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What Marriage Was Like before Bureaucracy Marriage by Sarah Skwire

Marriage is not what it once was.

FEE contributor Steve Horwitz’s new book, Hayek’s Modern Family, reminds us all that “the use of ‘traditional’ as an adjective for either marriage or the family more generally is … ahistorical.” Marriage and the family, he argues, have always been changing and evolving institutions, and we are mistaken when we take the practices of one period and valorize them, and them alone, as “traditional.”

What is true for the institutions of marriage and the family is also true for the institutions of betrothal and weddings. By now, we all surely know that traditions like the white wedding dress and the diamond engagement ring are late innovations. The white dress came about after Queen Victoria set the fashion when she married Prince Albert. And while rings had been a popular wedding token for a long time, the diamond engagement ring became all the rage only after a successful campaign by DeBeers in the 1930s. But it is not merely the decorative furbelows that are modern innovations. Nearly everything we think of as defining a betrothal and a wedding used to be up for debate.

The Arnolfini Marriage PortraitI spent some time recently looking at and discussing Jan van Eyck’s famous painting The Arnolfini Portrait. The painting is probably most often called The Arnolfini Marriage Portrait, though scholars have debated for decades over whether it depicts a wedding, a betrothal, or some other legal ceremony. Others have felt it might simply be a portrait of a married couple, or even a memorial for a wife who died young. We’re not entirely sure.

But in the discussion I was involved in, we thought of the painting as a wedding portrait. Because of that, several of the folks involved were a little startled to see the woman looking decidedly pregnant. (In much the same way that we don’t really know the occasion for the portrait, we don’t really know that the woman is pregnant. The style of her dress may just make her appear to be. But to a modern eye, she looks at least seven months along.) Was van Eyck making a moral judgment on the sexual morality of this couple — depicting them as newly married, but with a pregnancy that far advanced? Or is her pregnancy an argument against the notion that this is a wedding portrait, since 15th century morality would not have allowed for premarital sex and pregnancy? What kind of wedding portrait was this, exactly?

I’ll leave the arguments about the accuracy of our thinking about The Arnolfini Portrait to the art historians. What I want to talk about is the accuracy of our thinking about what weddings used to look like.

As the historian Lawrence Stone points out in his book The Family, Sex, and Marriage,

Before 1754 there were still numerous ways of entering into [marriage]. For persons of property it involved a series of distinct steps. The first was a written legal contract between the parents concerning the financial arrangements. The second was the spousals (also called a contract), the formal exchange, usually before witnesses, of oral promises. The third step was the public proclamation of banns in church, three times, the purpose of which was to allow claims of pre-contract to be heard.… The fourth step was the wedding in church, in which mutual consent was publicly verified, and the union received the formal blessing of the Church. The fifth and final step was the sexual consummation.

While parts of the process Stone describes are a little antiquated, they don’t seem completely unfamiliar. And the whole thing sounds remarkably orderly — though it is worth noting that wealthier couples found ways to evade the more tedious parts of the process, such as the triple proclamation of banns, by buying a special license. But the apparent orderliness and familiarity of the process falls apart rapidly when we look just a little more closely.

Stone continues, “But it cannot be emphasized too strongly that according to ecclesiastical law the spousals was as legally binding a contract as the church wedding.… Any sort of exchange of promises before witnesses which was followed by cohabitation was regarded in law as a valid marriage.”

Marriage required no certification by the church or the state. Two individuals merely promised to marry one another in front of witnesses, and then lived together. That was sufficient. And sex and pregnancy in the months between the spousals and a church wedding, if one ever got around to having a church wedding, were routine and accepted.

This sounds like an ideal situation from a libertarian perspective. It’s certainly how I’d prefer that marriages take place. But things soon got even more complicated.

After the Reformation, the Catholic Church required the presence of a priest for a wedding to be valid. The Anglicans did not, though a church wedding came to be expected. However, lawyers still recognized the spousals as valid. And they distinguished between two kinds of spousals — one was not followed by consummation and could be broken. The other was followed by consummation and was binding for life.

Stone reminds us of a few other complexities.

