The Guardian, June 9, 2014
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Conservatives like to project themselves as lovers of the free market. They believe that everyone should go out and fend for themselves, that the government shouldn't be getting in the way of those with talent and ambition – and that it shouldn't be wasting "their" tax dollars on people who are too lazy to get off their rears and earn their keep.
That story has a certain simplistic appeal and apparent logical consistency. Unfortunately it also has almost nothing to do with the reality of where conservatives actually stand on major political issues.
We got a rare chance to see the ugly truth behind the "rugged individualist" story earlier this year when the rancher Cliven Bundy briefly became a hero to the libertarian-leaning right. The government was harassing a hard-working rancher, went the story – a man who simply wanted to feed and water his cattle.
A little investigative work revealed a very different picture. As Paul Krugman pointed out in his aptly titled column "High Plains Moocher", Bundy was fighting for the right to use government land without paying for it. That has more to do with outright theft than the free market.
The right's reaction to President Obama's new plan to curb carbon emissions from power plants follows a similar storyline of entitlement. Obama proposed a 30% reduction in emissions over the next 15 years, which will substantially reduce the use of coal and likely to lead to a modest increase in electricity prices. (The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the additional cost per household will be less than $50 a year.)
Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are having a measurable impact on the global climate, and this is causing damage to people's property and in many cases jeopardizing their lives. But Republicans quickly raced to be first in line to condemn this massive government intervention in the economy.
Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi was quick to say, "Families shouldn't have to pay $1,200 more per year for electricity so President Obama and environmental activists can have political peace of mind."
Joseph Bast, the president of the conservative Heartland Institute trashed the proposal by saying, "This is Obamacare for the environment: guaranteed to raise costs, reduce choices, and destroy an existing industry. By the time EPA is finished, millions of Americans will be freezing in the dark."
The argument against taking steps to reduce carbon emissions is an argument that we have the right to impose the costs and risks on others without taking responsibility. It is essentially like arguing that I have the right to throw sewage on my neighbor's lawn because I would find it inconvenient to build a proper sewage disposal system.
Rising ocean levels and the increasing frequency of severe weather events mean that hundreds of millions of people in low-lying areas face increased risks from storms and flooding. While people in wealthy countries will largely be able to protect themselves from the worst of this damage, poor people living in densely populated countries like Bangladesh will not be as lucky.
There is a similar story about desertification in many areas, especially Sub-Saharan Africa. There are tens of millions of people living in regions where limited rainfall provided enough water for subsistence agriculture. As the planet gets warmer, these regions will turn into desert. Their inhabitants will face starvation or risk becoming refugees in the hope that someone will care for them.
In addition to these relatively well defined threats, climate change will cause damage in many ways that are much less predictable. For example, changing climate conditions are likely to introduce new bacteria to areas for which the existing ecosystem might be ill-prepared. This can devastate livestock and crops and possibly even have serious health consequences for the human population.
So, as with Bundy, conservatives can argue that this is simply a case of the government trying to tell people what to do and, as with Bundy, they'd be wrong. For Enzi, Bast and other conservatives, "freedom" – at least in the context of the debate over global warming – is apparently the right to actively harm others with the government's permission and even its participation. They seemingly believe that you have a god-given right to, in effect, throw your sewage on your neighbor's lawn even though, if applied universally, this would mean that any given neighbor has the right to dump their sewage on your lawn, too.
But freedom has a somewhat different meaning for those who feel the obligation to be responsible for the damage they cause and to be consistent in our proclamations about the world. Any real conception of "freedom" has to apply universally – and not a single one of the anti-EPA conservatives believes that their lawn should be open season for other people's sewage.
That's how you tell the difference between a principled political argument and someone who just wants to be a jerk.
Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.