David R. Henderson  

The Attack on Civilization

Goodbye Mini-meds... Culture and Institutions...
Somewhere along the way, during the last 50 years, the critique of capitalism changed from condemning its failure to spread the wealth to condemning the very opposite. Suddenly the great sin of capitalism was that it was producing too much, making us all too materialistic, fueling economic growth at the expense of other values, spreading middle-class decadence, and generally causing society to be too caught up in productivity and too focused on the standard of living.
This is from Jeffrey A. Tucker, "The Decivlilizing Effects of Government." Tucker gives chapter and verse on how governments are making it illegal for us to have some of the comforts of civilization, from relief from bedbugs to nice, strong showers.

Another paragraph:

The New York Times had a headline story on how the return of bedbugs has baffled scientists. Later in the article, however, the text says that chemicals can control them, but that all those chemicals are currently banned. Well, if the answer is before us but we are forbidden by government to use that answer, or retailers and exterminators are too intimidated by the threatening political culture to take the risk, I don't see that there is much reason to be baffled by the problem. What is it about cause and effect that these people do not understand?

The whole thing is worth reading.

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
david writes:

Every time I read an article like this, I lose confidence in the notion that libertarians pay more that lip service toward the idea of externalities. They say that no, they just want market solutions toward dealing with externalities, but give them an inch and next thing you know they're denying that pollution exists altogether.

I mean, railing on DDT? Really?

Troy Camplin writes:

An excellent article. Well worth reading.

The dangers of DDT were grossly overblown. Rachael Carson unleashed one of the greatest evils on society: the modern-day environmentalist movement. One can be a libertarian green; but green socialism has the exact consequences stated.

david writes:

On Carson and DDT:

No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story—the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting ... What is the measure of this setback? The list of resistant species now includes practically all of the insect groups of medical importance ... Malaria programmes are threatened by resistance among mosquitoes ... Practical advice should be 'Spray as little as you possibly can' rather than 'Spray to the limit of your capacity' ..., Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible.

She was right, by the way: countries that continued spraying DDT in cavalier amounts quickly watched mosquitoes become resistant. Every individual farmer and agriculture ministry has the incentive to dump as much DDT as they can; resistance is a cost that other people pay. You don't have to be libertarian to predict what happens.

On the article, the paragraph which really highlights exactly what is philosophically wrong with Tucker's approach is this one:

My point is simply this: the market process that would normally allow innovation, trial and error, and the accumulation and implementation of all available scientific knowledge has been subverted by government institutions that have presumed to know what is best, thereby centrally planning the use of chemicals to control pests. Even to bring a new chemical to market requires seven years and some $100 million just to jump through the regulatory thicket, which has a bias against progress, capitalism, and innovation. We end up having to trust experts and competing scientific claims based on rarefied results from tests rather than markets.

i.e., that experts and scientific consensus cannot be trusted, but the market - mysteriously externality-free - can.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

I'm glad you mentioned this article, I read it the other day and it made me think of things a bit differently. There is such a need for balance in our society between ideology and method that simply is not happening. David, think of how allowing bedbugs will cause us to even want to recycle less than ever. I need to throw away a perfectly good mattress because scarcely anyone wants to take a chance on second hand mattresses anymore. For years I have bought clothes from thrift stores and now I can scarcely enter a thrift store without wondering, did they wash everything in hot water so that there are no bedbugs anywhere?

david writes:

Yes, and to find that right balance between "recycling mattresses" and "avoiding toxic pesticides" and "killing bedbugs" you will need to reject Tucker's philosophy and look toward, gasp, competing scientific claims and the dread experts who seem to keep siding with the state. True evil, clearly.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

Tucker is arguing that he is willing to trust people like you and me, our neighbors and everyone around us to create a better world. You think of the market and you think of uncaring bankers and high flying CEOs. I think of the market and I think of individuals in this world who are working for one another and deserve to be heard and supported. No, I'm not a Tea Partier. I'm an individual who believes that people can step up to do what government would do if it had the money. But in the future, it is going to take a lot more than just money to make a better world.

david writes:

No, I don't think of uncaring bankers and CEOs (you seem to have mistaken me for a DFH at some point).

I think of the neoclassical paradigm of the market, with people who follow incentives, and if Tucker had his way, incentives for individuals to innovate their way toward negative externalities would be just as strong as incentives toward other things. Incentives matter.

