Conventional and market morality plays itself out in the greenhouse debate

The earth: it’s all about YOU!

Hayek argued that were were naturally selfish.  In fact he proposed the opposite – that human beings are naturally solidaristic, by the ‘natural morality’ that evolved in prehistoric times when bands of humans had to stick together to fight their predators (and other bands of humans).

Don Arthur set these things out in a post a while back (so did I as I recall, but I can’t find my post).

Biology and emotion

According to Hayek, our species has adapted to its environment by developing instinctual responses. Like many other animals, early humans survived by living together in small groups. These groups relied on shared aims and perceptions to coordinate their activities:

These modes of coordination depended decisively on instincts of solidarity and altruism instincts applying to the members of ones own group but not to others. The members of these small groups could thus exist only as such: an isolated man would soon have been a dead man. The primitive individualism described by Thomas Hobbes is hence a myth. The savage is not solitary, and his instinct is collectivist. There was never a war of all against all (p 12).

This natural morality survives even though our circumstances have changed. According to Hayek, civilization depends on our ability to suppress our natural emotional responses.

Culture as a second nature

If human beings had insisted on treating everyone in the same way as they treated members of their small group, then free trade would never have taken root. Hayek argues that, “An order in which everyone treated his neighbour as himself would be one where comparatively few could be fruitful and multiply” (p 13). Over time, people learned how to cooperate with others who were not members of their own small group and who did not share their aims and loyalties. They did this by agreeing on abstract rules:

These rules are handed on by tradition, teaching and imitation, rather than by instinct, and largely consist of prohibitions (shalt nots) that designate adjustable domains for individual decisions. Mankind achieved civilisation by developing and learning to follow rules (first in territorial tribes and then over broader reaches) that often forbade him to do what his instincts demanded, and no longer depended on a common perception of events. These rules, in effect constituting a new and different morality, and to which I would indeed prefer to confine the term morality, suppress or restrain the natural morality (p 12).

For Hayek, these rules developed in much the same way as language. Morality was a human creation in the same way as language was a human creation. Nobody invented right and wrong. Instead, moral rules developed through a process of trial and error. For those of us in the industrialised West, morality includes rules about respect for private property, keeping promises, and paying our own way. These are the values which have made market society possible.

These two ‘moral worlds’ continue to exist in dialectical tension with each other on pretty much every issue – certainly on all or many issues with an important economic dimension.  In the greenhouse debate we can see the first mindset in a great deal of the propaganda for doing something about greenhouse. It’s all about us, shorter showers, more frugal lifestyles, fewer Hummers and four wheel drives.  In fact these things make relatively small differences to actual outcomes. And they are beset with contradictions.  

A few weeks ago The Economist carried a story on Norway’s green progress (or lack thereof depending on your point of view). Norway has made stronger contributions to greenhouse abatement than most other countries.  But it can afford to – it sells piles of oil and gas to other countries for a very nice fee, so that they can burn it and emit the carbon and Norway can pocket the cash (and indeed use it to import permits under the EU’s ETS.)

The greenies highlight these contrasts. They’re not happy.  You know the kind of thing – loopholes etc. And they think Norway should do more – as all Green groups think their own governments should do.  I think this is all pretty disastrous.  You see we’re not on the African savanna any more. We have a global problem.  And so we need thinking that is capable of rising about our solidaristic village thinking. Norway HAS made a greater contribution to greenhouse issues than other countries AND it’s a lowest cost producer of oil and gas, which all countries continue to use.

We need to use the basic ideas of our ‘second nature’ the ideas that come with some reflection and which emerged when humans encountered the need to interact with other human beings who were strangers to them (typically in trade). Those ideas were refined by the early economists like Adam Smith.  They suggest the following way out of the moras we’re in at present.

We need to introduce carbon pricing in some plausibly equitable way.  It’s not perfect, it’s easy to quibble on a thousand small grounds, but that could be done by giving everyone a per capita emissions entitlement – presumably administered using existing infrastructure – which is by nation states. And we need to reduce carbon emssions.  We could ask some panel of experts to propose country by country limits based on some politically agreed formula. Once permits are allocated they should be freely traded. This is efficient and addresses fundamental equity concerns.  And stuff like concern with ‘loopholes’ – meaning whether people trade, and how they achieve their carbon constraint – goes out the window. If countries want to trade permits, what the hell business is it of anyone else.

Anyway, two can tango.  While Norwegian Greens argue that Norway should do more, the populist Progress Party is taking its lessons from the more sophisticated ‘market morality’ – our second nature as creatures who understand markets – and yet it’s making the points with a populist flair that appeals to our ‘first’ or ‘natural morality’ – which never likes to be treated differently to anyone else.

