Joe Otten recently summarised the various chapters of Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century (aka. the Huhne Manifesto?). Joe has generally been sympathetic to the “Social Liberal” argument, though as a member of the Sheffield Hallam constituency party one should not take his views on any particular issue for granted.
The focus of Joe’s attentions is liberal environmentalism, so the environment chapter in that book was bound to peak his interest. I’m not going to repeat Joe’s summary here, but I am going to raise three points that I made in response to his post.
Firstly, too many environmentalists are willing to throw away progress – both material and political. This is partly because of a misguided belief that environmental degradation is an inevitable consequence of economic growth, itself an echo of long-standing Romantic critiques of the Enlightenment and the fear of progress and change. Just as population growth did not exhaust our capacity to feed the people or increase their material wellbeing, so it does not automatically have to toast us in an ever-hotter atmosphere. There are alternative means to generate energy and there are technological solutions to rising levels of CO2. Those who want to halt or reverse economic growth are usually fired by either a combination of a Romantic and a quasi-religious view of an Arcadian alternative, or by other ideologies that have found an new justification in environmental extremism.
Secondly, the critique of the focus on economic growth statistics is correct, but only so far. It is true that growth statistics are not particularly useful or enlightening, but there is no doubt that over time we live demonstrably better lives as our economy expands (Layardian happiness research not withstanding). Indeed, much economic growth new results from services rather than manufacturing, which are often (though not always) low-carbon activities. (As an interesting aside, try finding a verb to apply to economic growth that is not a metaphor for either power or transport!). One obvious except is transport, but this highlights one fundamental difference between liberal and Green environmentalism. The Greens want to discourage travel; liberals seek more environmentally friendly transport. At the core of this is the liberal belief that mankind can shape a better future and the Green nihilism that sees humanity as a negative influence upon the planet.
When Greens (which I use here to refer to authoritarian and fatalist environmentalists rather than the Green Party, though there is obviously a huge overlap) criticise modern society, they often accuse it of concentrating on the “bottom line” to the detriment of everything else. This is a critique they share with socialists. It is pure guff. Take our supposedly “Capitalist” society as an example. Taxes are inherently harmful to labour, to profits and to economic growth, yet we tax profits and labour very heavily precisely because we put short-term welfare gains above long-term welfare gains. Similarly, we burden businesses with regulation because we consider other factors (notably but not solely environmental ones) to be of importance alongside wealth creation. I have argued before that we over-regulate and over-tax, but neither I nor anyone I know suggests we should have no regulation and no tax; profit is only one driver in society.
The key is to set rules that clearly guide everybody and lead them to make sensible decisions about the environment. This is traditional liberal ground, if slightly re-emphasised. The value of the environment is not inherent but comes from the fact that it sustains us and gives us pleasure; consequently our impact upon the environment impacts upon the freedom of others (the quality of your life being reduced if I pollute the public spaces). This is classical liberal stuff, and the solutions can be equally liberal. We need clear rules that apply equally to all and do not discriminate: for example, we should tax petrol and congestion rather than cars; we should tax aircraft fuel rather than passengers; and we should tax the carbon produced in electricity generation rather than banning incandescent light bulbs.
The point is that dictating to people how must they lead their lives will inevitably lead to arbitrary decision making that will be partisan and will miss the target (e.g. penalising those who buy big cars even if they don’t drive them very much). It will also cause a huge backlash: nobody likes to be told what to do, let alone told to feel bad about what they have been doing for years, which is why there is such a strong anti-environmentalist movement. The Greens have brought it on themselves (and the rest of us).
By comparison, factoring into the price of things the ecological as well as production costs (“capturing the externalities”, as I said on Friday just one second before I lost my audience) will enable government to reduce overall emissions, while allowing individuals to decide how much emitting is worth to them. That ensures that those who value emitting most can emit at a price, while those who value it less will emit less. Economically this results in an optimal distribution of resources (in this case, the limited capacity the earth has for more greenhouse gasses); socially this creates a free society where everybody is then free to pursue a better life as long as it is not at the expense of others.
Surely that’s a liberalism on which we can all agree.