Rise of the Luddites

When it comes to things such as environmental policy, the Progressives have been rather successful at promoting their world view.  They realized that it would be futile to argue that property rights and human ingenuity could not solve anything – so they did not try (immediately) to socialize oil or other sub-surface minerals but they did succeed in derailing the evolutionary process by which institutions emerged to resolve emerging problems.  The economist Ronald Coase  noted this in an essay pointing out that the EMS (Emergency Medical Services) was well on its way to being homesteaded with rules for allowing multiple uses – and then the Feds created the Federal Communication Commission and the spectrum is still terribly managed to this day.  

The environment is valuable and valued by many.  The difficulty is that we have relegated its “protection” and “management” to bureaucrats – and suppressed the evolution of property rights in environmental resources (wildlife, groundwater, fisheries).  These resources remain as common property resources – and we experience repeatedly the Tragedy of the Commons.  However, the most distressing aspect of the debate over environmental policy,  is that the view gaining prevalence from the Progressive side is decidedly anti-human, and anti-technology at its core.  

There are many features of the growing anti-human-relevant-science campaign.  

  •  One is the selection of the fearful – the Malthusian wing of this movement that sees “technology” as change, as a move into an untested future and, thus, to be slowed if not banned.  These people champion the Precautionary Principle – a totally Luddite rule.  Has there ever been a market innovation (one that we hoped people would buy) that created more harm than good?
  • The Economic Rational wing, which has championed “comparative effectiveness” and so on.  After all, they argue, it would be foolish and wasteful to approve a new drug or device that was not “cost effective for the median individual.”  A wonderful capture of the rational language but, of course, that approach argues that we can know in advance that a specific innovation will or will not prove beneficial (the French minitel system comes to mind).  Most – all – innovations appear first as clunky, expensive toys or (for a very few) necessities.  The purchasers are the ‘Early Adopters’ – often rich or eager to “be the first on their block.”  However, the freedom to create an infant market for a product that would be too expensive and too inefficient for most people made it possible for the thousand dollar 1940s television sets with tiny blurry pictures and very low quality to become the few hundred 34-inch flat screen marvels of today.  We will suffer in many areas for this loss but the greatest losses may be in the medical innovation area.
  • The Government Research Must be Dominant school is characterized by those who sought on “scientific” grounds for removal of any restraints on stem cell research – not because such research was banned (private parties were largely free), but rather because it meant that their approved source of scientific funding – the government – was kept from the field.  Indeed, this group is much more ambitious – their effort to drive the market from the marketplace of ideas is one of the most threatening themes.  Research that has been funded by a company, individuals who have done consulting or worked for a company, groups who’ve received support from a company – all inherently more suspect that a government-funded scientist.  One can expect that such individuals and the research work they do will soon have to wear a yellow C (for corporate) patch on their clothes, appended on every page of their journal articles.  
  • The Science Good, Technology Bad sub-class.  This refers to the observations of Joel Mokyr and others.  That it has been the close link between (largely) non-economic driven science and (largely) economic-driven technology that transformed the slow progress of most of mankind’s history to the exponential growth we have experienced in the last several centuries.  Brilliant individuals have popped up from time to time throughout history.  They expand man’s knowledge and some small use is made of that knowledge to improve man’s welfare.  In the Industrial Revolution, however, the growth of economic freedom created a more receptive and attentive audience for such knowledge.  Electricity would be discovered and Edison and others would immediately begin to think, “What is it good for?”  Then, in turn, they would go back to the science and note – “this worked OK but … why?” and those questions would both prompt and interest the science community in expanding knowledge in directions more likely to prove human beneficial.  The resulting positive “feed back loop” is critical to progress. This group would sever that link — Science Good, Technology Bad!!

As I have stated above, the environment is valuable, and its preservation is valuable to many.  Therefore, at CEI, one of the things we have tried to do in our work is not ridicule the environmentalists or argue that environmental values are irrelevant.  We simply make the point that the Malthusian goals – less people, less consumption, less technology – is far less inspiring that the view of mankind as the Ultimate Resource.  

I am proud of the work we have done, but we have much work to do to improve our marketing skills.  The other side of this debate seems rather adept at garnering popularity, and is much better funded.  My message to those who may share our views is that we needed to find ways to create a more effective and powerful alliance between the entrepreneurial elements of the business community and the free market community.  We face many problems.  Keep up the good work – and help find the scientist-entrepreneurs who have not succumbed to this insanity.  There must be a handful of people who recognize that the politicization of science by conservatives was stupid, but the politicization of science by the Luddites is suicidal.