Pride Goes Before The Fall

I always like buying The American Prospect. It is usually full of smart articles, and it’s nice not to have the checkout guy at Borders sigh mournfully at me the way he does whenever I buy National Review.

The current issue is pretty much a bunch of policy prescriptions to be implemented starting about, say, January 21, 2009. These proposals struck me as an almost-perfect illustration of the kind of hubris that has infected the American political class since the end of the Cold War. This is not limited to one party or faction – the whole governing elite seems to me to be drunk with power.

I’ll take Chris Mooney’s article on global warming policy as an illustrative example, only because this is an issue about which I am informed. While he makes lots of misleading assertions about the problem, I’ll ignore that and focus on his proposed policies. Mooney proposes: an ever-tightening cap on US emissions that will reduce emissions by 80% by 2050; spending $150 billion on a clean energy research “Manhattan Project” over 10 years; erecting large-scale public works preparedness projects, such as building seawalls around New York; and leading the rest of the world, notably India and China, into a global version of an emissions reduction regime.

He is casually calling for radically restructuring the entire energy sector of the US economy, and further assuming that just by passing a law that says we are going to reduce emissions by X amount that we have done something. It’s not like some future Congress will be bound by this. The real, practical, part of this proposal is to institute a new category of (implicit) taxation. Note that this requires us to believe that the threat is not urgent enough that we have to start anything that he considers to be really painful right now, but it’s also not distant enough that we can wait to get more information before starting this new (implicit) form of taxation – we have, by the standards of multi-century forecasting, an exquisitely accurate glidepath that we must get on right now.

Next, consider the $150 billion dollars of energy research. What is money? I think Adam Smith had it exactly right – money is the power to command the labor of others. GDP per labor force participant in the US today is about $86,000. If we assume about a 50 year working lifetime, then this $150 billion dollars translates roughly to the government seizing the lifetime labor of about 35,000 people. This is a Pharaoh’s army of 35,000 souls.

Finally, consider the idea that the US will lead China and India to agree to reduce emissions substantially (without which, the AGW-related benefits of US reductions would be pretty hard to justify). Together, these two countries have more than 2,400,000,000 people and are rapidly-rising world powers. What makes us think that we will have the power to “lead” either one of these countries to do something that is not in its own interests? The US is not some colossus that can dominate the globe. Wouldn’t recognizing prudent limits to American power lead one to at least condition US emissions reduction on reductions by other major emitters (as the EU has discussed)?

Where is the humility about the complexity of society, the inherent difficulty in predicting the future of anything, and the limits to our capabilities? Put differently, where is the sense of how much harder it is to do a thing than to talk about doing it?

Mooney’s article is just an example of the kind of hubris that I think negatively affects most major areas of foreign and domestic politics. There are surely many causes, but a big one must be the lack of the discipline created by an external challenger. I doubt the human propensity to power was any different decades ago, and many academic-types were surely spinning some fantastic schemes, but there’s nothing like an implacable, nuclear-armed adversary to keep the egos of electorates and policy-makers in check. Now, surely it’s better overall not to have the Soviet Union (or Hitler, or the great Depression,…) around any more, but it does call for greater self-discipline on our part.