The Progress Party, which has the support of roughly a quarter of the electorate, has seized on these complaints. Ketil Solvik Olsen, its spokesman on the environment, points out lots of inconsistencies in the governments stance. Why should Norwegian drivers or air passengers pay many times more in carbon taxes than it would cost to offset their emissions? Why is the government spending so much to develop the technology to capture emissions from gas-fired power plants when what the world needs most is carbon-capture at coal-fired plants? Why is Mr Stoltenberg so anxious to stop Norwegians using gas for heating and cooking, and yet happy for Britons to do so? To celebrate the opening of a new gas pipeline to Britain, he even dropped in on an ordinary British customer for a cup of tea heated up with Norwegian gas, Mr Solvik Olsen points out, just the sort of thing the government frowns on in Norway.

All of which leads me to believe that there is no way out of this mess we’re in – over the whole planet – that’s not keyed into the ‘second nature’ of the market sensibilty.  And the broad outlines of the solution seem clear enough.  They’re a kind of ‘equilibrium of thought’ which, if implemented would bring about some kind of mental repose and an absence of the kinds of gross contradictions that populations will not put up with when they watch their own sacrifice going to subsidise the profligacy of others.

Greens are right now howling about how low our target is. Well it seems like a fair effort compared to where we are.  But wait till we’re busting a gut and aluminium smelters are heading off to countries that have no commitment to introducing hard carbon pricing.  Australians will have their own Progress Parties, unpicking such arrangements, pouring cups of tea from pots made of metals that used to be smelted in Australia but which are now being imported, for no sensible environmental or economic reason.

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Ken Lovell
Ken Lovell
12 years ago

Nicholas with respect, your post is an example of a lot of writing about climate change that manages to introduce so many irrelevant ideas the central point gets lost. We’ve already seen what happens to a prime ministerial thesis about political economy if he invokes the sacred name of Hayek; why muddy the AGW discussion in a similar fashion?

Hayek has become a deeply divisive symbolic figure. Merely by grounding some aspect of your argument on his views, you tend to trigger either support or hostility from many readers for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the substance of the main case you are trying to make.

Moreover, some philosophical proposition about ‘natural’ versus ‘learned’ morality is self-evidently highly contentious and invites all sorts of metaphysical discussions that have nothing to do with climate change. However, some people will tend to accept or reject your points about action to manage AGW on the basis of whether or not they agree with your proposition about morality, distracting attention from what should be a rational, objective discussion. Tim Blair is probably drafting one of his hilarious ‘look what the deluded warming alarmists are on about now’ posts even as I write.

In short, posts like this reinforce the idea that we are having a ‘debate’, where people line up on one side or the other. IMHO this mentality has, more than any other single factor, prevented the human race from engaging meaningfully with the challenge of responding to AGW. Why muddy the waters even further?

The professional denialists have become masters of the art of distraction and confusing the central arguments. There’s no need to give them extra ammunition.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
12 years ago

While the post is harder than usual for one from Nick to follow, I’d put the issue this way: human nature did evolve in ways in which positive emotional reactions were limited to small numbers of other people we knew personally and negative emotions were focused on immediate threats to survival. Neither of these emotional reactions is well-suited to solving issues like climate change. However, we have culturally evolved ways of getting along with and cooperating with strangers, of which markets are one important institution. This has allowed global cooperation of amazing complexity (though with equally complex negative consequences when on part of the global network melts down).

In many countries there is strong in-principle support for climate change action. But there is also a collective action problem, which can only be solved if most people perceive that others are sharing in sacrifices. The institutions to achieve this are difficut to design.

Ken Lovell
Ken Lovell
12 years ago

Nicholas we’ll have to agree to disagree. To my mind, making practical progress in responding to AGW – which can only happen with very widespread public support – requires focus and clarity. These are best achieved by concentrating on the opinions of the majority of qualified scientists and their implications for our societies. Couching the discussion in terms of evidence and reasonable interpretations of that evidence, in other words.

The most brilliant move the professional denialists ever made was to frame climate change as an artefact of ‘the left’. At one stroke they challenged a large chunk of the population either to deny global warming or to betray their ideological soul mates (I’m not suggesting BTW that this was a deliberate strategy but it’s the way it’s turned out). Introducing notions of morality – let alone a contentious theory of morality based on some distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ morality – only reinforces the impression that AGW is no more than another front in the so-called culture wars.

You say ‘Its true that the media wont ignore the denialists, but I cant help that, theyre part of the problem too.’ That’s not completely true, is it? To the extent that anyone injects unneccesary distractions into the discussion, or cites names that we know carry a lot of baggage (I mean would you cite Marx or Ayn Rand and then argue it doesn’t affect the tenor of the discussion?), it provides the denialists with more material to work with and the media with more ‘the debate continues to rage (so the jury must still be out)’ type stories.

