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Steam Shovels Went Away . . . but Our Enviro-Trendiness Never Will

You don’t expect to find profound political lessons in preschool, but of course they’re there. I found one yesterday, buried in the breezy prose of the 1939 classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. If you haven’t read it in a while, you should.

I was reading to my daughter’s class, trying to keep a double handful of four-year-olds focused on Mike’s struggle for relevance in a changing world. You may recall his dramatic race against time—his calculated bet that he could dig a courthouse basement before sunset with his antiquated steam shovel, Mary Anne. He and Mary Anne had been standing against the onslaught of newer “Diesel” shovels, and are trying to prove a point. They make their point (spoiler alert: they won their bet), but only after having dug themselves into a beautifully excavated pit they can’t get out of.  A little boy saves the day by suggesting they remain in the basement while the courthouse is built over the top of them, repurposing themselves (before there was such a word) as the building’s steam boiler duo.

The larger point is that they were in fact out of their epoch. Mike amicably concedes, retiring comfortably in his rocker with a newspaper and a pipe while Mary Anne works her thermodynamic magic. It’s a happy, comfortable ending as all preschool books should be.

I was struck, however, by how distinctly off-key Mike Mulligan’s earth-moving triumphalism sounds to the modern ear. He hearkens back to an era when “progress” meant altering the status quo (damming rivers and building highways were favorites). How strange to realize that today’s “progress” is defined entirely differently.

Particularly in environmental circles today, “progress” is always regressive: tearing down the dams, returning landscapes to their “pristine” (that is, somewhat earlier) state, and generally erasing our species’ tracks. This message runs deep in our modern culture, and it was downright awkward to come across a bygone view, in which “flattening hills” and “straightening roads” in clouds of choking coal smoke were unabashedly glorious marvels. For children today, altering our environment is a mortal sin rather than any sort of accomplishment.

Consider that today’s environmental issues, though cloaked in moral absolutes, are in fact perfectly relative, a function of ever-changing taste rather than a reflection of an unchanging normative system. My pilgrim forebears were horrified at the “darke and forbiddingg” forests of the Eastern Seaboard, and busily set to clearing them at public expense. Their posterity is now busily engaged in its own form of civic duty by replanting and protecting those same (now less forbidding) forests, also at public expense. Whatever climate change we’ve seen in the physical environment over the centuries is clearly dwarfed by the political climate change we’ve undergone in our own minds.

This all sounds rather self-evident; times change and of course tastes change. But so often an obvious truth gets forgotten in the stampede to declare that today’s preferences (“natural” rivers, “protected” lands) are, as if miraculously revealed, now well and truly “sorted out.” We seem to steadfastly forget that much (most?) of what we deplore in environmental excesses are themselves the result of a previous generation’s best thinking. Our reliance on coal-fired power generation, our profligate water use, our tortured grazing and timber policies, our land-development protocols—all were instituted by earlier generations that were, like us, convinced of the primacy of their own concerns.

This would be perfectly appropriate if we didn’t persistently harness the power of government authority to do our dirty work for us. Milton Friedman liked to say, “most of the energy devoted to political work is devoted to correcting the effects of mismanagement of government.” The activities of the state, ostensibly reflecting the preferences of the day, are slow to evolve and often create enormous challenges with which later generations will contend. Friedman is correct: Whenever you co-opt the force of the state to create your dreamscape, you invariably create a nightmare for the next generation that won’t share the same set of concerns.

We live in a world of change. Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel were sidelined by newer technology. My daughter’s preschool teacher uses a spooky voice-enhancing electronic necklace to speak above the din. When my kids enter their classrooms, they sign in on an electronic chalkboard. These are weird, new-fangled things to be sure, but that’s one of the odd realities about accepting changing tastes: it’s both difficult and inevitable.

We only make the inevitable more difficult when we succumb to the temptation to invite the coercive power of government to create our ideal visions. By doing so, we stifle the dynamic and freely evolving expression of our tastes. Our posterity will probably not thank us.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see if I can find a pipe and a newspaper.

Reader Discussion

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on May 18, 2016 at 08:30:26 am

Thanks, Paul for a delightful reminisce. I'm old enough to have read "Mike" with the young wonder at building America as a "good" rather than having "good" be tearing down what was built in my life-time and that of my Dad's. For me, the modern/post-moderns bias would not be so galling if they just occasionally "got it" that there once was a different--not 'evil' but different--way of looking at the world.

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Derek
on May 18, 2016 at 09:14:16 am

What a delightful and insightful post. This was one of my son's favorite stories, and he "got it" naturally. We have had many great discussions about the issues you raise, although this post will prompt be to bring up more environmental issues with him. Thanks!

