An interesting quirk among many libertarians is a sort of techno-fetishism. Some of them politicize technology and culture, wrapping their love of individual liberty with a fondness for societal change and technological advances. I don't think the two are unrelated, I just think this blending often causes confusion.
Ron Bailey, a very smart science writer at Reason, which is a must-read libertarian magazine, perhaps driven by an outsized fondness for technology, seems to have lost his cool in his latest magazine article, headlined "Conservatives Against Consumption."
Bailey has an important central theme, which many conservatives need to address: that in many ways, the social fabric of the United States is improving, even measuring by standards traditionalists would embrace. Traditionalists need to stop pretending that everything regarding family, marriage, and community is getting worse as modernity marches on, and we (yes, I count myself as a traditionalist, and also a libertarian) need to get more nuanced in discussing what is getting better, and what is getting worse.
But Bailey really needs to treat his conservative targets more seriously, too. His article alternates between mistreating the conservatives' arguments, ignoring the arguments entirely, and implying specious causations from incomplete correlations.
The heart of the matter is the massive increase in American fossil fuel consumption, and whether that really has made our life better. Professor Patrick Deneen, a traditional conservative whom I’ve enjoyed following for a couple of years, argues that conservatives shouldn’t necessarily love what energy abundance is doing to our culture. Crunchy Conservative Rod Dreher agrees.
The heart of Deneen’s post is two questions. Here’s the first:
Might some of the consequences of the mobility and power that expansive consumption of fossil fuels have engendered include the exacerbation of a number of baleful social trends, many of which result from the gas-addled belief in human mastery, control, and autonomy, as well as attendant instability and societal transformation?
Bailey doesn’t address this question or even explain why, in an article-length response to this post, he doesn’t have to. Instead he more or less says longing for traditional societal norms puts you in league with wife-beaters, child-abusers, and Bull Connor. Lowlights of Bailey’s argument:
It’s true that at least one old-fashioned family value—the beating of spouses and children—has declined as wealth has increased…. Recent evidence also finds that physical abuse and sexual abuse of children fell by more than 50 percent between the early 1990s and 2007….
One particularly evil communal norm—state-enforced racial segregation—also became a thing of the past in the era of increasing wealth.
Is Bailey suggesting that people’s ability to drive more and consume more electricity contributed to the end of segregation and more healthy relationships between men and their wives and children? If so, he never posits how that connection might work. He also hinges his arguments on implied causation over an ill-fitting correlation -- comparing societal improvements over the past two decades to increased consumption since the end of World War II.
Here’s the second-oddest piece of Bailey’s essay:
Oddly, Deneen and Dreher refrained from following the logic of their argument to its obvious conclusion: If fuel consumption breeds social dysfunction, then why not force Americans to consume less gasoline and electricity?
Maybe because Deneen and Dreher aren’t liberals? Why would a libertarian like Bailey assume that if something is bad, logically it should restricted by government? I could just as easily write this about Bailey [hence my deliberately sensationalized headline to this post]:
Oddly, Bailey refrained from following the logic of his argument to its obvious conclusion: If fuel consumption breeds wealth and happiness, then why not subsidize it even more and require Americans to consume more gasoline and electricity?
Indeed, much of America’s driving, oil consumption, and electricity use is the result of government action.
The federal government paved the Interstate highway system. Without federal intervention, in a freer market, we would no doubt have a better highway system than we did pre-Eisenhower, but were it steered by market forces and conducted with respect for property rights, the highway system wouldn’t look like it does now. I suspect it would be humbler, and people would probably stay closer to home than they do today – with all the good and bad consequences of that situation.
The federal government subsidizes home heating oil consumption through LIHEAP, and burns tons of energy for our wars, which in turn often serve in part to protect the reliable flow of petroleum necessary to maintain an economy so dependent on fossil fuels.
A number groups argue, maybe correctly, that our system of federal land leases provides oil and gas companies their products at prices lower than a freer market with more private ownership – that is, a more libertarian economy – would yield.
And it could work the other way around, too. Not only does big government artificially boost our fossil-fuel consumption, but fossil-fuel consumption might boost big government. Deneen posits this exact possibility in the second of his two central questions:
Might the very growth and expansion of government have something to do with the national and global expansion of commerce that our fuel has fueled, the penetration of a global capital market into every town and hamlet in the world, the inescapable “interconnection” between every human on the globe (and, our attendant global vulnerability), and which in turn fostered a system that demanded an active government to foster, support, and maintain?
Once again, Bailey never addresses the question. I wish he would.
If you call yourself a libertarian, you need to wrestle with the fact that many of the modern conveniences and modern societal developments we have today are the fruits of government intervention in the economy.
Above is a video of me expounding in 2009 on this nascent idea in my head. I jokingly call it Luddertarianism. My talk starts at the 12:00 mark, and lasts about 30 minutes. At this link you can get the audio.