Friday, September 23, 2022

Dave Smith's Response to Me

Someone pointed me at a podcast by Dave Smith responding to my post criticizing his position on immigration. His basic argument, borrowed from Hoppe, has two parts:

1. In an anarchocapitalist society, private communities would be entitled to control who enters them.

2. As long as the government exists and owns property,  it is entitled to control the property just as a private owner would be. Smith's example is a public school excluding men from the girl's washroom. Since it is going to control the property it should control it in ways in which much of the population wants it to. Most of the population is against open borders, just as it is against letting men into the girl's washroom, hence it is appropriate for the government to control immigration.

The podcast is vague on what government property it is talking about. Smith puts the argument as if the government owns the border, but there is lots of private property adjacent to Canada, Mexico, or the ocean. To make the argument work you must, as Hoppe does, argue that the government is entitled to exclude immigrants from all government property. Since that includes the entire highway system, that comes close to excluding them from the entire country.

It does not seem to have occurred to Smith, perhaps not to Hoppe, that that line of argument justifies very nearly everything the government now does that libertarians oppose. A majority of the population believes that prostitution and drug use should be illegal. Hence, by their argument, as long as there is a government controlling property it is entitled to ban anyone who is a prostitute or patronizes one, anyone who uses or sells drugs, and similarly anyone who pays less than the minimum wage or practices medicine without a government license, from the use of any government property.

One odd thing that struck me about the podcast was that  Smith did not seem to have gone over the post he was responding to in advance. He read it aloud, commenting as he did so, and showing no awareness of which of his arguments were answered later in the post. 

Thus, for example, he quoted me writing that  “In the society as it now exists transactions between current Americans and new immigrants are voluntary, just as they would be in a fully libertarian society” and objected, at great length, that in the society as it now exists nondiscrimination law and tax funded government expenditures force transactions that are not voluntary. Only after doing so did he quote the next paragraph, where I stated the argument he had just made and, in the following paragraph, rebutted it by pointing out that open borders do not imply instant citizenship and can be combined with restrictions on what government services noncitizens are entitled to.

Responding to my point that citizenship is not a protected category under discrimination law, Smith pointed out that national origin is. But someone who discriminates against noncitizens is not discriminating on the basis of national origin, he is discriminating on the basis of citizenship. The employer is perfectly happy to hire a citizen of Mexican or Indian origin, just not a non-citizen of Mexican, Indian, or any other origin.

A good deal of Smith's later argument took it for granted that an immigrant imposes large net costs on the people already here. That is not clear even if immigrants have the right to use the public schools and collect welfare since they will also, like other people, pay taxes to fund the public schools and the welfare system. It is still less clear under the system I proposed where immigrants would not be entitled to such benefits until they become citizens.  Some, such as use of the highway system, cannot easily be separated off, but immigrants, like other people, will pay gas taxes and highway tolls.

In other parts of his response Smith did not seem to be following my arguments, not surprising if he first encountered them while doing the podcast and had to respond in real time. He goes on at great length about how the choice isn't between zero government restrictions and all government restrictions without ever noticing that one of the bits of my post that he makes fun of is a criterion for distinguishing — something he does not offer.

Ideally I would like to interact with him directly but, although he said on the podcast that he would be happy to have a back and forth with me, so far he has neither invited me to appear on his podcast nor suggested a debate.

Friday, July 08, 2022

The Meaning of "Libertarian: A Question

Consider two hypothetical Christians. Christian A considers himself a libertarian, does not believe in the initiation of coercion, believes in property rights. He believes, however, that God, having created everything, is the rightful owner of everything. God has authorized rulers to collect taxes, censor writings, ban drugs and prostitution, enforce slavery. None of that, he will explain, is an initiation of coercion, just the enforcement of God's legitimate property rights.

Christian B does not consider himself a libertarian; if God told him to kill or enslave people he would willingly obey. He believes, however, is that God's purposes will best be achieved in a libertarian society. The opportunity to sin with a prostitute will let the virtuous strengthen their virtue by resisting temptation, the truly sinful proceed on their way to Hell; prostitution should be legal. He wants to free slaves in order to let them work out their own salvation or damnation.

Christian A believes in libertarian arguments but not in libertarian conclusions, Christian B the opposite. Which is more libertarian?

Christian A is imaginary but there are libertarian philosophers, such as the Bleeding Heart Libertarians on the left or Hans Hoppe on the right, who offer what they believe to be libertarian arguments for conclusions, such as income redistribution or immigration restrictions, that most libertarians consider inconsistent with libertarianism. 

If justice really requires transfers from rich to poor or states have the right and obligation to restrict immigration in order to protect the rights of their citizens, the people who believe those things are libertarians, indeed better libertarians than we are. But if they are wrong, as I believe they are, do those conclusions make them less libertarian? What does “libertarian,” predicated of a person or a conclusion, mean?