The canons of 1604 stipulated that a church wedding must take place between the hours of 8 am and noon in the church at the place of residence of one of the pair, after the banns had been read for three weeks running. Marriages performed at night, in secular places like inns or private houses, or in towns or villages remote from the place of residence … were now declared illegal [but] they were nonetheless valid and binding for life. This was a paradox the laity found hard to understand.

It could be hard to tell, in other words, if you were married or not. It could be hard to tell, in other words, whether one was engaging in legal married sex or illicit and illegal fornication.

This problem is a key part of Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, which begins with the arrest of Claudio for fornication with Juliette. Claudio is shocked to be accused of the crime, because, as he says:

… she is fast my wife
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order.

But with the exacting Angelo now in charge of the city, the more rigorous definition of a legal marriage is being enforced, and Claudio is in trouble.

The attempt to codify and enforce a well-understood and long-standing traditional practice made that practice so complicated that it was incomprehensible and often made criminals out of well-intentioned and honest individuals. (Those who are thinking about the mess that is the discussion of bathroom laws in North Carolina may find that problem familiar.)

There’s little doubt now about who is married and who is not married. The United States has spent years in a painful debate over that question, but we finally do have legal clarity. But as two dear friends of mine head down the aisle this month and I listen to the complications and fees they are facing over the licensing of their marriage and their officiant, I do wonder if we’ve solved anything since the days of spousals contracted in front of witnesses or if we’ve just piled on unnecessary layers of legal complications, forms, and fees.

Sarah SkwireSarah Skwire

Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network. Email

Hillary Clinton’s Ideological Vortex of Power and Planning by Jeffrey A. Tucker

Just trust her. Truly, just trust her: to know precisely how much energy we ought to use, where it should come from, how it should be generated, how we should get from here to there, and the effects that her plan will have on the global — the global! — climate, not just in the near term but decades or a century from now.

If you do this, you will have embraced “science,” “reality,” “truth,” and “innovation,” and, also, “our children.” If you don’t go along, you not only reject all those good things; you are probably also a “denier,” the catch-all epithet for anyone doubtful that the brilliance of Hillary Clinton and her czars know better than the rest of humanity how to manage their energy needs into the future.

Hillary’s campaign seems designed to prove that F.A. Hayek was a prophet.

That brilliant economist spent 50 years explaining, in book after book, that the greatest danger humanity faced, now and always, was a presumption on the part of intellectuals, politicians, and bureaucrats that they know better than the emergent and evolving wisdom of social forces.

This presumption might seem like science but it is really pretense. Civilization arises from, is protected by, and advances through the dispersed knowledge of billions of individual decision makers and the institutions that arise from them.

Hayek called the issue he was investigating the knowledge problem. Society needs to know how to use scarce resources, how to navigate a world of uncertainty, how to form rules that turn struggle into peace. It is a problem solved through freedom alone. No ruler, no scientist, no intellectual can substitute for the evolving process of decentralized decision making and trial and error.

The message is bad news for people like Hillary, who is supposed to embody the ideology called “liberalism” in America. Yet it is anything but liberal. It seems to know only one way forward: more top-down control. That’s a tough sell in times when everything good so obviously comes from anything but government, and, meanwhile, governments are responsible for every failing sector from health to education to foreign wars.

But here’s the problem. People like Hillary Clinton are stuck in an ideological vortex with no way out. Government planning is their thing, and they refuse to recognize its failures. So they press on and on, even to the point of preposterous implausibility, such as the claim that government can know everything that is necessary to know in order to plan the entire energy sector with the aim of managing the climate of the world.

Economist Donald Boudreaux puts matters this way: “why should someone who cannot ensure the proper use of a single private server be trusted with the colossal power necessary to design and to oversee the remaking of a trillion-plus dollar sector of the U.S. economy (a sector, by the way, in which this person has zero experience)?”

With this presumption comes the inevitable hypocrisy.

After unveiling her plan to ration energy use and plaster the country with solar panels, Ms. Clinton boarded a private jet that uses more fuel in one flight hour than I use in a year. “The aircraft, a Dassault model Falcon 900B, burns 347 gallons of fuel per hour,” wrote the muckraker who did a public service in exposing this. “The Trump-esque transportation costs $5,850 per hour to rent, according to the website of Executive Fliteways, the company that owns it.”

