TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Does Reason Support a Carbon Tax?

Although Reason magazine publishes some pro-liberty articles and videos, it unfortunately publishes an occasional endorsement of statism. Such is the case with a November 19 article by A. Barton Hinkle, “The Case for a Carbon Tax.”

Hinkle, granting the highly disputed notions that the globe is warming, that this is largely caused by humans, and that this warming will on net be destructive (a debate beyond the scope of this post), argues that carbon dioxide emissions impose “negative externalities”—by which he means economic harms on others. He further argues that a tax on such emissions “would reduce harm in the future and compensate for harm in the past” while forcing Americans to pay the “full cost of their energy use.” (For comparison, in 2004 Reason’s Ronald Bailey used an argument about externalities to endorse the sort of health-insurance mandate now at the heart of ObamaCare.)

Hinkle likens the damage he anticipates from man-made global warming to a property tort, as when a company floods a neighbor’s land. But his comparison fails. If a particular company (or individual) takes specific action that causes the flooding of someone else’s land (or causes property damage in some other way), the relevant facts can be objectively established in court, including the nature of the harm, the cost of the harm, and the party responsible for the harm. Then the court can issue its judgment, and the offending party, if found liable, must pay damages. A carbon tax is nothing like a court case to resolve a tort in order to protect property rights. Consider just a few of the relevant differences.

A tort action depends on proof that a particular party caused property damage; a carbon tax depends on no such proof. Hinkle recognizes that past emissions contributed to overall CO2 levels, yet a tax would apply only to future emissions. Further, a tax on carbon would not address all the other gases (e.g., methane) that purportedly contribute to global warming. And, as Hinkle acknowledges, a tax on American producers would have no effect on emissions elsewhere, though “China’s CO2 emissions have begun to outpace U.S. emissions.” Perhaps most importantly, each of the millions of companies and billions of people on earth emit some amount of carbon dioxide, so there simply is no party objectively responsible for the alleged damage.

A tort action also depends on proof that a measurable harm was caused by a particular company or individual; a carbon tax depends on no such proof. To take just one recent example illustrating the problem: Many on the left were quick to blame Hurricane Sandy on global warming despite the lack of evidence showing a connection.

A tort action further requires the offending party to compensate the victim. A carbon tax would not necessarily compensate any victim at all. Rather, a carbon tax would place more of Americans’ hard-earned money in the hands of politicians, who would do whatever they please with it. Can anyone seriously doubt that politicians would put such funds toward the likes of Solyndra?

Hinkle’s argument that a tax on carbon emissions is like a remedy for a tort clearly fails.

What of his broader argument that the government should tax carbon emissions because they impose uncompensated harms on unspecified others? Even on Hinkle’s own false premises this argument fails. To begin with, the uncompensated benefits of burning fossil fuels to produce the energy needed to power factories, fuel automobiles, light our homes, and so on, are enormously greater than the alleged harms. On Hinkle’s faulty presumptions, government should subsidize rather than tax carbon emissions. More fundamentally, however, if there is no specific evidence of specific harm to a specific party by a specific party, then there is no cause for any government action.

This brings us to the more important point that Hinkle misses, which is the principle that government’s sole legitimate purpose is to protect rights, including property rights. In accordance with this principle, the government has no right to tax (or preemptively fine) individuals or corporations for alleged but unproven harms. There simply is no demonstrable rights violation if there is no proven rights violator.

There is nothing in reason, then, to support a carbon tax. That a prominent writer at Reason claims otherwise demonstrates only that that magazine fails in this case to live up to the ideals touted on its masthead, “Free Minds and Free Markets.”

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Posted in: Environmentalism, Individual Rights and Law

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Dan Pangburn

    Paraphrasing Richard Feynman: Regardless of how many experts
    believe it or how many organizations concur, if it doesn’t agree with
    observation, it’s wrong.

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), some
    politicians and many others stubbornly continue to proclaim that increased
    atmospheric carbon dioxide was the primary cause of global warming.

    Measurements demonstrate that they are wrong.