I, arguably, am Christian B. A very long time ago I found it necessary to join the Free Libertarian Party of New York in order to attend a libertarian event. Doing so required me to “certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.” I footnoted my signature with something to the effect that the statement was a simplified version of my actual position. The footnote was necessary because, although I do not currently advocate any initiation of force, I can imagine circumstances in which I would. Some are described in Chapters 41 and 42 of The Machinery of Freedom.

Many libertarians believe that they have derived  their libertarian conclusions from the non-aggression postulate. That is not where I got mine. Does that mean I am not really a libertarian or that I, like Christian B, am a libertarian with different arguments but libertarian conclusions?

A possible answer is that what matters is where the arguments lead. If, as some have argued, my position could be used as easily to argue for statist conclusions, that is a reason to consider me, if not a statist, at least a dangerous influence on libertarianism. If the arguments that Hoppe offers for immigration restrictions could be applied as well to almost any restriction of individual liberty favored by Hoppe and the current right, that is a reason to consider him a dangerous influence on libertarianism. 

As I do.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Cancel Culture, Progressive Organizations, and Generalizing

An interesting article by Ryan Grim in Intercept describes how a variety of progressive organizations in recent years have found themselves paralyzed by internal conflicts involving accusations of racism, sexism, and similar offenses. Pretty clearly, the accusations are a mix of responses to real problems, responses to imagined problems, and weapons by which one member of an organization can attack another.

Being Black has by no means shielded executive directors or their deputies from charges of facilitating white supremacy culture. “It’s hard to have a conversation about performance,” said the manager. “I’m as woke as they come, but they’ll say, ‘He’s Black, but he’s anti-Black because he fired these Black people.’” The solution, he said: “I buy them to leave, I just pay them to leave.”

Inner turmoil can often begin, the managers said, with performance-based disputes that spiral into moral questions. “I also see a pattern of … people who are not competent in their orgs getting ahead of the game by declaring that others have engaged in some kind of -ism, thereby triggering a process that protects them in that job while there’s an investigation or turmoil over it,” the foundation official added. Such disputes then trigger broader cultural conversations, with battle lines being drawn on each side.

It sounds as though many on the left recognize the problem:

During the 2020 presidential campaign, as entry-level staffers for Sanders repeatedly agitated over internal dynamics, despite having already formed a staff union, the senator issued a directive to his campaign leadership: “Stop hiring activists.” Instead, Sanders implored, according to multiple campaign sources, the campaign should focus on bringing on people interested first and foremost in doing the job they’re hired to do.

One interesting question is whether it will occur to progressives to generalize their experience. If their ideology, including the willingness to enforce it at the organizational level by attacking other members of the organization for being insufficiently progressive, makes organizations unable to accomplish anything, what happens to the country if most people became progressives? 

Which, presumably, is what they are trying to accomplish.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Open Borders: The Libertarian Argument

The traditional libertarian position, the position I argued for in my first book, is support for open borders. That was also the traditional American policy. For the first century of the country’s history, anyone who could get here was welcome to come. Limits on Chinese immigration were imposed in the late nineteenth century but broader restrictions only came in in the nineteen-twenties and did not, at the time, apply to immigrants from other parts of the New World.

Murray Rothbard switched his position from opposing restrictions on immigration to supporting them as part of his adoption of a paleolibertarian strategy of alliance with the right, followed by Hans Hoppe and others. In trying to understand their argument, I have used two sources, an article by Hoppe and a webbed debate between Dave Smith, a prominent figure in the libertarian party and the Mises Caucus that currently controls it, and Spike Cohen, the most recent vice presidential nominee of the LP. Cohen supported open borders, Smith opposed them, using arguments largely borrowed from Hoppe.

The argument against open borders follows three related lines. The first starts with the idea that in the ideal libertarian society all property would be private and an individual, firm, or voluntary community would be free to exclude or admit anyone. Since what we actually have is a society in which much property belongs to government, the nearest we can come to that is having the government control who can come. Since, Smith argues, a considerable majority of the population opposes open borders, the government should restrict immigration on their behalf.

The problem with that argument is that, with no restrictions on immigration, individual employers are still free to employ or not employ immigrants, individual property owners to sell or not sell to them, landlords to rent or not to rent to them. In the society as it now exists transactions between current Americans and new immigrants are voluntary, just as they would be in a fully libertarian society. Government restrictions on immigration do what private restrictions in a stateless society could not do, prevent other people from interacting with immigrants.

That brings us to the second line of argument, that in America as it now is, some of the interactions with immigrants will be involuntary. Immigrants will collect welfare payments and send their children to public schools paid for by the taxpayers. Anti-discrimination law might force employers to hire immigrants, landlords to rent to them, even if they didn’t want to. Immigrant voters, if there were enough of them, could vote to tax other people and spend the money on themselves.

