Pollution shows the limits of individualism

The dominant narrative of the last fifty years or so, at least in Anglo-Saxon economies, has been that of the free untrammelled individual. You know the creed ” I am a free man, any brake on my ability to do exactly as I want at any time is a monstrous outrage. And anyhow, complete and utter selfishness will help the economy grow!” This belief has been expounded in countless different ways, from the speeches of people like Margaret Thatcher, the academic works of people like Hayek, the rants of Ayn Rand, and schoolboy-level popularisations of the work of people like Maynard-Smith and EO Wilson. As a doctrine, it’s not without merits (usually a millionaire is less immediately dangerous than a commissar). But it has a deep theoretical flaw: what if my liberty impinges on yours?

Real world, tangible evidence is always the best response to imperfect theory. A very simple example is a piece we saw by Jessica Mouzo of El Pais, [1] the title of which roughly translates as “Pollution machine guns the health of children“.” Jessica’s evidence list is long: premature births, underweight infants, defective neurodevelopment, respiratory and skin ailments…,all are linked to pollution. Obviously, the bulk is coming from industry, transport and so on. But all of these enterprises are run by sovereign individuals. So, let’s take it down even more personally. Smoking cigarettes is an obvious form of pollution, as anyone who remembers the pubs and discotheques of the 1970’s will testify. Smokers are quick to adduce their rights and freedoms, and the need to exercise both aggressively. But what if your right by its very existence, sui generis, impinges on mine? Or of an unborn infant, as Jessica so neatly points out?

The sovereign autonomous individual does not and cannot exist. That is not to say we should all adopt Communism, or some form of Theocracy along Iranian lines. But any economic and social model must take into account that humans are inescapably joined to one another, whether they like it or not. And the ones that best reflect this truth are the currently unfashionable ones like Social Democracy, Christian Democracy, Keynesianism and their soul mates. Perhaps it’s time to see them again in action. (Inhabitants of the anglosphere and others will now need their translator apps)

[1] https://elpais.com/salud-y-bienestar/2022-11-10/la-polucion-acribilla-la-salud-de-los-ninos-partos-prematuros-bajo-peso-al-nacer-y-dificultades-cognitivas.html

#hayek #social democracy #pollution

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