Privatising the atmosphere

Jeremy Waldron

  • Beyond the New Right: Markets, Government and the Common Environment by John Gray
    Routledge, 195 pp, £19.99, June 1993, ISBN 0 415 09297 3

By instinct and by reputation, environmentalists tend to be socialists. They are hostile to private industry, they scorn the profit motive, and they are profoundly suspicious of any claim that societies work best when economic decisions are made in the medium of unregulated markets. By emphasising the dire consequences for the environment of unrestrained industry, they present themselves as champions of big government, large regulative agencies and strict legal controls.

At the same time, environmentalists are having to come to terms with the fact that the greatest ecological depredations of our age are the achievement, not of corporate capitalism in the West, but of government, big government, indeed explicitly socialist government in the former Soviet Union. Terms like ‘ecocide’ and ‘ecological apocalypse’ are not too strong to describe the legacy of Soviet industry and agriculture. Whole lakes and inland seas have dried up, while others are oozing with plutonium. The seabeds are littered with discarded reactors from nuclear submarines. In Soviet Central Asia, over-grazing and over-fertilisation have created a massive dust-bowl, with deserts advancing from the Caspian Sea in the direction of the southern Ukraine. In some Russian cities, air pollution levels are fifty times the official limit. There has been a significant decline in life expectancy, and in many areas health indicators have collapsed to Third World levels or worse.

The thesis of John Gray’s new book is that Green movements in the West have yet to come to terms with the implications of the socialist environmental disaster, and that when they do, they will turn naturally to ideas associated with the conservative defence of free markets, forging a synthesis from which both sides – conservatives as well as environmentalists – can profit. Gray has been associated for a long time with the intellectual think-tanks of the New Right in Britain and America, and parts of his argument amount to business as usual from a conservative ideologue: a stiff lecture to socialist dupes on the virtues of markets and perils of central planning, and a brisk evisceration of the idea of social justice. He is, after all, the author of works on J.S. Mill and F.A. Hayek. Yet, though it addresses the collapse of the socialist economies, Beyond the New Right is certainly not the usual ‘I told you so’ of capitalist triumphalism. On the contrary, it seizes the opportunity provided by ecological reflections to reconsider much of what has been most distinctive about conservative ideology in Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America.

Gray’s analysis of the Soviet catastrophe begins conventionally. He insists that there is nothing contingent or accidental about the environmental depredations in the former Soviet Union. They are no more an aberrant accompaniment of socialism than the familiar evils of political oppression; they were not caused by Russian backwardness or bureaucratic error. Environmental catastrophe, he argues, is exactly what one should expect from an industrialised economy which fails to establish property rights in ecologically sensitive means of production. If no one in particular owns the land, the mines, the factories or the forests, then there will be no one to take specific responsibility for the environmental impact of economic decisions, no one with a reason to gather information about the long-term effects of industrial or agricultural processes, and no one with an incentive to act on that information even where it exists. The situation becomes a ‘tragedy of the commons’, differing from Garret Hardin’s classic representation of that predicament only in the fact that the impulse to over-exploit common resources derives from the output targets of central planning as well as from the more familiar imperatives of self-interest.

In principle, the problem can be solved by privatisation. The trick is to give the person who makes decisions about the use of a resource (a piece of land, for example) property rights in that resource, so that he knows his own economic interests will be affected directly by what he does. A farmer who owns the land he uses is less likely to overgraze it, for it is his pocketbook that will suffer if the pasture turns to desert.

Gray’s enthusiasm for this solution is qualified, however, by his recognition that many environmental problems involve externalities – effects of one person’s decisions on resources owned by another or held in common by all – and by his acknowledgment that we cannot always internalise these externalities by privatisation. The sulphurous emissions of my privately-owned factory are likely to fall as acid rain on someone else’s land and forests; and unless legal rules and incentives are changed, I will be as cavalier about those emissions as any Stalinist manager. We cannot privatise the atmosphere or give out property rights in the prevailing winds: the air is going to remain a commons, perpetually liable to the tragedy of the commons, no matter how robust our market institutions are on the ground. Gray is well aware of this, and he concedes that there is no alternative in these cases to carefully designed regulation and constraint.

