if we want individuals to moderate their contribution to global environmental problems – either through voluntary action or by supporting regulation – before environmental catastrophe is universally accepted to be imminent, then we need to make it less costly for people to take that action. A greater research effort is required to ensure that more efficient technologies become available as soon as possible.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

How can we compare climate change and public debt risks?



It seems to me that, over the next 20 years or so, people in Western democracies are likely to suffer to a greater extent from the consequences of an explosion in public debt than from climate change. At the same time, I acknowledge that climate change could possibly pose a serious threat to civilization and perhaps human survival. The chart shown above is my attempt to illustrate how those risks might be compared.

I make no claim to expertise in assessment of climate change risks. My reading on the topic suggests that the theory that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are contributing to climate change is widely accepted by scientists. However, people with relevant expertise obviously have different views about the rate at which climate change is likely to occur, the contribution of human activity, the political feasibility of various forms of remedial action, and the adaptability of humans and other living creatures.

In my view, too little attention has been given to “tail risk” associated with climate change – the low probability that climate change will result in a great deal of human misery, as shown in the chart above. As I have written here previously, if you are concerned about climate change, you (like me) are likely to be more concerned about the remote possibility that your great grandchildren might suffer from having to live with potentially catastrophic climate change outcomes than about the more probable outcome that climate change might cause their incomes to be somewhat lower than economic modelling suggests they would be otherwise. I have also previously expressed agreement with Nassim Taleb that there are some risks we should avoid if possible, even though there is a low probability that they will occur at any point in time. In order to flourish, future generations need to be able to survive.

The reasoning behind the rest of the chart requires more explanation. Why do I think there is a 95% probability that the citizens of western democracies will suffer as much or more over the next 20 years from an explosion in public debt than from climate change? Since I don’t have either the inclination or expertise to weigh up the technical evidence on climate change for myself, I tend to rely on the IPCC’s assessments. I suspect the authors of IPCC reports are still somewhat biased toward attempting to present a view favouring urgent international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, after they have been modified in the light of expert public scrutiny, the IPCC reports are probably the most authoritative source of independent assessments of the relevant evidence.

The IPCC’s assessment of likely climate change outcomes in Chapter 3 of its recent special report, Global Warming of 1.5 ÂșC, implies that we can expect some fairly serious adverse consequences over the next few decades:
The impacts of climate change are being felt in every inhabited continent and in the oceans. However, they are not spread uniformly across the globe, and different parts of the world experience impacts differently. An average warming of 1.5°C across the whole globe raises the risk of heatwaves and heavy rainfall events, amongst many other potential impacts. Limiting warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C can help reduce these risks, but the impacts the world experiences will depend on the specific greenhouse gas emissions ‘pathway’ taken. The consequences of temporarily overshooting 1.5°C of warming and returning to this level later in the century, for example, could be larger than if temperature stabilizes below 1.5°C. The size and duration of an overshoot will also affect future impacts.

However, a recent OECD report on Greece, which is fairly optimistic about the future of that economy, seems to me to illustrate that public debt crises are likely to result in much more human misery than climate change over the next few decades:
Despite these positive developments, challenges abound. GDP per capita is still 25% below its pre-crisis level. The public debt is still high and a source of significant vulnerability. Poverty rose sharply during the crisis, especially among the young and families with children. Though poverty has stabilised, it remains near a record high. Skill mismatch is also high and investment remains depressed. This contributes to low productivity – which has fallen further behind other OECD countries – and low wages – resulting in high in-work poverty. Though improving, female labour participation is among the lowest across OECD countries. The recovery in investment is held back by a dearth of finance – due in part to high levels of non-performing loans and to capital controls – high cost of capital relative to wages, cumbersome regulations and low demand. These problems weigh on people’s well-being”. 

As I explained in a recent post, there are strong reasons to expect that the failure of governments in most OECD countries to restrain the growth of government spending is likely to cause debt servicing to become a more widespread problem in the decades ahead.  I think the most likely outcomes in most western democracies will probably be much worse that the outcomes of climate change, although not be as bad as the experience of Greece over the last decade. The chart above is drawn to acknowledge that there is some possibility that democratic governments will lift their performance, or world interest rates will remain low, so debt servicing may not be a problem.

