A libertarian for coercive energy policy?

July 2, 2009

Cato Institute senior fellow Alan Reynolds writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that federal fuel economy standards are killing GM — no argument there.

But Reynolds then offers a bizarre solution — even more so since Cato is a libertarian think tank.

Reynolds writes,

As a matter of practical politics, rescuing GM from strangulation by CAFE will require offering economically literate environmentalists a greener alternative, i.e., one that works. Luckily, the government has two policy tools that, with minor modifications, really could discourage people from buying the least fuel-efficient vehicles.

Where in the Constitution does it say that the government has the power to discourage legally made and sold transportation choices?

Cato supports your right to use recreational drugs but not your right to purchase the sort of car or truck you want without government interference?

Reynolds continued,

… One [policy tool] is the federal excise tax on “gas guzzlers,” which could take some fun out of the horsepower race except that it applies only to cars, not to SUVS, vans and trucks. Why not apply this tax to all types of gas guzzling vehicles? Owners of trucks used for business could deduct the tax in proportion to miles used for business, as they do with other vehicular expenses. Phase it in after 2011 to encourage buyers to snap up the unsold inventory of gas guzzling trucks quickly — a timely “stimulus plan.”

Last I checked, libertarians were for simple low, flat income taxes as opposed to punitive excise taxes that could be avoided by tax code shenanigans.

Reynolds continues,

Second, the federal fuel tax is highest on the most efficient fuel (diesel) and below zero on the least efficient fuel (ethanol). Cars get about 30% better mileage on diesel than on gasoline, and cars running mainly on gasoline get about 30% better mileage than they would using 85% ethanol.

To stop distorting consumer choices, simply apply the same 24-cent-a-gallon federal tax to gasoline and ethanol as we do to diesel. This would add funds to the depleted federal highway trust.

Yes, what could be more fair than punitive excise taxes on all fuels? Where is this concept in the Constitution?

As I understand libertarianism, it stands for individual liberty and limited government — not centrally-planned energy and transportation policy.

Reynolds is not the first or the most prominent libertarian to be confused by the green zeitgeist, but his article demonstrates how insidious it is — even the brightest, most well-intentioned among us are easily swept up and away by it.

Today’s “environmentalism” is entirely inconsistent with individual liberty and limited government. An irony is that, even if you forget about those two core principles, the green policies being advocated today — as they are based on junk science and worse economics — don’t even make for reasonable utilitarianism.

17 Responses to “A libertarian for coercive energy policy?”


  1. […] Milloy at Green Hell wrote concerning Mr. Reynolds statement and the policy of the Obama government: Where in the […]

  2. timetochooseagain Says:

    It’s a strange, strange world…

  3. rehiggs Says:

    As ‘dannewton’ says, “There is no such thing as an economically literate environmentalist.”
    so there will be no one to offer a greener solution to. I don’t believe ‘greener’ is required anyway, it is more political opportunity that counts.

  4. welder4 Says:

    There should be a bounty on environmentalists.
    They are the single most cause of the collapse of our economy, when money that could be spent on items is used to pay the utility bills then the economy suffers greatly . How in the Sam hill can any one buy products that are substantial to our economy when the extra money is diverted to the power companies pocket . I have seen my utility cost soar over the last ten years and some of it has been normal but for the most part it is the green people tying them selves to a tree that has caused most of the increases. Green peace should change their name to ” Save the planet, kill the people” It is now a religion and we need to fight it as hard as we can legally.

  5. dannewton Says:

    There is no such thing as an economically literate environmentalist. The latest crop of environmentalist, unlike Teddy Roosevelt, will not sit still for the classic concepts of benefit and costs that assure an ever increasing GDP or production. Such concepts are too closely associated with Supply Side Economics and damage to the planet. The concept of green jobs and the green revolution is the substitute concept that is welded into place by public school propaganda and a host of foundations and funds to promote and perpetuate questionable imperitives to save the planet. When Snail Darters and Whales are worth more than people, these people can not be trusted to do competent economic analysis.

