David Roberts’ caveats about carbon taxes as a panacea are a bit scattershot.
The question is how to steer civilization as rapidly as possible away from net carbon emissions (not to mention other risky behaviors). The sane libertarian view of course is that externalities are inadequately represented in the marketplace, and proper pricing would magically fix everything. This is more true than false; incentives in the right direction are surely better than incentives in the wrong direction.
The trouble is that either way (well-designed incentives, ill-advised undesigned incentives) can be argued to favor an elite.
A comment by “Stuki” on an otherwise fascinating diatribe by Stuart Saniford distinguishing between environmentalism and socialism is germane:
As for entrenching hierarchy, I can hardly think of a more crass example than environmentalists’ campaign to free up entire highway lanes for use by those who, like themselves, can afford the latest in low emissions vehicles. Being of the opinion that by far the best way of reducing car emissions would simply be to stop funding and maintaining roads on the taxpayers dime altogether, I’m not saying this is “wrong” per se; just noting that it is a pretty crass display of milking privilege for all it is worth. And the same goes for most other schemes to reward “environmentally conscious” behavior, as it almost always devolves into simply rewarding those who can afford to put themselves in a position to be rewarded.
In short, economic incentives intrinsically favor those with means to make long-range decisions. There is a reason that the poorest people drive lubricant-leaking gas-guzzlers despite their obvious incentive to do otherwise. Creating change by creating economic incentives is always a shift away from social justice.
Regulation may or may not do so as well, to be sure. There is no guarantee that regulatory actions are suited for purpose and they are rife with unintended consequences. (That’s why a considerable amount of agility and cognitive capacity is required in the legislative sector, something we sorely lack at present in America and elsewhere.)
The path that does not amount to a concentration of power is well-designed, finely tuned regulatory action.
Here’s an anecdote that illustrates the point. Early model Priuses were basically Corolla shaped, and we owned one (recently traded up for a new model). One day, Irene was meeting another member of a photography group she was involved in for a road trip a good 90 minutes down the road. (This is Texas, mind you, so it’s not considered a long distance for a day trip.) She pulled up in her tiny, road-beaten Prius, and her companion pulled up in what in America is called an “RV”, basically a rolling apartment. Which vehicle do you think ended up making the 180 mile round trip carrying two people and two cameras?
It turned out that Irene’s companion was a vendor of RVs as well as an enthusiast. This happened during the oil price spike of ’08 when peak oil was on everybody’s mind. Irene asked her companion how these prices were affecting her business, and she got the response that it hardly had any effect at all. It turns out, according to the RV vendor, that people who can afford to carry their houses along with them on a regular basis, for instance on a day trip for a photography project, have enough money that pump prices have no impact on them whatsoever.
So here is the problem in a nutshell – prices which are tolerable by the bulk of the population do not impact the most wasteful users of a given commodity. Indeed they provide, in conspicuous-consumption cultures, a perverse incentive.
The more extreme the inequalities, the less effective prices are as a mechanism to disincentivize waste of necessary resources.