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Sloganeering versus Serious Thinking

Here’s a letter to a correspondent:

Mr. Joshua Holman

Mr. Holman:

Upset by my “Notable & Quotable” in today’s Wall Street Journal, you ask if I can “really be so clueless to not know the commonsense meaning of sustainability.”  You then baselessly accuse me of being “paid by the Kochs to emit word pollution” to “block the work of the many activists struggling to save our planet from over use, exploitation and destruction.”

Here’s a quiz: Who wrote the following? “It is very hard to be against sustainability.  In fact, the less you know about it, the better it sounds.  That is true of lots of ideas.  The questions that come to be connected with sustainable development or sustainable growth or just sustainability are genuine and deeply felt and very complex.  The combination of deep feeling and complexity breeds buzzwords, and sustainability has certainly become a buzzword.”

a) me
b) Ronald Reagan
c) George Will
d) John Stossel
e) Milton Friedman
f) Robert Solow

The correct answer is “f,” Robert Solow* – a distinctly Progressive Nobel laureate economist at M.I.T. who nevertheless, by your logic, must have been paid by “corporate polluters” to “discredit the sustainability movement.”

You describe yourself as an “informed and involved college junior.”  I don’t doubt that you’re involved.  But I beg you – sincerely – to consider the possibility that your information is not as full and free of error as you now suppose it to be.  Reality cannot be grasped, and it certainly cannot be improved, with slogans.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* Robert M. Solow, “Sustainability: An Economist’s Perspective” (a lecture delivered at Woods Hole, MA, on June 14, 1991).

(I thank Bill Workman for the pointer to Solow’s thoughtful essay.)