Notice how rarely it is mentioned that the US military, with hundreds of bases in over a hundred countries, is the worst single polluter on the planet. If we really believe in human-caused climate change, this might be a good place to start cutting back. But no, there’s not a word about this in any of Hillary’s plans. Government gets to do what it must do. The rest of us are supposed to pay the price, bicycling to work and powering our homes with sunshine and windmills.

When I first read about her energy plan, my response was: Why would any self-interested politician make the need for reduced living standards a centerpiece of her campaign? After all, her speech was made in a setting piled high with bicycles (oddly reminiscent of Mao’s China), while demanding a precise path forward for energy and everything that uses it (oddly reminiscent of Lenin’s first speech after he took control of Russian economic life).

As it turns out, people aren’t that interested. Sure, most people tell pollsters that they favor renewable energy to stop climate change. You have to say that or else risk being denounced as a denier. On the other hand, it seems like very few people really care enough to forgo the benefits of modern life, which is probably what will save civilization itself from plans like hers. Note that days after release, her pompous video only had only 54K views — pathetic given her celebrity and how much money her campaign is spending, but encouraging that nobody seems to put much stock in her plan for our future.

It’s extraordinary how quickly one branch of the political class has leapt from the delicate and ever-changing science of climate monitoring to the absolute certainty that extreme and extremely specific application of government force is the way to deal with it. Writes Max Borders: “The sacralization of climate is being used as a great loophole in the rule of law, an apology for bad science (and even worse economics), and an excuse to do anything and everything to have and keep power.”

The last point is critical. Everything done in the name of public policy in our lifetimes has become a handful of dust, yielding little more than unpayable debts and unworkable programs, and leaving in its wake an apparatus of compulsion and control that robs society of its inherent genius.

What to do? Give up? That’s not an option for these people. Instead, they find a new frontier for their schemes, a new rationale to sustain a failed model of social and economic organization.

I can think of no better words of rebuke but the closing of Hayek’s Nobel speech in 1974:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible.

He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.

There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success”, to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will.

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

Yes, it surely ought to.


Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

Does “I, Pencil” Need a Pro-Government Update? by George C. Leef

In a book I recently read, Complexity and the Art of Public Policy by David Colander and Roland Kupers, I was surprised to find a chapter entitled “I Pencil Revisited.” Yes, they meant Leonard Read’s famous essay showing how market prices and competition work to coordinate production in a way that no single person, however powerful or intelligent, possibly could.

The authors aren’t exactly hostile to Read’s message but say that it leaves out something important — the role of government.

They write,

For me to be produced, someone had to protect the property rights upon which the market is based, someone had to guarantee that the contracts between individuals would be enforced, and someone had to be on the lookout for lead, for the safety of machines, and similar problems, which if not addressed might well lead to a society to undermine the institutional structure that produced me.

And, again writing through the voice of a pencil, Colander and Kupers say,

The reason I, Pencil downplayed government’s role is that he was afraid its inclusion would lead some people to expand the role of government to solve the inevitable problems that come about in coordinating production.

I believe that they are mistaken on that. The reason why Leonard Read focused exclusively on the remarkable story of voluntary market cooperation and did not expand the piece to discuss the proper role of government was that he figured most people already had some understanding of the need to protect property, enforce contracts, and settle disputes.

What very few people had any comprehension of was the way individuals all across the globe are brought into cooperation by the market for pencils.

Going into the role of government in the essay would have been like Mozart adding a few extra movements to his Jupiter Symphony.

Here is why the authors make this argument. They don’t like what they call the “market fundamentalism” of Leonard Read, former FEE president Don Boudreaux, and others (like me) who argue that the people of any society will be the most productive, happiest, and best able to deal with the problems they see if the government is kept only to the functions of protecting the rights of life, liberty, and property.

Instead of laissez-faire, Colander and Kupers favor what they call “laissez-faire activism.”