And, sadly, reality isn't subject to what individuals really hope is true (or the Earth, at least in America, would be six thousand years old). Some chemicals are carcinogenic; some other chemicals bioaccumulate, and some other chemicals are harmless. And we can objectively identify some of these. It doesn't matter how much Joe Q. Farmer personally rejects the scientific literature on the effects of the insecticides he really likes; he is wrong on the effects and he's just going to have to live with evil, evil librul experts telling him what reality, objectively, is.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

What you are telling me is that you are willing to take a chance on losing the complexity of our civilization in total terms, i.e. the experts can keep us all alive or no one can. You would rather lose it all, than gamble on the chance that people around you could be responsible and intelligent caring citizens if they were given the chance. What someone believes about how long earth has existed is not what threatens your survival. What threatens your survival is the belief that distant solutions is the only thing that can keep you alive.

david writes:

No, I am betting on individuals, provided they face the right incentives. Are you claiming that individuals don't follow incentives?

Floccina writes:

When greens talk about proper use of DDT, I support them (externalities do exist) but many if not most want to ban its use altogether.

Further I hear people who want a total ban on the use of DDT and Roundup, who justify such by siting super bugs or super weeds. Super bugs or super weeds are just bugs/weeds resistant to the pesticide or herbicide that they want banned anyway so what what is the big deal?

Part this has to do with optimism verses pessimism if one is optimistic about a richer better future he says lets maximize the befits from roundup and DDT now when we need them more. Future generations will have better ways to deal with bugs and weeds. Even if they don;t they will surely have better means of dealing with other problems leaving them able to invest more of their energy on growing food.

BTW resistance usually costs energy to an organism and so if we stopped using DDT or Roundup the resistance would slowly be lost.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

The fact that individuals do follow incentives is what has kept solutions from being obvious. A lot of incentives are backwards because they are mostly designed for scarcity. Whereas, some economic interaction is scarce and some is not. Understanding which is which, makes all the difference for sustainability in the future.

N. writes:


I want to direct a few questions to you:

1. Do you accept that the ban on DDT costs, as Tucker indicates, between 1 and 3 million lives per year? If you do, do you not see that as an externality? (Indeed, an externality worse than those brought on by use of the chemical?)

2. Do you recall (as I certainly do) that the case against DDT was primarily on the basis that it was carcinogenic -- a claim which has since been largely refuted -- and not on the basis of increased insect resistance? Isn't that a case against expert opinion rather than in favor of it?

3. Which of the examples Tucker uses to illustrate his point do you find unjustified? That is, are you arguing that in each instance he has no case at all?

I find his case to be extremely convincing. Then again, I have suffered the horror of a bedbug infestation, so I may be biased.

Jeff writes:

Floccina is right, the people who want to ban insecticides because they breed resistance to insecticides are incoherent. You would only care about resistance if you were going to use the insecticides.

I'm old enough to remember that resistance was not the argument DDT opponents used to make their case. No, all we heard about were the poor bald eagles whose egg shells were supposedly being thinned by DDT to the point where our national symbol was in danger of extinction. And other birds as well. Strangely enough, the same people who expected insects to evolve resistance to DDT did not expect birds to do the same. Social conservatives who get flu shots every year are not the only ones who pay attention to evolution only when it's convenient.

Dan Weber writes:

While DDT may be useful in some contexts, it's just about useless for controlling bedbugs.

We bought ourselves a few decades of bedbug-free life with its previous usage, but today bedbugs are just about universally resistant.

guthrie writes:

What I find illuminating is what I see as the thrust of the whole article. That prior to the mid 20th century, Socialism presented itself as the means by which the 'poor' would become more affluent (perhaps an oversimplification, but I'll risk it), and attacked capitalism from this standpoint. Socialism was modern, technological, 'now', and so forth.

Then the tack was changed. Why? Look at the Marx quote he offers. "...pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth." Has this happened? No, we see fewer and fewer people are actually 'paupers' in capitalist society. So the tack had to change in order for the socialist attack to remain relevant.

Dunno 'bout anyone else but I found this bit fascinating and helpful... DDT debates aside! Thanx Professor Henderson for the link!

david writes:

@Floccina - you are right; wholesale bans are silly.

@Jeff - you need to study more ecology; not all parts of an ecosystem are equally robust.


#1 - there has never been a worldwide ban on DDT for use as an insecticide. The WHO intends to phase it out in the future because it is becoming increasingly ineffective, but it has never been banned - indeed, the WHO continues to recommend it for current use. The US EPA has banned in the US, of course, but the US does not have malaria epidemics and so can worry about other risks. Tucker is repeating a common misunderstanding.