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Amy Willis
on May 18, 2016 at 11:33:00 am

First, a brief statement about privilege: I am among those privileged people of the world who lives free of any obligation to generate a blog post. I have the privilege of refraining from speaking until I feel I have something to say. I try to bear that privilege in mind and extend a modicum of charity as I comment on the work of others who may lack my freedom.

That said: Huh?

Milton Friedman liked to say, “most of the energy devoted to political work is devoted to correcting the effects of mismanagement of government.”

Yup. And arguably most of the energy devoted to science involves correcting the misconceptions of earlier scientists. Einstein refuted the theories of Newton. What conclusions should we therefore draw about Newton, and about science – and about government? One conclusion would be that progress is iterative, created by trial and error – that no generation has the whole truth; that each generation makes its contribution; but that there would be no progress unless each generation made an effort toward progress, human imperfections notwithstanding.

To be sure, if Schwennesen is an anarchist – if he sincerely believes that the cost of government inevitably exceeds its benefits, and that there’s some viable mechanism to create a world without governments arising – then I’d concede that he has an argument. But I don’t think Friedman embraced that view. If I recall correctly, Friedman conceded that government is pretty much an inevitability. Having conceded that, I don’t see the point in grumbling about the fact that government consumes resources. The fact that I do or don’t like gravity is kinda irrelevant, too, unless and until I have a viable plan for evading gravity.

Whenever you co-opt the force of the state to create your dreamscape, you invariably create a nightmare for the next generation that won’t share the same set of concerns.

Invariably? Many nations instituted a draft to raise troops to oppose the Axis powers. Which generation has come to regard this policy as a nightmare?

Many nations forcefully prohibit people from engaging in the time-honored practice of dumping sewage in the rivers, or in street gutters – and have thereby reduced incidences of all kinds of diseases. Which generation has come to regard these policies as a nightmare?

Of course, not all generations have yet lived, so perhaps this grumpy generation is still on its way. When we invent time travel, we may learn that if only we had let the Nazis triumph, it would have precluded the rise of the Soviets and the Communist Chinese, which would have had a better result in the long run. Maybe we’ll learn that by shielding humans from the incidence of so many diseases, we’ve bred generations that lack sufficient immunities. I concede all these possibilities.

But then, what conclusions should we draw? That, because human foresight is imperfect, no one should ever do anything, ever? And if you subscribe to that view, why would we expect private conduct to be any different than government conduct?

[A]ccepting changing tastes: it’s both difficult and inevitable.

We only make the inevitable more difficult when we succumb to the temptation to invite the coercive power of government to create our ideal visions. By doing so, we stifle the dynamic and freely evolving expression of our tastes. Our posterity will probably not thank us.

Ok, so who exactly is the ungrateful posterity to whom Schwennesen exhorts us to be more solicitous? Is Schwennesen saying that because today’s environmentalists disfavor the public projects of the past, government should have anticipated their preferences and refrained from hiring the Mike Mulligans of the world? That the pilgrims should have refrained from using government resources to clear land to farm in the New World?
And, if so, does Schwennesen have any theory for why private forces would not have engaged in similar construction projects and forest-clearing?

Generally, environmentalists object to externalities. Externalities are famously resistant to control via unmitigated market forces. While it’s surely true that government actions have created their own externalities, it is far from clear that leaving everything to private decisions would have eliminated these problems.

As far as I can tell, Schwennesen merely offers a homily on the theme that government is imperfect. And, yup, I’m persuaded. I’m similarly persuaded that private actors are imperfect. What conclusions should we draw from this?

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nobody.really
on May 18, 2016 at 14:42:42 pm

Lovely essay. Thanks!

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Scott Amorian
on May 18, 2016 at 23:02:31 pm

Great response, thank you!

