Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Conservative Mistake

Two different arguments I have been having of late, with different people, are in an important way the same; both sets of people I am arguing with are, from my standpoint, making the same error. Both positions are held by people across the political spectrum, one more commonly on the right, the other on the left. One argument is over immigration, one over global warming.

Comments on my posts about immigration raise the concern that immigrants might change the country, make it more socialist, more crime ridden, more like the places they are coming from. None of the commenters offer much reason to expect change in that direction. As I pointed out in one exchange, the Volokh brothers, associated with the popular legal blog the Volokh Conspiracy, are immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union; while Eugene and Sasha may be more socialist than I am, they are less socialist than most of their fellow academics—or, for that matter, most Americans.

That is not entirely surprising, given that they have experienced the consequences of socialism at first hand. People who go to the considerable trouble of leaving the place where they grew up and moving somewhere very different are, by doing so, giving some evidence that they do not like what they are leaving. And casual observation suggests that immigrants, in particular Mexican immigrants, are rather more likely to hold views that American conservatives approve of, more likely to be religious, more likely to marry and stay married and raise children with two parents, than the average of those already here.

The fundamental error, as I see it, is the conservative mistake, the assumption that change is presumptively bad.

I have spent a good deal more time arguing global warming, and the pattern there seems much the same. If the average temperature of the globe goes up by several degrees C over the next hundred years, as seems likely, that will have both good and bad consequences, but I can see no strong reason to expect the net effects to be bad, still less catastrophically bad—a point I have argued at some length here

If anything, one might expect the opposite, for two related reasons. The first is that human habitability at present is limited mostly by cold not heat—the equator is populated, the poles are not. The second is that, for well understood reasons, global warming can be expected to increase temperatures more in cold places and at cold times of the year than in warm. Combine those two and one might guess that a somewhat warmer world would be, on the whole, more suited to humans, not less. Here again, the main explanation of the opposite view seems to me to be the conservative mistake. The same is true, I think, of concerns about a variety of other issues, from fracking to cloning to GMO foods.

I call it a mistake, but perhaps that is unfair. One might argue, after all, that we know what the present is and know it is, at least tolerable, since we are at present tolerating it. A change might make things better, might make them worse, so why chance it? 

That sounds like a plausible argument, but it contains a hidden assumption—that stasis is an option, that if we do not have more immigration our cultural and political circumstances will remain the same, that without anthropogenic CO2, climate will stay what it currently is.

Both versions of that assumption are demonstrably false. Over my lifetime, more still over the past century, the cultural and political institutions of the U.S. have changed substantially, for reasons that have very little to do with immigration. Over the past million years, the climate of the earth has changed radically, time after time, for reasons that have nothing to do with anthropogenic CO2. A rise in sea level of a foot or two would create problems in some parts of the world, but not problems comparable to the effect of half a mile of ice over the present locations of Chicago and London. 

The conservative mistake comes with its own pseudoscientific slogan, "the precautionary principle." It is the rule that no decision should be made unless one can be confident that it will not have substantial bad effects—the lack of any good reason to believe it will have such effects is not enough.

I have long argued that the principle is internally incoherent. The decision to (for example) permit nuclear power could have substantial bad effects. The decision not to permit nuclear power could also have substantial bad effects. If one takes the precautionary principle seriously, one is obligated to neither permit nor forbid nuclear power.

Carrying that argument a little further, I have long argued, only partly in jest, that the precautionary principle is a major source of global warming. Nuclear power, after all, is the one source of power that does not produce CO2 and can be expanded more or less without limit as a substitute for power sources that do produce CO2. A major factor restricting the growth of nuclear power has been the precautionary principle, even if not under that name—hostility to permitting reactors to be built as long as there is any chance that anything could go wrong with either the reactor's functioning or disposal of its waste. That example demonstrates my more general point—that stasis is not an option. Whether or not we permit nuclear power, the world is going to change in lots of ways, and there is no a priori reason to expect the changes if we do not permit it to be worse than those if we do.

I am not arguing that there is never a good reason to fear change—sometimes a change can be reasonably predicted to have bad consequences. I am arguing that much opposition to change, across a wide range of different topics and disputes, is based on the mistaken assumption that if only that particular change is prevented, the next year, the next decade, perhaps even the next century, will be more or less the same as the present.

That is very unlikely.