Open borders do not imply instant citizenship. While there were no restrictions on immigration in the early history of the U.S. there were restrictions on naturalization. Such restrictions could be retained in an open borders system; libertarian theory does not imply that everyone who comes can vote. Citizenship is not a protected category under current non-discrimination law, so those laws would not prevent employers or landlords who wanted to refuse transactions with some or all immigrants from doing so. Carrying the argument a little further, welfare law could exclude non-citizens, although if it did it would be only just to also exclude them from having to pay the taxes that funded welfare. So far as the public schools are concerned, libertarians, at least the same ones who argue for immigration restrictions, support decentralization. A legal regime with open borders could give every school district the option of serving or not serving non-citizen immigrants. Again, justice suggests that, if a school district rejects the children of non-citizens, the taxes that fund the schools, including property taxes on property they occupy, should not be owed by the parents or their landlords. That would come as close to mimicking what would happen in a stateless libertarian society, where all schools were private, as is practical in the existing system.

Hoppe’s proposal along these lines was that any immigrant should be allowed in if a citizen is willing to sponsor him, where the sponsor would then be responsible for any costs the immigrant imposed on others, paying fines for any crimes he committed, damage payments for any torts, presumably also paying the cost of sending the immigrant’s children to a public school. The argument, presumably, is that the sponsor, by letting the immigrant in, is an indirect cause of all such costs. It is not an absurd argument, but the notion of indirect liability that it depends on has implications that I do not think either Hoppe or his supporters would accept. If I sell you a gun, I am an indirect cause of any crimes you commit with it. Should I be permitted to do so only if I agree to be liable for the cost of such crimes? If I sell you a car … . The normal legal rule in a free society is that individuals are responsible for their own offenses. There is no obvious reason why the rule for immigrants should be different.

Hoppe’s proposal also makes little sense in other ways. Unless he intends immigrants to function like slaves or indentured servants, working for a single employer or those he lends them out to, they will be engaged, like other people, in a multitude of voluntary transactions with lots of different people. It makes no sense for all of those transactions to hinge on the permission of a single sponsor, who could presumably withdraw that permission any time he chose or, if he cannot, is liable for acts over which he has no control.

The third line of argument is that, as long as some property is owned by the government, the government is entitled to control its use. As Dave Smith points out, an adult man does not have the right to go into the girls' room of a public school; government property is not and should not be a commons. Hence the government may, if it chooses, refuse to allow immigrants it has not approved to use public property. Since public property includes almost the entire highway system, that makes it hard for an immigrant not approved by the government to do anything in the country much beyond employment in a farm on the border.

Here again, the argument proves too much. The government’s control of the public school is accepted because it is for the purpose of the school, the same purpose it would have if private. Most people, almost certainly most libertarians, would be outraged if the school announced that the girls’ room was only available to girls whose parents promised not to own firearms, or not to publicly criticize the mayor, or not to do something else they were legally entitled to do. In that case the control over public property would be being used not for the purpose of that property but as a way of coercing people.

Similarly here. If roads were private, their owners might require some form of driver’s license in order to make their roads safer. If the roads are public, it is not unreasonable for them to require a driver’s license and refuse to allow an immigrant without one to drive. But that does not justify forbidding a legal driver from carrying the immigrant. What Smith’s argument is proposing is the government using its control over public property not to serve the purposes of that property but to prevent voluntary transactions between its citizens and foreigners.

Suppose we accept the argument. A private owner is entitled to refuse to allow anyone not vaccinated onto his property. Hence the government is entitled to impose a vaccine mandate, enforced by forbidding anyone not vaccinated from using public property. It is entitled to effectively lock urban residents into their homes by forbidding them from using the public roads or sidewalks. It is entitled to ban drug use, prostitution, very nearly any of the activities libertarians believe it is not entitled to ban, by denying the people who do those things access to any public property.[1] The exception swallows the rule.

I conclude that libertarians ought to support open borders. They may want to qualify that by including the condition that immigrants not receive all the rights of citizens, such as the right to vote or to receive government benefits, until they have been naturalized.




[1] Dave Smith responded to the argument about using control of government property against drug users, raised by Spike Cohen in their debate, by saying that it was legitimate to forbid addicts from shooting up on government property. He did not consider that the same argument would justify forbidding anyone who shot up anywhere, including his own property, from ever using government property.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Interpersonal Utility Comparisons

One common criticism of utilitarianism is that we have no way of way of trading off utility gains to one person against utility losses to another in order to say whether the net change is an increase or decrease in total utility. That is not a problem for much of economic theory, which can be done not only without interpersonal comparisons but without assuming anything more than individual preferences. But it is a problem for the idea of economic efficiency, a criterion of goodness derived from Marshall’s definition of an economic improvement. Marshall, a utilitarian, offered the concept of an economic improvement as corresponding, albeit imperfectly, to a change that increased total utility.