#2 - DDT was and remains thought to be carcinogenic; Silent Spring and ensuing panic oversold the risks to a popular audience but the scientific community was more circumspect.

#3 - well, DDT, obviously. Tucker mentions a litany of things here, all of which I disagree with:

There is the attack on asbestos, a wonderful fire-reducing substance that government banned and then imposed massive costs for its removal. It turns out that removing it presents a much greater risk than leaving it. There is the attack on lead paint too.

And let us not forget the extraordinary evil of the attack on the gas-powered car with CAFE standards, the derision of larger and safer cars, the tax-funded and mandatory promotion of the electric car, and general attack on energy, oil, and gas...

Note that Tucker explicitly admits that he has no actual familiarity with the regulations or issues involved; he is arguing based solely on the idea that The Market will innovate around it even if the incentives are pointing entirely in the wrong direction. How anybody is Austrian after a century of obvious neoclassical logic is a mystery.

And, yes, asbestos still causes lung cancer if you breathe it and lead paint still causes lead poisoning if you consume it (e.g., as dust, or children picking up flakes). Not that Tucker is likely to change his mind, though.

David C writes:

"Now, I don't want to get into a dispute about chemicals and their effects. ... I'm not a scientist and I have no opinion on which views are correct here." - Jeffrey Tucker

Shorter version: I have no idea if these chemicals are safe to use or not, but the government's decision to ban them is a clear example of government failure.

Scott Scheule writes:

The Davids have it. Well argued.

guthrie writes:

Aren't the bedbugs themselves the example of government failure? Isn't the implication that given the externalities, the market would find a way to a) use DDT responsively or b) come up with an equally (or more) effective solution, all on it's own with no 'help'? Wouldn't the incentive be 'kill the bugs, but nothing else'?

guthrie writes:

Apologies... use DDT 'responsibly'

agnostic writes:

The government is not an invading race of space aliens. If we don't like what they're doing, then *blame the voters*.

It doesn't matter if the offenders aren't directly elected, since technically even the President is not. Even the EPA, FDA, etc. would come crumbling down if that's what median Joe wanted. All an ambitious politician would need to campaign on is reducing the octopus of federal agencies.

So these policies reasonably reflect the will of the people. That says that sometime in the past 50 years, we've hit diminishing marginal returns in human welfare as a function of economic freedom or capitalism. Such policies will thrive only in a society where the median person feels that life is good enough and is not getting exponentially better year after year.

Sadly, Tucker's article does little to discredit that perception. All of the great things he mentions were figured out before the mid-20th C. The only really new supposed marvel he cites is... the e-reader. Meanwhile, people read fewer books than they used to, and are not as hooked into the world of reading as they once were. So, e-reader schmee-reader.

Troy Camplin writes:

Someone needs to read some Hayek if he thinks that just because we have this monstrosity of a government, that that's what the people want. Oftentimes we get lots of things we don't actually want -- or wouldn't want if we knew the real consequences. Government relied on the ignorance of the majority of its citizens to do whatever it wants.

The point of the article is to educate the citizens about the hidden costs fo what semes like good legislation. Unintended consequences matter.

Bryan Pick writes:

This quote from Tucker caught my attention; after briefly describing the Progressive Era and the New Deal era, he suggests that things changed:

Somewhere along the way, during the last 50 years, the critique of capitalism changed from condemning its failure to spread the wealth to condemning the very opposite. Suddenly the great sin of capitalism was that it was producing too much, making us all too materialistic, fueling economic growth at the expense of other values, spreading middle-class decadence, and generally causing society to be too caught up in productivity and too focused on the standard of living.
Funny, famous intellectuals reacted the same way to the widespread and rapidly growing prosperity in the US in the 1920s -- that it was grotesquely materialistic. Fitzgerald called it "the greatest, gaudiest spree in history."

And there are still many people arguing that capitalism doesn't really deliver a higher standard of living -- that it's all a big illusion, and everyone except the super-rich is actually worse off economically than they were in the 70s, and all the real progress can be ascribed to government intervention.

Just saying his history is incomplete if he thinks the reaction against middle-class "decadence" only got kick-started in the late Fifties.

Tracy W writes:

I don't follow the argument that overuse of DDT caused insect resistance. I'm not a biologist, but I remember being firmly told to keep taking a course of antibiotics right to the end, despite feeling 100% recovered, because using a smaller amount of antibiotics would encourage the evolution of resistant bacteria. This seems logical to me, if all the individuals of a species are killed then they can't reproduce, which is a prerequisite for evolution. The opposite claim seems implausible.

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