Opinionista Ivo Vegter 27 July 2015

Fantasists don’t belong in public policy debates

It can be frustrating to debate a point of public policy, especially in online forums where neither depth nor restraint are valued. Often, the difficulty is to stay – and keep your opponent – on point. Among the red herrings and straw men, it is easy to lose an altogether different argument than the one that was initially begun.

Ivo Vegter

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

I’ve always been stubbornly of the view that if I’m going to voice my opinions on a public platform like Daily Maverick, I ought to be prepared to defend them. I am, after all, only a journalist. I do not lay claim to any status or authority that would give my opinion more weight than those of any other well-read layman. Verifiable facts and logical reason are all I have going for me, and those are always open to public dispute.

It sounds easy, but in real life, few debates are settled on the basis of fact and reason. Most trail off into an endless maelstrom of sophistry and rhetoric, in which goalposts are moved, straw men are burned, and red herrings lead the hounds astray.

Argument of any kind is entertaining and edifying, of course, but one should always keep in mind what the original point was and whether the issue under discussion supports or detracts from it.

For example, much of the discussion following last week’s column that argued against plain-paper packaging laws for tobacco products devolved into simplistic assertions that smoking is bad for you, smoking is annoying for others, or smokers shouldn’t be given the time of day. It was pointed out that sugar, fat and salt do not affect someone sitting next to you, unlike tobacco.

Sure. All those things are true. But none got anywhere near the point: that the government ought not to destroy tobacco branding in the name of discouraging smokers, since this infringes on the right of smokers to make free choices about their own health, as well as undermining the property rights and free speech rights of tobacco companies.

Smokers are already not permitted to smoke in public places, or outside under an awning, or within a set distance from a doorway. Smokers are not permitted to smoke in shops, restaurants, offices, or in cars carrying minors. You really have to seek out smokers if you want to be exposed to smoke as a non-smoker. Many smokers I know don’t even smoke in their own houses anymore. All of the objections against smoking were already taken into account. You may or may not believe smoking to be a filthy habit, but that isn’t your business if it doesn’t affect you.

All these arguments were distractions. They were easily burnable straw men, erected because the real argument was much less simple to address.

By contrast, a point that does address the argument is that smokers may place a burden on the public healthcare system. If true, that would certainly be relevant. As intuitive as the claim may sound, however, it is not true. Measures differ, and so do academic conclusions, but recent studies provide grounds for believing that smokers save governments money in healthcare and pensions, because they have the good grace to die earlier. (The same is true for other chronic health concerns such as obesity: preventive medicine can actually raise lifetime healthcare costs.)

So, the point was arguable, at best, but at least it was relevant.

Another irrelevant tangent was inevitable when I pointed out, a couple of months ago, that the global warming lobby, having failed to raise a hoped-for $100-billion for a United Nations Green Climate Fund, wanted central banks to just print them the money. They argued that central banks “can never become insolvent in their own currency due to their monopoly of issuing the legal tender – even if they purchase non-performing assets”.

The point here is not whether climate change is real. It isn’t whether climate change is a crisis. It isn’t whether climate change ought to be a public policy priority. It isn’t how best to tackle the problems associated with climate change. The point is that you can’t just conjure money out of nothing to solve a problem, real or otherwise. If we could do that, we could instantly have the money to solve any and all problems, and for central banks not to print as much money as possible to give to good causes would be morally wrong. While they’re at it, they could instantly make all of us rich, because hey, “they can’t become insolvent in their own currency … even if they purchase non-performing assets”.

The problem is that the climate changers believe in economic fairy tales, so their policy prescriptions can hardly be taken seriously.

When I investigated the threat that so-called “neonicotinoid” pesticides pose to honey bees, by causing something known as “colony collapse disorder”, I discovered that the crisis was brief, appears to have passed, did not lead to a net decrease in bee hive numbers, and was not caused by pesticides in the first place. Some readers pointed out that other apian afflictions, such as American foulbrood disease, do cause bee losses in SA. That may be true, but it is also besides the point. This is a different problem, with different causes and different solutions. The point was that lobby groups that call for bans on neonicotinoid pesticides because they cause honey bees to die mysteriously are wrong. They don’t.

A different case of misdirection followed my column about the infallible eco-pope’s recent missive to all of us, Catholic or not. I argued that the pope exaggerated environmental concerns, allied the church with the secular green “religion”, misrepresented basic economics, and tried to influence the state rather than the church of which he is the leader.

The first response began with a lengthy disquisition on the finer points of church doctrine about infallibility. Not that I hadn’t boned up on my Catholic theology, but it was a red herring. The infallibility or otherwise of the pope’s pronouncement really wasn’t the point of the story.

It was argued that I represent the free market as some “wise grandmother handing out sweets to her grandchildren”, but that this market is not infallible. This is both wrong and irrelevant. As I explained in my rebuttal, the market is not an authority held to be infallible, unlike the pope. In fact, it is premised on the fact that knowledge (like demand) is not centralised, but distributed. Nobody has perfect knowledge with which to prescribe economic decisions for others, and no one-size-fits-all solution can satisfy all individual needs and wants. Failure is an inherent part of the market: those who anticipate market demand correctly earn a profit, while those who fail do not. The market is not perfect, by its very nature.

But the nature of the market was quite irrelevant to the point at issue: whether economic growth is “incapable of ensuring respect for the environment” and leads to “self-destruction”, as the pope claimed, and whether, therefore, governments should “enforce compliance” with some set of pope-approved rules that would curb our prosperity.

In another response to my column, a straw man of a different kind was constructed. I addressed that piece here, but its headline is worth another look: “The true cost of the environmental destruction is impossible to measure.”

This is a common trope. Assign an infinite value to something, and nothing else can trump it. Sweet, if your purpose is to win an argument. Not so sweet if you actually want useful knowledge upon which you can base public policy.

The problem is this. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that one cannot put a price on environmental destruction, to the extent that it cannot be undone. In other words, some environmental impact comes at a cost that is effectively infinite. Very well. When making the choice whether to replace forests with farmland, or risk occasional pollution in order to extract minerals and energy, or eradicate wildlife that preys on domestic livestock, or use modern agri-technology to feed more people from the same acreage, what value do we place on human life? If we protect the environment at all costs, then we must value human life less than that. But people also like to say that you can’t put a price on human life. If that is true, then any amount of environmental destruction ought to be justifiable to feed and clothe even just one person.

If you start placing infinite values on things, you paralyse rational decision-making. In the real world, we trade off costs and benefits. We choose among many competing alternatives. We cannot have it all, as much as we’d like to. Whether you tend to value human life higher than some environmental impact, or value an untouched environment higher than human welfare, you cannot value both infinitely highly. We need to eat, and we need shelter. To obtain those, we must exploit the environment to some degree. If you place an infinite value on the harm this causes, you’re saying that you value human life and welfare at exactly zero.

Public policy is an optimisation problem. It seeks to maximise human welfare, environmental health, and any number of other variables, while minimising harm. Expecting any policy to have a perfect outcome is idealism and sophistry. It creates the misleading idea that your argument achieves the impossible, while your opponents don’t care about such noble goals. If not deliberately dishonest, it is unforgivably naïve about the practical reality of how public policy is made.

Just as environmentalists think we can print as much money as we like, believing in the impossible does not seem to be unnatural or wrong to the faithful. This is as good a reason as any why religious leaders, like green lobbyists, should steer clear of public policy debate. DM



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