Not to sound like too much of an optimist – because resource depletion does keep me up nights, too – but I do think innovation and green technology and new ways of crafting our cities, our transportation infrastructure, and so forth, will do a better job overcoming this obstacle than any sort of central planning. […]
There’s no one right answer to this conundrum, but I think we can work toward a more efficient infrastructure and use a mixture of markets and incentives (such as carbon taxes, end to subsidies, investment in mass transit) to tackle the problem over the long-haul.
Constitutionally, I’m not an optimist. Unlike what some people assume, I don’t believe that a socialist system is inevitable or near. Predictions are hard, particularly about the future, and history is filled with events that were not only unpredicted but essentially unpredictable. I don’t pretend that the next stage will be in keeping with my political or moral preferences. Nor, incidentally, do I think that the next stage will be the final stage; that too will pass. And you’ll note that I haven’t said anything about my various disagreements with the present age.
Like I said, it’s a fairly weak claim; just because things have always happened doesn’t mean they will always happen. I’m definitely not arguing with as much certainty as the other side, who are very, very certain. Like their forebears in every other era of history, they believe completely in their ability to assess the present and predict the future. I just think that history and human life teach us to expect change.
Oh but I skipped ahead. This is Freddie responding to David Roberts and, well, I assume to me since he showed up in the comments to say basically the same thing. Here’s the crux of his argument:
I’m inspired to write this by this Dave Roberts post on the limits of economic growth. It’s a rare bird in that it does not assert that our current system is essentially healthy and will exist into perpetuity. There is a cottage industry online of a kind of “everything’s great and will only get better” essay. It’s notable both for its frequency and its cross-ideological flavor. I read essays online that assert the basic health of our system and the inevitability of progress nearly every week, and I read them written by people who identify themselves as liberal, conservative, and libertarian. Many people are very dedicated to the idea that this globalizing liberal capitalism is, while not a perfect system, the best possible system, and one that is here to stay.
The existence of this trope is, in its own way, self-troubling: why do so many people who claim to be so confident in the state of the liberal democratic capitalist system spend so much time announcing that confidence?
Actually, I don’t think anyone knows what will happen. Many of us probably hope that peaceful trade will continue on forever, and that prosperity will keep spreading to as many people and nations as possible. Since this has largely been achieved through the broad mechanism of capitalism and democracy and the technology that it has spawned, I think many of us hope that something like it will continue and that things will get better.
But as I think I made clear in my post, I don’t know what will solve the problem of finite resources, I just think that a generally decentralized approach, focusing on innovation and making use of markets, coupled with government incentives (think: carbon taxes, etc.) will do a better job than a state-based system.
Does this mean I think our current system will last into perpetuity? Could some unimaginable-by-today’s-standards economic future exist that we don’t know about? Sure, of course. Or maybe we’ll go plummeting back into a sort of resource-depleted neo-feudalistic society. Who can say?
The assertion that people who favor markets, or who look at the progress that actually has been made in the past couple hundred years, are simply naive trope-peddling optimists preaching the ‘inevitability of progress’ is silly. The reason we keep “announcing that confidence” – though I would call it “arguing our point of view” – is because other people argue against it. This is how arguments usually occur. It’s not about confidence, it’s about opinion, and a lot of the arguments I hear in favor of markets are because of a lack of confidence in other systems, not in some blind faith that markets will solve every problem. We may be screwed, one way or another, sure.
In any case, this false confidence may exist in some quarters. My position is that since we can’t know everything, or plan everything, we have little choice but to do as little harm as possible and do what little we can to nudge society toward a sustainable future. I go into more detail at the original post, but of course this approach means that many, many doors are left open to discussion. Leave all options on the table except a government clamp down on growth and population growth. If Freddie has a better idea on the actual issue being discussed, rather than merely opinions about the people discussing said issues, he’s more than welcome to chime in. Of course, he’s welcome to chime in no matter what, but the issues themselves strike me as somewhat more important than the naiveté of the interlocutors.