©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

What's Wrong with the Earth Charter,
Reply to Professor England

by Deirdre McCloskey
Eastern Economic Journal 28 (2, 2002): 269-272
Filed under brief academic items and editorials

The Earth Charter, on the model of the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, is circulating in Green circles. You can find it with a Google search. I was invited to talk to a little conference about it in November of 2001. I think the participants were simply stunned that anyone actually disagreed with the Charter. Some of what's in the Charter is good and true. But the following, and I'm afraid much else, is bad and false:

"The gap between rich and poor is widening."

True only in that nations that have rejected market capitalism, such as North Korea, and India under its decades of rule by London School of Economics socialists, have stayed poor. It is false for, say, South Korea, Thailand, the Czech Republic, and for India in the past ten years of liberalization.

"An unprecedented rise in human population has overburdened ecological and social systems."

The Malthusian fear, first articulated two centuries ago, has proven false. World population has increased since 1800 by a factor of six ("unprecedented" indeed), though no serious demographer denies that economic growth slows population growth, and all of them expect world population to level off in the next half century or so. But instead of resulting in impoverishment the increase in population has been accompanied by enrichment: world income per head has increased by a factor of five. Small families and clean air are normal goods (in January 2002, for example, reports appeared that the Chinese were starting to control smoke emissions in their worst cities). In many ways we have a better environment than in 1800. The worst damage to the environment has happened under non-market regimes.

"We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more."

Granted, and true essentially of countries like the United States. But basic needs have not so far been met for most of the world, and will not be if Green ideas are implemented. Basic needs can be met only through economic growth-as China, for example, has realized.

"We urgently need a shared vision of basic values to provide an ethical foundation for the emerging world community."

Yes, we need the basic values of love, courage, temperance, justice, prudence, faith, and hope. These flourish in market societies-for instance, it was Quaker businesspeople, many of them former slave traders, who for the first time in human history questioned and then helped end slavery; for instance, environmentalism itself is a result of capitalist prosperity.

"[We need to] ensure that communities at all levels . . . provide everyone an opportunity to realize his or her full potential."

Which entails market capitalism, that is, within a community of laws, the free pursuit of full potential.

"Recognize that the freedom of action of each generation is qualified by the needs of future generations."

What best achieves serious concern for the future is private property with a good capital market. No owner of a productive forest wants to see it ravaged, for then the present value of her property is ravaged.

"Transmit to future generations values, traditions, and institutions that support the long-term"

Which is best achieved by teaching children the value of free exchange, private property, and respect for new souls.

"Integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life."

Which is to say, continue the propagation of an environmentalist religion in the public school, K-12, and extend it to colleges. Perhaps we should set up loudspeakers on every corner and broadcast the Charter.

"Adopt at all levels sustainable development plans and regulations that make environmental conservation and rehabilitation integral to all development initiatives."

We are invited to repeat the errors of socialism-that "planning" has been on the whole a good idea, and has helped the poor and the environment. Neither appears to be true. Planning supposes in a rationalistic style that we know right now enough to lay down the future.

"Place the burden of proof on those who argue that a proposed activity will not cause significant harm, and make the responsible parties liable for environmental harm."

In our state of ignorance such a burden would bring all economic progress to a halt, dashing the hopes of the world's poor to enjoy a standard of living which makes environmental concerns possible.

"Prevent pollution of any part of the environment and allow no build-up of radioactive, toxic, or other hazardous substances."

No buildup? Even if safely contained? The standard is here, as often in the document, imprudent in its non-economizing extremes.

"Act with restraint and efficiency when using energy, and rely increasingly on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind."

"Efficiency" is an economic concept here misused. Pursuit of the lowest energy efficiency by itself will reduce other efficiencies. Often it will result in more pollution: save energy in scrubbers and get dirty air.

"Internalize the full environmental and social costs of goods and services in the selling price, and enable consumers to identify products that meet the highest social and environmental standards."

Another economic concept misunderstood. The best way to internalize is to make private property, so that people have an interest in (say) stopping the overharvesting of Amazonia.

"Promote the equitable distribution of wealth within nations and among nations."

If the idea is (it is) to redistribute present wealth it will not work, because redistribution is not sustainable either practically or politically. The best redistribution is economic growth.

"Ensure that all trade supports . . . progressive labor standards."

That is, prevent workers in Bangladesh from offering goods cheaper to the poor of the United States. If one imposes the "standards" of the labor market of Chicago on Dacca, no one in Dacca will have a job. (It is the old tension between the protectionism and the internationalism of the left.)

"Promote the active participation of women in all aspects of economic, political, civil, social, and cultural life as full and equal partners, decision makers, leaders, and beneficiaries."

The great liberatrix of women has been the market, in which a woman is not her father's or her husband's or her son's domestic slave. Cultures like ancient Greece or traditional China or traditional Islam that have prevented women from participating in economic life outside the home have not been good for their women. In northwestern Europe women could work outside the home. Which place liberated women? The Charter or the market?

You can see that I hope the Charter fails. But I am not hopeful. A document written by biologists and other activists entirely innocent of economics is of course going to have an good deal of economic nonsense. One that fails to recognize how bad the project of social engineering has been for human freedom is of course going to have a good deal of political nonsense. But since when has nonsense been a bar to the success of a manifesto, left, right, or center, Red, Blue, or Green?

Reply to Professor England

What I intended to accomplish in my little squib on the Earth Charter was only to shake the confidence of environmentalists that everything the most radical amongst them believe is not obviously true. As Oliver Cromwell said to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650, and as Professor England and I wish our readers and students would hear: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." I think Professor England would join me in that purpose.

Surely he would agree that the countries adopting capitalism with the most enthusiasm have prospered-take Chile, for another example. I think the studies of convergence that act as though prosperity was a natural phenomenon like rain are misled. True, North Korea has not converged on an American standard of living. But South Korea has. Which suggests that colonialism can't be it, either: Korea was subject to one of the most vicious colonialisms of the 20th century, competing in this sad contest with, say, the Belgian Congo.

I think socialism has proved to be a bad idea for poor countries. And environmentalism is socialism redux (really, how often does the arithmetic of Malthusianism need to be shown to be economic nonsense before we stop thinking it justifies a Chicken Little view of the future? I wish more people would read and consider the late Julian L. Simon's The Ultimate Resource).

I think Professor England is quite right that, say, Brazil seems right now to be moving democratically away from free markets. I am worried about a country I know a little and love a lot. I have just as much enthusiasm as Professor England does for democracy, and think in the long run that Brazilian workers will grasp (as Americans have this century past) that capitalism is a good thing. Yes, ownership is the key, as the Brazilians working to privatize the Amazon jungles grasp: a partly socialized Amazonia has been a world catastrophe for the environment, just as socialism in the former communist world was (look at the Caspian Sea, for example, to find what socialism does for Nature).

"Broad participation in decision making" in Professor England's mind is to operate through the compulsions of police and governments. I am always amazed at the enthusiasm of my socialist friends for governments, which are on the whole run by the rich or by thugs or by both. I wonder why they don't think that deciding whether or not to buy hormone-free beef in a market is "broad participation," broader, actually, than elections so easily stolen and corrupted, as in our own Dade County. But I long ago gave up thinking I could convert my many socialist friends. All I hope for is a flicker of doubt, which will improve both our arguments, by thinking it possible we may be mistaken.