We Can't Decide the Future Using Today's Knowledge
MARCH 01, 2000 by SHELDON RICHMAN
Filed Under : Environmentalism
Al Gore, presidential aspirant and environmental sage, once spoke admiringly of an Indian tribe whose leaders, he said, planned seven generations ahead. His message was clear: if only we shallow, conceited bourgeois Americans had the concern and humility to think like that.
I don’t believe there was such a tribe. Anyone who does can’t tell the difference between thinking and wishful thinking.
But it is revealing that someone like Al Gore would believe it and revere the tribe. It hardly indicates a humble awareness of man’s limits. (That such a tribe, if it did exist, is not around today should surprise no one.)
Anyone who would try to plan seven generations in advance would be either claiming a megalomanic knowledge of the future or presuming to tell his descendants how to live regardless of their preferences. Neither flatters.
The eagerness to believe something so ridiculous illustrates a key difference between the “environmentalist’s” and the economist’s mindsets. Despite the humble mask, the ideological environmentalist is vain enough to think he knows enough to plan society’s future, overriding individual rights in the process. The economist (I have in mind especially the Austrian school) understands that the world is open-ended and that we don’t know today what we will learn tomorrow. The environmentalist, sensing no limits to his knowledge, feels justified in shaping and then freezing social development. The economist, understanding the limits of knowledge at any given point, looks to the free market, rooted in private property, for discovery and a multiplicity of individual plans.
The environmentalist will protest that the economist’s method leaves society vulnerable to coming disasters. On the contrary, the economist is confident that people are better able to handle disasters if they are wealthy, because wealth permits flexibility of response and resilience. Besides, since our knowledge of the future is always far from complete, we don’t know what disaster, if any, is coming. Locking in future generations on the basis of present knowledge is not just arrogant, it is foolhardy.
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