January 17, 2019 Reading Time: 2 minutes

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal, which originally appeared on Cafe Hayek:


The roster of economists who signed the letter calling for a steadily increasing revenue-neutral carbon tax is impressive (“Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends,” Jan. 17). Yet the case for a carbon tax warrants far more skepticism than their letter suggests.

The chief reason for skepticism is, ironically, one that these economists themselves give for their support of a carbon tax – namely, market failure. It’s true that the absence of enforceable and tradable private property rights in air quality prevents the emergence of market prices that both convey accurate information about what level of carbon emissions is ‘optimal,’ and give incentives to people to emit no more than this optimal level.

But because of this very same market failure, there’s no way that government officials either can know the optimal “emissions reductions goals” or have any real incentives to be guided by them. Any such chosen goals cannot possibly be based on accurate economic knowledge. Such goals would at best be arbitrary, with a good chance of being set too high given political-elites’ long-standing proclivity to focus on carbon-emissions’ downsides while ignoring the upsides.

And these upsides are significant; they are, in a word, modernity. Carbon-based fuels have powered modern economic growth – growth which is, by far, history’s greatest benefactor of humanity. Modern economic growth has ended starvation. It has put solid roofs above our heads, solid floors beneath our feet, indoor plumbing and safe emissions-free electric lighting throughout our homes, and potable water at our fingertips. Our immense prosperity shields us from toxic bacteria, as well as from deadly indoor cold and heat.

The production of these, and many other, health benefits of modernity was powered by carbon-based fuels. And so I, for one, am far more reluctant than are the letter’s signers to authorize the state to dramatically reduce our access to a fuel source whose record to date is unambiguously positive.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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