08 Oct 2014

Milton Friedman Bask

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Did Friedman ever write directly on a carbon tax in the context of climate change? I’ve seen people cite general principles he had, but did he ever himself take a stand on carbon taxes (or other government measures) to mitigate climate change?

49 Responses to “Milton Friedman Bask”

  1. David R. Henderson says:

    I’m pretty sure he didn’t.

  2. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    Bob, it looks like at least in 1998, Milton Friedman was a climate skeptic. Here is the blurb he wrote for Thomas Moore’s book “Climate of Fear”:

    “This encyclopedic and even-handed survey of the evidence on global warming is a welcome corrective to the raging hysteria about the alleged dangers of global warming. Moore demonstrates conclusively that global warming is more likely to benefit than to harm the general public.”

  3. Gamble says:

    If property owners could own the air above and around their homes/property, how much would they charge others when they change/alter the air content?

    • Andrew_FL says:

      Well it’d be a sort of reverse class action suit wouldn’t it? One party, suing everyone else on Earth for proportional contribution to the “damage” to the column of air above his house. The amount each individual would be obligated to pay any single other individual for a life time of emissions would be probably a trillionth of a trillionth of a penny or something.

      Nevermind that the column of air above his house isn’t the same column tomorrow as it is today, or was yesterday.

      • Gamble says:

        Was it Rothbard who said land is slow moving water and water is fast moving land?

        Somehow air has to be considered real property. Everything needs to be property with owners for liberty to be complete.

        • Andrew_FL says:

          Rothbard opposed ad coelum, if that’s what you have in mind.

          This might help with his thinking on the subject.

          My understanding is that Rothbard was perfectly okay with things being un-owned, if no one was able or willing to homestead them.

          I mean, land on Mars doesn’t need to be property for liberty to be complete, does it?

          At any rate, for my own part you’d need to convince me you could reasonably lay claim to particular bunch of air, before you could call it your property. I hate to say it but this really does look like an area where the normal reasoning about property doesn’t really work, at least in practice. I don’t think it’s terribly important, because I believe it’s dubious to say any significant harm is done to anyone by anyone else in this particular case. Still, there’s no obvious solution, in my opinion, if there *was* a problem.

          • Harold says:

            I think one person / company owning the whole atmosphere makes a lot more sense. They would be liable for damages, and could be sued. I believe they would be charging to use the atmosphere as a CO2 dump.

            “Still, there’s no obvious solution, in my opinion, if there *was* a problem.” A carbon tax!

            • Andrew_FL says:

              I reject the idea of Pigovian taxes on first principles.

              Why would this one person/company have the right to claim ownership of the whole atmosphere? In what sense did the homestead it?

              And why would the *owner* be the one sued?

              Sure in principle they could charge people to place things in the air if it belonged to them. In principle they could also charge people for inhaling their air (not to mention that if they charged for “dumping CO2” exhaling technically would count). After all, by inhaling I make use of their property without their permission.

              Are you beginning to see why what is presumably a Government sponsored monopoly over the very air we breathe is the most abominable idea ever?

              • Harold says:

                Ownership of the resource is one way to avoid tragedy of the commons. Other ways are through agreements. International agreements are apparently impossible to achieve because countries like the USA which produce lots of CO2 say that the total benefit of them unilaterally cutting their emissions will be minuscule, so why should they bother?

                In such situations, tragedy of the commons seems unavoidable.

          • Gamble says:

            Are you going to land a bigger rover on top of my rover? Are you going to conduct an experiment that ignites the atmosphere?

            Lay claim to a particular bunch of air? The air in my lungs, ears, blood and home is mine, is it not? Or is the like IP?

            If government and common ownership/no ownership is proper for air, then why not for land and other property?

            • S.C. says:

              If government and common ownership/no ownership is proper for air, then why not for land and other property?

              Maybe because there are substantial differences.

            • S.C. says:

              The air in my lungs, ears, blood and home is mine, is it not

              It’s in legal limbo.

            • Andrew_FL says:

              You can reasonable lay claim to the space immediately above your rover. You can reasonably claim that for me to place something heavy on top of your rover-especially another rover, is someone damaging your property. You could sue me if I attempted something like that.

              What you *cannot* reasonably claim, is ownership of the space all the way to the of the edge of space or beyond, or the particular mass of molecules that inhabit that space at any particular kind. Unless you propose to build a wall reaching up to space around “your” air.