The modest adverse outcomes depicted on the right side of the chart might well be offset by positive factors. There is a good chance that over the longer term the positive impacts of technological advances will be sufficient to offset the negative impacts of both public debt accumulation and climate change, but it would be excessively optimistic to expect rapid technological progress and productivity growth in western democracies over the next 20 years.

Some readers may object to my attempt to compare the risks associated with climate change and public debt explosion on the ground that these are very different risks when viewed at a national public policy perspective. There obviously isn’t much the government of any country can do to reduce climate change risk by acting alone.

However, I have drawn the chart with individual well-being in mind. From an individual’s perspective, the risks surrounding climate change and public debt are quite similar. Nothing that individuals do by themselves will make much difference to national or global outcomes. Voting might appear to provide an avenue for individuals to influence national outcomes but, as others have observed, voting in a national election is like ordering a meal from the menu in a restaurant and being served the same meal irrespective of what you order.  

There are options that individuals can consider to reduce their exposure to both climate change and public debt risks. For example, consideration of climate change risk might influence decisions about housing location and construction, and consideration of public debt risks might cause individuals to reduce the extent that their families rely on government for health services, education and retirement incomes.

It strikes me that climate change and the risks of public debt explosion also pose similar ethical issues for individuals. Does the fact that an individual’s actions, considered in isolation, has a negligible impact on global and national problems absolve him or her of an obligation to moderate his or her contributions to those problems? I think not, but I will leave consideration of the issue for another time.  

Monday, February 25, 2019

Is subjective-predictive morality consistent with the template of individual responsibility?


This question arose while I was reading Josh Bachynski's book The Zombies, subtitled On Morality.
Josh explains subjective-predictive morality as follows:
You all know and have seen it (and used it too!). It is the simple morality we commonly use when giving a gift, throwing a party, or trying to predict and ensure how well things will end up for others. When we are practically good. When we seek to help and not hurt others, for no other reason than this is good. What we currently call being courteous or nice, for the sake of just being courteous or nice. When we are not trying to do what’s “Right” per se. When we are trying to do what’s right by them”.

Doing right by others is encompassed in the ethics of doing right by yourself. What is good feels good.  Josh explains the process of subjective evaluative judgment as involving (1) pleasant or unpleasant feelings (2) cognitive reactions concerning the value of those feelings (3) predictions as to whether we will have reason to regret the action contemplated. Josh suggests:
This is the way we naturally insert quality control into our valuations.

He goes on to observe:
“As it turns out, in searching for the moral, we have actually made a powerful discovery. And this is in what is also rational or prudent”.

I suggest that readers who are interested in learning more about Josh’s philosophy should read Leah Goldrick’s review at Common Sense Ethics, which contains a link to her interview of Josh, and then begin to read the book itself. This is a long book. I found the authors chatty writing style entertaining at first, but tedious after the first few chapters.

Josh Bachynski’s ethics of doing what is right by oneself and others seems quite similar to the template of responsibility, advocated by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn. The ethics of responsibility is based on “the existential fact that we must make something of our lives”. This is explained in a passage I have quoted previously:
For the template of responsibility, the basis for determining worthiness is human flourishing or wellbeing of some sort. Its ultimate value is integrity. Integrity expresses itself interpersonally in honour but when applied to the agent herself, the term ‘integrity’ signifies a coherent, integral whole of virtues and values, allowing for consistency between word and deed and for reliability in action”.

There are some differences between the two approaches. Pleasant and unpleasant feelings are not given a great deal of prominence in Den Uyl and Rasmussen’s view of human flourishing. They define human flourishing as consisting of “activities that both produce and express in a human being an actualization of potentialities that are specific to the kind of living thing a human being is and that are unique to each human being as an individual”. At one point, Den Uyl and Rasmussen suggest that “an objective account of human flourishing can be characterized as a life of right desire”. They argue that the value of something to a person “is not necessarily a mere matter of “its being desired, wanted, or chosen” because a person “is more than a bundle of passions and desires”. That is still consistent with the view that emotions such as joy and disgust provide important information to help us to decide what we value.

