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The Burden of Persuasion Should Be On Those Persons Who Propose Interventions

In the comments section at EconLog (on this superb post by David Henderson) Thomas Hutcheson responded to my criticism of his express support for taxing greenhouse-gas emissions. Here’s his response:

Yes, I do think that taxing net emissions of CO2 and methane is the lowest cost way to reduce the future cost of CO2 concentrations and future investment in adapting to a warmer climate. Now if _you_ do not think that increasing concentrations are going to produce future costs, then fine, argue THAT position. Of if you think there is better way to reduce those costs, argue that. But I think [it] would be good to go beyond just refuting the wildest estimates of climate change costs.

Here’s my reply (modified from the original at EconLog) to Mr. Hutcheson’s response:

Mr. Hutcheson:

First of all, my earlier comment had nothing to do with “refuting the wildest estimates of climate change costs.”

Second, and more importantly, I believe you when you write that you “think that taxing net emissions of CO2 and methane is the lowest cost way to reduce the future cost of CO2 concentrations and future investment in adapting to a warmer climate.” Lots of people have the same thought. But merely thinking such a thing – even when joined by lots of people in thinking such a thing – isn’t evidence of the thought’s validity. Nor does such thinking put the burden of persuasion or proof on those who think differently, or even who simply question the thought’s validity.

You and other proponents of taxing greenhouse-gas emisions propose a massive government intervention. The burden of persuasion is on you to make the case empirically for the tax – a case that’s not made, by the way, merely by reciting the familiar textbook model of Pigouvian taxes. This burden is not on those of us who point out that the informational basis on which the case for such a tax is proposed is too flimsy to support the tax as sound public policy.

When in sufficient doubt about the merits of a particular policy, the default should be not to impose that policy and, instead, to allow individuals to continue to operate freely in the market. We’ve plenty of empirical evidence that individuals operating in free markets have both incentives and creative capacities to deal with problems as these emerge. Most such ‘dealing with problems’ is piecemeal – e.g., in the case of climate change, this town builds a higher levee, those families and businesses move further inland, those other families and businesses remain in place but purchase more insurance, some other people invest more in air-conditioning…. this list is practically endless. These piecemeal adjustments add up to significant precautions against the risks and costs of climate change

Adjustments such as these aren’t as sexy or as noticeable as is a government-imposed ‘solution.’ And they certainly provide a far smaller stage for the performances of people who wish to order other people about. But these piecemeal adjustments are real. And until you or someone else presents sufficiently detailed evidence that the likely least costly way of dealing with climate change is to tax emissions of fuels that have powered the world’s industrial development (and, hence, human beings’ magnificently falling mortality and morbidity) for the past 200-plus years, the case for a tax on greenhouse-gas emissions will remain a religious dogma and not a scientifically justified position.