We can and do make interpersonal utility comparisons, although not very well. A parent making decisions that affect his children is implicitly asking himself whether doing something one child wants to do and the other doesn't will increase the former's happiness more than it decreases the latter. Someone deciding which friend to give a gift to is doing it in part on which he thinks will be made happier by it. I signal my feelings, including preferences, in facial expressions, voice tones, and the like; others appear to do the same, giving me some idea of the strength as well as the ordering of their preferences and comparing to mine.

I cannot know another person’s preferences with certainty but I have no serious doubt that the disutility to a random stranger of being tortured to death is greater than the disutility to me of stubbing my toe.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Need for Interpersonal Utility in Economics

Alfred Marshall defined the value of an outcome to an individual, positive or negative, as the largest amount he would be willing to pay to get it or prevent it. He defined an economic improvement as a change whose total value was positive, meaning that the value to those who benefited by it was greater than the disvalue to those who lost by it. He offered the concept as an imperfect proxy for a utility increase on the grounds that although a given amount of money might represent more utility for one person than another such differences would usually average out for changes that affected many people. Put in modern terminology, an economic improvement is an increase in economic efficiency and an outcome is efficient if it cannot be improved.

A Pareto improvement, a concept originated by Vilfredo Pareto, is a change that benefits at least one person and harms nobody, avoiding the need for any interpersonal comparison of amount of benefit and harm. An outcome is Pareto efficient if it cannot be improved. The problem with substituting the Pareto versions of improvement and efficient for the ones based on Marshall’s approach is that almost no change affecting a significant number of people is a Pareto improvement, hence almost all outcomes are Pareto efficient.

Hicks and Kaldor tried to solve that problem with the concept of a potential Pareto improvement, a change that would be a Pareto improvement if combined with a suitable set of payments from people who gained to people who lost. If gainers gain more than losers lose, making the change a Marshall improvement, there should be some set of transfers that fully compensates the latter while leaving some gain for the former so, in almost all circumstances, something is a potential Pareto improvement if and only if it is a Marshall improvement.[1] Since the transfers are not actually made, a potential Pareto improvement is not an actual Pareto improvement — some people gain, some lose — so justifying it as a criterion for what changes are good or bad requires the same interpersonal utility comparison as Marshall’s approach.

It just makes the fact less obvious.

In order for economists to conclude that abolishing a tariff or a minimum wage law or practically any other change is (or is not) good for the country, an improvement, they must be willing to bite the bullet, treat utility as interpersonally comparable.

[1] I describe a situation in which something is a Marshall improvement but not a potential Pareto/Hicks-Kaldor improvement in "Does Altruism Produce Efficient Outcomes? Marshall vs Kaldor." Journal of Legal Studies, 1987 Vol. XVII, (January 1988).


Sunday, May 22, 2022

Why Not Sell Single Shoes?

Shoes, in my experience, are always sold in pairs. Should they be?

I can think of at least two arguments against. One is that sometimes one shoe of a pair wears out or gets damaged and you have to throw the whole pair away. This is particularly likely if your feet are not perfect mirror images of each other. Mine are not — my right foot has some lumps on it, apparently normal and non-dangerous sorts of lumps that sometimes occur with aging. The result is that my right shoes wear out faster than my left. Since I have been buying the same shoes from the same seller for years, I now have two pair — possibly a third if I looked harder — plus a number of unpaired left shoes.

That, of course, suggests the other advantage to selling single shoes. When I get new shoes they are comfortable on the left foot, tight on the right. Eventually, after time to stretch, they are loose on the left foot, comfortable on the right. But if I could buy a right shoe one size wider than the left ...

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

My European Speaking Trip

is finally happening. Here is the schedule.

I am not listing a couple of events that are entirely closed. For the rest I give links to information about where, when, and who, if necessary, to contact.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Why Global Temperature Doesn’t Matter for Global Crop Yield

Looking at a little of the literature on the effect of climate change on agriculture, I noticed something that seems to be a mistake — perhaps someone here can explain why it isn’t.

Crop yields depend, among other things, on temperature, with an optimal average temperature for each crop — about 15°C for wheat, for example (Lobell 2012). If temperature goes up by a degree, yield in an area that used to be 15° and is now 16° goes down a little. This seems to be one of the effects that goes into estimates of reduced yield as a result of climate change.

But it shouldn’t. The same warming that shifts 15° up to 16° also, somewhere a little farther north in the northern hemisphere or south in the southern, warms 14° to 15°, 13° to 14°, and so on. If wheat was being grown between, say, 13° and 17°, the area of cultivation can shift by one degree towards the pole and continue to have a temperature range of 13°-17° and the same temperature-related yield as before.

I can see two possible objections to this argument. The first is that the land a little closer to the pole may be less well suited to growing wheat in respects other than temperature. That is obviously possible but why would you expect it? Is there any reason why land that happens to have the ideal temperature for growing wheat is also more likely than other land to have the ideal soil or the ideal amount of rain? If not, then on average the shift is to land about as well suited in other ways and now ideally suited in temperature. A more careful analysis might find a deviation from that in either direction, land a little closer to the poles a little better or a little worse, but why should we expect either?