Another possible source of difference is in respect of naturalism. From my reading of The Zombies, it seems likely that Bachynski would be suspicious that Den Uyl and Rasmussen’s teleological naturalism could be seeking to perpetuate ancient errors about human nature that scientific advances have given us reasons to question. I don’t think such suspicions would be well-founded because Den Uyl and Rasmussen present a view of human flourishing that is explicitly individualistic, agent-relative and self-directed.

As I see it, the differences between the philosophical approaches discussed above have parallels in the differences between some psychological therapies. Subjective predictive morality seems to have much in common with rational emotive approaches (REBT) in which people use reasoning to moderate their emotional responses. The template of responsibility seems to a lot in common with an acceptance and commitment approach (ACT) in which people ask themselves how they can actualize their potential in the given situation to act in accordance with their values, whatever their current emotional states might be. Perhaps there may also be parallels in the differences between philosophic approaches of the Stoics and Aristotle.

Subjective predictive morality and the template of responsibility both involve the use of practical reason. The question of which approach is better should probably be viewed as an empirical matter. In your experience, which approach has been of greatest help you in doing the right thing by yourself and others? The correct answer could well be different for different individuals.

In the light of similarities between subjective-predictive morality and the template of individual responsibility, it may come as a surprise to some readers that the authors have vastly different political perspectives. Josh Bachynski describes himself as “a left-leaning liberal democrat” and his book begins with a rant to the effect that he sees “ecological/economic disaster” as “disturbingly likely” because of “wasteful and self-destructive profit structures”. Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen are classical liberals who have proudly given one of the chapters in their book the title: “The entrepreneur as a moral hero”.

I find it impossible to believe that those vast differences in world view stem from differences in their philosophical views about ethics. There may be some differences in the value they place on individual liberty, but they don’t seem to be huge. Their different world views must stem from different perceptions about the way the economic system works and the likelihood of ecological/economic disaster. It is a matter of who is right and who is wrong about relevant aspects of the real world.

For what it is worth, I think there is a very high probability that Josh is wrong, but I acknowledge that we shouldn’t be ignoring low probability outcomes that would be disastrous for humanity. Unfortunately, as I observed in my comments on Nassim Taleb’s book, Skin in the Game, when it comes to consideration of potential Black Swan events that threaten the survival of humanity, the political systems we have inherited do not ensure that political leaders have enough skin in the game for their minds to focus appropriately. Political leaders tend to focus on their survival at the next election rather than on the survival of humanity. It is up to citizens who are concerned about potential Black Swan disasters to initiate appropriate action themselves.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Why don't all sides of politics agree to pursue Wealth Plus?


It would be great if the major political parties in all countries of the world were to pursue Wealth Plus as a national objective. However, I don’t think that is likely to happen soon, even in the wealthy countries that have implicitly pursued similar objectives in the past.

Wealth Plus is the objective advocated by Tyler Cowan, in his recently published book, Stubborn Attachments: A vision for a society of free, prosperous, and responsible individuals. Tyler defines Wealth Plus as:

‘The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth."

Tyler also suggests that we should aim to “maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth, defined in terms of a concept such as Wealth Plus”. He suggests that we should think more broadly about economic growth as an ongoing self-sustaining process that produces goods that contribute to human welfare, rather than in terms of growth in GDP as conventionally measured.

I think the objective that Tyler is writing about could better be described in terms of pursuing growth in opportunities for human flourishing – growing opportunities for people to live the lives that they aspire to have. I prefer that terminology partly because it fits neatly with the view I expressed in Free to Flourish that good societies are characterised by widespread opportunities for human flourishing. In my view, progress is movement toward better societies, with growing opportunities for human flourishing.

An emphasis on human flourishing raises a question, touched on in an appendix, of why human flourishing should be prioritized above the flourishing of non-human lives. One good reason is that flourishing humans show greater consideration for non-human lives than do humans who are struggling to survive. Discussion about what constitutes ethical behaviour toward non-human lives is a feature of modern life in prosperous countries. More fundamentally, if ethical behaviour is intrinsic to human flourishing – as Aristotle argued persuasively long before modern psychologists took up the idea - then human flourishing must encompass ethical behaviour toward all other living creatures.