In short, they want us to believe that there is an ideal middle ground between unsophisticated “market fundamentalism” and top-down government planning and control of the economy. The latter, they understand, is bad because such authority will squelch innovation and competition, but the former supposedly doesn’t do enough to allow people to realize their “collective goals.” Here is a crucial passage:

What simplistic or fundamentalist free market advocates sometimes miss is that a complex system works only if individuals self-regulate, by which we mean that they do not push their freedom too far, and that they make reasonable compromises about benefiting themselves and benefiting society.

Of course, the common law framework that thinkers in the Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Leonard Read line advocated does put limits on individual action. Rights and the sphere of legitimate action are clearly established, and to the extent that people have collective goals, they are free to pursue them voluntarily. But Colander and Kupers think government can and should do just a bit more.

One of their ideas is that government should adopt policies that will “nudge” people to do what they “really want to do,” but can’t sufficiently discipline themselves to do. They extol the book Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, which purports to show how government can “encourage” people to act in preferable ways, without dictating behavior to them.

But why can’t we rely entirely on voluntary efforts by concerned individuals and organizations to do that encouraging? Churches, for example, have been encouraging people to behave better for millennia; Alcoholics Anonymous has been helping people recover from alcohol abuse since 1935; parents have been “nudging” children to make wiser decisions since time immemorial. Why look to government policy?

Sometimes, the reason why people seem to need “nudging” is that current government policy encourages undesirable behavior. Few Americans save much these days, for instance. But instead of trying to “nudge” them to save more, why not change the tax laws that discourage thrift? Going back towards “laissez-faire fundamentalism” would solve or ameliorate many of our problems.

Moreover, Colander and Kupers ignore the great and, I maintain, insuperable problem of keeping government interference within bounds. If the state has the authority to “nudge” people, what keeps politicians from ratcheting up the power if it doesn’t work? Nudging turns into pushing, then shoving. Interest groups will importune politicians with arguments for policies they favor, crafting them as merely helping “the people” to realize the social goals they “really” favor.

They way democratic politics tends to be captured by interest groups is the big message of Public Choice theory, but Colander and Kupers never think to explain how they’d prevent their “laissez-faire activism” from turning into plain old activism.

After reading Complexity and the Art of Public Policy, I fail to see how government can improve upon capitalism combined with the host of voluntary organizations that spring up in a free society. I, Pencil does not need to be revisited.

George C. Leef

George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

“The President that Couldn’t”: Why Obama’s Agenda Failed by Thomas A. Firey

With time running out on his administration, President Obama has embarked on a sort of “apology tour” to disillusioned supporters. They are frustrated that he hasn’t delivered on many of their favored policies, from gun control to single-payer health care to carbon controls.

With candidates queuing up to replace him — many with very different policy goals than his — he apparently feels the need to rally the disaffected behind a successor who would carry on his agenda.

His message to the disheartened supporters is simple: The political failures aren’t his fault. He’s tried hard to deliver, but “Congress doesn’t work” and American government “is broken.” According to Obama:

As mightily as I have struggled against that… it still is broken. … When I ran in 2008, I, in fact, did not say I would fix it. I said we could fix it. I didn’t say, “Yes, I can”; I said — what? … “Yes, we can.”

Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza, writing about the apology tour, throws some shade at the president, claiming that he did in fact promise to change policy. But ultimately Cillizza agrees with Obama, writing that the American “political system is … more broken than any one person — no matter who that person is or the circumstances that surround that person’s election — could hope to solve.”

But both the president and Cillizza are completely wrong; the American political system assuredly is not broken. The system was designed — and we should all be very grateful that it was designed — to not allow the radical change that Obama’s supporters — or supporters of other politicians across the political spectrum — want.

It is the rare times when such change does occur — think Franklin Roosevelt’s expansion of national government or George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism initiatives and war in Iraq — that American governance had failed and very bad things happen.

Today the United States is a nation of more than 320 million remarkably different people, living in unique situations, having highly individual concerns, desires, and risk preferences, and holding a wide variety of mostly noble values. They each operate in a world of uncertainty and limited resources. Given those dramatically varied circumstances, any national policymaking is likely to harm and anger tens of millions of people.