Indeed, there is something half-hearted about his suggestion that free markets could have saved the Soviet economy from ‘ecocide’. Gray claims that, in a market economy, prices can provide individual actors with information about the scarcity or deterioration of natural resources, and so motivate their search for alternative resources and technologies without the need for planning by the society as a whole. But there is no evidence that markets have done this in the capitalist world with diminishing resources such as petroleum. The information conveyed by the retail gasoline prices I pay in California is that oil is cheap and abundant. If a different message is conveyed by prices in Western Europe, it is not because of market forces but because of excise duties, whose imposition has been motivated at least partly by government attention to the long-term resource situation.

Gray stands with Hayek and Michael Polanyi in regarding the epistemic character of markets as their greatest virtue: markets can transmit through price signals a vast amount of local information about economic conditions and initiatives that simply cannot be made available for general use in any more centralised way. If anything is clear from the Soviet experience, it is that in a modern society, decisions about what to produce and how to produce it have got to be made in this decentralised way, with individual firms availing themselves of the information conveyed through the price mechanism. Any alternative leads to chaos and paralysis.

Still, the things that explain the Soviet economic collapse do not necessarily explain Soviet ecocide. For that, we need to look more specifically to the USSR’s ruthless drive for industrialisation and military power at any cost – a drive that had less to do with the difference between socialism and markets than with a mania for economic progress and unlimited growth, shared by ideologists of both persuasions. Both Communists and capitalists have dreamed of a world, built and sustained by technological ingenuity, in which larger and larger populations would lead longer and longer lives at higher and higher levels of prosperity. No doubt central planning offered the socialist dreamers temptations of this kind that largely eluded their Western counterparts. But it was the gigantic scale of the dream – unmitigated by any concern at the centre for ecological integrity – not socialist economics as such, that wrought such havoc in the Russian and Central Asian environment.

I think that in the end Gray recognises this. (One of the fascinations of Beyond the New Right is that its chapters portray conservative revisionism-in-progress. The essays it comprises were written over a five-year period, and often Gray is quite explicit about rejecting in a later chapter positions he has embraced earlier in the book.) One theme of his overture to Green politics is indeed that ‘unlimited government has been the greatest destroyer of the common environment in our age.’ But his conservatism resonates with conservationism at a deeper level. Liberals and socialists, he says, command-economists and their capitalist competitors have all shared ‘the malady of infinite aspiration’ and ‘the groundless conviction that our species is exempt from the natural constraints that govern every other species of which we have knowledge.’

The purple prose he resorts to at this point is a little wearing – he labels the fetish of progress ‘Pelagian’, ‘Panglossian’, ‘nihilistic scientism’, ‘the antinomian impulse’, ‘a gnostic delusion’, ‘hubristic humanism’ and ‘the dominant heresy of Modernism’. Even more alarming is the enthusiasm with which this former epigone of New Right rationalism embraces the extremist fantasies of Green theology – fantasies such as ‘Gaia’, the goddess who comprises in a single organism all the species and life-forms on earth, and who can be expected to wreak a ruthless Malthusian revenge on an errant humanity unless we mend our liberal ways. Conservative thinkers, Gray argues, should welcome the idea of Gaia and the prospect of ‘a Gaian correction of the place of the human species in planetary ecology’. I suspect that at this point a number of hesitant New Righters who had followed him thus far will be packing their bags for the flight back from Findhorn to Chicago.

The use of organic metaphors in politics has long been a privilege of Tory philosophy. Gray is not the first to speak of the seamless web of inter-generational responsibility, to compare the true conservative to the great cattle, silently chewing the cud, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, or to fear that with the unlimited pursuit of evanescent wants in the marketplace men might become little better than the flies of a single summer.