Tyler makes a strong case that we should care about the well-being of people in the distant future just about as much as we care about the well-being of the current generation. His argument is based partly around the implications of discounting the value of future human lives. Under any positive discount rate, one life today could appear to be worth as much as the entire subsequent survival of humanity if we use a long enough time horizon for the calculation.

The argument for using a low discount rate seems to me to have considerable force when we are considering the benefits of public investments to protect future generations from potential catastrophes. As previously discussed on this blog, that argument is pertinent in considering what discount rates should be used for public investments to avert or mitigate climate change risks.

I am not persuaded by Tyler’s argument that the well-being of future generations isn’t adequately considered today in the choices “we” are making about “how rapidly to boost future wealth”. The “we” Tyler is referring to is the collective “we” that makes public policy choices. As I have previously suggested, the argument that positive externalities cause free markets to produce too little economic growth does not appear to have any more merit than the argument that negative externalities cause free markets to produce too much economic growth. Tyler hasn’t persuaded me that government intervention can improve on the growth outcomes of the savings and investment decisions made by individuals and families in a free market.  

In any case, the choices that governments make about “how rapidly to boost future growth” seem to be largely implicit rather than explicit. Boosting economic growth may be a motive for public investment in research and some forms of education, but I can’t think of many other examples. Perhaps what Tyler has in mind are the choices that governments make that unintentionally reduce the rate of economic growth. For example, he notes that when government spending is cut, investment spending is often the first area to go while entitlements for the elderly remain intact.

Tyler is on firm ground in arguing that the strengthening of good institutions today can be expected to provide benefits for centuries into the future. There is strong historical support for the view that growth promoting institutions and a history of prosperity tend to have enduring effects.

Tyler suggests that three key questions should be elevated in their political and philosophical importance, namely:

1.       What can we do to boost the rate of economic growth?

2.       What can we do to make our civilization more stable?

3.       How should we deal with environmental problems?

He goes on to observe:

“The first of these is commonly considered a right-wing or libertarian concern, the second a conservative preoccupation, and the third, especially in the United States, is most commonly associated with left-wing perspectives. Yet these questions should be central, rather than peripheral, to every political body. We can see right away how the political spectrum must be reshaped to adequately address these concerns. Politics should be about finding the best means to achieve these ends, rather than disputing the importance of these ends."

I agree that is what politics should about, but I am not optimistic that political leaders can pursue those ends diligently, even if they can be persuaded to embrace them. Liberal democracy has been weakened in recent decades by widespread failure to adhere to the norms of self-reliance and reciprocity that underpin it. As predicted by James Buchanan (see this post for explanation) failure of the liberal democracy is becoming increasingly likely as a higher proportion of the population becomes dependent on government, and voters increasingly seek to use the political process to obtain benefits at the expense of others.  

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that we are heading toward a tragedy of democracy. When interest groups view the coercive power of the state as a common pool resource to be used for the benefits of their members, the adverse impact of tax and regulation on incentives for productive activity produce outcomes that a detrimental to just about everyone. The process seems to be intensifying with the fragmentation of broad interest groups supporting the centre left and centre right of politics.

As Henry Ergas has noted recently, with particular reference to Australia, it has become “increasingly difficult for “catch-all” parties — as both our main parties have been — to position themselves in such a way as to aggregate a winning coalition. The concept of the ‘average’ or ‘median’ voter, which used to help orient the parties’ choices, has lost its substance, as has the notion of ‘the centre’. (“The Australian”, 25 Oct. 2018).

Similar problems are evident in other mature democracies. The process of fragmentation of broad interest groups has accelerated in many countries over the last decade or so as innovations in the social media have greatly increased the power of the rabid sports fans of politics - aptly referred to by Jason Brennan as Hooligans. Hooligans tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing political opinions and ignore or reject information that contradicts those opinions. They tend to communicate in echo chambers that reinforce their outrage when the leadership of the major parties is unresponsive to their concerns.

In some countries we are seeing ill-informed Hooligans taking over major parties and the reins of government. In other countries splinter parties comprised of Hooligans are attracting supporters away from major parties and making it more difficult for them to pursue coherent policy agendas. No matter which way it is happening, the growing political influence of the Hooligans makes it increasingly difficult for political leaders to pursue Wealth Plus, or any goals relating to the future well-being of the broader communities who elect them.

