Hypocrisy and Carbon Policy

hypocrite.jpgSteve Bainbridge, writing about whether former VP Gore should take the so-called Gore Pledge, concludes:

[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.

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6 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    I think you’re right about Gore for another reason; namely, to be a “respectable” member of certain influential social sets you have to have a big house, big car, etc. Try getting an appointment in Hollywood after people see you cruising around in a Ford Escort.

    G.A. Cohen explores this idea in his book, “IF You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich.”

    On the flip side, I think Aristotle theorized that a great deal of the force of rhetoric can emanate from the character of the speaker. The 25K p.a.-earning Stephen Bright can exhort people to do public interest work a lot more effectively than, say, those who haven’t experienced the sacrifices he’s made.

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I agree that the assessment or evalutation of ‘public arguments’ is an enterprise that can typically take place apart from the character or behavior of the person who has formulated them. However, insofar as such arguments are designed (intended) to persuade others to alter their behavior, it’s not surprising that those (the intended audience) addressed will endeavor to find out whether or not the speaker has herself acted or lived as if she is convinced of the merits of the argument, that she demonstrates the courage of her convictions, as we used to say. ‘Tis true: political speech is not equivalent to and in many respects differs from political action proper, but its obvious end is often political action of some sort or another, in this case, action involving personal consumptive habits. The argument may be valid or true, but it’s persuasive rhetorical power may be undermined if there is this rather large gap between words and deeds in cases where the personal and the political are intertwined (as they are in the case of lifestyle and consumptive habits in affluent nation states and the phenomena of global warming). So, while the argument can be assessed on its own merits, its rhetorical and political effects will, I suspect, be negatively affected, thereby hindering or postponing the envisioned (argued for) political changes. In other words, it’s true that the hyprocisy argument does not suffice as a refutation of a proposed political innovation but the *implementation* of such political innovation is (needlessly, avoidably) postponed or made that much more difficult as a result of such hypocrisy or gap between (argued) word and (personal/political) deed, such hypocrisy serving to undermine the political argument’s politically persuasive power (i.e., its power to alter behavior, to implement the desired political change). In such cases, we have a failure of political leadership.

  3. FP says:

    one last thought: Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

  4. greenmachine says:

    The Gore-as-hypocrite argument assumes that our environmental footprints are just a function of our consumer choices, which, to a certain extent, they are. But most environmental pollution is a result of large scale industrial processes, and to the extent that pollution is the result of consumer choice, much, if not most, of the responsibility lies with the industries that produce and sell consumer goods. I don’t see Al Gore as a model citizen making parsimonious choices (i.e., paper or plastic; petrol or biodiesel), but rather as somebody advocating for stronger leadership to address the larger issues (i.e., a carbon tax on industry).

  5. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I’m inclined to believe that it’s not a matter of “larger issues” v. smaller or insignificant ones. A carbon tax is one policy option we should thoughtfully consider if not implement, but certainly in the context of a variegated supply of coordinated and comprehensive strategies that involve consumers and citizens, corporations, and government bodies working toward common ecological ends. Juliet Schor’s work, for one, is evidence that all of us, as consumers, have a share of responsibility or complicity that we should neither ignore nor abdicate (crudely: the demand supply of the equation is not so easily dismissed, i.e., there are no industries to produce particularly harmful consumer goods with ecologically debilitating methods if there are no consumers willing to buy their products). This was earlier recognized by the Fundi Greens (Die Grunen) in Germany and the so-called Deep Ecology Greens here in the states (the latter, to be sure, often politically and economically naive). I do not want to be seen as prioritizing or emphasizing lifestyle choices over collective action, agreeing with Robert Goodin (in Green Political Theory, 1992) that ‘carrying the green cause to electoral triumph might affect the fate of the earth; deciding to live a thoroughly green lifestyle oneself most definitely will not’ [presuming off course that adopting such a lifestyle never reaches a tipping point, a critical mass, or inspires some sort of norm cascade]. So I think it’s foolish to advocate ‘personal’ over ‘political’ action. Instead, I’m simply pointing out how Gore and others might serve to inspire and motivate folks who will, at some point in the future, be asked to forgo certain kinds of consumption choices or make consumer ‘sacrifices’ of one sort or another. The relations between what Goodin calls a ‘green theory of value’ and a ‘green theory of agency,’ are complex and deserving of discussion, and with Goodin I believe greens have not always thought these things through with the care that they deserve. Yet we might learn from Greens of all tones that public policy choices and programs alone will not suffice to get us out of the ecological mess in which we’ve become mired if the metaphysical, psychological and moral presuppositions and assumptions (worldviews) among the masses and its putative leaders remains unchanged: and there’s no clearer evidence for or against such change than in the way in which we conduct our daily lives.

  6. AYY says:

    If it were just a question of speaking about the issues, then your point might be well taken. But Gore wants to enact policies that would subject others to restrictions that he himself is avoiding or can avoid. That might not mean that his arguments aren’t valid, but it has at least some tendency to cut against their validity.

    Also if Gore stands to profit by the restrictions while at the same time being able to avoid them, that sheds some light on whether he is the disinterested inquirer he portrays himself as being.