              The air in your lungs belongs to you while it’s in them, you forfeit the right to it when you breath it out as waste (it’s not even the same air, actually) in the same way you forfeit the right to things you throw away or flush down the toilet.

              To the extent that you don’t let the air in your home leave it you can claim it’s yours. To the extent you let it circulate, it’s yours while it’s in your house, but not before it enters or after you let it leave.

              Government ownership/common ownership and non-ownership are not the same thing. Land which is in the state of nature belongs to no one and it is right that this is so. It does not belong to the government. Property does not belong to the State by default.

          • S.C. says:

            I hate to say it but this really does look like an area where the normal reasoning about property doesn’t really work, at least in practice.

            This stuff about property doesn’t really work like you guys think it does. Property rights qua property rights don’t imply anything in particular about crime, liability, and so forth nor are they as extensive as you seem to believe. Property law has a specific purpose and it can’t be used to replace other legal subjects.

            Riparian rights already handle issues related to water ownership. Maritime law takes care of problems on the high seas.

            • Andrew_FL says:

              You’re confusing law as practiced with law in theory.

              • S.C. says:

                Most legal theory lacks the quirks and idiosyncrasies of libertarianism.

              • Andrew_FL says:

                So much the worse for “most legal theories,” I guess.

        • S.C. says:

          Everything needs to be property with owners for liberty to be complete.

          *Raises eyebrow.* Why does this need to be the case?

    • S.C. says:

      Is that really necessary? Almost no one would want to implement that kind of ownership. It also kind of avoids the fact that AGW as presented is a global problem.

      • Andrew_FL says:

        I thought it was clear I was pointing out that the idea seems impossible on practical grounds.

    • Vangel says:

      Payment for harm done requires that harm is actually done, not claimed. One of the problems for the AGW promoters is that they can’t even do that. Not only is the annual global average temperature a meaningless aggregate there is no way to demonstrate that a minor change that moves it higher is harmful.

  4. Major.Freedom says:

    Here you go!


    “PLAYBOY: If consumer protection—even from monopoly—isn’t an area that is legitimately the province of government, what about pollution?
    FRIEDMAN: Even the most ardent environmentalist doesn’t really want to stop pollution. If he thinks about it and doesn’t just talk about it, he wants to have the right amount of pollution. We can’t really afford to eliminate it—not without abandoning all the benefits of technology that we not only enjoy but on which we depend. So the answer is to allow only pollution that’s worth what it costs, and not any pollution that isn’t worth what it costs. The problem is to make sure that people bear the costs for which they are responsible. A market system rests fundamentally on such an arrangement. If you hit me with your car and you damage me, you are obligated to pay me—at least until we have no-fault insurance. The problem of pollution is that if you emit noxious smoke that damages me, it’s difficult for me to know who’s done the damage and to require you to be responsible for it. The reason the market doesn’t do it is that it’s hard to do. The resolution does have to be through governmental arrangements, but in the form of effluent taxes rather than emission standards. I prefer such taxes to emission standards because taxes are more flexible. If it’s more expensive for a company to pay the tax than emit the pollutant, it will very quickly raise its own emission standards.”

    • Major.Freedom says:

      Bear in mind this was 1973, so it is possible he changed his mind later in life like he did with central banking.

      • Gamble says:

        Nice find.

      • Andrew_FL says:

        It’s relevant, but not quite what Bob had in mind. It suggests that Friedman was in favor of Pigovian taxes in general, but Bob specifically asked if he favored a tax on “carbon” “in the context of climate change.”

        It’s not a huge leap to suggest that, if you could convince him there was a problem that needed to be addressed, that would have been his solution. It’s a huger leap to assume he ever believed it to be a problem that needed redress.

        • Major.Freedom says:

          Are carbon taxes not Pigouvian taxes?

          I agree about the lack of clear connection to climate change, but if logic dictates, then I don’t see how climate change cannot be a kind of negative externality that Friedman was talking about with pollution.

          • Andrew_FL says:

            If it doesn’t actually harm anyone, it’s not an externality.

            So it depends very much whether he thought a changed climate could be considered harm, or to result in harm.

            • Major.Freedom says:

              True, I get what you have been saying.

              Everything hinges on that. But I think that is a different argument from the “What did Friedman think about taxation in a context of global warming” question.

              You’re right, if Friedman does not believe global warming is even a problem (as Keshav’s post suggests is in fact the case), then the answer is trivial. There are however many other contingencies upon which “carbon taxes” are based. We can mention those all day.

