Crocodile Tears over Ethanol Subsidies

The following broadcast is one of the most compelling and succinct briefs against ethanol subsidies I’ve seen:

The only problem is that the group that sponsors it has helped create the problem they’re now decrying. It’s as if someone had surrounded a house with gasoline, then put up a sign asking passers-by not to throw any cigarette butts there.


Consider: why do we have a fuel crisis presently? Who have been shouting down CAFE standards for years on end? Who would go to the barricades to defend to the death any individual’s right to own and drive an SUV, Hummer (or perhaps a tank, post-Heller)? And who, while decrying politicians for trading ethanol subsidies for political donations, turns around and says the First Amendment prevents any real campaign finance reform?

The libertarians’ consistent opposition to progress in any of these areas makes their sudden concern about ethanol and the food crisis highly suspect. It also highlights a larger issue in what are misnamed “conservative” politics today (for many of its most influential figures hope to revolutionize basic aspects of our national security policy and welfare state).

Libertarians will complain bitterly about being taxed to support the war in Iraq, while helping dismantle the very regulatory policies that could reduce our dependence on oil in the Mideast. National security conservatives realize that tax cuts help hollow out our defense capabilities and social services for soldiers, but gladly sign on to ally politically with those who push them. Many thoughtful social conservatives realize that it is economic insecurity and mass marketing of trash culture that do the most to undermine families–but in the end find it’s just too hard to part ways with their tax-cutting pals. Michael Tomasky, Jonathan Chait, and Thomas Edsall have all noted the strangeness of this ad hoc alliance–but perhaps its key sustaining element is a tacit agreement to give each group total sway in its sphere of influence.

Philip Tetlock helps us more fully understand how an anti-tax animus unites the groups:

Be it conservatism or liberalism, Marxism or libertarianism. . .- all ‘isms’ come with conceptual boundaries – and litmus tests for which opinions fall inside or outside the bounds of reasonableness for that ‘ismatic’ worldview. . . . . Political psychologists have a longstanding interest in how communities of cobelievers define the boundaries of the thinkable and where they set their thresholds for issuing fatwas, excommunicating deviants, excluding former participants from coalitions, or just shunning someone at a cocktail party. Our starting point is Tetlock’s sacred value protection model (SVPM), which takes as its starting point an undeniable fact of political life: the tendency of like-minded souls to coalesce into communities of cobelievers dedicated to defending and advancing shared values.

The SVPM accepts that people are often sincere when they express moral outrage and engage in moral cleansing. But the model also portrays a delicate mental balancing act. People regularly run into decision problems in which the costs of upholding sacred values become very steep – arguably prohibitive. If parents dedicated their net worth to reducing to a probability of zero all threats to their children’s safety, for example, they would rapidly impoverish themselves. . . . The model predicts that when there is no pressure to confront secular/sacred trade-offs, people and political movements will adopt the low-mental effort solution of accepting their own side’s no-trade-off rhetoric at face value.

Thus a pledge of “tax relief”–no matter what the country’s fiscal situation, and no matter how high inequality may get–becomes the “sacred value” of libertarian politics. As students of political framing, we might begin to understand exactly how important this shibboleth is:

Lakoff found that people tend to vote not on specific issues but rather for the candidate who best reflects their moral system by evoking the right “frames.” Consider the phrase “tax relief,” an effective staple of the Republican lexicon. According to Lakoff, the word “relief” elicits a frame in which taxes are seen as an affliction. And every time the phrase “tax relief” is heard or read by people, the relevant neural circuits are instinctively activated in their brains, the synapses connecting the neurons get stronger, and the view of taxation as an affliction is unconsciously reinforced.

The great danger posed by libertarian thought is a relentless obsession with the threats posed by government–and corresponding refusal to recognize problems posed by corporate entities or uncoordinated consumption–combine to reinforce a cynicism toward collective action that poisons all hope of cooperating to solve tough problems. Those in the legal profession should be particularly worried, as we are all too often written off in the libertarian mindset as a needless transaction cost. In fact, any solution to the great problems we face in energy, health, and even defense policy requires serious thought about proper procedures and extra-market allocation of resources–precisely the type of training a good legal education provides.

Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan.

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