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Novel Fanaticism

Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

David Ignatius proposes that climate change be treated “as a moral issue – a matter like civil rights” (“The moral issue of climate change,” Nov. 19).

This comparison fails.  The core concern that sparked the civil-rights movement was simple: government-mandated racial segregation and discrimination wrongly prevented each African-American from pursuing his or her life’s goals on equal footing with white Americans.  Neither the existence nor the baleful effects of such barriers was ever in doubt.  In addition, destroying those barriers was both a relatively straightforward procedure and, by any remotely acceptable ethical standards, unambiguously the right thing to do.

Climate change is completely different.  Legitimate debate continues over the magnitude of impending temperature change and – despite the predictions of the novel that inspired Mr. Ignatius’s call for a moral crusade against climate change – debate continues over the likely consequences of any such change.  Legitimate debate also rages over the effects of government efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Ending Jim Crow simply got government out of the way of peaceful and productive human interactions.  In contrast, empowering government to address climate change complicatedly puts government in the way of market interactions – interactions that have generated what Nobel economist Edmund Phelps calls “mass flourishing”* on a scale unprecedented in history.  Given governments’ dubious record of intervening into economies – and given free markets’ impressive record of raising the living standards of ordinary people and of adapting to change – to fuel with moral fervor government efforts to intervene on the climate front would be a grave and dangerous error.

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

* Edmund S. Phelps, Mass Flourishing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).