We Do Cooperate

by Don Boudreaux on November 30, 2006

in Complexity & Emergence, Cooperation, Technology

I’m pleased that The New York Review of Books published this letter of mine, as well as author Bill McKibben’s response to my missive, in its Dec. 21 issue:


By Donald J. Boudreaux, Reply by Bill McKibben

In response to How Close to Catastrophe? (November 16, 2006)

To the Editors:

I’ve read few passages in your pages that are as mistaken as Bill McKibben’s assertion that “the technology we need most badly is the technology of community—the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done…. We Americans haven’t needed our neighbors for anything important…” ["How Close to Catastrophe?," NYR, November 16].

Each of us cooperates daily with countless others—neighbors, fellow citizens, foreigners—to ensure not only our prosperity but our very existence. My mind boggles at the number of people who cooperated to make available to me, for example, the shirt on my back. Cotton growers in Egypt; fashion designers in Italy; textile workers in Malaysia; merchant marines from around the globe; investment bankers in Manhattan; insurers in Hartford; truck drivers along the East Coast; department store executives in Seattle; security guards and retail clerks in Virginia—these people and millions of others cooperated so that I might wear an ordinary shirt. Ditto for my house, my food, my subscription to The New York Review of Books.

For McKibben to say that “cheap fossil fuel has allowed us all to become extremely individualized, even hyperindividualized” is to be blind to the amazing and vast system of cooperation that today spans the globe. Clearly, we have, in spades, “knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done.”

Donald J. Boudreaux
Chairman, Department of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia

Bill McKibben replies:

Donald J. Boudreaux’s response proves precisely the point I was
trying to make—and it says something about the blinders that too many
economists have strapped on. We do cooperate, unconsciously, to promote
our individual self-interest; Chairman Boudreaux’s slightly less
elegant restatement of Adam Smith’s remarks about the butcher and the
baker are, as far as I can tell, not in serious dispute. What is in
dispute is whether this cooperation carries over into more crucial
matters—like keeping the planet from overheating in the next decade.
Since my article came out, the British government has released a report
estimating that the economic cost of global warming will exceed the
combined impact of both world wars and the Great Depression of the
1930s. So far, there is precious little sign of our communities coming
together to meet this challenge—politically, economically, culturally.
Which doesn’t prove Smith—or even Boudreaux—wrong. Just incomplete.

And I thank Tibor Machan for alerting me to my letter’s appearance in TNYRB — a fact that prompts me to share with you this wonderful recent op-ed by Tibor.

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Trey Tomeny November 30, 2006 at 3:58 pm

It is interesting to note that Mr. McKibben rebuts Dr. Boudreaux's very hard, shirt on back evidence of cooperation that has happened with his recital of conjecture about what may happen. He then criticizes Dr. Boudreaux's argument as incomplete.

God forbid that anyone should stand trial for what might happen instead of what has happened. The "economists blinders" of which Mr. McKibben speaks may just be the humble character that is needed to analyze an uncertain future against the evident past.

ben November 30, 2006 at 5:26 pm

Don, I'd be interested in seeing your response to his reply. Looks to me like he has "shifted the goalposts" but nevertheless your thoughts on his reply would be interesting.

JonnyEcon November 30, 2006 at 7:40 pm

That is, of course, assuming that Global Warming is real and really as bad as everyone predicts. I am not convinced even though it 70 degrees in Southern Kentucky on the last day of November.

Patrick November 30, 2006 at 9:03 pm

Boudreaux: The free market allows a natural and unifying cooperation among individuals, communities and nations.

McKibben: There's no disputing that but…"the sky is falling, the sky is falling!"

Matt C November 30, 2006 at 10:48 pm

I am graduate student in Economic Policy Analysis, believe me its very difficult, because of the idea that government can solve all problems if they only had analyzed and did it correctly next time.

At any rate, I have to take several policy classes and the professor passed out articles regarding communitarianism or civic republicanism. The argument seems to be very similar to McKibben's. That people don't pay enough attention to their communitiy, that being anything you would like to define as a community. It got me thinking about this whole idea of how Americans only care about themselves and no one else.

If you look at the countries where they are doing something to "help" their neighbors through governmental intervention they are actually less likely to voluntarily help their neighbor. Why is that? Because it becomes the standard idea, that's not my job its the government. When you have government intervention you lose morality, people begin to become amoral. You can argue all you want about the Christian religion, but the one thing it does push is to help those in need. In an disaster, who are those that step up first? The church, for good or bad, their members give of themselves. Please note that I am not arguing the idea of religion.

When you have government intervention you also lose civil manners. Everyone becomes "equal" and they automatically deserve respect. Respect isn't earned, by being polite. In order to be successful in business you have to have manners, you can't yell, scream and make demands of other people. Well, maybe you can, but you won't last long. People won't want to do business with you. McKibben may well believe that economist have blinders on, but economic relationships help to draw people closer. I believe a previous posting has already touched on the idea that Global Trade would help to promote peace. Just think if FDR had followed that line of thinking with the Japanese, we may never had a Dec 7 attack on Pearl Harbor.

I will disregard McKibben's argument for Global Warming, because no matter how much the proponents argue there is truly no consensus on the subject; only really really loud screaming from one side. Meteorologist can't even get the weather right most of the time, it changes from hour to hour, can we really trust "models" for years to come?

ben November 30, 2006 at 11:31 pm

What bugs me about McKibben's conclusion is his automatic leap from saying there is a problem to something must be done about it. This is the implicit assumption throughout the warming debate. But wait:

1) There is almost nothing that can be done to prevent warming over the next 50 years anyway, let alone the next decade

2) Governments are exceedingly poor at achieving targets, and usually achieve the opposite of what was intended.

