What Liberals

In his essay, "Liberalism's Modest Proposals," Daniel Sarewitz makes the mistake of presupposing that "liberals" even exist.


Spring 2012 | Mott T. Greene,

Any attempt to assign attitudes to industrial and economic policy and income redistribution, according to some conservative-liberal-radical spectrum, ends up blunting analysis by assigning policy preferences to nonexistent political categories. It is interesting to note that Hayek published this conviction some 70 years ago.

I take issue with (Sarewitz's implicit) American predilection for thinking that good policy outcomes are subsequent to the adoption of "right views." This is a heritage of an America of religious sectarians, whose discourse is largely embodied in disputes over creed, rather than disputes over practice. Our current policy dilemmas are not caused by people having wrong ideas, as by structural contradictions in the current phase of advanced capitalism. Sarewitz imagines that you fix systemic problems by assigning moral responsibility to individuals who are saying/doing bad things, and whose "ideas" are "in the way." But this is not the way the world works.

The problems we have in getting the kind of energy policy that Sarewitz (and I, for that matter) would like to see are a matter of capital flows and of scaling, not of bad ideas by liberals. If every one of his nonexistent liberals, who want to price the developing world out of cheap energy, were to vanish from the planet tomorrow, we would still have the problem of capital flows and scaling. As to capital flows, we would need massive state intervention to bridge the gap between invention and innovation for substitute energy systems to replace the rapidly vanishing economy of cheap petroleum.

Even if we could find major coalitions of states willing to do that, there is not enough capital available in the world to accomplish even the beginning stages of such a transition without the kinds of taxation and central direction policies that are anathema to American and, only to a slightly lesser extent, European capital markets.

Finally, as to scaling, the substitution instances available to us for energy generation are all so capital-intensive, and the world population so large, that no life remotely like that enjoyed in North America today could ever be made global and universal. Joel Cohen made this point back in the 1990s in How Many People Can the Earth Support? and I have seen nothing since to make me think he got things wrong.

Mott T. Greene is John Magee Professor of Science and Values at the University of Puget Sound.