Thursday, August 23, 2007

Individual Initiative

Following up on our discussion last night about individual action, Abra emailed me the following question (my response follows):

ABRA: What about this as an example of people making individual steps that impacted society in a big way? The Danish people saved almost 100% of their Jewish population during the Holocaust, I think around 8,000 people, by sneaking them out of Denmark at night on fishing boats to another country that was not occupied by Germany, somewhere in Scandinavia I think it was.

JEFF: I think the difference I was failing to articulate last night is the difference between collective action in the face of clear and present dangers/challenges (which has accomplished amazing goals with dramatic social consequences, as in your example), and the hope that the cumulative effect of individual, non-coerced behavioral changes will be sufficient to deal with a problem whose causes and effects are so diffuse as to be almost imperceptible to most individuals. I'm obviously talking about global climate change here, but let me put it in terms that might elicit agreement from our libertarian friends (in principle, at least):

Most libertarians will compromise their commitment to total personal liberty when it comes to taxation to pay for military defense. By compromising on this point, they are in effect saying that

a) individuals are not sufficiently rational actors to be able to assess the value to themselves of national defense;
b) this irrationality will lead them to price that defense incorrectly (too low, presumably), and;
c) the potential consequences of underfunding national defense (invasion) are too catastrophic to society as a whole to rely on voluntary contributions to the state by citizens, or even on individual subscription to private security enforcement corporations.

So, when it comes to climate change, the same principle applies, and the only difference is that most libertarians don't view climate change as real, caused by humans, or as any kind of danger (I happen to think they're mostly putting the cart before the horse, and that their view of the science is skewed by their aversion to the proposed remedies, even though, as I suggest above, they can't really oppose the principle involved).

Collective action will obviously play an important part in the fight against climate change, but its main goal will be convincing policy makers to use the coercive power of the state to lower CO2 emissions through increasing CAFE standards, building more renewable power capacity/nukes, etc. I see an important difference between this type of collective action--which basically results from the failure of individual initiative to handle large, complex, long-term problems--and the kind Abra refers to above.


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