              I think though that if the topic is carbon taxes in a context of climate change, and what Friedman’s position on it was, then I don’t think it can be answered satisfactorily, to me atleast, by quoting Friedman as saying he doesn’t think global warming is a problem at all. I think we should assume global warming is harmful (to at least some people) and then ask given that, what would Friedman think of taxing the sources of it. I think we can get a sense of what Friedman’s position on that would have been by considering his position on harmful pollution, as in the quote I provided. For what if the world becomes one where global warming is harmful to (some, or many) people? Then I think Friedman’s stance on harmful pollution can give us a clue.

              I thought that because Murphy didn’t whether Friedman thought global warming was a problem at all, that is, whether he was a “skeptic”, that he was asking about Friedman’s position on taxes and negative externalities.

              • Andrew_FL says:

                Eh, I just parsed it differently, I guess.

                For my part the evidence that any harm exists seems tenuous at best, at least for large groups. And it’s something I’ve examined pretty extensively. I wander from interest to interest from time to time. Sometimes it’s scientific stuff, right now it’s economics.

    • CC says:

      Right but this isn’t in the context of climate change. I’m not surprised that MF preferred taxes on pollutants instead of clumsy regulation in general, but did he specifically favor a carbon tax? I think there are significant differences between carbon taxes and something like a tax on dumping mercury in the Mississippi.

    • Gamble says:

      So does this make any sense?

      If government taxes pollution in the name of damage, how does government know who to recompose? They don’t, so they instead the make emission standards.

      First Milty takes a jab at no fault insurance, then he advocates no fault emissions.

      Oh boy, typical MF.

      • S.C. says:

        If government taxes pollution in the name of damage, how does government know who to recompose?

        It’s a way of discouraging pollution.

        • Andrew_FL says:

          The very notion of “externality” implies certain parties are harmed. If they have been harmed, then the point of discouraging pollution is to stop their being harmed. But if the sole purpose of the Pigovian tax is to discourage harming other people, it does not solve the actual problem of the externality, that some third party has been harmed by the actions of others. The harmed party is to be compensated for the harm done to them, not to be comforted that harm to future third parties is diminished by a tax.

          • S.C. says:

            Let’s not mix jurisprudence with economics here.

            • Andrew_FL says:

              Let’s not draw artificial distinctions here.

              • S.C. says:

                I’m not.

  5. Josiah says:

    I don’t think Milton Friedman ever wrote directly on the subject of carbon taxes, though his views on environmental regulation generally suggest that he would’ve preferred carbon taxes to direct regulation.

    “What did Milton Friedman think about climate science?” is a different, and to my mind less interesting question.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Josiah so would you be OK if someone said,

      “Milton Friedman would support a tax on pornography, rather than direct regulation, in order to stem violence against women. Now whether Friedman agreed with the claim that pornography led to violence against women is a separate, less interesting, question.”

      • Josiah says:


        I wouldn’t be “OK” in the sense that I doubt that’s how he would’ve responded. But I do think “How would Milton Friedman have dealt with the issue of pornography if it were shown to lead to violence against women?” is a sensible question, and a more interesting one than “Did Milton Friedman personally believe pornography led to violence against women?”

        Do you not agree?

        • Andrew_FL says:

          I think it’s pretty clear Bob finds the question “What did Milton Friedman think about climate science?” more interesting than you do. As do I, personally.

          • Josiah says:


            • Andrew_FL says:

              I can’t speak for Bob, but I’m much more interested in the way people would answer those questions in general than I am their opinions on Pigovian taxes.

              It’s probably because I find the scientific questions more interesting than the economics questions. At least in this case.

              • Josiah says:

                The fact you find scientific questions more interesting than economic ones doesn’t mean you should find what Milton Friedman thought about scientific questions more interesting than what he thought about economic ones. Do you care what Milton Friedman thought about Higgs boson?

              • Andrew_FL says:

                Frankly, yes. Especially since you don’t think I should find his opinion interesting.

              • Keshav Srinivasan says:

                Andrew_FL, aren’t Milton Friedman’s opinions on his field of expertise more significant than his opinions on matters where he’s just a layman?

              • Andrew_FL says:

                There’s a difference between whether his views are more or less significant than whether they are more or less interesting.

              • Josiah says:

                Especially since you don’t think I should find his opinion interesting.

                It’s good to know my opinion matters so much to you.

              • Andrew_FL says:

                Oh, you’re quite welcome.

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