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« Piling on | Main | Further thoughts on carbon taxes »

John Stuart Mill on carbon taxes

But with regard to the merely contingent, or, as it may be called, constructive injury which a person causes to society, by conduct which neither violates any specific duty to the public, nor occasions perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself; the inconvenience is one which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom.

John Stuart Mill

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Reader Comments (23)

But the Warmists of the act-now-to-save-the-planet have no use for historical context -- they simply wish to transform everyone into New Green Person living in an age that starts again from Year Zero.

Jun 4, 2012 at 11:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

Any set of actions will have outcomes in various dimensions - but lets just consider two in this hypothetical example.

A power station provides affordable energy which is of great benefit to society - this is known and measured. The same station also creates a by-product which possibly contributes to global warming - the quantity is unknown and as yet cannot be measured reliably. So what should we do; have the station, or do without it.

As an engineer, I would choose to have the station and affordable energy, and keep an eye on the thermometer.

Jun 4, 2012 at 11:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobin


Is it fair to limit discussion to only two factors on one alternative? Isn't there another necessary part of the analysis? What is the second-best use of the resources now used by the power station? What benefit does THAT provide and what (un-measured) risk or harm does it add to society?

My nose gets rather bent when the "unanticipated costs" of a conventional source like nuclear energy or straight gasoline are critiqued, but the lesser value of wind turbines or ethanol-mixed fuels are dismissed or ignored AND the downsides of these alternatives are never envisioned at all.

The wind farm experiments suggest to me the harm to birds, the noise, the visual degradation of the landscape, the manufacturing costs, the hazard to laborers erecting the towers, and all together pose a much much greater cost to society and the environment than current nuclear. Probably, comparable to coal (mostly due to hazard-to-laborers in coal mines) but I'm not yet sure of the numbers.

Jun 4, 2012 at 11:54 AM | Unregistered Commenterpouncer

You're right, its not fair to presume only two factors represent reality. I suggested that to simplify and show the point that in some people's minds, fear of a possible problem outweighs a known benefit.

I agree with all those things you mention about the side effects of bird choppers versus other proven forms of generation.

By the way - I spend a fair chunk of my time as a electric utility planning engineer working out how to connect these troublesome devices into our network. Voltage bumps, terrible reactive power characteristics, etc.

Its getting late here (New Zealand). So I'm off to bed now. But I'll check back agian tomorrow night.


Jun 4, 2012 at 12:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobin

Yeah, go JSM.

Jun 4, 2012 at 12:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Having had a quick glance at the link that His Grace provided, I would not like to sit beside JSM on a long bus journey...

Jun 4, 2012 at 12:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimmy Haigh

John Stuart Mill
Of his own free will
On half-a-pint of shandy
Was particularly ill
Later they say
He could stick it away
Half a crate of whisky
Every day
Aristotle, aristotle
Was a bugger for the bottle
And Hobbes was fond of a dram
Rene Descartes
Was a drunken fart
"I drink...therefore I am"
There's nothing Nietzche couldn't teach about the raising of the wrist
A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he's pissed.

Have a nice holiday everybody. I am off to my beloved Welsh mountains. Might see Monbiot again. I know exactly where he lives. George, that is NOT a death threat.

Jun 4, 2012 at 12:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Crawford

Watts up with that web site has a video explaining the merits of LFTR reactors (Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor), which is safe, economic with plentiful fuel with low end product trouble. In fact the end product, an isotope of Plutonium which is used by NASA to power space craft, and cannot be used in nuclear weapons.
Despite the video's length, 2hours, it is well worth the time to look at.

Jun 4, 2012 at 2:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

JS Mill's comments were made before welfare economics and the belief in a more interventionist role for the state. Although it may accord with your libertarian principles, it would be rejected by most people because it does not substantiate their more dirigiste beliefs.
My own view is that policy should be based on aiming to improve situations, recognizing that policy has costs, unintended consequences, and may not be entirely effective. For carbon tax, it means better substantiation of catastrophic global warming predictions; recognition that carbon taxes are imposed on goods that are inelastic with respect to price; and that carbon taxes are being imposed on an insignificant proportion of global CO2 emissions, so are ineffective anyway. In summary carbon taxes for the British and Australians are all pain and no gain. That is true whether CAGW is all a hoax, or if Al Gore turns out to have understated the potential problem.
The conclusion of my approach over a libertarian one is no different over current mitigation policies. However, it says to people who say they can save the world from a future apocalypse, justify your arguments in a similar way that a prosecution must justify it charges against an alleged criminal. Furthermore it does a small vocal minority from stopping debate, or getting it sidetracked on details.

