For people and the environment, markets achieve what politicians can only promise

Aug 6, 2020

(Pictured: Todd Myers' TEDx talk on smart phone environmentalism)

There is an “impending economic collapse” coming. This collapse is not in doubt. It is certain and the only question is whether or not we should return to a capitalist “system based on endless growth.”

This is the claim of the “General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union” and Crosscut columnist Katie Wilson. In three columns Wilson discusses the question, “Can capitalism survive”? Not surprisingly, the General Secretary makes it clear she thinks the answer is “no.” 

Her arguments, however, show how weak the case against free markets is. As an alternative she offers vague rhetoric, because any effort to describe the alternative would require her to veer into the dangerous waters of a century of failed socialist mandates.

The arguments she outlines against markets are based not on data, but on talking points that are assumed to be true, but which are, in fact, demonstrably false. Ultimately what the three columns demonstrate is that when socialist systems try alleviating poverty, saving the planet, and respecting human dignity, politics are more important than results. With free markets, results are more important than political rhetoric. The evidence is there for those who care to look.

For example, Wilson claims capitalism “requires” more natural resources and energy but offers no evidence. The data demonstrate this is incorrect. During the last 50 years, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States has nearly quadrupled. Despite that amazing growth, consumption of key minerals like aluminum, copper, nickel, steel, and gold are nearly identical to their level in 1970. Additionally, per capita energy use is six percent lower than it was in 1970.

Americans are more prosperous than we were 50 years ago, but we are using fewer minerals and less energy per person.

Developed countries are also increasing the amount of forestland. Between 2000 and 2015, forestland in the Northern Hemisphere grew by 69 million acres, larger than the size of Oregon. Deforestation is occurring not in wealthy, market-based countries, but in poor countries, where trees are cut down to cook food and stay warm.

These data are widely available but not well known because opponents of markets simply assume more prosperity means more environmental harm – pitting the prosperity of people against the planet. Nowhere is this data-free assumption more obvious than in the discussion of climate change.

Wilson says the “climate crisis” requires an end to capitalism. A crisis mentality, however, blinds her and many on the left to the reality that the government approaches they support have consistently failed.

Seattle has missed every one of its CO2-reduction targets. So, too, has Washington state. The Kyoto Protocol’s targets were missed and the countries that have signed the Paris Climate Accord are falling well short of their own promises, let alone the targets they loudly announced in press releases. Politicians talk a big game and many on the left fall for the pleasing rhetoric, even as the data clearly show the results to be abysmal.

By way of contrast, the world’s largest corporations are setting – and meeting – aggressive environmental targets. Walmart set a goal of reducing 20 million metric tons of CO2 in its supply chain. The company overshot its goal by 40 percent, reducing 28 million MT. Microsoft has pledged not merely to reduce its CO2 emissions, but to offset all past emissions. Amazon’s commitment to cutting CO2 is emblazoned on the top of an arena, which I think is kind of silly, but it is as big a public statement of commitment as there can be.

Ironically, the same left-wing climate activists who praise failed politicians, attack corporations whose goals are not only more ambitious but are actually being met. Politics, not the planet, is the left-wing activists’ priority. People acting voluntarily in the free market, on the other hand, consistently find ways to do more with fewer resources, reducing environmental impact even as people have more to eat, more leisure time, better health, and better living conditions.

Fundamentally the politically directed society Wilson favors is deeply immoral. It concentrates power in the hands of politicians who promise to do good but have a history of misusing it. Like today’s cancel culture, Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s used his political power to blacklist and silence political opponents. It was capitalism that ultimately foiled his plan. Blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters found work (under assumed names), with one even winning an Academy Award. Capitalism destroyed McCarthy’s cancel culture.

Politically imposed rules – like occupational licenses, a high minimum wage, and redline zoning – all had overtly racist origins and continue to impose disproportionate harm on minorities. The hero of Wilson’s piece, Franklin Roosevelt, adopted the most openly racist policy of the 20th century, sending Japanese American citizens to camps while they lost their land and businesses.

Advocates of government power argue that government will deliver environmental justice. Tell that to the people of Flint, Michigan. When the government switched the public water supply and then lied about the problem, residents found no protection from the Environmental Protection Agency. When it was proposed that EPA fund water filters for residents, EPA staff argued against it, writing, “I don’t know if Flint is the kind of community we want to go out on a limb for.”

Private citizens, not politicians or government, found and, ultimately, solved the problem. It was a private company that stepped in and donated the clean, bottled water that people needed. A small company took the used plastic bottles and turned them into eyeglasses, using the profit to help the people of Flint, where politicians had failed them.

The response from those on the left to these arguments is to point to various economic problems. Poverty. Inequality. The need for improved healthcare. These are real problems, problems that are worth paying attention to. Important problems, however, require serious practical thinking, not just gauzy political rhetoric.

Wilson and others on the left assume that politicians can successfully create a new bureaucracies to solve these challenges, despite a long record of failure. “This time it will be different,” they are quick to retort, without explaining why.

Clearly, government has a role in providing vital public services. I worked at a state agency – first-hand experience that many who trust implicitly in government solutions don’t have. I saw the good work that can be done. I also saw the limits. Ignoring those limits is why King County’s ten-year plan to end homelessness ended up doubling homelessness instead. It is why government officials are missing many of their own environmental goals.

One of my favorite sayings is “the man who says it can’t be done should get out of the way of the woman who is doing it.” The left claims the free market can’t help people and the planet even as markets empower people and actually protect the environment.

Wilson laments what she and others on the left call “late-stage capitalism.” Their socialist alternative, however, is anything but new. It is a tired ideology and a failed approach that is well beyond its late stage. It was dead and buried in the last century. Their hope is to dig it up and revive it, but the result will be more like Frankenstein’s monster than the utopia they portray in their rhetoric.