He develops an image of the market as itself a feature of human ecology that – as much as any wetland or rain forest – needs to be protected from technocratic attack. The institutions of a market economy are part of a social environment whose complexity ‘human reason can barely understand, let alone redesign’. Unlike Gaia, this analogy is one he handles with care. We are not entitled to infer, for example, that markets are natural phenomena, in any sense implying that they are self-regulating or free-standing, or that they can be expected to spring spontaneously into existence in the absence of government and law. The system of natural liberty, he says, is not as Adam Smith but as Thomas Hobbes described it: laissez-faire is a futile and dangerous war of all against all. Markets are frail and fallible phenomena that depend on, among other things, currencies, property rights, legal systems, welfare systems, police forces, contractual norms and monopolies commissions. They will flourish as long as people are willing to invest the loyalty and organisational care and energy needed to nourish their virtues and tend their imperfections. Like any other ecosystem in the modern world, they will perish without that solicitude.

Gray shares with most conservative economists the conviction that government must take responsibility for producing public goods – that is, goods whose benefits cannot be confined by their producers to those who are willing to pay for them and which therefore are unlikely to be produced as a result of market incentives. Where he differs from them is in the breadth – indeed, the generosity – of his vision of the public goods that constitute a bearable form of society. Markets cannot be expected to survive, he argues, without the institutions of what we now call ‘civil society’ – families, clubs, churches, universities, political parties and other voluntary associations – and these in turn will flourish only if care is taken to maintain the common environment of interaction and meaning, public space and public culture, that civil association requires.

There is a paradox in Gray’s revisionism at this point. On the one hand, he is adamant that these are things for people to deal with through the medium and organisation of their government. He offers the United States as a grim warning of how dangerous a society can become if these tasks are left to the free market. ‘We do not want to walk the path of privatisation,’ Gray says, ‘if Detroit is at the end of it.’ Rather surprisingly for someone who travels each year to the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green, Ohio, Gray presents America as a kind of hell on earth, where the free market offers assault weapons, designer drugs, urban desolation, hopeless poverty and impotent government: ‘a sort of chronic, low-intensity ethnic civil war, a proto-Lebanon held together only by a dwindling capital of legalism’. Markets are wonderful things, he reflects, but scarcely worth having if life involves a squalid and dangerous scramble from fortified homes to fortified offices, if we lack the civility and culture – and, physically, the safe, open and elegant public spaces – that once graced the great cities of Europe.

Gray makes no attempt to reconcile this position with the epistemic defence of markets, however. The preservation of the human environment is one of those complex tasks that makes enormous demands on information and ingenuity: think of the difficulties of urban zoning or the construction of a mass transit system. The information required here is surely every bit as scattered as that which, in other areas of economic activity, is gathered and conveyed by the price mechanism. That information does not become magically available to central planners simply by virtue of market failure, or of the fact that we are dealing with public goods. The failure of market solutions indicates the need for government intervention, but it does nothing to refute Gray’s own earlier demonstration of government’s inherent incapacity to meet that need.

I wonder, too, whether Gray is not exaggerating the threat posed to market institutions by poverty and urban squalor in America. He follows Hobbes and Michael Oakeshott in insisting that the first indispensable task of government is to ‘stave off the nemesis of anarchy and civil strife in which commodious living is an impossibility’, and warns that ‘a liberal polity will not be stable so long as an underclass languishes without assets or opportunities.’ Now, this is a time-honoured warning for liberals and conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic – for those in the UK who worry about ‘two nations’ and those in the US whose dreams are haunted by the LA riots – ‘No justice, no peace!’ The disturbing implication, however, that politicians in the United States are currently having to face up to is that that warning is ill-founded – that urban decay and civil unrest can be contained, and that there is therefore no longer any systematic connection between stable prosperity for middle-class voters and collective provision for the poor. The lesson of the United States may be that flourishing markets and broad prosperity for large sectors of society are compatible with quite high levels of urban ruin, poverty and racial conflict in carefully demarcated ‘combat zones’. Markets, it seems, are not quite the fragile ecosystems that Gray portrays; or if they are, concern for the underclass is not a prerequisite of their ecology.