One thing I’ve learnt from blogging – and also from teaching, to a lesser extent – is that one shouldn’t say anything that distracts from the main point you want to make. If you do, someone will likely pick it up and run with it and next thing you know you are so pre-occupied with some extraneous matter everyone has lost sight of the original issue.

Ken Lovell
Ken Lovell
12 years ago

Nicholas I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully the politicians and the bureaucrats are expert at negotiation and game plays, but they are also constrained by perceived public opinion which in turn is influenced by the media. Since the media is obsessed with reporting just about anything as if it is a conflict with two sides, the less material provided to fuel these fabricated conflicts the better.

Ken Lovell
Ken Lovell
12 years ago

I set out some thoughts on the futility of trying to cope with climate change quite a while back, they still reflect my opinions although I hope I remain open to new argument.

I don’t ‘support the current thrust of the international approach which is that developing countries shouldnt be required to make binding commitments’ in the sense of advocating it as a useful outcome but I don’t see how any alternative has any hope of success in practice. In short, ‘road to nowhere’ sums up my position pretty well.

Don’t quite understand why some perceived similarity to another commenter’s views elsewhere is ‘intriguing’ but whatever.

12 years ago

I am probably one of most ‘denialist’ people who actually comment on this blog. But I am a lot more about denying policies like Kyoto that don’t appear to mean anything than I am about denying climate change action.

I also start from a core premise that generally speaking, the solution to nearly every problem is more money – and thus solutions that actively make people poorer are hardly solutions at all. Nonetheless I suspect that in general a richer world is a lot more ‘greener’ than a poor one, except in the perverted and insane sense that fundamentally deprived countries are ‘green’.

From that perspective I consider Nick’s views very sensible and I find a lot I could support in them. In fact I basically agree with him.

If you bear in mind that this is a democracy, and that as much as it may make you sick my vote is worth exactly as much as yours (subject to the vagaries of our voting system), then I would suggest that any greeny worth their salt be out their paying people like Nick to get this stuff out more where it might actually encourage the support of people like me.

Besides, I seem to remember a passage from Mill in which he fundamentally disagreed with your conclusion that the right ideas should not be subject to respectable criticism because that might encourage less steady thinkers to doubt them. I would include the whole Ch II in this comment.

12 years ago

Probably we should link this one to the earlier article on Tragedy of the Commons.

Not entirely sure whether to cry over the atmosphere commons or that of the scientific method being based on skepticism and open communication.

12 years ago

“From that perspective I consider Nicks views very sensible and I find a lot I could support in them.” Ditto

“As things stand Im serious when I say that Im not sure why were bothering”

I’d qualify that by saying why are we bothering to look OS for the answers? All I can say to that is- how’re they doing? If there’s one serious point AGW fans have it’s that ‘we’ should take an exemplary approach for others to emulate and follow. Where is the exemplary approach in cap and trade now? It was always a top down approach that had some immediate visceral appeal to left/greens that they could dump on some perceived business bogeyman. ie ‘we’ need to stop ‘them’ from trashing Gaia. The problem with that approach was always the obvious that ‘they’ are really ‘we’, since they merely service our demand. The Rudd Govt had to face that underlying truth the moment it sat down with business to give them the bad news and business mugged them with the reality, or as Nicholas points out gave them their ‘Norway moment’. Mind you while business was at one on that for the obvious reasons, that doesn’t stop them breaking ranks individually to do the same moral posing as politicians driving Priuses or handing out garden mulch or worm farm subsidies. Many play the same game posing as going ‘carbon neutral’. They’re usually white collar posers who add up the petrol in the company cars and the office power bill and buy some offsets and say abracadabra, we’re carbon neutral folks. Apparently they only ride their horses there from their wattle and daub huts among their subsistence agriculture plots for a bit of light relief from the drudgery of it all.

What’s the answer? Level playing field price without all this quantitative wank and the way you do that is to look at how you could seriously change the constitution of ‘OUR’ marketplace and stop getting sidetracked by trying to change the whole bloody world for chrissakes! You start out by imagining OUR PATCH with a maximum theoretical price for carbon(ie it’s the only thing we raise taxes on) and ask yourself would that be the answer to all our prayers? Hmmm….weeelll, there might be some other things we’d like to consider….what about taxing resource use generally….hmmm….

Get the picture? Because when you follow that process through logically you’ll come up with my CM or something similar, unless you’re really just a dyed-in-the wool, pathological, quantity control freak who believes in telling everybody what to do and we know how many millions that kills anyway, so we may as well all roll over and go back to sleep.