    The leftist environmentalist will destroy property rights. Eminent domain to take property is moving into a new era where the promised public benefit in return for loss of the property is unlikely to happen. The leftist environmentalist thinks that things cost less when the government buys them and no amount of anecdotal evidence to the opposite has any effect. The leftist environmentalist is not concerned with performance. Auditing a government function for its performance is viewed as mean and a precursor to getting rid of that function. Finally, there is no hope of increasing wealth with out economic performance and especially economic efficiency. In both cases economic performance and efficiency are measures of the ratio of output to input.

    The forced approval of home morgages by the federal government is exactly the kind of thing that seems OK with leftist because it confronts the capitalistic concepts of profit and the well know statistical rules of thumb that predict correctly, most of the time, affordability. No leftist environmentalist wants their “needs” for the environment to stand in line behind the need to prolong human life beyond utility or any other activity that is not saving the planet. They will never recognize that the cleanest places on the planet have the highest GDP and the highest per capita income but they do all in their power to destroy both GDP and percapita income because they think that income should belong to the state so it can be properly spent.

    Environmental Activism will eventually overgraze the green shoots that the productive fraction produces and the hive or nest will collapse. These new socialist, unlike bees or ants that will swarm an external threat regardless of the risk, are bent on reconfiguring the nest to their Utopian specifications. They hate the individual departures from their ideas of perfection.

    I am sorry that this is so long but I must point out that the Highway Trust Fund can not possibly be saved with more taxes. Everything that is wrong with the Transportation System can be traced to its socialistic schemes of redistribution of wealth within classes of transportation. All kinds of transportations are treated as equals and they are not. Even roads are viewed ans economic winners or losers. The roads that produce more than they consume are expected to carry the losers so that everyone can have the right to go anywhere at any time at a minimum of expense no matter how much the road costs. The only way to to keep this system alive is to keep feeding it money. The fix for this kind of system is to make the users pay for what they take out of the system. It cost more to build in mountains and swamps. It costs more to build in cities. Performance measures and concepts of objective project selection based on getting the greatest good for the greatest number can fix our Highway Trust Fund. The Highway Trust Fund is dying of internal bleeding as money from cars goes to transit, bicycles and non-transportation related projects. Some bridges that are being fixed should be replaced but detecting these instances would require benefit/cost analysis, something that is unheard of in most highway departments today. CAFE standards is also bleeding the system. The highway Trust fund is expected to provide economic development but the Highway Trust Fund has no way to get money back into the fund except by fuel and transportation related sales. When and if the economic development comes, it is the state and local taxes that benefit, not the highway trust fund. Anyone who throws more tax money at this system of earmarks and political project selection is throwing away their money, mobility and their freedom.

  6. xgropo Says:

    Backing up Reynolds (and Cato in general), I think he was saying that is what government *could* do as a compromise to CAFE standards.

    However, I understand and agree with the criticism, because he should have pointed out that such taxes are not supported by the libertarian (Cato still says “classic liberal” I believe) philosophy.

    Regardless, such regulations are simply another attempt at control by the government over the people. I gave up on libertarians long ago, because in order to try and be “mainstream”, they are just GOP-lite (and GOP is Dem-lite).

    Support Autarchism!

  7. dublds Says:

    The Republican Party used to stand for the same ideals as the Libertarian Party. Then a bunch of think tanks popped up, invoking the name “Republican” or “Conservative” and full of middle managers only interested in stirring political controversy (because it looks like real work) and funneling money to themselves. And what’s worse, is that REAL Republicans fell for it. Alan Reynolds is no Libertarian, nor is the CATO institute. They CALL themselves that, but who cares. Reality is about deeds not words. I could call myself a Democratic think tank and denounce Global Warming as a fraud. Is anyone really stupid enough to believe that this would mobilize all democrats to lynch Al Gore and burn coal gratuitiously? I guess if you believe that Alan Reynolds is a Libertarian then that answer is “yes”. So sorry about your sour grapes, but I assure you no real Libertarian is suddenly going to swing full support to such ridiculous bureaucracy. A basic belief of the Libertarian party is that things like the EPA and NHTSA shouldn’t even exist. So how could ANYONE support this type of legislation who doesn’t support the existence of the bureau who would establish and enforce it?

