The human brain is torn between simple intuition and the more complex hard work of figuring out the unintended consequences of any policy. Who doesn't like thinking about trees and greenery and happy animals? Who doesn't want to see steps taken to protect those things, all else being equal? But all else is not equal. Civilization doesn't work when central planners treat each tree as if its value is infinite.
Politicians specialize in convincing you that, with their help, you can have your cake and eat it, too. The idea of a new "green economy" that is both clean and rich with jobs became popular under Bill Clinton's administration, thanks in large part to a compliant media and Vice President Al Gore. But as I point out in my new book, No, They Can't: Why Government Fails—But Individuals Succeed, anyone who understands economics knows that President Obama's green jobs initiative is snake oil.
Obama boasted that his $2.3 billion plan would "help close the clean-energy gap between America and other nations." But other nations now move in the opposite direction. "Countries are cutting these programs because they realize they aren't sustainable and they are obscenely expensive," says the American Enterprise Institute's Kenneth P. Green. In Spain, economists at La Universidad Rey Juan Carlos found that each "green" job cost more than $750,000.
Obama claims that if we "invest" more, we can "create millions of jobs—but only if we accelerate the "green transition." What could make more sense? A little push from the smart politicians, and—voila!—an abundance of new jobs and a cleaner, sustainable environment. It's the ultimate twofer. Except it's an illusion, because governments do not "create" jobs.
"All the government can do is subsidize some industries while jacking up costs for others," writes Green. "It is destroying jobs in the conventional energy sector—and most likely in other industrial sectors—through taxes and subsidies to new green companies that will use taxpayer dollars to undercut the competition. The subsidized jobs 'created' are, by definition, less efficient uses of capital than market-created jobs."
This is good, solid economic thinking. Many years ago, Henry Hazlitt wrote in his bestseller, Economics in One Lesson, "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
In judging any government initiative, you can't look just at the credit side of the ledger. Government is unable to give without first taking away. Inevitably, more is taken away because the government substitutes force for free exchange. Instead of a process driven by consumers weighing their preferences, we get one imposed by politicians' grand social designs, what F.A. Hayek called "the fatal conceit." The green schemes make energy cost more.
Of course, some who push "green jobs" want the price of energy to rise. Then we will live in smaller homes, drive less and burn fewer fossil fuels. But if the environmental lobby wants Americans to be poorer, it ought to come clean about that.
Once you decide nature is inherently healthy, moral and beautiful, the reasons to restrict human activity are endless. Every time we move or breathe, we alter the environment. Some environmentalists won't be satisfied until our carbon footprint is reduced to zero.
Of course, that requires abolishing civilization. But if humanity's impact on nature is an evil, abolishing us wouldn't be so bad. The group Earth First! had the slogan, "Back to the Pleistocene!"
Most of us don't think civilization is evil, but we worry about what environmentalists say. We don't have the time to do complicated calculations about economic trade-offs. It's easier to just recycle something, buy a Prius and donate to the Environmental Defense Fund.
Today, we put up with amazing intrusions in the name of environmentalism. A million petty regulations mandate surtaxes on gas, separation of garbage into multiple bins, special light bulbs, taxes on plastic bags and so on.
Yet these things are of so little ecological consequence that the Earth will never notice. For this, we must surrender our freedom?
John Stossel (read his Reason archive) is the host of Stossel, which airs Thursdays on the FOX Business Network at 9 pm ET and is rebroadcast on Saturdays and Sundays at 9pm & midnight ET. Go here for more info.