    The atmospheric carbon dioxide level has now increased since
    2001 by 23.2 ppmv (an amount equal to 25.9% of the increase that took place
    from 1800 to 2001) (1800, 281.6 ppmv; 2001, 371.13 ppmv; October, 2012, 394.32

    The average global temperature trend since 2001 is flat.

    That is the observation. No amount of spin can rationalize
    that the temperature increase to 2001 was caused by a CO2 increase of 89.5 ppmv but that 23.2 ppmv
    additional CO2 increase
    had no effect on the average global temperature trend after 2001.

    Without human caused global warming there can be no human
    caused climate change.

    Analyses that can be reached at the link (highlighted in
    red) given at
    include an equation based on rational
    physics that, without considering any influence from CO2 whatsoever and using only one independent
    variable, has calculated average global temperatures since they have been
    accurately measured world wide (about 1895) with an accuracy of 88% (R2
    = 0.88, correlation coefficient = 0.938). Including the influence of CO2 (a second independent
    variable) increased the accuracy to 88.5%.

  • Todd Walton

    I agree that the Reason article’s conclusions are wrong, and it did seem like kind of an odd position to take in that magazine. But it wasn’t so far out of the bounds of libertarianism as to deserve all that this TOS article throws at it. Unlike Objectivist periodicals, Reason magazine does try to explore a wide range of ideas that its readers may or may not agree with. They’re not united by a common philosophy, like Objectivists are, they’re only united in the expression of an ideal. This has its upsides as well as downsides, and it’s appropriate for the magazine.

    It’s certainly not worth implying that there’s something wrong with the magazine because one of their writers wrote something wonky. I know you didn’t specifically say that, Ari, but you’ve made your animus to libertarians clear in the past, and it’s not a stretch to read that into your article.

    I do like what you’ve written here, though. My local O group had a discussion on this very article. One thing that we came up with is a better, in my opinion, way of stating something you said. You said, “More fundamentally, however, if there is no specific evidence of specific harm to a specific party by a specific party, then there is no cause for any government action.”

    Better to make it real and concrete by pointing out that it takes a specific grievance by a private party to initiate government action. If someone believes that they’ve been harmed, let them bring the case to court and prove it. It is fully within the rights of an individual to *not* initiate government action if they feel they’ve endured harm. They may decide the case is not worth it. And so even if there *is* evidence of a specific harm to a specific party by a specific party, there may still be no cause for any government action.

  • Joel

    I completely disagree with the first part of this arguement.

    By the same logic, if 1000 people throw stones at a person until they’re dead, but it’s impossible to determine who killed them, all 1000 of them would be deamed innocent.

    How is this objective justice? Should all 1000 people not be considered partially responsible?

  • John Clayton

    I will freely admit I don’t have the expertise to properly evaluate your claims. On a given subject there will often be some evidence both for and against a point, and it’s easy to offer an argument that sounds plausible to a layman like myself. Realistically, it would take a large investment of time for me to learn the science and examine potential counter-arguments before I could be sure, from my own knowledge, of either your conclusion or your opponents’.

    Now consider that there’s an overwhelming scientific consensus against you. To say “overwhelming” is not an exaggeration: “No scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion” on the claims that (1) global warming is happening, (2) it is anthropogenic, (3) the results will be significantly negative. [Source: No significant scientific group in the world, not even the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, is behind you on this one.

    Now, the scientific consensus could be wrong. It has happened before that a small minority of dissenters were later vindicated. Yet, historically, when people disagree with a strong scientific consensus, they are wrong the vast majority of the time. (Not to imply that you are in the same category as these, but consider for example all the attempts at perpetual motion machines, evolution denial, etc.) Without expertise, the only conclusion I can rationally draw is that it is far more probable that you’re wrong than that you’re right.

    That said, you could be a lot more persuasive. You could acknowledge the degree to which you are in the minority. You could thoughtfully address the various counterarguments to the arguments you are making (for an overview, see for example ). If nothing else, this would at least provide some evidence that you had sought out the weakest points in your argument and candidly presented them, and it would also help to establish your degree of familiarity with the field.