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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Strawman Alert

Tim Worstall comes out ahead in a dustup with George Monbiot over wind farms. Of course, it helps if you can put words in your opponent's mouth. Monbiot, in this article, writes:

In other words, there is no sustainable way of meeting current projections for energy demand. The only strategy in any way compatible with environmentalism is one led by a vast reduction in total use.

Worstall comments:

Yup, George wants us all to go back to being medieval peasants. Good one.

Of course--it's that simple! Current levels of energy consumption are absolutely necessary to maintain the present standard of living. It couldn't be possible that subsidies to transportation and energy consumption make large factories thousands of miles away artificially competitive against small ones where we live, or that such subsidies combined with zoning laws and FHA redlining reduce the market incentive to live where you work and shop. When it comes to technological determinism, nobody comes close to a state socialist or a technocratic liberal for sheer, crude materialism--except a corporate capitalist, that is! Worstall sounds like Friedrich Engels, Art Schlesinger, or J.K. Galbraith at their worst.

Here's another Monbiot quote, to put the one above in context:

Wind farms, while necessary, are a classic example of what environmentalists call an "end-of-the-pipe solution". Instead of tackling the problem - our massive demand for energy - at source, they provide less damaging means of accommodating it. Or part of it. The Whinash project, by replacing energy generation from power stations burning fossil fuel, will reduce carbon dioxide emission by 178,000 tonnes a year. This is impressive, until you discover that a single jumbo jet, flying from London to Miami and back every day, releases the climate-change equivalent of 520,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. One daily connection between Britain and Florida costs three giant wind farms.

If anything is a prime candidate for free-market problem solving, it's the fuel-guzzling jumbo jets Monbiot complains of. The civil aviation system in the U.S., jumbo jets and all, is almost entirely a creature of the state. The airport infrastructure of the 20th century was built mostly with government funds, with heavy use of eminent domain. No attempt was made until the 1970s to run airports on aviation fuel tax revenue--and even then, the operating cost didn't figure in amortization of previous government loot. Had the system been built from the first entirely with voluntary user fees, and voluntary sales of land, we'd have a civil aviation system several orders of magnitude smaller--and "air freight" would probably mean shipping by zeppelin. Even today, if the system had to forego eminent domain and operate entirely on user fees, it would be frozen at its present scale. For example, see "On Airports and Individual Rights," by Tibor Machan:

Some people will say that stringent protection of rights would lead to small airports, at best, and many constraints on construction. Of course—but what’s so wrong with that?

As for those jumbo jets themselves, they are a spinoff of Cold War military production. The aircraft industry was spiralling into red ink with the postwar demobilization, and did not regain solvency until the uptick in military spending of the late '40s. [Frank Kofsky, Harry S. Truman and the War Scare of 1948] What's more, the machine tools for producing large airplanes were so complex and expensive that the production runs for civilian airliners alone wouldn't pay for them--which is where heavy bomber production came into the picture. [David Noble, America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism]

If it weren't for the state's role in subsidizing those airports and freeways, we'd be consuming most of our stuff from factories a lot closer to home, and shipping most of the rest by rail. We don't need the government to knock this crap down; we just need it to stop propping it up.

Granted, Monbiot probably isn't thinking primarily of market forces or cost internalization as a way to produce present levels of consumption goods with less energy input. But nothing in the phrase "vast reduction in total use" is inconsistent with that. In fact, I sent Mr. Monbiot the following email a while back, and got a pretty favorable response:

I believe the solution to the crisis is already built in. There's no need for government-imposed austerity measures. The price of oil itself will lead to the austerity measures. Such a scenario was depicted over twenty years ago by Warren Johnson in Muddling Toward Frugality: rising fuel prices make transportation-intensive forms of production less and less competitive, and force a radical decentralization of the economy.

As it is, the corporate economy exists at the present level of concentration only because of state capitalist intervention in the free market. The government absorbs (or rather transfers to the taxpayers) all the inefficiency costs of large-scale production, so that big business can operate at many times the peak economy of scale. But the more fuel prices rise, the less feasible subsidies to transportation and fuel consumption become. Eventually the breaking point will be reached at which the state can no longer absorb the costs of subsidizing inefficiency.