I think I am as perplexed by your confusion as you are by my thesis--we seem to be agreeing with each other, but at oblique angles. To wit:
1. Your point that progress is iterative is precisely what I'm trying to get across. I am advocating for the full, unfettered flowering of the discovery process (sans top-down 'planners').
2. Your Science metaphor is an interesting one. Like all other human affairs, it is indeed a function of trial and error, but also equally susceptible to ossification by "elites." (Who was it that said "Science advances one funeral at a time"?). The glaring difference between Science and Government is that while both are supposed to be communal, self-correcting processes of organization, only one of them is given the power to actually knock on your door and shoot you if you disagree.
3. While coercive government structures may indeed be an "inevitability" as you say (I'm on the fence), there is certainly nothing "inevitable" or desirable about their steady gains in size and scope. Federal outlays in 1900 were about 8% of GDP, today they are approaching 40%. Maybe this is just something we all have to "get used to" but my argument is that government solutions aren't always as brilliant as we like to think. I believe we tend to do much better with voluntary solutions that allow for the rapid assessment of problems and the application of novel solutions.
4. On Drafts: I need to point out that drafts (if we accept for the moment that they were entirely necessary) were the direct response to the pernicious outgrowth of authoritarian regimes gone horribly wrong. Using a fire extinguisher doesn't logically imply that lighting your couch on fire was a good idea...
5. On Sewage: The argument for an ultra-limited government (which is where I currently am, as opposed to pure anarchy--which is perhaps where I'm going), would allow for the vigorous prosecution of trespasses upon the property of others. Ronald Coase, et. al., do a good job illustrating why most of our "problems" tend to be the result of a poor definition of property. I could go on, but it's late...
6. Private vs. Public conduct: This is an important point. I am under no illusions that private enterprise is any more noble than the public sector, but I will contend that it has the curious property of being able to see slightly into the future. Since the market is the aggregate of vast numbers of competing preferences, it tends to "see" the changing preference-sets of citizens earlier than the public sector (which tends to become entrenched in rent-seeking bureaus and victims of regulatory capture). Private enterprise is no angel, it just gets its devilish side dented more quickly and brutally.
7. You ask if "no one should do anything, ever?": This is of course the opposite of my point. I'm arguing that we should all of us, always, be doing things--constantly adjusting to the current reality. Government intervention, I think you'll warrant, is generally more inclined to hinder than to promote individual action.
8. Externalities: I'm always surprised at how little the implicit argument of externatilities is challenged. There is nothing whatsoever (in my mind) to warrant the conclusion that they are "famously resistant" to control by market forces. Arguably, the negative effects of one market actor upon another (or upon a diffuse group) are VERY subject to control by that market. In fact, most of the worst forms of externalities occur in places least enmeshed within market structures. Look at grazing commons, fisheries, and aerosol pollutants and we see that market forces often turn "externalities" into valuable resources by enterprising entrepreneurs.

Final word: I think you are mistaken in conflating my complaint about government imperfections with market imperfections. It is obvious that both are imperfect (a loaded term which frankly highlights my very thesis--that we never really know what we want). The difference is that one system (government) is designed to establish one group's set of desires using the power of state-backed force, the other (market) is NOT designed, and therefore avoids the structural trap of placing one set of preferences over another. One is systemically imperfect, the other is marginally imperfect.

Anyway, thanks for a spirited exchange, this is great!

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Paul Schwennesen
on May 19, 2016 at 01:19:53 am

I am advocating for the full, unfettered flowering of the discovery process (sans top-down ‘planners’).

And by “top-down ‘planners’”, you’re referring to the existence of law and order, property rights, uniform weights and measures, antitrust laws, courts, police, etc.?

The glaring difference between Science and Government is that while both are supposed to be communal, self-correcting processes of organization, only one of them is given the power to actually knock on your door and shoot you if you disagree.

What prevents a scientist from shooting those who disagree with him? Among other things, the fear that someone with bigger guns might come shoot her in response. And in societies without anarchy, that someone is government. Thus, I reject any premise built on the assumption that law and order prevail simply by magic.
If you want a place without a functioning government, you can find them: Consider Afghanistan, Somalia, or deep in the Amazon rainforest. But if you want places with law and order, you pretty much want places with government.

On Drafts [military conscription]: I need to point out that drafts (if we accept for the moment that they were entirely necessary) were the direct response to the pernicious outgrowth of authoritarian regimes gone horribly wrong.

Indeed they are! Yup, government created a problem. And therefore your solution would be…?

The first and most important job of any government is to displace worse governments. The French overthrew the repressive King Louis – and fell prey to the Reign of Terror. The Russians overthrew the repressive Czar – and fell prey to the Communists. The Iranians overthrew the repressive Shah – and fell prey to the Islamic Republic. The Egyptians overthrew a military dictator – and fell prey to an even worse military dictator. In short, the fact that you find a given situation bad is irrelevant if that situation is all that stands between you and a worse situation.

Government (force) is indisputably a problem. And the sole solution to that problem, to my knowledge, is government. If you abdicate reliance on government as a solution to the problem of government, you don’t thereby magically solve the problem of government; you just surrender to it.

On Sewage: The argument for an ultra-limited government (which is where I currently am, as opposed to pure anarchy–which is perhaps where I’m going), would allow for the vigorous prosecution of trespasses upon the property of others. Ronald Coase, et. al., do a good job illustrating why most of our “problems” tend to be the result of a poor definition of property.

I read Coase to say that we can achieve optimal resource allocation through clearly-defined property rights. In other words, we can achieve optimal resource allocation by declaring that the head of state owns everything. See? All problems solved, right?

And yes, actually, that kind of clarity would solve a variety of problems regarding resource allocation. If the same person owned the fossil fuel industries as owned the atmosphere and everything that relies on it, she’d have no reason to skew climate change data one way or another.