For that reason, the Framers (who likewise lived in an incredibly diverse nation for their era) designed American government to elevate private action and decentralize governance while limiting national policy to matters of broad consensus and compromise.

Because few of the policy goals advocated by President Obama and his “progressive” supporters have such support or allow for serious compromise (even the signature item that he did manage to enact), it shouldn’t be surprising that few of those goals have been achieved. That doesn’t mean American government is broken — quite the opposite! — but rather that Obama’s conception of governance is.

Perhaps the next president will better appreciate the genius of American government’s design and work within that design for policy change that he or she believes is important. But it’s clear from President Obama’s comments that he is not up to that task.

For the reason, we should all be very grateful that, no, he couldn’t.

Thomas A. Firey

Thomas A. Firey is a Maryland Public Policy Institute senior fellow, and also is managing editor of Regulation magazine, the Cato Institute’s quarterly review of business in government.

EDITORS NOTE: This first appeared at MDpolicy.org.

Against Eco-pessimism: Half a Century of False Bad News by Matt Ridley

Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment (Laudato Sii) warns of the coming environmental catastrophe (“unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us”).  It’s the latest entry in a long literary tradition of environmental doomsday warnings.

In contrast, Matt Ridley, bestselling author of GenomeThe Agile Gene, and The Rational Optimist, who also received the 2012 Julian Simon Memorial Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says this outlook has proven wrong time again. This is the full text of his acceptance speech. Video is embedded below.

It is now 32 years, nearly a third of a century, since Julian Simon nailed his theses to the door of the eco-pessimist church by publishing his famous article in Science magazine: “Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News.”

It is also 40 years since The Limits to Growth and 50 years since Silent Spring, plenty long enough to reflect on whether the world has conformed to Malthusian pessimism or Simonian optimism.

Before I go on, I want to remind you just how viciously Simon was attacked for saying that he thought the bad news was being exaggerated and the good news downplayed.

Verbally at least Simon’s treatment was every bit as rough as Martin Luther’s. Simon was called an imbecile, a moron, silly, ignorant, a flat-earther, a member of the far right, a Marxist.

“Could the editors have found someone to review Simon’s manuscript who had to take off his shoes to count to 20?” said Paul Ehrlich.

Erhlich together with John Holdren then launched a blistering critique, accusing Simon of lying about electricity prices having fallen. It turned out they were basing their criticism on a typo in a table, as Simon discovered by calling the table’s author. To which Ehrlich replied: “what scientist would phone the author of a standard source to make sure there were no typos in a series of numbers?”

Answer: one who likes to get his facts right.

Yet for all the invective, his critics have never laid a glove on Julian Simon then or later. I cannot think of a single significant fact, data point or even prediction where he was eventually proved badly wrong. There may be a few trivia that went wrong, but the big things are all right. Read that 1980 article again today and you will see what I mean.

I want to draw a few lessons from Julian Simon’s battle with the Malthusian minotaur, and from my own foolhardy decision to follow in his footsteps – and those of Bjorn Lomborg, Ron Bailey, Indur Goklany, Ian Murray, Myron Ebell and others – into the labyrinth a couple of decades later.

Consider the words of the publisher’s summary of The Limits to Growth: “Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea, and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts.”

Again and again Simon was right and his critics were wrong.

Would it not be nice if just one of those people who called him names piped up and admitted it? We optimists have won every intellectual argument and yet we have made no difference at all. My daughter’s textbooks trot out the same old Malthusian dirge as mine did.

What makes it so hard to get the message across?

I think it boils down to five adjectives: ahistorical, finite, static, vested and complacent. The eco-pessimist view ignores history, misunderstands finiteness, thinks statically, has a vested interest in doom and is complacent about innovation.

People have very short memories. They are not just ignoring, but unaware of, the poor track record of eco-pessimists. For me, the fact that each of the scares I mentioned above was taken very seriously at the time, attracting the solemn endorsement of the great and the good, should prompt real skepticism about global warming claims today.

That’s what motivated me to start asking to see the actual evidence about climate change. When I did so I could not find one piece of data – as opposed to a model – that shows either unprecedented change or change is that is anywhere close to causing real harm.

