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Killing the Echo, Freeing the Sound
John O'Sullivan • 05 Apr, 2020 • 6 Min Read
And running on empty.
A favorite saying of the great Anglo-Hungarian economist, the lateLord Peter Bauer was that in the modern world what matters most isnot the sound but the echo. He believed that many good ideas, ineconomics but more widely too, never spread far and wide but remainedinside a small circle in seminar or lecture room while transparentlybad ideas flourished in books, on editorial pages, and amongpolicy-makers.The explanation was, he theorized, that those who had ideas were lessimportant than those who picked them up, wrote about thementertainingly, and passed them onto their readerships. That’s verysimilar to F.A. Hayek’s definition of intellectuals as “dealers insecond-hand ideas.”
As a development economist, however, Peter believed Hayek’s insightwas particularly significant for international communications. If anidea was considered beneficial to the International Herald Tribune,the Economist, the BBC, and the Wall Street Journal, it was likely tobecome a topic discussed at conferences, adopted as a Millennium Priority issue, urged by UN organizations upon businesses, and even theinspiration for the occasional feature movie.
The fact that his own subject, development economics, had been thebeneficiary of such widespread (and largely admiring) attention gavehim no joy. As books written since Peter’s death — such as PaulCollier’s The Bottom Billion, William Easterley’s The White Man’sBurden, and Danisa Moyo’s Dead Aid — have confirmed, a great deal ofmoney was transferred from Western countries to the Third World ingovernment-to-government aid over half a century. Far from eliminatingpoverty, however, it encouraged pauperism, weakened local enterprise,strengthened oppressive governments, and fattened the private accountsof their leaders in Swiss banks.
Yet despite the best efforts of skeptics, rethinking aid policy hasnot gone very far. We’ve tried to make it conditional on more open anddemocratic government with mixed results. Its virtue-signalingadvantages to Western politicians have kept it (one might say)thriving unsuccessfully. The UK has legally committed itself to spend0.7 per cent of its GDP on aid annually, though there’s a scramble atthe close of the fiscal year to find enough worthy projects tofinance. Peter lamented that aid survived because its worst failureswere out of sight of the taxpayer and painted gold by progressiveopinion in the international media and global bodies. He felt that ithad become a lost cause when it was given its own UN agency. It hadbecome too virtuous to fail.
That kind of groupthink—an ideological conformity that is so committedto a project that it cannot be allowed to fail or even to becritically examined—is more common in public life than we might wish.Consider a few examples:
The Euro was a massive project to launch a common currency for seventeen EU countries without first establishing the common fiscal, budgetary, and transfer unions that are the necessary underpinnings of a common currency. Results: currency chaos and the economic devastation of Southern Europe leading to youth unemployment figures of fifty per cent and above.
In the UK, the National Health Service, though full of idealistic and overworked doctors and nurses, is simply too big to manage well especially when its founding principle that it should be “free at the point of consumption” must lead either to runaway expenditure or to rationing, queues, and delays. It’s therefore in continual crisis. But it’s also the nearest thing to a religion the British have. So governments are blamed for health crises (as in the current epidemic), the NHS is exonerated and praised, and on that basis it will totter on indefinitely.
The EU itself—see the problems of the Euro, only bigger.
All of these failures were fueled by dogmatic certainty, elitegroupthink, suppression of criticism and sidelining of critics, and arefusal to consider serious reform until disaster strikes. Havingabsorbed those examples, let’s shine a skeptical light on energy and "climate change" policies. Here we see a clash of two necessities: oureconomies need secure supplies of fossil fuel energy at moderatestable prices (or will do when the lockdowns are eventually phasedout), and our governments need to make at least ritual obeisancetowards the goals of a “zero-carbon” economy. As my colleague MichaelWalsh has pointed out, it was the first week in a longtime that climate change did not enjoy priority seating.
At times itseemed like the Seventies Show—the old international politics of oiland gas were with us once again as Trump sought to bring togetherGazprom’s President Putin and the Crown Prince of Saudi Aramco tonegotiate energy prices that would keep them happy but also save themarginal US fracking producers from bankruptcy and ruin.
Today’s actual result of this energy politicking matters less than thenew economic context in which it took place. It’s inevitable now thatsome kind of economic catastrophe will follow the end of the lockdownsand the Covid-19 epidemic. In that political context, the mainconcerns of governments in fossil-fuel consuming countries will be tokeep the lights on and homes warm. Asking people to pay more forenergy and to accept a lower standard of living cheerfully when theyare already enduring a much lower standard of living will not be apossibility. Zero-carbon politics will look like a first-world problemwhen China may be the first world and some Western countries thesecond world. And though no government will officially abandon theParis accords and the energy policies that grant expensive subsidiesto switch from fossil fuels to renewables—governments don’t do theapology thing if they can avoid it—nonetheless, they’ll be looking forquiet ways to keep “conventional” sources of cheap energy in theirportfolios.
