“Why Conservatives Should Support a Carbon Tax”


The Social Science Research Network is carrying a paper of that title by Shi-Ling Hsu, of Florida State University’s College of Law, and Yoram Bauman, of Sightline Institute.  (The link takes you to the paper’s abstract, but the full paper is easily downloadable.)

The paper’s opening paragraph pretty much says it all:

Why should conservatives support a carbon tax? There are two answers. First, a carbon tax would reform the American economy in a positive way, even if there were no such thing as human-caused climate change. If a carbon tax can be used to reduce other taxes, or if a carbon tax is a new source of revenues for deficit reduction instead of raising other taxes, the net economic benefits of such a swap are likely to be positive even if there are no environmental benefits. Second, the alternative to a carbon tax is less efficient: federal command-and-control regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court has held that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, and this requirement will not be legislatively repealed unless it is replaced by something comprehensive, like a carbon tax.

Where to begin?

“Used to reduce other taxes?”  Fat chance.  “[N]ew source of revenues?”  But that’s a tax increase, and tax increases have not been shown to be beneficial to any economy, much less ours.  “[F]or deficit reduction?” This  works from the false premise that spending currently is at an entirely appropriate level; reductions in spending sufficient to eliminate altogether the deficit  compared with current revenues are unneeded.

It’s certainly plausible that alternatives to a carbon tax might be less efficient, but this idea proceeds from the false premise that Federal intervention in, Federal control over any part of, our national economy is in any way appropriate.  The fact is that taxation (or subsidization) for social engineering purposes simply distorts the market: taxation produces less of the thing taxed—in this case, less energy (and reduced manufacturing of parts made from carbon fiber, but that’s for another post).  Since energy is at the foundation of our economy—and of our lives—that means prices will go up, substantially, and those at the bottom of the totem pole will have their lives damaged, perhaps severely, by not being able to afford such basics as energy for heating their homes, fuel for their transportation to work, even medical costs, as doctors and hospitals will be forced to increase their charges to cover their own increased energy costs.

Moreover, the premise of relative efficiency is itself far from established.  One has only to look at how well it’s working in Europe and how effectively nations whose economies don’t have such a thing compete with nations which do saddle their economies with this sea anchor (not that I’m mixing metaphors, or anything).

The attitude is defeatist, also.  The most efficient position would be to eliminate the Clean Air Act.  As the authors note, this will be hard to do, but hard means possible.  Modifying the CAA to eliminate CO2 from the list of pollutants would eliminate the need for a carbon tax.  This would be less efficient, but it may be politically more doable in the near term.

It’s also important to avoid carbon taxes because, taking the present paper as an example, what carbon is to be taxed is left carefully unspecified.  Hsu and Bauman do hint at it with their references to carbon dioxide, as though this gas ought to be taken seriously.  Aside from the fact that CO2 is a trailing indicator, though, confirming an increase in the health of the planet from increasing life exhaling more CO2, its impact as a greenhouse contributor is not at all established.

Despite this, the reason for the authors’ preference for a carbon (dioxide) tax is made plain here:

A carbon tax represents the lightest, smallest government touch possible in promoting technologies and measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And [emphasis in the original]

Fundamentally, what an economy facing the 21st century must do is to sort industries, top to bottom, by the marginal value their carbon dioxide emissions provide to society.

Since the need “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” generally, and CO2 as pollutant, particularly, are little more than Progressive tropes with no basis in science, there’s no social engineering need to tax carbon.

Nor is there a practical way.  What CO2 should be taxed?  From what industries?  Are the CO2 (and methane—a potentially very powerful greenhouse gas) emissions of cattle ranchers, and dairy and hog farmers, for instance, to be included?  If not, what distinguishes that CO2 from any other CO2?  Not even the isotopes of the carbon and oxygen differ.

How will the battery-operated cars—hybrids and pure battery-powered—be taxed for their CO2 emissions?  Think these “green” cars don’t have a significant carbon footprint?  Think about the source of the energy that (repeatedly) charges their batteries.  Most modern cars (“green” ones included) also have significant carbon fiber in the materials from which they’re constructed.  How will the CO2 emissions from an accident-related fire be assessed?

Finally, note that I’m eliding here any discussion of the authors’ false premise that government should be in the business of structuring a free market at all.

And so on.

In fine, no Conservative case for supporting a carbon tax has yet been offered.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *