Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sacred Texts and Abstract Principles

As we all know, belief in global warming constitutes a religion. And while religion may be fine and dandy for 35-year-old virgins, Southern trailer trash, and softheaded old biddies, sensible people like John Kay of the Financial Times prefer to take their marching orders from the Invisible Hand.

Some climate zealots have argued that we have a responsibility to our descendents to address global warming. Kay concedes that it's pretty to think so, but points out that it may not be practical:

The problem of weighting the present and the future equally is that there is a lot of future. The number of future generations is potentially so large that small but permanent benefit to them would justify great sacrifice now. If we were to use this criterion to appraise all long-term investment, the volume of such investment would impoverish the current population.
This is no laughing matter. Let's suppose that your upfront cost of ensuring a "small but permanent benefit" for posterity is one dollar per year. Now, let's assume that the future comprises 500,000 years. That's half a million clams you owe the ingrates who'll someday picnic on your grave, payable this instant.

I'm guessing that if you had that kind of cash lying around, you'd be reading the Financial Times instead of this cold, lonely little vanity blog.

And let's not forget that we don't know what kind of people our descendents will be. They may be protectionists, or neo-Muggletonians, or cannibals, or God only knows what. Why should we pay through the nose in order to subsidize lifestyle choices of which we might not approve? Why should we supply lifeboats to people who may've grown gills, for that matter, or food to people who may've learned to eat tin cans like cartoon goats? Where's the ROI, exactly?

The way some people talk about it, it almost sounds like a gift, for which we'd get nothing in return.

This is the sort of outlandish decision people inevitably make when they "seek to extend our natural, but not unlimited, capacity for solidarity with others by calling on sacred texts and abstract principles."
History illustrates the harm done when the fundamentalism of faith or abstract reasoning overtakes pragmatism as political principle.
What might history eventually "illustrate" about our staunch pragmatism? As our President wisely said, "We don't know. We'll all be dead." The only thing we do know is this: To the extent that we've entrusted our fate to "economic and political marketplaces," we'll be able to enter Heaven or Hell with an equally clear conscience.

UPDATE: Smokewriting goes further and fares better.

(Illustration: “Thoughts of Capitalism by a Missourian in the Depression Thirties" by James Penney, c. 1935.)


ntodd said...

Indeed, the future's so dark I gotta wear shades. And we should prolly stop having children--they are bad investments and produce lots of poop, none of which I can sell on eBay thanks to stupid liberals and their health codes.

rochenko said...

Kay simply assumes that the interests of people are fixed and determinate, and can be unproblematically expressed in the decisions they make to spend more on x than on y. It's this belief that marks him out as a denizen of cloud cuckoo land.

rochenko said...

PS: just for, er, fun, here's my (much less readable) response to Kay.

charley said...

I'm guessing that if you had that kind of cash lying around, you'd be reading the Financial Times instead of this cold, lonely little vanity blog.

and the whores, you forgot the whores...

actually, i really like that illustration.