Yet when I made this point to a climate scientist recently, he promptly and cheerily said that “the fact that people have been wrong before does not make them wrong this time,” as if this somehow settled the matter for good.

Second, it is enormously hard for people to grasp Simon’s argument that “Incredible as it may seem at first, the term ‘finite’ is not only inappropriate but downright misleading in the context of natural resources.”

He went on: “Because we find new lodes, invent better production methods and discover new substitutes, the ultimate constraint upon our capacity to enjoy unlimited raw materials at acceptable prices is knowledge.” This is a profoundly counterintuitive point.

Yet was there ever a better demonstration of this truth than the shale gas revolution? Shale gas was always there; but what made it a resource, as opposed to not a resource, was knowledge – the practical know-how developed by George Mitchell in Texas. This has transformed the energy picture of the world.

Besides, as I have noted elsewhere, it’s the renewable – infinite – resources that have a habit of running out: whales, white pine forests, buffalo. It’s a startling fact, but no non-renewable resource has yet come close to exhaustion, whereas lots of renewable ones have.

And by the way, have you noticed something about fossil fuels – we are the only creatures that use them. What this means is that when you use oil, coal or gas, you are not competing with other species. When you use timber, or crops or tide, or hydro or even wind, you are.

There is absolutely no doubt that the world’s policy of encouraging the use of bio-energy, whether in the form of timber or ethanol, is bad for wildlife – it competes with wildlife for land, or wood or food.

Imagine a world in which we relied on crops and wood for all our energy and then along comes somebody and says here’s this stuff underground that we can use instead, so we don’t have to steal the biosphere’s lunch.

Imagine no more. That’s precisely what did happen in the industrial revolution.

Third, the Malthusian view is fundamentally static. Julian Simon’s view is fundamentally dynamic. Again and again when I argue with greens I find that they simply do not grasp the reflexive nature of the world, the way in which prices cause the substitution of resources or the dynamic properties of ecosystems – the word equilibrium has no place in ecology.

Take malaria. The eco-pessimists insisted until recently that malaria must get worse in a warming 21st century world. But, as Paul Reiter kept telling them to no avail, this is nonsense. Malaria disappeared from North America, Russia and Europe and retreated dramatically in South America, Asia and Africa in the twentieth century even as the world warmed.

That’s not because the world got less congenial to mosquitoes. It’s because we moved indoors and drained the swamps and used DDT and malaria medications and so on. Human beings are a moving target. They adapt.

But, my fourth point, another reason Simon’s argument fell on stony ground is that so many people had and have a vested interest in doom. Though they hate to admit it, the environmental movement and the scientific community are vigorous, healthy, competitive, cut-throat, free markets in which corporate leviathans compete for donations, grants, subsidies and publicity. The best way of getting all three is to sound the alarm. If it bleeds it leads. Good news is no news.

Imagine how much money you would get if you put out an advert saying: “we now think climate change will be mild and slow, none the less please donate”. The sums concerned are truly staggering. Greenpeace and WWF, the General Motors and Exxon of the green movement, between them raise and spend a billion dollars a year globally. WWF spends $68m alone on educational propaganda. Frankly, Julian, Bjorn, Ron, Indur, Ian, Myron and I are spitting in the wind.

Yet, fifth, ironically, a further problem is complacency. The eco-pessimists are the Panglossians these days, for it is they who think the world will be fine without developing new technologies. Let’s not adopt GM food – let’s stick with pesticides.

Was there ever a more complacent doctrine than the precautionary principle: don’t try anything new until you are sure it is safe? As if the world were perfect. It is we eco-optimists, ironically, who are acutely aware of how miserable this world still is and how much better we could make it – indeed how precariously dependent we are on still inventing ever more new technologies.

I had a good example of this recently debating a climate alarmist. He insisted that the risk from increasing carbon dioxide was acute and that therefore we needed to drastically cut our emissions by 90 percent or so. In vain did I try to point out that drastically cutting emissions by 90% might do more harm to the poor and the rain forest than anything the emissions themselves might do. That we are taking chemotherapy for a cold, putting a tourniquet round our neck to stop a nosebleed.