Jun 4, 2012 at 3:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterManicBeancounter

In fact, JSM argues that you should be free to hurt yourself: "nor occasions perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself"

Jun 4, 2012 at 3:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Tol

AFAIK when warmists speak of 'mitigation', what they actually mean is 'delaying slightly to allow longer for adaptation'.

Which makes their policy prescriptions even more idiotic/corrupt.

Jun 4, 2012 at 3:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterJake Haye

Carbon tax is a tax on life. Our leaders, who are rapidly creating a world wide economic catastrophe, are actually so bereft of ideas to solve problems that they actually think they can and should raise significant revenue by in effect taxing the basic act of breathing.
think on this:
Not only have the AGW believers stumbled onto a crisis that only they can show exists. They can also discern dangerous changes in weather from historical records that are clearly flat. They are also finance experts: they know how to run huge solar and wind power operations, as long as the tax payer gives them operating subsidies. They are on top of this tax geniuses who can impose a tax on CO2, make it revenue neutral and that governments will properly spend it (as the AGW believers want, that is) and that this tax will yield finally CO2 reductions.
Think of the sublime genius of the AGW believer: They are expert on the climate, on the environment, on finance and on taxes.
Is there anything the AGW believers cannot do?

Jun 4, 2012 at 3:58 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

@John Marshall

I told my MP (who is on the Energy & Climate Change Select Committee) about Thorium reactors about 6 months ago, 2 months ago he told me that the government had discovered them, 4 months??
More recently I told him about another WUWT article; apparently MIT has developed a "filter" for use on power stations which emit CO2. They have discovered that a filter made from nanoparticles of fused copper and gold can (with a small electric current applied) remove CO2 and turn it into Methane (or Natural Gas to you and me). This should be the holy grail for anyone wishing to cut carbon emissions but I have heard nothing more.
I believe I know why I have heard nothing more and it leads me to believe that maybe we have all been led up the proverbial garden path for quite a few years now. I wonder if global warming was ever the real problem for the environmentalists? Was it instead that sustainable development was always the problem and CAGW was their first attempt to get us to moderate our use of a finite resource?
The MIT filter, if it performs as advertised is the perfect solution to everybody's problems. We get to burn cheap fossil fuels, get cheap energy and do not emit CO2, what's not to like? Stop throwing money at renewable energy and throw it at developing this filter. Unless of course sustainabilty is the true problem for the greens.

Jun 4, 2012 at 7:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterDung

JSM was actually against the concept of inalienable human rights in society and government. He advocated society be based on public or societal usefulness of any action.

He was an advocate for social good as a basis for individual moral action and government action. He opposed the concept of inalienable human rights. Kant’s idea of duty was not very far from JSM’s ‘social good’.

He was not a libertarian in any broad sense, quite the opposite.


Jun 4, 2012 at 7:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Whitman

In the UK we already have a carbon tax on motor fuel and have had for decades. Around two thirds of the price of our motor fuel is tax. I recall chatting to a truck driver who was constantly travelling to and from the continent. His eighteen wheeler truck had two enourmous fuel tanks. He never filled up in Britain.

Jun 4, 2012 at 7:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterStonyground

Anyone want to form a small consortium to provide Richard and co. with insurance? I'm thinking of a premium in the region of say 2-3% of the insuree's income.

We could also provide policies at the national level, if more convenient for all concerned.

An added benefit would be no further need to fund the charlatans (thank you George Monbiot) at the UEA.

Jun 4, 2012 at 8:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterZT

The Australian people on carbon taxes:

"The majority of Australians oppose putting a price on carbon and support Coalition plans to scrap the carbon tax. Sixty-three per cent say they're against the introduction of a fixed price on carbon, leading to an emissions trading scheme. And 57 per cent say they're in favour of coalition plans to scrap carbon pricing. The results were revealed on Tuesday in The 2012 Lowy Institute Poll."