The second objection is that shifting the area of cultivation is costly — wheat farms have irrigation systems suitable for growing wheat, appropriate farm machinery, are owned or managed by people experienced in growing wheat. You can’t just pick all that up and shift it a hundred miles further north.

How serious an issue this is depends in part on how fast the shift happens. Looking at maps showing average temperature, it seems to go down as you move towards the poles by about a degree every hundred miles, with a good deal of variation. At current rates of climate change, global temperature should be going up by about a degree every thirty years. So shifting the area of cultivation to keep the temperature at which wheat is being grown constant should require moving it by about three miles a year, with farms at the warm edge of the zone shifting to crops with a higher optimal temperature such as maize (18°) while farms at the cold edge are shifting from barley or vegetables to wheat.

The real pattern would, of course, be more complicated than this, but why isn’t it the right first approximation? If so, then reduced yield with warming should not be included in the effect of climate change on agriculture. What should be included is the large increase in total arable land as temperature contours shift towards the pole, since it is cold, not heat, that restricts the area of land suitable for agriculture.

Am I missing something? Alternatively, is all of this already being included in models of the effect of climate change on agricultural output? If so, perhaps someone can point me at examples.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

An Essay I Had Forgotten Writing

The Tolkien Puzzle: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, Inquiry, December 19, 1977, pp. 20-21[1]


The success of J.R.R. Tolkien is a puzzle, for it is difficult to  imagine a less contemporary writer. He was a Catholic, a conservative, and a scholar in a field-philology-that many of his readers had never heard of. The Lord of the Rings fitted no familiar category; its success virtually created the field of “adult fantasy.” Yet it sold millions of copies, and there are tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of readers who find Middle Earth a more important part of their internal landscape than any other creation of human art, and who know the pages of The Lord of the Rings the way some Christians know the Bible.

Humphrey Carpenter’s recent Tolkien: A Biography, published by Houghton Mifflin, is a careful study of Tolkien’s life, including such parts of his internal life as are accessible to the biographer. His admirers will find it well worth reading. We learn details, for instance, of Tolkien’s intense, even sensual love for language; by the time he entered Oxford, he knew not only French, German, Latin, and Greek, but Anglo-Saxon, Gothic and Old Norse. He began inventing languages for the sheer pleasure of it and when he found that a language requires a history and a people to speak it he began inventing them too. The language was Quenya, the people were the elves. And we learn, too, some of the sources of his intense pessimism, of his feeling that the struggle against evil is desperate and almost hopeless and all victories at best temporary.

Carpenter makes no attempt to explain his subject’s popularity but he provides a few clues, the most interesting of which is Tolkien’s statement of regret that the English had no mythology of their own and that at one time he had hoped to create one for them, a sort of English Kalevala. That attempt became The Silmarillion, which was finally published this fall, three years after the author’s death; its enormous sales confirm Tolkien’s continuing popularity. One of the offshoots of The Silmarillion was The Lord of the Rings.

What is the hunger that Tolkien satisfies? George Orwell described the loss of religious belief as the amputation of the soul and suggested that the operation, while necessary, had turned out to be more than a simple surgical job. That comes close to the point, yet the hunger is not precisely for religion, although it is for something religion can provide. It is the hunger for a moral universe, a universe where, whether or not God exists, whether or not good triumphs over evil, good and evil are categories that make sense, that mean something. To the fundamental moral question “why should I do (or not do) something,” two sorts of answers can be given. One answer is “the reason you feel you should do this thing is because your society has trained you (or your genes compel you) to feel that way.” But that answers the wrong question. I do not want to know why I feel that I should do something; I want to know why (and whether) I should do it. Without an answer to that second question all action is meaningless. The intellectual synthesis in which most of us have been reared — liberalism, humanism, whatever one may call it — answers only the first question. It may perhaps give the right answer but it is the wrong question.

The Lord Of The Rings is a work of art, not a philosophical treatise; it offers, not a moral argument, but a world in which good and evil have a place, a world whose pattern affirms the existence of answers to that second question, answers that readers, like the inhabitants of that world, understand and accept. It satisfies the hunger for a moral pattern so successfully that the created world seems to many more real, more right, than the world about them.

Does this mean, as Tolkien’s detractors have often said, that everything in his books is black and white? If so, then a great deal of literature, including all of Shakespeare, is black and white. Nobody in Hamlet doubts that poisoning your brother in order to steal his wife and throne is bad, not merely imprudent or antisocial. But the existence of black and white does not deny the existence of intermediate shades; gray can be created only if black and white exist to be mixed. Good and evil exist in Tolkien’s work, but his characters are no more purely good or purely evil than are Shakespeare’s.