Such subsidies lead to fundamental irrationality by distorting the function of the market price system as a feedback mechanism: when allowed to operate without interference, it coordinates supply to demand by telling the consumer the real cost of providing a resource, and enabling him to make a rational decision about how much to consume. Interference with price-feeback produces the same results as a distortion of the hormonal feedback mechanism in the human body: gigantism and collapse. In the case of transportation, we have demands on highways and airports increasing many times faster than new capacity can be built, and existing structures decaying faster than money can be appropriated to replace them.

When we have a genuine free market, and big business has to internalize all its operating costs, we will also have an end to corporate capitalism.


Anonymous Neil said...

When I was a young boy, my parents didn't have a car, I (shock! horror!) walked to school and back and rather than taking a jet somewhere on holiday, we caught the train to visit our friends by the seaside, some forty miles away. Such is the life of the medieval peasant.

Anwyay, spare a thought for Mr W, he has to churn out one of these Moonbat-bashing pieces each week to placate whoever it is he writes this stuff to placate. Lucky for him that his readers are so stuck on their Politically Correct trains of thought, otherwise they might actually notice details like the ones you've so ably detailed.

April 28, 2005 2:35 PM  
Blogger Tim Worstall said...

Great example of missing the point here. Monbiot tells us that wind power will not solve the energy problem. Quite correct in that, but he ignores nuclear, which might.
Georges does praise Tinker’s Bottom a lot, which is indeed a lifestyle like medieval peasantry, as does the document he seems to get most of his ideas from, Blueprint for the Future.
I don’t mind being called a technocratic liberal but to compare me to Galbraith, Schlesinger or Engels strikes me as a little unkind. Friedman, Hayek or Von Mises are closer to my views.

April 29, 2005 2:04 AM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

The use of extreme straw man arguments is actually a form of hysteria. You see this all the time in life. Take for example the neatness freak for whom a pillow out of place is equated with living in rubbish up to your knees, or the anti-alcohol fanatic who equates having a glass of beer with falling down drunkeness. The politiucal versions of this hysterical approach are no different - mild pink social democracy equated with Stalinism, a someowhat lower level of consumtion or energy use equated with going back to the Middle Ages etc. It all boils down to a mentality that is incapable of dealing with any other approach to living than their own narrow conception of it.

April 29, 2005 8:12 AM  
Blogger Adem D. Kupi said...

Tim, that's assuming that there is an "energy problem" in the first place.
There is, perhaps, if you want to subsidize consumption levels come hell or high water, the Keynesian way. But I think allowing consumption to rise and fall in accordance with marginal scarcity is really much more "sustainable" as well as being "efficient". The problem is really one of prior intervention, like most problems humans face.
Better that we consume less and decentralize our society if that's what market forces are driving towards.
If nuclear power becomes cost-benefit efficient(which I doubt, at least for the near future), no one will have to subsidize it.

April 29, 2005 10:27 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Well, you're certainly on the slippery slope toward becoming a medieval peasant--better consume some more energy, pronto!


If I missed the point, it's because you didn't make it in your post. You simply quoted Monbiot's call for using less energy, and treated that as in itself tantamount to a call for a primitivist lifestyle. And implicit in equating the two is the assumption, shared by Galbraith et al, that the present large market areas and levels of centralization are necessary for a modern standard of living.

As for nuclear, here in the states it's heavily subsidized at most steps of the production chain, from military-funded R&D, to government-built access roads to uranium mines, to federally-subsidized waste disposal. Not to mention Price-Anderson, which indemnifies the industry from most tort liability for an accident. Just the other day, Bush was calling for new exemptions from liability. Providing new forms of subsidized energy, to meet the excess demand resulting from previous subsidies to energy consumption, is like a Rube Goldberg invention.


They're also a kind of verbal shorthand, appealing to the assumptions one shares with an audience without actually having to defend them.


Good point. Bush's line about "guaranteeing safe, reliable and affordable energy" to the American economy isn't exactly what I'd call a "free market" position.

Good point

April 29, 2005 3:23 PM  

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