As more people come to recognize that liberal democracy is confronted by deep problems, perhaps some of them will attempt to make concerted efforts to reform political institutions so that they produce better outcomes. However, it is not obvious what reforms would stop the rot or how reforms could be achieved. A major economic crisis might help to focus the minds of responsible political leaders, but it could just as easily further strengthen the hands of the Hooligans.

I now think the best hope for future generations lies in the potential for new technology to enable people to circumvent the obstacles created by the Hooligans of national politics. As Max Borders has suggested (see discussion on this blog here and here) technological innovations provide us with the potential to “reweave the latticework of human interaction to create a great reconciliation between private interest and community good". The social singularity has potential to enable people to enjoy growing opportunities to live the lives that they aspire to have.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Why read a book providing advice to radicals?


I doubt whether many people would consider me to be a radical, even though I look forward to the withering away of the state as the social singularity subverts government activities. My views about politics have been most strongly influenced by people who were once considered to be radicals, including John Locke and Adam Smith, but these days people who hold such views are more likely to be described as conservatives. Following Friedrich Hayek, I reject the conservative label because I am strongly opposed to the use of the powers of government to resist spontaneous social change.

I have been reading Derek Wall’s book: Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states. My main reason for reading the book was my previous advocacy, on this blog, of Elinor Ostrom’s approach to discussion of economic and social issues as a means of promoting dialogue across ideological divides. Elinor Ostrom argued that instead of presuming that individuals sharing common pool resources will inevitably experience the tragedy of the commons, we should leave ideology aside and seek to learn from experience why some efforts to solve commons problems have succeeded while others have failed. I suggested that if we apply Elinor Ostrom’s research methodology to national politics we should also seek to learn from experience why some countries have been more successful than others in coping with the tendency of interest group activity to have wealth-destroying impacts that are analogous to over-fishing.

Derek Wall describes himself as a “left-wing member of a Green Party”. When I started reading the book I didn’t expect to be able to endorse it as suitable reading for anyone other than people who self-identify as having radical views, or have some desire to be able to have a dialogue with radicals. The fact that I endorse it as worthwhile reading for a wider audience illustrates the potential for Elinor Ostrom’s views to have wide appeal across the ideological spectrum. The nonpolemical tone of the book is a credit to the author. The deep impression that Elinor Ostrom’s views have had on Derek Wall will be obvious to everyone who reads the book.

The rules for radicals that Derek Wall has derived from Elinor Ostrom’s writings are listed below, with some brief explanation summarised from the book:

1. Think about institutions. Economic activity is shaped by institutional rules. Formal rules are less important than the “dos and don’t that one learns on the ground that may not exist in any written document”.

2. Pose social change as problem solving. Those who look at politics and economics in an abstract way often fail to deal effectively with particular issues.

3. Embrace diversity. Polycentricism promotes good decision-making. The idea of a god-like leader or committee with perfect information is a myth.

4. Be specific. Move from slogans to analysis. Keep asking what can we specifically do in a specific context.

5. Listen to the people. People who participate in commons may be more likely to have good ideas about solving problems than outside experts.

6. Self-government is possible. The Ostrom approach of promoting self-government at a local level provides an attractive alternative to both top-down bureaucratic management and exercise of power by populist politicians.

7. Everything changes. Evolution happens. Technological change is creating new opportunities for collective economic activity e.g. Wikipedia.

8. Map power. If you can map flows of power, you are in a better position to change the flows.

9. Collective ownership can work. It is not always utopian and unrealistic.

10. Human beings are part of nature too.  Ecological problems are profoundly political. The politics of humanity has an influence on the rest of nature.

11. All institutions are constructed, so can be constructed differently. Communities need to keep adapting and reinventing institutions. Institutional development should occur constantly and engage all citizens.  

12. No panaceas. Imperfect humans cannot design utopia. If we attempt to construct institutional blueprints failure is likely.

13. Complexity does not mean chaos. Polycentricism and overlapping jurisdictions can be more efficient than hierarchical structures with linear chains of command.

It seems to me that most of those rules are as relevant to conservatives as to radicals. In all modern democracies conservatives and radicals seem to share the misconception that all economic and social problems can be solved if they can win and hold on to power at a national level.