One illustration of this, and one of the richnesses of The Lord of the Rings, is the variety of patterns of temptation and redemption woven through the book. The satanic enemy, Sauron, “was not always evil”; he is apparently, like Lucifer, a fallen angel. Gollum, a twisted being with a taste for anything (or anyone) he can sneak up behind, gradually develops into a character for whom the reader feels sympathy and even affection and comes within a hairbreadth of being redeemed. Boromir yields to the temptation of the ring, tries to take it by force, fails, repents, and dies bravely, fighting to protect his weaker companions. His father, Denethor, yields not to the desire for power but to despair, killing himself in the belief that the city over which he is Steward has lost its long struggle with Sauron, at the very instant when in fact the tide has turned. To balance him there is his ally Theoden, who rises from age and despair to fight and die, with honor and glory, outside the walls of the same city. Many more examples could be given; for all Tolkien’s characters, human or nonhuman, diabolic or semidivine, free will is a constant reality and the potential for both good and evil always present.

Is The Lord of the Rings religious? Yes and no. There is a religious pattern but it is kept far in the background; there are no churches, no priests, no organized religion of any kind. So far as I can remember, the only direct reference to God is in the appendix. And while it is clear enough that certain characters are more than human, precisely what they are is left deliberately vague.

God, or the gods, cannot intervene often and openly in human affairs without being reduced, as in Homer, to being merely humans with supernatural powers or reducing the plot to a series of dei ex machinis. But there is a more fundamental reason why Tolkien does not clarify the “religious” background of his world. In “On Fairy Stories,” an extraordinary essay written some years before The Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien discussed the enchanted realm of Faery. If we understood entirely how the magic of Faery worked it would no longer be Faery but only a peculiar, perhaps imaginary, corner of our cold world. Tolkien’s task is precisely the opposite. “Faery contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread.” By showing us the walking forest of Fangorn and the stars over Kirith Ungol, Tolkien seeks to give back to stars and trees some part of that beauty and mystery that is by right theirs.

Whatever its purpose for Tolkien, the remoteness of religion in The Lord of the Rings strengthens its effect for us. A story set in the Catholic world in which Tolkien undoubtedly believed would not have moved us so deeply, although that world is as much a moral universe as Middle Earth. We all know that the Pope is not infallible, that priests have no supernatural powers, that Catholicism is a superstition of uneducated or self-deceiving people. These things may or may not be true, but we know them. Catholicism, indeed Christianity, is part of our world, and a part that has been, for most of us, debunked. Tolkien’s friends and contemporaries, C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, wrote stories set in the modern world as seen by a believing Christian; they seem more fantastic than Tolkien’s and less believable.

I have now given at least a partial answer to the puzzle of Tolkien’s success. We hunger for meaning, value, pattern, a universe that, morally speaking, makes sense. One of the functions of religion is to satisfy that hunger. For most of us, whatever church we do or do not attend, religion is dead and we are starving. We attempt to fill the void, often with patterns less sophisticated and less plausible than those we have abandoned — political crusades, environmental fanaticism, Hare Krishna. Tolkien gives us instead what we desperately want, in the form of an imaginative creation of great power and subtlety. Escape, as Tolkien has himself written, is not necessarily a bad thing; it depends on what you are escaping from. But he intended his work to be more than merely a fantasy within which one takes refuge from the real world. He intended it rather as a vehicle for what he called recovery, a way in which, through the imaginative creation, we could see the nature of the world in which we live, a world both beautiful and perilous. Tolkien did not, of course, believe that the accidents of the world he had created were literally true, despite the loving scholarship he lavished on them. Nor was he in any sense writing allegory. Rather he tried to create a world which was in its essence true, and through which we could see our own world, not as custom and stale familiarity taught us to see it, but as he believed it to be.

[1] This is a very old article of mine that I found on the Inquiry Archive of the Unz Review. I have edited it lightly, mostly by the removal of surplus commas.


Friday, March 18, 2022

Land Gained and Lost: A Fermi Estimate

Climate change affects the amount of land usable by humans in at least three different ways. Land is lost through sea level rise. Land is lost because it becomes too hot for human use. Land is gained because it becomes warm enough for human use. Exact calculations of the size of all three effects, if possible at all, would require much more expertise and effort than I am bringing to the problem so what I offer are Fermi estimates, numbers based on very crude approximations. For all three estimates I will be assuming warming of 3°C above current temperatures and sea level rise of .6 m above present sea level, roughly what the latest IPCC report projects for the end of the century under SSP3-7.0.

Land Lost to Sea-level Rise

The amount of land lost equals the length of coastline times the amount by which it shifts in. For the total length of the world’s coastline I found a figure of 356,000 km. The amount by which coastline shifts in with a given amount of sea level rise depends on the slope of the coastal land. I came across a figure of a hundred feet of shift for every foot of sea level rise in a book discussing the situation on the U.S. Atlantic coast; since I do not have figures for every coast in the world, I will use that.

60m coastline shift x 356,000 km of coastline = 21,436 km2

That is my very approximate estimate of land lost to sea level rise.