My old employer, the Economist, is fond of a version of Pascal’s wager – namely that however small the risk of catastrophic climate change, the impact could be so huge that almost any cost is worth bearing to avert it. I have been trying to persuade them that the very same logic applies to emissions reduction.

However small is the risk that emissions reduction will lead to planetary devastation, almost any price is worth paying to prevent that, including the tiny risk that carbon emissions will destabilize the climate. Just look at Haiti to understand that getting rid of fossil fuels is a huge environmental risk.

That’s what I mean by complacency: complacently assuming that we can decarbonize the economy without severe ecological harm, complacently assuming that we can shut down world trade without starving the poor, that we can grow organic crops for seven billion people without destroying the rain forest.

Having paid homage to Julian Simon’s ideas, let me end by disagreeing with him on one thing. At least I think I am disagreeing with him, but I may be wrong.

He made the argument, which was extraordinary and repulsive to me when I first heard it as a young and orthodox eco-pessimist, that the more people in the world, the more invention. That people were brains as well as mouths, solutions as well as problems. Or as somebody once put it: why is the birth of a baby a cause for concern, while the birth of a calf is a cause for hope?

Now there is a version of this argument that – for some peculiar reason – is very popular among academics, namely that the more people there are, the greater the chance that one of them will be a genius, a scientific or technological Messiah.

Occasionally, Julian Simon sounds like he is in this camp. And if he were here today, — and by Zeus, I wish he were – I would try to persuade him that this is not the point, that what counts is not how many people there are but how well they are communicating. I would tell him about the new evidence from Paleolithic Tasmania, from Mesolithic Europe from the Neolithic Pacific, and from the internet today, that it’s trade and exchange that breeds innovation, through the meeting and mating of ideas.

That the lonely inspired genius is a myth, promulgated by Nobel prizes and the patent system. This means that stupid people are just as important as clever ones; that the collective intelligence that gives us incredible improvements in living standards depends on people’s ideas meeting and mating, more than on how many people there are. That’s why a little country like Athens or Genoa or Holland can suddenly lead the world. That’s why mobile telephony and the internet has no inventor, not even Al Gore.

Not surprisingly, academics don’t like this argument. They just can’t get their pointy heads around the idea that ordinary people drive innovation just by exchanging and specializing. I am sure Julian Simon got it, but I feel he was still flirting with the outlier theory instead.

The great human adventure has barely begun. The greenest thing we can do is innovate. The most sustainable thing we can do is change. The only limit is knowledge. Thank you Julian Simon for these insights.

2012 Julian L. Simon Memorial Award Dinner from CEI Video on Vimeo.

Anything Peaceful

Anything Peaceful is FEE’s new online ideas marketplace, hosting original and aggregate content from across the Web.

Is the “Austrian School” a Lie?

Is Austrian economics an American invention? by STEVEN HORWITZ and B.K. MARCUS.

Do those of us who use the word Austrian in its modern libertarian context misrepresent an intellectual tradition?

We trace our roots back through the 20th century’s F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises (both served as advisors to FEE) to Carl Menger in late 19th-century Vienna, and even further back to such “proto-Austrians” as Frédéric Bastiat and Jean-Baptiste Say in the earlier 19th century and Richard Cantillon in the 18th. Sometimes we trace our heritage all the way back to the late-Scholastic School of Salamanca.

Nonsense, says Janek Wasserman in his article “Austrian Economics: Made in the USA”:

“Austrian Economics, as it is commonly understood today,” Wasserman claims, “was born seventy years ago this month.”

As his title implies, Wasserman is not talking about the publication of Principles of Economics by Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian school. That occurred 144 years ago in Vienna. What happened 70 years ago in the United States was the publication of F.A. Hayek‘s Road to Serfdom.

What about everything that took place — most of it in Austria — in the 74 years before Hayek’s most famous book? According to Wasserman, the Austrian period of “Austrian Economics” produced a “robust intellectual heritage,” but the largely American period that followed was merely a “dogmatic political program,” one that “does a disservice to the eclectic intellectual history” of the true Austrian school.

