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.