[ExI] Under the libertarian yoke was Re: Next Decade May See No Warming

Stathis Papaioannou stathisp at gmail.com
Sun May 4 12:43:11 UTC 2008

2008/5/4 Rafal Smigrodzki <rafal.smigrodzki at gmail.com>:

>  ### Now we are getting somewhere! Yes, the notion of conditional
>  contracts is important and it could play a role in the solution. I
>  believe that Alex Tabarrok did research on conditional contracts and
>  it is clear that they can be a very powerful means of building
>  extensive cooperation without violence.
>  One minor point: Breach of contract does not automatically authorize
>  the use of force - for that you need specific provisions in the
>  contract or in the general body of law used to administer the
>  contract. But yes, your overall point is right.

Breach of perhaps the most basic and common contract - namely, if I
buy something from you but don't pay - does normally authorise the use
of force against me. An alternative way of dealing with this in a free
market with where everyone has access to the information is that if I
keep cheating, people will see me as untrustworthy and won't trade
with me. eBay is a partial implementation of such a system. This is
probably a purer form of capitalism than any system where there is a
legal mechanism to redress dishonest behaviour, but I don't see it as
working all by itself.

> If *everyone* agrees to
>  >  cooperate provided that everyone else does the same, then I don't see
>  >  how anyone's rights, under a libertarian system, are infringed: each
>  >  individual gets exactly what he has agreed to.
>  ### Exactly!
>  --------------------------
>  This may seem at first
>  >  glance to be equivalent to the situation where everyone is simply
>  >  inclined to cooperate because they see it as a good thing, but it
>  >  isn't. The crucial difference is that the cooperation is not a charity
>  >  that may be withdrawn at any moment, but a tax that has to be paid.
>  ### Well, you might need to rephrase it. Cooperation under a
>  conditional contract is binding once the conditions of the contract
>  are met but it is not a tax. A tax is very specifically a payment
>  rendered to and by the request of a sovereign or his agents,
>  regardless of any contractual considerations.

A tax in a democracy is a kind of conditional contract just like this.
I won't voluntarily pay (i.e. as charity) the amount I pay in tax even
for projects I consider worthwhile, but I will agree to pay on
condition that everyone else also agrees to pay. This is why people in
general hate paying tax, but keep voting in a government that will
force them to pay tax. That is, people see the situation as follows,
in order of decreasing desirability:

(a) everyone is compelled to pay tax, but they are exempted;
(b) everyone, including them, is compelled to pay tax;
(c) no-one is compelled to pay tax and they elect not to pay voluntarily;
(d) no-one is compelled to pay tax but they elect to pay voluntarily.

Since (a) isn't likely to happen, (b) is the best. A few people might
choose (d) but this would be an unexpected bonus, not in keeping with
the free market creed of enlightened self-interest as (a), (b) and (c)

>  >  It's a bit more difficult if most people agree to cooperate but there
>  >  are a few stubborn defectors who don't care that they put the whole
>  >  planet at risk. They might even be rationally pursuing their best
>  >  interests by deciding this way, for example if they don't expect to
>  >  live long enough to see the catastrophe they will cause. Can these
>  >  people be compelled to cooperate?
>  ### If you don't want to be fried by the libertarian space laser, you
>  need to be quite careful about what you mean by "compelled". Can't
>  speak for these alien libertarians but would think that shutting the
>  door in the defector's face would be fine. Same with saying "Mr
>  Smigrodzki, I see you have not yet acceded to our
>  Save-Our-Happy-Planet Contract, and therefore I will sell you my beef
>  for 110% of my normal price, and I won't sell you the prime cuts,
>  either". If there are enough people like that, each one them acting
>  within their own domain, refusing daily cooperation as long as I don't
>  belong to the contract, I might simply say, you are just a bunch of
>  stupid losers who know nothing about the climate, and I hate your
>  guts, but I like my beef too, so OK, I'll join. This dynamic is
>  strongly dependent on the relative numbers of believers, with tipping
>  points in either direction, and non-linear interactions but in general
>  it is likely to be highly responsive to the most common beliefs and
>  attitudes, like any good form of governance. Coasian arguments about
>  minimization of transaction costs apply but that's a different issue
>  we don't need to analyze right now.
>  Non-violent social pressure is a very powerful force, even if no
>  actual physical force is in any way involved.

Yes, that might work, but it would have to be included in the original
contract since there would be a temptation to defect by selling to the
defectors, who would be very keen for trading partners. But this isn't
any different to swapping fines and criminal prosecution for boycott,
ostracism or exile of businesses and individuals who refuse to pay
their tax.

>  There is one more component you need in your solution but so far you
>  are doing very well. Hint: You have described how to provide a form of
>  first-order social good, in this case a widespread commitment to a
>  beneficial (so you say) course of action.
>  ----------------------
>  Well, again in a libertarian
>  >  society, I could be punished for doing something which incidentally
>  >  harms my neighbour. Doesn't the destruction of the biosphere count as
>  >  harming my neighbour?
>  ### Indeed, destruction of the biosphere would most likely be seen by
>  most critarchic courts as a punishable harm in most circumstances. In
>  this particular situation, however, the destruction is a hypothetical
>  occurrence in the far future, so you could hardly demand preventative
>  action, unless your judges were sure that a harm is guaranteed to
>  happen. Since the judges would be answerable to both you, a believer
>  in the dangers of global warming and to me, an enthusiastic supporter
>  of more global warming, that wouldn't happen, because I would
>  immediately fire any judge espousing Gore-science.
>  Of course, if the planet continued to warm up, and contrary to my
>  expectations, it caused significantly more harm than benefit, you
>  could reasonably demand restitution from me, assuming that the exact
>  amount of harm caused by my individual carbon dioxide emissions to you
>  could be sufficiently well calculated. You would have to subtract from
>  the restitution any harms that I suffered from your carbon dioxide
>  emissions. One delightful side-effect of this situation would be that
>  wealthy hypocrites like Gore would have to pay restitution to both of
>  us, since the hypocrites are likely to preach one thing and do
>  another. Only honest greenies would come ahead financially, which is
>  good and proper: honesty and being factually correct are to be
>  rewarded, while hypocrisy and making mistakes should be expensive.

That's all very well, but it doesn't address the urgency of the
situation. I don't want to punish the people responsible after the
train has crashed, I want to prevent the train crashing in the first

Stathis Papaioannou

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