So much for what Gray calls ‘the consilience of Green and conservative thought’. What of the more conventional preoccupations of modern conservatism? What does he have to say, in his critique of New Right ideology, on issues of public spending, the welfare state, and the idea of social justice? Much of this comes in the style of a party political pamphlet – outlining a comprehensive if rather idiosyncratic vision of the policies needed in Britain today. There’s a certain lack of humility when philosophers begin to talk about ‘the kind of state mandated by my theorising’, and these are by far the least attractive chapters of Gray’s book. He is in favour of academic tenure, nuclear power, the privatisation of currency with banks issuing their own banknotes, an expenditure tax, the withering away of the NHS and mass transit schemes for cities. He is opposed to educational vouchers, a Bill of Rights, the Common Agricultural Policy and a negative income tax. (Actually, Gray is seldom merely opposed to anything: the idea of replacing welfare provision with a negative income tax is violently dismissed as ‘harebrained’, ‘absurd’, a ‘disastrously conceived panacea’ – ‘no policy could be worse designed.’ This excoriation of views he disagrees with is neither attractive nor particularly sympathetic in an author who has been asking for his readers’ forbearance as he attempted to rethink his own ideas.)

For many on the right, the relief of poverty is at best a grudging addendum to the tasks of liberal government, a distasteful means to secure civil stability. I have already indicated – and criticised – Gray’s belief that welfare provision can be defended on those Hobbesian grounds. The distance he has travelled from New Right orthodoxy, however, is indicated by the fact that he regards ‘assuring a decent provision for the poor’ as one of the unconditional responsibilities of government, on a par with keeping the peace and not merely derivative from it. According to Gray, the conservative state has an inescapable duty to provide shelter and sustenance for those who cannot look after themselves.

Beyond that, he believes that a decent welfare policy can be predicated on the very values that underlie market institutions. So long as markets are defended on the basis of their contribution to social prosperity, there is always a danger that the predicament of a few will be lost sight of in the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray therefore rejects all aggregative and utilitarian measures of social value, reckoning that the incommensurabilities they conceal are more important than the economic calculations that they facilitate. The question is: how can the values that replace them be used to defend welfare provision?

In the earlier chapters of the book, Gray argues that the ethical defence of markets has to do, not with prosperity, but with the importance of individuals leading their own lives on their own terms, using the knowledge that prices provide them with. The underlying value is not just negative liberty, but autonomy – which Gray (following Joseph Raz) defines as the condition in which a person is (at least in part) the author of her own life. Autonomy in this sense may require not just the absence of coercion, but social conditions that support and nurture the capacities for choice that authorship presupposes.

Later in the book, however, as his Toryism inches closer to Burke and his environmentalism closer to Gaia, Gray begins to doubt the centrality of individual choice in the constellation of conservative values. Maybe we should abandon the ideal of the autonomous chooser, he says, ‘in favour of the recognition that the good life for human beings – as for many kindred species – necessarily presupposes embeddedness in communities’. This goes far beyond his earlier position, which argued only that free markets implied a commitment to social frameworks, in the direction of sacrificing irreducibly individual concerns for the sake of species-life, and human concerns for the sake of the planet. Gray does not pursue the implications of this sea-change for welfare policy in any detail; and I would call that an unsatisfactory loose end in the book, were it not for my extreme reluctance to see a policy towards the poor spelled out by anyone in the late 20th century against a background of Gaian Malthusianism.

The great interest of John Gray’s work has always consisted of his ability to combine urgent political interests with subtle and up-to-date philosophical skills and a disconcerting eye for the unconventional. One of the essays in Beyond the New Right ends with Burke’s plea, that ‘our founders of systems’ would ‘temper those fiery particles, of which they are composed’ with the ‘gross earthy mixture’ of the honest gentlemen of England. In Gray’s writing, the fiery particles are undiluted, but his attempt to bring the New Right down to earth is as welcome as it is provocative. Though the less reflective chapters are perhaps merely incendiary, the best of the essays in this book – the Introduction, ‘A Conservative Disposition’ and ‘An Agenda for Green Conservatives’ – cast a most helpful light on the intellectual resources that remain to us after the failures of socialism and of what Gray now calls the ‘paleo-liberalism’ of the Right.