By Ryan McMaken
In a more civilized age — that is, during the 1840s — reducing the price of food for ordinary people was seen as a good thing. Nowadays, though, increasing the price of food in the name of "climate sustainability" is de rigueur. The UK Independent reports:
Denmark is considering proposals to introduce a tax on red meat, after a government think tank came to the conclusion that “climate change is an ethical problem”.
One wonders exactly what they mean by "an ethical problem," but it's fairly clear from the context that the phrase is merely code for "problem we elites have decided takes precedence over all other problems."
Moreover, if such regulations really are adopted, it will necessitate the creation of an entire government bureaucracy to decide what foods have an acceptable level of "climate impact" and which do not. Government agents will no doubt be well paid to write reports as to just how much the price of food X shall be taxed to reflect its climate sustainability or lack thereof. There will be rankings, white papers, commissions, and propaganda campaigns all in the name of dictating an "ethical diet."
In a more sane time or place, such micro-management of the diets of of human beings would be seen as absurd, but not in the age of endlessly expanding government power in the name of protecting the climatic status quo.
Advocates of New Taxes Will Pretend the Costs Don't Matter
And what will the cost be to ordinary people? Given the communal and ritual importance of food in human culture, it's certainly not zero. Nor can the subjective valuations of billions of human beings simply be disregarded. Some people prefer to obtain their nutrition from meat. Others prefer to obtain nutrition from other sources. Some people build religious and cultural celebrations around certain types of foods.
If the new food taxes are implemented, these everyday aspects of life — activities that are at the very center of human culture and life — will be further limited, with the most impoverished members of society suffering most of all.
"Well, it's just red meat," some might say. But, the food tax is merely a small part of a global effort by political elites to tighten the noose around ordinary people who are being told that all the most basic luxuries in life are now eco-terrorism. "It's just red meat" sounds an awful lot like "it's just an small tax hike" as if there were no existing tax burden onto which the most recent proposal is to be heaped. Moreover, the planners of the food tax have already made it clear that nothing is safe. All foods are to ranked, they openly acknowledge, as will all aspects of human life such as travel, recreation, an living conditions.
You like weekend trips to the seaside? Too bad, that requires fossil fuels. You want an affordable house? Too bad, you'll only be allowed to build a house with high-priced triple-paned windows and other "energy-efficient" amenities. You want to eat a Christmas ham? Tough luck, the carbon footprint is too big.
Oh, don't worry, the billionaires and politicians will still be able to afford their private jets and their luxurious meals. For the rest of humanity, though, it's important to confront "the ethical problem."
Note that there is never any acknowledged cost to weigh the effects of food taxes and carbon taxes against the presumed advantages of the taxes.
The cost to society of increasing the costs of food, transportation, and housing are very real, nor can they be calculated, given the nearly infinite number of ways that different individuals value travel, food, and a nearly endless list of other amenities. That is, the true costs cannot be known. This is always the central problem of all public policy, of course, and of government planning in general. There is no way to predict how countless unique human beings with their unique ways of valuing everything will be impacted by a new regulation or law. As F.A. Hayek explained in The Fatal Conceit, the central problem of government planning remains the fact that "what cannot be known cannot be planned."
Even worse is the fact that there is a steadfast refusal to consider economics at all in considering the effects of climate-control laws. This is demonstrated in the very words of the activists themselves when they emphasize that global warming is to be treated only as an "ethical problem." The words are used as a sort of talisman to absolve the advocates from having to pay attention to the boring 'ol warnings of the economists who recognize the unpleasant realities of opportunity cost and scarcity. The consequences of such an attitude as often less than ideal, which is why Hayek went on to observe: "It is a betrayal of concern for others, then, to theorise about the 'just society' without carefully considering the economic consequences of implementing such views."
The Alleged Benefits of Climate Regulations Can't Be Calculated, Either
Don't expect any such cost-benefit analysis to be forthcoming, though.
The global warming debate has never progressed beyond the demand that everyone cave to the latest anti-global warming proposal, or face armageddon. As I noted in May 2015:
This “Follow Us or Die!” routine is a propagandist’s dream of course, but in real life, where more rational heads — on occasion — prevail, the costs of any proposed government action must be considered against the costs of the alternatives. Moreover, the burden of proof is on those who wish to use government, since their plan involves using the violence of the state to carry out their proposed mandates.
Under normal circumstances, any rational person would immediately see this intellectual modus operandi as the work of dangerous religious zealots. But among modern advocates for global climate planning, no such dissent is to be tolerated, and any rational consideration of real costs and benefits are to glossed over and militantly ignored.
In many ways, this anti-intellectual refusal to discuss the down side of a public policy stems from the fact that many advocates of the food tax will be unable to actually demonstrate any measurable benefits. This is because most of the "benefits" are really just speculations based on computer models.
Unlike ordinary science, this politicized offshoot of climate science involves no actual observations, but are based on hypothetical models. Moreover, even if the model builders could accurately predict the precise effects of global warming in the distant future, they'd then need to illustrate the specific benefits of a specific food tax, or tax on air travel, or a regulation on housing production. No such precision exists, so no "benefits" can be shown. And we're left again with Hayek's calculation problem.
In fact, the entire endeavor is based on a mystical belief that legislatures can pass laws and the stated goal with be magically attained thanks to the power of wishful thinking.The far more likely reality — that the government planners are actually blindly groping for a solution — must be steadfastly denied.
Thus, any challenge to the food tax and similar measures will meet the usual response: "Follow us or die in the coming climate apocalypse."
That's an interesting position, but it has no place in any rational political discussion.
This article was originally published at The Mises Institute.