Wednesday, July 23, 2008

'CLS' to farmers: "To a gas chamber, go!"

As Whittaker Chambers said of Ayn Rand in his famous (and hilarious) review of Atlas Shrugged, I dislike much of what 'CLS' the anonymous (by request) 'blogger at Classically Liberal dislikes, quite as heartily as he does.

Nonetheless, much as I didn't have the stomach for Atlas Shrugged's painfully bad dialogue and Saturday-morning cartoon moral landscape, never finishing the book and having no desire to do so, I'm finding that, although I promoted CLS's 'blog back when it was getting started, his recent posts' moralistic turn makes my eyes cross and my brain hurt. Ordinarily speaking I have no trouble reading those with whom I disagree, but when the modesty of a true intellectual is set aside in favor of the cheap certainty of an ideologue, it becomes difficult to not dismiss the passage literally by reflex. The eyes--my eyes, anyway--have a tendency, on finding that a writer hasn't thought things through, has no intention of thinking things through, and doesn't even appreciate that the matter at hand is of sufficient subtlety to require being thought through, to skip to the next sentence or paragraph, as if not to spend more time processing an author's mistake than the author spent writing it.

So it is with a recent post about the effects of a change in ethanol blending mandates, wherein farmers who planted their crops expecting mandates to continue as is at least until the end of the season are treated much as the sociology professors, schoolteachers, and playwrights (etc.) who perished in the Taggart Tunnel. To quote:
One farmer said: “We bought fertilizer and corn seed, decide our crop mix on the basis of ethanol being where it was. To change the mandate in the middle of our growing season, that’s really not right.” He apparently never worried if the mandate was right in the first place.

I would like to be able to attribute the post to the casual libertarian's (usually somewhat willful) lack of appreciation for stickiness, but CLS goes on to accuse the quoted farmer and many others of theft and looting and to actually gloat over the farmers' losses.

Bailing out people who benefited from previous government policies is not libertarian. Their failure, if anything is a bit of justice. It returns some of the booty that they stole back to the productive economy.

CLS has perhaps forgotten that he and nearly everyone else is a beneficiary of government policies, as he lives and does business under rule of law. This does not make him a thief unless all men are thieves. If the law should change in a way to hurt his livelihood, as he is not profiting from slavery or some other malum in se conduct, I would want the change to be done in such a way as to smooth the transition.

It would seem, however, that in CLS's newly twisted moral landscape, those who respond to price signals that happen to be perturbed by government policies with which one does not agree are "stealing" and their profits are "booty". Forget that the ethanol mandate, however poorly thought out, had a legitimate purpose, that being moving toward carbon neutrality. (I don't think it's relevant here that CLS dismisses the work of climatologists for reasons that amount to "just because".) Forget that that purpose is not mystically erased if farmers happened to have lobbied for the mandate's passage. It is the duty of everyone to not only anticipate all possible changes in the law, but also to pretend, as actors in the marketplace, that the law does not exist if CLS does not think it should exist. To do otherwise is to be a thief, to steal, to not participate in the "productive economy".

CLS claims that to advocate for bailouts and smoothed transitions is not libertarian. Apparently his bookstore didn't carry Epstein's Takings and the passage, largely by libertarians, of regulatory takings laws in Oregon and Arizona eluded him while he was out of the country. I'm not saying that changing what is essentially a crop-use mandate mid-season is a takings, but it does sit on a continuum with regulatory takings, and I can see how one could argue that it is. I suspect that despite his stance on this particular matter, CLS would like for the filthy polluting pigs or those profiting from habitat destruction to be compensated when sensible environmental regluations are passed. (Life is full of shades-of-grey, of naturally diffuse "drop in the ocean" harms, and the like; that's one of the reasons we have markets.)

Why, in CLS's mind, should bailouts and smoothed transitions not occur? It puts us on a slippery slope to socialism. Ridiculous! Moving on to something with at least a semblance of merit, we find that CLS argues that the government should not "bail out" those negatively affected by a change in its policies lest it subsidize everyone all the time. Reductio ad absurdum has its uses, but this isn't one. The claim that laws can either be changed on an abrupt timescale and without compensation to those harmed, irrespective of the consequences, or all businesses must be subsidized forever whenever the law changes is sloppy. The quoted farmer himself presents middle ground, written right between the lines. When crops are in the field is not the time to change policy. Therefore, a fair transition would be to lower, or better still, to end the mandates on a timetable such that next year's crop mix is determined based on a market in which there is no ethanol blending mandate.

I'd say that I don't understand how this could have eluded CLS, but that would be a lie. I understand how it eluded him. The peculiar self-lobotomy of the moralist or ideologue creates a mental "blind spot" that nearly always obscures the middle ground.

The extremes are ruled out, yes. Keeping the subsidy for all time is fairly clearly wrong, and cutting it off immediately, mid-season, is just as bad albeit for different reasons. Considering Man as a member of society, an actor in the marketplace, and a limited being, CLS's policy prescription is faulty. Perhaps, pace Chambers, this is to be expected: we should not "place much confidence in the diagnosis of a doctor who supposes that the Hippocratic Oath is a kind of curse."

The more interesting questions remain:
  1. How can we best, given the moral and practical concerns surrounding the matter, eliminate the ethanol blending mandate?
  2. What policy can better satisfy its legitimate purposes?

These are questions of the sort to which ideologues and moralists do not have answers. That is my accusation and in many ways their boast.

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