Where modern Austrianism is “associated with laissez-faire economics and libertarianism,” the real representatives of the more politically diverse tradition — economists from the University of Vienna, such as Fritz Machlup, Joseph Schumpeter, and Oskar Morgenstern — were embarrassed by their association with Hayek’s bestseller and its capitalistic supporters.

These “native-born Austrians ceased to be ‘Austrian,'” writes Wasserman, “when Mises and a simplified Hayek captured the imagination of a small group of businessmen and radicals in the US.”

Wasserman describes the popular reception of the as “the birth of a movement — and the reduction of a tradition.”

Are we guilty of Wasserman’s charges? Do modern Austrians misunderstand our own tradition, or worse yet, misrepresent our history?

In fact, Wasserman himself is guilty of a profound misunderstanding of the Austrian label, as well as the tradition it refers to.

The “Austrian school” is not a name our school of thought took for itself. Rather it was an insult hurled against Carl Menger and his followers by the adherents of the dominant German Historical School.

The Methodenstreit was a more-than-decade-long debate in the late 19th century among German-speaking social scientists about the status of economic laws. The Germans advocated methodological collectivism, espoused the efficacy of government intervention to improve the economy, and, according Jörg Guido Hülsmann, “rejected economic ‘theory’ altogether.”

The Mengerians, in contrast, argued for methodological individualism and the scientific validity of economic law. The collectivist Germans labeled their opponents the “Austrian school” as a put-down. It was like calling Menger and company the “backwater school” of economic thought.

“Austrian,” in our context, is a reclaimed word.

But more important, modern Austrian economics is not the dogmatic ideology that Wasserman describes. In his blog post, he provides no actual information about the work being done by the dozens of active Austrian economists in academia, with tenured positions at colleges and universities whose names are recognizable.

He tells his readers nothing about the  books they have produced that have been published by top university presses. He does not mention that they have published in top peer-reviewed journals in the economics discipline, as well as in philosophy and political science, or that the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics consistently packs meeting rooms at the Southern Economic Association meetings.

Have all of these university presses, top journals, and long-standing professional societies, not to mention tenure committees at dozens of universities, simply lost their collective minds and allowed themselves to be snookered by an ideological sleeper cell?

Or perhaps in his zeal to score ideological points of his own, Wasserman chose to take his understanding of Austrian economics from those who consume it on the Internet and elsewhere rather than doing the hard work of finding out what professional economists associated with the school are producing. Full of confirmation bias, he found what he “knew” was out there, and he ends up offering a caricature of the robust intellectual movement that is the contemporary version of the school.

The modern Austrian school, which has now returned to the Continent and spread across the globe after decades in America, is not the dogmatic monolith Wasserman contends. The school is alive with both internal debates about its methodology and theoretical propositions and debates about its relationship to the rest of the economics discipline, not to mention the size of the state.

Modern Austrian economists are constantly finding new ideas to mix in with the work of Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, and Hayek. The most interesting work done by Austrians right now is bringing in insights from Nobelists like James Buchanan, Elinor Ostrom, and Vernon Smith, and letting those marinate with their long-standing intellectual tradition. That is hardly the behavior of a “dogmatic political program,” but is rather a sign of precisely the robust intellectual tradition that has been at the core of Austrian economics from Menger onward.

That said, Wasserman is right to suggest that economic science is not the same thing as political philosophy — and it’s true that many self-described Austrians aren’t always careful to communicate the distinction. Again, Wasserman could have seen this point made by more thoughtful Austrians if he had gone to a basic academic source like the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics and read the entry on the Austrian school of economics.

Even a little bit of actual research motivated by actual curiosity about what contemporary professional economists working in the Austrian tradition are doing would have given Wasserman a very different picture of modern Austrian economics. That more accurate picture is one very much consistent with our Viennese predecessors.

To suggest that we do a disservice to our tradition — or worse, that we have appropriated a history that doesn’t belong to us — is to malign not just modern Austrians but also the Austrian-born antecedents within our tradition.

Steven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

B.K. Marcus

B.K. Marcus is managing editor of the Freeman.