In The Future and its Enemies, Virginia Postrel argued that the chief political division of the future would be between stasists and dynamists, between those who fear change and those who welcome it. If so, we may see some interesting political realignments.


Tim Lambert said...

You seem to be assuming that heating cannot make parts of the world uninhabitable. See:

An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress PNAS 2010

"Despite the uncertainty in future climate-change impacts, it is often
assumed that humans would be able to adapt to any possible
warming. Here we argue that heat stress imposes a robust upper
limit to such adaptation. Peak heat stress, quantified by the wetbulb temperature TW, is surprisingly similar across diverse climates
today. TW never exceeds 31 °C. Any exceedence of 35 °C for
extended periods should induce hyperthermia in humans and
other mammals, as dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible. While this never happens now, it would begin to occur with
global-mean warming of about 7 °C, calling the habitability of
some regions into question. With 11–12 °C warming, such regions
would spread to encompass the majority of the human population
as currently distributed. Eventual warmings of 12 °C are possible
from fossil fuel burning. One implication is that recent estimates
of the costs of unmitigated climate change are too low unless
the range of possible warming can somehow be narrowed. Heat
stress also may help explain trends in the mammalian fossil record"

William H. Stoddard said...

I've been reading about the precautionary principle for a while. It occurred to me that it has another name well known in philosophy: Pascal's Wager. "If you deny God/fail to act on global warming, there is a chance that you will go to Hell/see humanity become extinct. This is an infinite negative value, so no matter how small the chance is, it's worth paying any finite cost in attending Mass/shutting down industrial civilization to avoid it." I've never much liked Pascal's wager; I don't like it better clothed in the language of more modern probability theory.

Benjamin. said...

Going to Church doesn't mean you go to heaven, and not going to Church doesn't mean you'll go to hell.

William H. Stoddard said...

Benjamin: It wasn't my argument; it was Pascal's. He recommended masses and confession and the whole Roman apparatus as a means of getting yourself to believe.

David Friedman said...


Current projections are well below 7° as of the end of the century. In my view, at least, trying to predict things that far ahead is already pretty iffy, and farther worse still.

Yet lots of people are insisting that very bad things will happen by then, and quite a lot seem to believe they are already happening.

Simon said...

I seem to remember that in czarist Russia, the teaching of philosophy was at one point prohibited, since "its utility was unproven but its harm possible."

Anonymous said...

None of the commenters offer much reason to expect change in that direction. As I pointed out in one exchange, the Volokh brothers, associated with the popular legal blog the Volokh Conspiracy, are immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union

One reason to expect change in that direction is a simple flux argument. If people from a place with culture C come to a different place, it's perfectly reasonable to expect the culture to become a little more like C. You speak as if this is the silliest notion in the world, based on (from what I can tell) two anecdotal data points, the Volokhs. Huh?

But another reason to expect change in this direction is because it is what is observed. Look at the voting patterns by recency-of-immigration in any recent election. Surely you can't be denying this? What, then?

cpwegener said...

I would suggest that there is limited utility in your comparison of immigration and climate change.
The introduction of people from different cultures into another through immigration has been occurring for thousands of years throughout human history. The net results have neither been catastrophic or even hard to manage.

Surprisingly the people from the target culture are unhappy about the change and have gone to great lengths to demonize the immigrants but that hasn't fundamentally stopped immigration. Nor should we be surprised to find previous immigrant families joining in on the demonetization of more recent arrivals.

"Only a wet baby like change.

Climate change on the other hand, while certainly survivable by the human race has the potential for severe, even catastrophic, change for certain parts of the human race. Disappearing countries, mass migrations, large swaths of farm land rendered unusable (imagine the dust bowl of the thirties extend across the entirety of the Midwest) are all not only possible but probable at only an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. Wars over water and habitable land could certainly be a possibility. Economic damage as suffered by the East coast from Sandy (a category 1 hurricane) could become common place.

None of these events have occurred within human history. Events like the "Little Ice Age" were proximate causes of the French Revolution and catastrophic wars in Europe. Yet those event pale in comparison to what could happen in the coming years.

Surely it would be prudent to take some action now, at relatively little economic cost, than to take a sanguine approach to climate change and find out that the change is not as benign as you propose.
Carbon taxes, pollution reduction, alternative energy, certainly including Nuclear (hopefully fusion) that price in the externalities that fossil fuels impose on everyone would be good policy in and of themselves.