    Funny that a hardcore Republican like Steve (much as I love him), who makes a living contradicting everything we see in the news, disagrees with everything this man is saying, but then, mysteriously, fully supports his claims that he is a Libertarian. Could it be that a crumbling Republican party is attempting to mount an offensive against the Libertarians who are quickly stealing their base? I think so. Republicans have a bad habit of assuming everyone is stupider than they are. Look for more Libertarian pot shotting disguised as relevant political discourse. With Sanford’s recent and embarassing departure and Schwarzennegers continued and embarassing presence, they are at DEFCOM 5.

  8. higgy68 Says:

    “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule it” – H.L.Mencken. Those that try to tell me what is good for me or that so and so is done ‘for my own good’ are my enemies and should be dealt with accordingly. What car I drive, how I construct my house, sell my house, buy a house or, in general, live my life without infringing on the liberty of others is up to me. It is not up to a bunch of left wing asses that think they are better than every one else.

    • macioz Says:

      That is exactly the point. What the greens are trying to do is to demolish our confidence that it could exist a world in which everyone can take his own way “as long as we do not infringe on everyone’s else liberty”. Well, according to the green credo, ANYTHING you do is going to infringe on someone’s else liberty. Your right to drive a SUV infringe on their liberty to live in a cleaner world, and so on and so on, ad libitum. When you see people as “carbon dioxide emitters”, instead of human beings, the concept of property rights becomes totally blurred.
      The Earth, they are preaching, is a big condominium, where everyone’s decision, in order to protect the property rights of all the others, must be subjected to the general approval, i.e. to the approval of a Big Green Brother.
      So they put a challenge on libertarians also on moral account, because in their own view, they are the only deeply and truly libertarians. No more “save the earth or the property rights”, we’ll have both and we’ll be fine, the greens promise.
      I think this is the key point to dismantle from the libertarian point of view.

  9. johnnylucid Says:

    No libertarian himself, Michael Gerson was drinking the Fool-Aid in yesterday’s WaPo. This must be what’s been called Potomac Fever.

  10. bear865 Says:

    BTW, I should also have said that are “feller” here may be one o’ them-thar “Ivory-Tower Intellektuals”. And no matter what political viewpoint they seem to perfess, most o’ ’em jis’ kan’t seem tuh keep their train on the tracks, if’n y’ know whut ah means.

    And, whar is Al Capp when we need him so darn bad?

  11. bear865 Says:

    Perhaps the “feller” at CATO was bribed or was somehow terrorized. You know that these eco-fascists are capable of anything.

    Then too, ever try to read the Libertarian Party platform. I defy anyone with any common sense to try to do so. I find myself constantly going: “Say WHAT?”

    In my heart, I am a libertarian minimalist. But the Libertarian Party seems to be bigger wakos than the statists they claim to oppose. And that is REALLY WAKO!

    • 4timesayear Says:

      Either that or he worships at the temple of Gaia…I’m not much into conspiracies, but I suppose he could be a “plant” by the other side

  12. priddseren Says:

    Communism, socialism, theocracies, tyranny or any other form of government that requires suspension of freedom and supplanting individuality with the society requires an enemy. Islmaoterrorists has everyone not Islamic, The Soviet Union had Czarist Russia, Hugo Chavez has America and American liberals, lacking any other bogeyman, is using the environment for this purpose. With a self defined non-existent problem, the democrats have a perpetual source to justify suspension of liberty to gain power and impose their idea of utopia. It is easy to declare the environment in danger and anything is justified as a solution. If liberals follow the patterns of history, they will eventually use data about people such as the census to begin rounding up those who disagree with them. By their reasoning if you disagree with cap and trade, you must be against the environment and therefore a danger too all.

    That is the bad news, today they are forcing us to buy cars we don’t want, the future will be them simply killing us when the current bogeyman fails to create their utopia.


  13. […] boys! I kin haz policy tools? Steve Malloy busts Cato senior fellow Alan Reynolds for wanting to use an excise tax against SUVs: Where in the […]

    • lanczos Says:

      Q&D: I can haz cheezburgers?

      Wish I could sic those three German Shepherds on L.E.W.* alan reynolds.

      * – Little Elite Wimpublican

  14. Reaver99 Says:

    Today’s “environmentalism” is entirely inconsistent with individual liberty and limited government.

    Truer words have never been spoken, or typed.
    Today’s “enviromentalism” is the enemy of individual liberty, but its for the good of the whole darn planet so shut up and do what we tell you.


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