And when the young idealists of Extinction Rebellion digup other peoples’ lawns or block suburban streets, they may findthemselves facing a night in the pokey rather than a gig on the BBC.And a more subtle change in our energy politics is likely to emergefrom the epidemic. Until now the various manifestations of climatismhave been very similar in their smooth political progress from fringe kooks to outliers tounchallengeable official orthodoxy to the large official failures Iexamined above. Nor is that surprising. The modern climatologymovement was more or less founded by the UN secretariat which hashelped finance and shepherd it through Rio, Kyoto, and Copenhagen tothe Paris conference.
And it shows. Its leading figures have the sameblend of virtue and been rooted in the same elite groupthink thatallowed dissent only on details. They have treated computer models ofglobal warming as infallible oracles rather than the rough anduncertain guides they really were. They treated “science” as areligious invocation rather than a practical process of trial anderror. They demanded we follow their commandments or we would burn.They were impatient with the normal delays of democracy and demandedit be set aside. Above all, they were very successful in suppressingcriticisms of climate change ideology (“science”) and sideliningheretics.
It’s always folly and usually counterproductive to suppress criticsand criticism because it means you’re putting blinkers on yourself.Your opponent knows your arguments whereas you gradually forget youeven have opponents. He enters the ring the challenger but he’s reallythe champ when the first blow is struck. Here’s a video from 2014 ofthe Australian geologist, Ian Plimer, professor emeritus of earthsciences at the University of Melbourne, addressing the Institute of Public Affairs and demonstrating the ways inwhich the media has kept important stories and serious science out of the news when it conflicted with climate ideology.
I will mention here a good example of how policies that run counter to common sense produce results opposite to those the green planners expected. So attractive were EU subsidies for solar energy that a Spanish company invented a way to collect solar energy at night. How so? Well, they turned on the floodlights and directed them at the solar panels. But there is nothing new under the sun (boom! boom!) when the human imagination is at play either scientifically or fraudulently. Attending an energy fair about 25 years ago, the Anglo-American writer Tom Bethell noticed that a windmill was turning even though there was no wind. In response to Tom’s inquiry, the company explained that the windmill was plugged into the mains. Anecdotes don't prove a case, but if there are enough of them, as there were in Professor Plimer's address, they raise a reasonable suspicion that some aspects of the global warming case need a second look from economists as well as scientists.
One final thought. In recent years the Green movement has sought to arouse public opinion by proclaiming loudly that there is a climate emergency that requires immediate, dramatic, and costly action. Its more reasonable activists accepted that held some exaggeration but insisted that they wanted to create a panic in people because the dangers were indeed great. And this message was hmmered out daily by political and media sympathizers: Repent now, for The End is Nigh. No panic ensued, however, because people could see that the emergency was false and gave a collective shrug.
In the last three weeks, moreover, things have changed. There has been a real emergency and a real panic. Neither has been a pleasant or useful experience. The lesson from both is that we should want to determine our future and our policies in an atmosphere of deliberative calm in which both sides of important questions are heard and a civilized debate conducted. The computer “models” in which the Greens have placed such faith in their campaigns have not been infallible on the spread of the virus. Nor always have the experts. We have learned to treat them both with a proper degree of skepticism and to demand second opinions when there is doubt.
But we have also learned to listen to them respectfully because large uncertainty is inevitable in investigating a new virus, and if they have doubts, they are at least informed doubts which may not be easy to communicate clearly. So we need competing experts in serious debates, and they must include those climate scientists who reject the majority "consensus" which may not be a majority and isn't a consensus on every aspect of the debate. That said, the panics fueled by media demagogues have been the opposite of an improvement on scientists' doubts. They have instead produced anger, confusion, distrust and division on the part of the public rather than enlightenment.
The media in particular have emerged with lower reputations from the last month. They have plainly wanted to make a case, catch an error, or take a scalp rather than to find and report the facts. In that regard, media demagogues are hardly an improvement on the activists who made the case for panic. Indeed, they greatly resemble each other and often produce the same effects. But neither should be excluded from national and local debate if they make a fist of a serious argument. What they cannot be given is the exaggerated respect that they have until now been given by both the experts and the public's representatives. If they want that respect, they must earn it.
When normal service resumes, debate on energy and the climate will also resume in a more realistic atmosphere. Not least because we can no longer afford fantastical policies such as Green New Deals and a net zero-carbon economy by Wednesday week. And the public knows that.
John O'Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review, editor of Australia's Quadrant, founding editor of The Pipeline, and President of the Danube Institute. He has served in the past as associate editor of the London Times, editorial and op-ed editor for Canada's National Post, and special adviser to Margaret Thatcher. He is the author of The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.