Land Lost to Rising Temperature

How much does temperature rise in hot parts of the world with 3° more of global warming? Figure SPM.5b of the latest IPCC report[1] shows a map of projected average temperature change due to a 4° increase relative to 1850-1900 in average global temperature, roughly 3° relative to current temperature. Parts of the Earth that are both hot and densely populated appear to warm by a little less than the global average. Table 11.SM.2 shows the effect of different levels of global warming on maximum temperatures. It looks from that as though 3° of global warming would raise the maximum temperature of the relevant regions[2] by about 3°. So if we knew at what temperature, average or maximum, the Earth’s surface becomes too hot for human habitation, we could conclude that any area currently within three degrees of that would, with our assumed level of global warming, become too hot for humans.

The simplest approach to doing this is to compare a map of global temperature (Figure1 ) to a map of population density (Figure 2) and see at what temperature population density goes to close to zero. Comparing the two maps we observe that while the coldest areas of the globe are essentially empty, the hottest are not; some, such as the Philippines, Senegal, and Malaysia, are densely populated. If there is a temperature at which the Earth’s surface becomes unliveable, these maps do not show it. Our estimate of the amount of land lost by the direct effect of heating, calculated in this way, is zero.

We may be able to do a little better by looking at data on cities. The hottest city, by average temperature, is Assab, Eritrea, at 30.5°C, with several others nearly that warm. Hence we can conclude that any city whose average temperature after climate change is less than 30.5° will not be unliveably hot while cities whose temperature is higher than that might be. There are 28 cities with an average temperature of 28°C or more. Their a combined population is about 33 million, which is roughly .7% of the urban population of the world. If we use urban population ratio as a very rough proxy for total population ratio and that as a very rough proxy for land ratio and calculate.7% of the non-arctic land area of Earth, we get 

149 million km2 (Land area) – 5.5 million (Antarctica) - .8 million (Greenland) = 143 million km2

143 million km2 x.007 = 1 million km2

That gives us a very approximate upper bound for the amount of land that becomes unlivable due to global temperature increasing by three degrees. It is only an upper bound because we do not know that a city would be unliveable at an average temperature of 31°, only that there are no cities that hot.

Both of these calculations are based on average temperature. Arguably what habitability depends on is be maximum temperature. If it gets unendurably hot during a summer day, the fact that winter nights are cold is little compensation.

Figure 3 is the equivalent of Figure 1 for maximum temperatures. The highest temperature regions it shows include densely populated parts of India as well as more sparsely populated parts of Africa and Arabia. Insofar as one can tell from that map, there are no places large enough to show on the map where maximum temperatures are too high for human habitation. It is possible that some would be that hot after an additional three degrees of warning but the combined evidence of Figures 2 and 3 suggests not, since some of the hottest regions are densely populated.

I have been defining usable land as land humans can live on. While there are parts of Earth that seem crowded, average land per person is about five acres, so human populations are not limited by the amount of space to put them in. They might, however, be limited by not enough land to feed them, so it might make more sense to define usable land as land suitable for growing crops.

Is there any significant amount of land that is too hot to grow crops? So far as I can tell, there is not. Maps showing yield of various crops can be found online; some regions with high average and maximum temperatures show substantial yields. The yields shown are averaged over countries, but a map of agriculture in India shows crops being grown across areas within India of both high average and high maximum temperature.

My conclusion from these calculations is that there is probably no substantial amount of land area that will become either uninhabitable or unable to grow crops solely because of temperature with global warming of 3°C.

This does not mean that there is no area that will become either uninhabitable or unable to grow crops as a result of global warming, only that there is no area where it will happen solely because of temperature. Looking at Figure 2, one observes a wide region of northern Africa with almost nobody living there — the Sahara. That area is less hot than some populated regions, so temperature is not the entire reason it is empty, but it can be, almost surely is, part of the reason, so increased temperature might expand it.

On the other hand, the latest IPCC report suggests the possibility that climate change might have the opposite effect:

Some climate model simulations suggest that under future high-emissions scenarios, CO2 radiative forcing causes rapid greening in the Sahel and Sahara regions via precipitation change (Claussen et al., 2003; Drijfhout et al., 2015). For example, in the BNU-ESM RCP8.5 simulation, the change is abrupt with the percentage of bare soil dropping from 45% to 15%, and percentage of tree cover rising from 50% to 75%, within 10 years (2050-2060) (Drijfhout et al., 2015). However, other modelling results suggest that this may  be a short-lived response to CO2 fertilization (Bathiany et al., 2014).

In summary, given outstanding uncertainties in how well the current generation of climate models capture land-surface feedbacks in the Sahel and Sahara, there is low confidence that an abrupt change to a greener state will occur in these regions before 2100 or 2300.

Figuring out all consequences of climate change for the amount of land available for human use is a much more complicated problem than I am trying to solve.

