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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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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, Part 7: Those Big Government Progressives at the ASI

Dave Pollard laments: "There seems to be something in progressives' DNA that inclines them to want to centralize, globalize, homogenize."

As a case in point, he mentions the overwrought fellow at the alternative energy meeting Pollared mentioned earlier, who favored suppressing decentralized energy technology (I covered it here). As it turned out, the guy was a liberal (in the Ted Kennedy sense): he preferred "centrally-managed, efficient 'wind farms.'"

But compare his views to those of the Adam Smith Institute's Dr. Eamon Butler:

But there is another problem that could lead to power cuts in a few years too. The government decided to run down Britain's nuclear capacity. But the idea that wind and wave power can fill the gap is just plain daft. (And many protestors are now pointing out that ugly wind farms in rural areas and the pylons needed to transport their energy are hardly environmentally friendly either.) Frankly, unless we start thinking about new nuclear build -- and clear the planning blight from coal and gas generation -- it's going to be a cold, dark winter in 2008.

Notice how Butler just assumes that the only viable model for wind power involves generating the electricity at huge, Stalinesque wind farms, and distributing it via a centralized grid. Reminds me of Plunket's Law, quoted by Kirkpatrick Sale from solar power specialist Jerry Plunkett:

The Federal government has what I believe is an almost incurable habit of undertaking large-scale projects. Given two equally valid technical responses to a national problem... the technology that is larger in scale will invariably be preferred to the smaller more decentralized technology.

Apparently there are a few big government liberals hiding out in the ASI.

As for "nuclear build," if Dr. Butler thinks it can be done profitably without massive government subsidies and government indemnities for liability, I wish he'd explain how. It certainly hasn't been done that way so far. As I have written elsewhere, virtually every step of the nuclear production chain involves heavy taxpayer subsidies:

Close to 100% of all research and development for nuclear power is either performed by the government itself, in its military reactor program, or by lump-sum R & D grants; the government waives use-charges for nuclear fuels, subsidizes uranium production, provides access to government land below market price (and builds hundreds of miles of access roads at taxpayer expense), enriches uranium, and disposes of waste at sweetheart prices. The Price-Anderson Act of 1957 limited the liability of the nuclear power industry, and assumed government liability above that level.

As for the actual process of generating and distributing power, even in these days of so-called "privatization" of electric utilities, we've seen just how privatized the risk and cost really are.

Altogether, the state of affairs was explained quite well by an unusually frank Westinghouse official testifying before Congress in the 1950s (quoted by Walter Adams):

If you were to inquire whether Westinghouse might consider putting up its own money.., we would have to say "No." The cost of the plant would be a question mark until after we built it and, by that sole means, found out the answer. We would not be sure of successful plant operation until after we had done all the work and operated successfully.... This is still a situation of pyramiding uncertainties.... There is a distinction between risk-taking and recklessness.

Lest Dr. Butler's post be dismissed as an aberration, consider Dr. Madsen Pirie's appeal to France, that bastion of free market economics, as an example of a commendable nuclear energy policy.

It's safe to assume that neither Dr. Butler, "Britain's largest energy companies," nor "the unions working in them," favor a free market in energy. That would mean a price of energy that reflected the actual cost of producing it--and people and businesses would consume a lot less of it, and get more of what they did consume from wind and solar power (generated in their own neighborhoods or even at home, not from giant farms). And people might live closer to where they worked and shopped, and buy goods produced a lot closer to home. But corporate capitalism as we know it could not survive without the government's role in guaranteeing a supply of "cheap and abundant energy."

The folks Adam Smith Institute, it seems, aren't entirely opposed to big government welfare and regulations--just those that benefit working people.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The assumption is always something big isn't it? But the cheapest and easiest power to generate is the power that isn't used. We could easily remove the need to build both big wind farms and big nuclear power plants if we insulated out buildings better and did things like wearing a sweater instead of turning up the thermostat.

The advantage of this sort of action is of course that by and large it is within an individuals control - which is why neither the ASI or governments like it - it is much harder to tax a sweater!

March 02, 2005 6:02 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Egad! Surely you're not suggesting the Adam Smith Institute begrudges individuals control over their own lives? Why that would be... (what's the word?)... hypocritical!

March 02, 2005 8:09 AM  

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