Simon said...

The case that present immigration policies create a Democratic electorate is made here by Ann Coulter...

Simon said...

Clickable link to the Coulter column

William H. Stoddard said...

One of the oddities of immigration is that letting workers come into the United States, and sending jobs to other countries, seem to be fairly close substitutes for each other. Yet both parties seem to view the two differently.

David Friedman said...

To Chris:

As best I can tell, the claim that Sandy has some significant relation to global warming is made primarily by the political, not the scientific, side of the controversy. As I pointed out in an earlier post, Sandy hit at high tide, a fact not explainable by global warming--and, relative to the normal sea level, it was weaker, not stronger, than the previous record from the early 19th century.

Nature has just published an article suggesting that there is no evidence droughts are becoming more serious. Losing whole countries requires sea level rise considerably above what 2 degrees gives us--even if one assumes no diking, which is unlikely.

You might want to look at my earlier posts on this subject and see if you find them convincing, and if not why.

RKN said...

As I pointed out in an earlier post, Sandy hit at high tide, a fact not explainable by global warming--and, relative to the normal sea level, it was weaker, not stronger, than the previous record from the early 19th century.

Not sure which storm that was, but evidently Sandy had the lowest pressure ever recorded in the center of a storm passing north of Cape Hatteras. I heard this feature was a major contributor to its destructive capacity.

Personally, I don't know enough to know if storms with very low pressure are more or less likely under aGW.

Tibor said...

Well, this just hit the nail on the head. Exactly my point. The sad thing is that these stasis arguments are so widespread regardless of the "ideology". Here in the Czech republic, there is a political party called "Free party" which tries to propagate laisezz-faire ideas and is fairly close to libertarians (on economy at least). Yet when I went to their local meeting to talk to their members, I discovered an interesting thing. On one hand, they want quite a bit of change in some respects (negative income tax instead of the complex social system, no subsidies, very little regulation and so on), on the other they advocate closed borders, because (the words of one of their supporters) "those arabs would just establish sharia law here and destroy our freedom, so we must protect it from them". I argued in exactly the same way David Friedman did in the article, I even tried to explain that after cutting the social state like they wanted to, there would be people coming here to enjoy freedom, not to get social state benefits and that those people will definitely not try to destroy the freedom they moved here for in the first place. But the response was only that "it is in their blood, they will want it sooner or later"....maybe I talked to the wrong members, but sadly I had to conclude that I cannot vote for them.

What I did not quite realize is the link between this kind of conservatism and the global warming kind. The argument seems quite plausible, so thank you for pointing that out :)

Michael Brazier said...

On US immigration: it's true that Mexican immigrants typically hold to cultural ideas that would make them congenial to the GOP, if cultural ideas were all that mattered in US politics. But that's irrelevant in practice, because cultural ideas don't determine US politics now (and I don't recall any time when they really did.) The difficulty with Mexican immigrants is that, due to their position as mostly unskilled workers, they make more use of the institutions of the US's welfare state, and therefore are more likely to support those institutions during an election; that makes them clients of the Democrats, regardless of their views on the "social" issues. It is thus good tactics for those who oppose the welfare state to argue for closing the borders - it reduces the strength of the thing they oppose.

I suspect the Czech "Free party" has half-seen this relationship, but blames the Arab immigrants' support for statism on their specific culture, when in fact it's case of said immigrants voting their pocketbooks.

Barnaby Rudge said...

Sandy was destructive for the same reason Katrina was destructive, it hit a soft target.

If New York City wasn't built and heavily populated where it is and instead it was rural farmland we wouldn't even be talking about it.

How did global warming then cause New York to be built in its current geographical location?

That is like saying the Haitian earthquake was extra powerful just because it hit a country with poor infrastructure, but magically, across the border on the same island in the Dominican Republic (with better infrastructure), Al Gore's magic earth shield was in effect and reduced the earth quake's power.

Every time there is a hurricane the global warming alarmists trot out their theories and they're always debunked by serious scientists. Maybe in an age prior to the Internet you could have such successful snake oil salesmen, but now we have computers, and networks, and records, and we can easily see that hurricane activity shows no correlation at all with supposed global warming, or CO2 emissions. There is no correlation, and even if there were, correlation != causation.

Patri Friedman said...

Status Quo Bias:

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