Land Gained Due to Rising Temperature

Human land use at present is limited by cold, not heat, as shown on Figure 2 above — the equator is populated, the polar regions are not. It follows that global warming, by shifting temperature contours towards the poles, should increase the amount of land warm enough for human habitation. Making Antarctica habitable would require a lot more than three degrees of global warming and the southernmost land masses north of it are already inhabited, so any land gains from warming will be in the northern hemisphere.

Figure 11.SM.1 of the sixth IPCC report shows minimum temperature of areas such as North America and Northern Asa going up by between 2 and 3.4 degrees per degree of global warming. Since warming is greater in colder climates, I take 3 degrees per degree as a reasonable guess for the increase in temperature in the northern part of those zones. It follows that three degrees of global warming will increase the temperature in the colder parts of those zones by about nine degrees. To estimate how much land will shift from not quite habitable to at least barely habitable we need two numbers — what length of the contour dividing barely habitable from not quite habitable is over land and how far a nine degree increase in temperature will shift it.

It seems likely that habitability depends more on minimal temperature than on average temperature. Figure 4 shows temperatures in January, which should be close to the minimum, with contours every five degrees — much more precise information than Figure 1 provides for average temperatures. Combining the temperature information on Figure 4 with the population density information on Figure 2, the border of habitability appears to be at about -15°C. Nine degrees of warming will raise the January temperature of land currently at -24° to -15°, so shift the land between those two contours from not quite habitable to barely habitable. I estimate the distance between the -15° and -25° contours to average about 800 km, making the distance between -15° and -24° about 720 km, and the length over land of those contours to total about 15,000 km. Hence the area between them is about 10,800,000 km2.

This land is being warmed from not quite habitable to at least barely habitable, from a population density of less than two per square km to a population density of more than two but in some areas less than ten. At the same time, the land a little farther south is being warmed from barely habitable to more than barely habitable, and the land south of that …  . Combining those effects, 10.5 million square km is a rough estimate of the increase in fully usable land.

The analysis so far has used population density as the measure of habitability. As I suggested earlier, it may make more sense to use the ability to grow crops. Crop production maps for Canada and Russia show crops growing in about the same areas that appear habitable by population density, so I have not tried to redo the calculation on that basis.


On the basis of these calculations, I find, for the effect of climate change by the end of the century under SSP3-7.0:

Loss of usable land by flooding due to sea level rise: 21,436 km2

Loss of usable land due to the direct effect of warming: Probably close to zero, with one calculation giving an upper bound of one million km2.

Increase of usable land due to the direct effect of warming: 10.8 million km2.

All of these numbers are very approximate but they imply a large net increase, due to climate change, in the amount of land usable by humans — more than twice the area of the United States. They also imply that nearly five hundred times as much land is gained through warming as is lost through sea level rise, which makes it odd that only the latter is commonly included in discussions of the effects of climate change.

P.S. Two commenters on this in different places asked why I didn't discuss other work along these lines and one of them provided a link to “Climate change impacts on global agricultural land availability” by Xiao Zhang and Ximing Cai 2011 Environ. Res. Lett. 6. It is a more elaborate analysis than mine, focusing on the amount of arable land and trying to take account of a  wider range of constraints including soil quality and humidity. It finds increases in some regions, decreases in others, with the net effect, not including land not available because of population increase, ranging from -.8 million km2 to +1.2 million km2. Details of their analysis are difficult to extract from the article — I could not tell, for example, whether the effect of CO2 fertilization on the water requirement of plants is one of the effects they take into account. The analysis in this chapter is less sophisticated but much easier for the reader to audit, to figure out what I am doing and whether to trust the result.

A similar calculation is done in Ramankutty N et al 2002,  The global distribution of cultivable lands: current patterns and sensitivity to possible climate change,” Global Ecol. Biogeogr. 11 377–92. That article explicitly takes account of the reduction in water requirements due to CO2 fertilization. The authors conclude “In the GCM-simulated climate of 2070–99, we estimate an increase in suitable cropland area of 6.6 million km2.” Since I am estimating land warm enough for human use and they are estimating land suitable for cultivation, taking account of a variety of constraints, it is not surprising that their figure is lower than mine. The Sahara, for example, is warm enough for human use — there are densely populated regions that are warmer — but not suitable for cultivation.


This is a draft of a chapter for a book I am working on. I am looking for two sorts of comments:

1. Easy ways of doing my calculations better. There are obviously ways I could make my results more accurate by more complicated calculations but since I don't really care if the real number is twice mine or half it, that isn't worth doing. On the other hand, if there are ways just as easy but smarter, giving a more reliable result, I am interested.

2. Major mistakes. My conclusions are pretty dramatic and I want to know if they are, for some reason, wildly wrong.

[1] This and other references to IPCC figures in this chapter are to IPCC AR6 WGI Full Report.

[2] SAS, EAS, SEA, and CAF in the table.