Our carbon tax is due to start 1 July.

Would you in the UK want one slightly 2nd-hand Prime Minister? She's Welsh, so you could devolve her to the Welsh Assembly. Please?

Jun 5, 2012 at 12:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterBruce of Newcastle

"Dangerous acts can be done safely in a community that thinks and feels rightly, which would be the way to hell if they were executed by those who think and feel wrongly.” J M Keynes in a letter to Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek. The command economy so beloved of Keynesians applies directly to the energy "market" of the EU. The broader artificial common " market" is reaching its natural limits. Will Germany rescue the ECU and by extension the AGW scam? Or are "dangerous acts" necessary to keep the scam going, "dangerous acts" being justified if they are done by people who "think rightly". Paging G. Monboit, Mr Stern will see you now.

Jun 5, 2012 at 5:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterNick in Vancouver

Jun 4, 2012 at 11:54 AM | pouncer
"The wind farm experiments suggest to me the harm to birds, the noise, the visual degradation of the landscape, the manufacturing costs, the hazard to laborers erecting the towers, and all together pose a much much greater cost to society and the environment than current nuclear. Probably, comparable to coal (mostly due to hazard-to-laborers in coal mines) but I'm not yet sure of the numbers."

I think the current "official" death toll in Chinese coal mines is around 3,500 p.a.

Mining H&S professionals in the UK reckon it could be 7 - 10 times that (including the small municipal & private mines).

Clearly nuclear can't compete with that! A few dozen deaths at Chernobyl. A couple of guys with "sunburned" feet at Fukishima. I wish most big industries could boast a safety record like that. Have you seen the figures for deep sea fishing? Well, the EU and traitorous UK politicians went a long way to 'cure' that. By destroying the UK fishing industry. They are doing the same thing with coal.

Direct deaths in BigWind aren't so great - they will rise exponentially the more they mess about off shore.

But you have to tally up those who die of fuel poverty and those (especially in the third world) whose grinding poverty cannot be alleviated because of a lack of affordable and reliable energy.

Jun 5, 2012 at 6:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

John Stuart Mill is also quoted in the excellent video on free speech on Jo Nova, well worth watching for anyone, including those who haven't noticed or have ignored the fact that the silencing of unwanted opinions is already happening in Australia and the UK.

Jun 5, 2012 at 9:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger

Displaying the key fallacies of "Classical Economics" and of utilitarianism.

"The Greater Good" is an aggregate of individuals, each with their own ideas of what may be good or bad for them.

Who is El Wimpo (as Rothbard referred to John Stuart Mill, Rothbard referred to James Mill as "The Lenin of Laissez Faire". Aptly so, as James Mill's activities and tactics could easily have come from the pages of Kozak's "and not a shot is fired" ) to claim to know what those individuals think? arrogant and screwed up, hyper intelligent critter that he was.

"The Greater Good"

What of the lesser number?

Just like "Will of the majority" as a route to justifying actions, "Greater Happiness for the Greater number" would justify such charming actions as:
Gang rapes and Lynchings.

The only basis which I have so far found which does not result in justifying such outrages, is to start with the principal of self ownership, a la Rothbard, and Hoppe.

Mill compounds his fallacies by assuming that "utilities" and "costs" which are both subjective, and can be expressed only as order rankings, can be added up and subtracted.

Perhaps that fallacy was more easily accepted before the "marginalist revolution" in economics, which swept away the idea of prices paid being equal to subjective value.

Jun 5, 2012 at 11:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterLuton Ian

Is this about such freedoms as excessive drinking, or collecting bizarre hoards of junk in your backyard? It has to be trivial outside of the individual, and could not include excessive drinking by parents to the detriment of their children, or even the drinking of driving as that leads to real injury to passive spectators.

I haven't got my copy available, but it strikes me that Mills is saying that your freedom should exist beyond the end of my nose, which in many societies - including ours, if you consider smoking dope and consensual homosexual activities - doesn't occur.

Jun 6, 2012 at 12:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterDoug Proctor

Instead of having Carbon or Green Taxes how about Green Tax cuts instead

Jun 8, 2012 at 5:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamspid

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