Hypocrisy and Carbon Policy
[M]aybe the answer is not to demand that Hollywood elites cut their consumption, but simply to insist that they document their purchase of carbon off-sets before hectoring the rest of us?
As I’ve written before, I think that the hypocrisy claim is a weak argument against political innovation. I have particular doubts here: why should Gore’s ability to speak on matters of public concern be contingent on his living a carbon-neutral life?
One argument is that the rich will work to adopt distributively unfair standards: Al Gore’s lifestyle will not change no matter what the price of gas, and his preferences for a higher gas tax are therefore not to be taken seriously. This argument sounds quite a bit like that for reintroducing the draft, though the consequences of allowing Gore to speak seem significantly less exigent than sending troops off to war. It also sounds like a classic moral hazard argument: because Gore, and politicians, are “insured” against the full effects of their proposals, they behave (or try to persuade others to behave) in inefficient ways.
But political speech is not like political action, and it isn’t at all like consumption of goods. First, and most significantly, there is a long constitutional tradition holding that political speech should receive special protections for both deontological and utilitarian reasons. (I’m not saying that anyone thinks that Gore should be censored by the government for speaking. The point is merely to recognize that the “hush” impulse is directed at speech that is constitutionally important). Second, I have doubts that individuals’ political speech is particularly susceptible to relatively minor cost fluctuations. This is an empirical intuition, so I could be wrong, but I bet that if you made 10,000 environmental activists eat their words, so to speak, only a few would really change their speech to make it less personally costly. If that is true, there seems to be little reason to require a behavioral change to precede speech, just as it seems ultimately foolish to require politicians to be personally pro-life before taking pro-life positions in public, or low-tax activists to be personally charitable before suggesting that the government should get out of the redistribution business and leave it to private parties. Public arguments should stand on public merits, not those of their originators.