But most of us have interests that extend beyond optimizing social allocation. We also have selfish concerns for our own welfare. And Coase has nothing to say about how to initially allocate resources.

Trespass laws are great, assuming you already have clearly-defined property rights regarding everything. But establishing this initial condition poses quite a challenge.

First, we need to determine how property is established as an initial matter. Where real estate is concerned, evidence suggests it’s established with guns. Think about it: Down through history, people have disposed of their sewage by dumping it in rivers. So how, exactly, could anyone establish a property right to a river such that they could then assert that the polluters were engaged in a trespass? Maybe they’d contract with the polluters to stop polluting, on pain of trespass. Great. So what about the people who hadn’t previously dumped sewage in the river, but upon hearing that you’re willing to pay them to NOT do so, begin dumping it as a means to extort funds from you? Wouldn’t you have to pay them off, too? And the next people? And the next?

While contract rights are understood to give you rights against the party who has consented to the contract, property rights are understood as “rights against the world.” In the absence of the power to contract with the entire world, such rights can merely be asserted and then defended by force. People who imagine that property rights stand in opposition to the use of force are deluded.

Second, to establish clear property rights, we’d need to be able to have perfect foreknowledge to determine what activities might impose consequences on others. If members of my tribe have been dumping sewage in the river since time immemorial, I assert that it’s my property right to do so. And the fact that you’ve discovered that this imposes health costs on those downstream – well, what’s that to me? Apparently I own the right to impose those costs on you; that’s inherent in the definition of my property. Similarly, I own the right to pump coal soot into your city; to blow tobacco smoke into your face; to hunt species to extinction; to trigger earthquakes through fracking; to trigger financial collapses through my finance practices; to appropriate intellectual property when applied to previously uncontemplated circumstances (such as the internet); to own, breed, and sell slaves; etc. Anything you do to force me to change my practices would impinge upon my discretion – my property right.

You ask if “no one should do anything, ever?”: This is of course the opposite of my point. I’m arguing that we should all of us, always, be doing things–constantly adjusting to the current reality.

* * *

[Yet this is] my very thesis–that we never really know what we want.

So our preferences are shifting, and all actions can have unforeseen consequences -- yet we should always be doing things nonetheless, and adjust as we go. I see no reason why this is not equally true of government than of private actors.

Government intervention, I think you’ll warrant, is generally more inclined to hinder than to promote individual action.

Economists favor free markets as optimal environments for low-cost transactions. And free market appear pretty much nowhere in nature. They are entirely artificial constructs created and maintained at enormous expense – typically by government. Don’t agree? Please go to Afghanistan, Somalia, or deep into the Amazon jungle, and report back about how free you felt to act, surrounded by marauding bands, predator animals, and malaria – but relieved of all that burdensome government.

Externalities: I’m always surprised at how little the implicit argument of externatilities is challenged. There is nothing whatsoever (in my mind) to warrant the conclusion that they are “famously resistant” to control by market forces. Arguably, the negative effects of one market actor upon another (or upon a diffuse group) are VERY subject to control by that market.

Please describe how market forces stopped the spread of cholera in cities, or coal soot pollution.

Look at grazing commons, fisheries, and aerosol pollutants and we see that market forces often turn “externalities” into valuable resources by enterprising entrepreneurs.

Please describe how enterprising entrepreneurs -- and not government -- achieve these ends.

[O]ne system (government) is designed to establish one group’s set of desires using the power of state-backed force, the other (market) is NOT designed, and therefore avoids the structural trap of placing one set of preferences over another. One is systemically imperfect, the other is marginally imperfect.

We simply disagree. First, I see markets as a function of law, order, and property rights – which are themselves established and maintained by whoever has the most force, who then becomes the government. Thus, to suggest that markets exist without reference to government is a fantasy.

Secondly, the entire economic field of Industrial Organization is dedicated to identifying and correcting for “market imperfections” – dynamics that render markets unstable or suboptimal in the absence of countervailing policies.

Right now you and I are communicating in a manner that was not even possible 30 years ago – via internet protocols initially invented by government over phone lines established under government regulation erected through the use of eminent domain laws established by government and powered by electricity regulated by government to an audience of people who can read it due to education provided by government with relatively little fear of prosecution or censorship due to rights asserted by government. Behold how burdened we are! Why, given all this government, we must have the lowest living standards in history, right?

Now perhaps we have achieved the highest living standards in history, government notwithstanding -- but we might have done even better without it. Perhaps if all forms of coercive government had been eliminated from the New World in 1776, we would have still achieved all of this and more purely through the exercise of private initiative and mutual consent. Alternatively, maybe our ancestors would have been conquered by whichever power wandered by in 1777.

I suspect the latter. You, I surmise, imagine the former. Perhaps we’ll have to agree to disagree.

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nobody.really

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