In view of the political weight the global warming movement has recently gained, and the consequences of this movement for individual liberty and centralised control, I believe the most dangerous man on the planet right now is Al Gore.

Russell Nelson December 1, 2006 at 2:10 am

McKibben is frustrated that not everyone is cooperating with him. He perceives a problem clearly, and wants people to help him address it. Unfortunately, many other people do not perceive the problem, or do not believe that his methods are correct. Thus, he maligns US society by saying that they won't cooperate. They'll cooperate, sure, but only with people who are correct. People who are wrong, they ignore.

Slocum December 1, 2006 at 5:41 pm

The problem with McKibben's argument is that with respect to global warming, 'community' and 'cooperation between neighbors' is not what is wanted even if, for the sake of argument, you believe like McKibben that global warming is a looming catastrophe that must be addressed by Kyoto-style agreements. What is needed, if you believe in Kyoto, is international agreements between governments and carbon trading markets which would induce millions of self-interested small changes in countless exchanges between buyers and sellers–just as in the case of Don Boudreaux's shirt. In fact, McKibben himself describes the decentralized, market-based effects of a possible carbon tax in the paragraph above the that Don cites.

For Kyoto-style policies to have any effect, they would do so via market-based cooperation just as Boudreaux describes, not some gauzy form of 'community cooperation'.

pb December 1, 2006 at 6:44 pm

McKibben's response is exactly the kind of non sequiter the Left slides into whenever confronted by logic and facts. Don't bother wasting your time in an effort to refute his statement about global warming, he is not operating according to the rules of rational argumentation. His response is an example of a common Leftist rhetorical tactic. Its purpose is to divert you from the fact that his original argument has no basis in reality (as Boudreaux's letter clearly demonstrates) and get people discussing global warming. After all among the Left, the global warming "crisis" is an article of faith and anyone who questions it is attacked as a nutjob and extremist. Therefore anyone who questions his global warming stance and his original statement is obviously a wacko therefore their arguments don't need to be refuted, just dismissed with an arrogant, knowing smile.

tarran December 3, 2006 at 12:49 am

Let us assume that global warming is real and that it is being caused by human activity.

What will be the effect? First, the planet will *not* be rendered inhabitable. The Earth has gone through very warm and cold cycles previously, and has managed to support populations of species with similar demands for food, water and air as humans have.

What will happen however is that the usefulness of land will change. Existing ports will become inundated. But new potential ports will be created on land that was inland.

Cities may be inundated, but there will be plenty of land inland to build new cities on.

Some farmland will no longer support the crops or livestock that it previously did. However, it will be able to support new forms of plants and livestock.

Now obviously these changes would cost a lot. All the resources invested in building Manhattan would be lost. The new cities and infrastructure would consume resources that would otherwise go to improving our lives.

Many people point to this and claim that obviously we are better off if we prevent the climactic changes.

However, this ignores one problem. The climate also changes independently of human activity. Remember when people thought we were slipping into another Ice Age? That the port of New York was going to become landlocked?

It is impossible to predict or control climate. thus, we could do all kinds of horrible interventions, and in the end still face the problems of changing coastlines, farming patterns etc.

In the end, what we really need is to have a system in place wherein people are free to change land usage to the optimal ones known to them at any moment in time, to maximize the flexibility in constructing infrastructure to make use of changing shorelines and the like. To give people the freedom to experiment with new technologies that are more efficient, produce less pollution etc.

None of this flexibility will be provided by government intervention. The predictions that the government makes will invariably off by a significant amount, and their interventions will with certainty not have the intended effects. The end result is that government intervention in the economy will not stabilize the climate, will leave us worse off, and will make modern civilization less robust and more brittle.

The required flexibility and roubustness is only provided by free markets.

Less intervention and more education is the proper course of action.

Jim December 4, 2006 at 4:25 pm

Readers might be interested to note that McKibben is coming out with a new book, "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future".

From Amazon:
"Book Description
The bestselling author of The End of Nature issues an impassioned call to arms for an economy that creates community and ennobles our lives

In this powerful and provocative manifesto, Bill McKibben offers the biggest challenge in a generation to the prevailing view of our economy. For the first time in human history, he observes, “more” is no longer synonymous with “better”—indeed, for many of us, they have become almost opposites. McKibben puts forward a new way to think about the things we buy, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the money that pays for it all. Our purchases, he says, need not be at odds with the things we truly value.

McKibben’s animating idea is that we need to move beyond “growth” as the paramount economic ideal and pursue prosperity in a more local direction, with cities, suburbs, and regions producing more of their own food, generating more of their own energy, and even creating more of their own culture and entertainment. He shows this concept blossoming around the world with striking results, from the burgeoning economies of India and China to the more mature societies of Europe and New England. For those who worry about environmental threats, he offers a route out of the worst of those problems; for those who wonder if there isn’t something more to life than buying, he provides the insight to think about one’s life as an individual and as a member of a larger community.

McKibben offers a realistic, if challenging, scenario for a hopeful future. As he so eloquently shows, the more we nurture the essential humanity of our economy, the more we will recapture our own." (http://tinyurl.com/kpfgf).

Less growth and less trade is the path to prosperity? I'm skeptical.

Jim December 5, 2006 at 10:49 am

I just noticed that the link in my comment, above, does not work.

Try this one: http://tinyurl.com/kpfgf

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