Montreal, January 28, 2007 • No 210


Bradley Doucet is QL's English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.






by Bradley Doucet


          Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whoever will listen how freedom is really in everyone's best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.


BELIEF # 11: The environment is steadily deteriorating

January 28, 2007

          There are plenty of potential sources of concern when it comes to the environment. We are polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink; we are depleting the oceans of fish; we are punching holes in the ozone layer; we are warming the climate to dangerous levels—and all of these problems, we are given to believe, are only getting worse.

          Taken together, these worries, along with the ones discussed in more detail above, make up what Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg referred to as The Litany in his controversial(1) 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg plumbs the available data and the environmentalists’ arguments on each of these issues and discovers, to his surprise, that things are not as bad as they are made out to be. Like forest cover, air and water quality are generally improving in the developed world, and have been for decades. The ozone problem had a fairly simple and affordable solution which has been implemented. As for the climate issue, even setting aside the serious uncertainties contained in computer models, it will be much easier for us to adapt to future warming than to try, largely in vain, to prevent it. Our trillions of dollars, Lomborg emphasizes, would be far better spent dealing with more pressing problems like poverty in the developing world—and, he adds, helping the world’s poor climb out of poverty would have the additional benefit of allowing them the relative luxury of caring about and improving the state of their forests and the quality of their air.

          We need not choose between improving the environment and alleviating world poverty, for the two categories of problems stem from the same kinds of causes. It is inadequately secure property rights and protectionist trade policies that keep the world’s poor from improving their lot; it is the absence of adequate property rights that threatens the ocean’s fisheries; it is irrational government policies that give polluters the right to pollute and forbid those whose property is polluted from seeking damages; it is government subsidies that lead to the wasteful use of water and other resources. We don’t often hear it in the media, but the solution to global poverty and to the environmental problems that do exist is one and the same: greater economic freedom.

1. Readers who are curious about this controversy are invited to visit to see the debate between Lomborg and Scientific American, and decide for themselves which party is trying to clarify the issues and which is trying to muddy the waters.


BELIEF # 10: Resources are limited

January 28, 2007

          Are we in imminent danger of running out of precious resources? We all know of places where clean drinking water is in short supply and others where forests are being cleared to make way for cattle. Hitting closer to home, the surge in oil prices in recent years seems to signal that our supply of black gold is no longer sufficient to meet demand. Should we be worried?

          Of these three resources—water, trees, and oil—that often top the lists of concerned conservationists, running out of water would be the most disastrous for humanity. Fortunately, we will never even come close to doing so. Not only is water a renewable resource, we have way more of it than we could ever use. Now, most of it is in the world’s oceans, and this water is not drinkable, but we have the technology to make it so: it’s called desalination. The main reason we do not desalinate more of the ocean’s water is because we don’t need to; by and large, supplies of fresh water are sufficient. It’s true that some people do not have enough clean drinking water, but this is either due to wasteful water use (subsidized by irrational government policies) or to the fact that they are too poor to desalinate or import water. Poverty itself also being largely a direct effect of irrational government policies, the solution to any local water woes is better government—and as a wise man once observed, “that government is best which governs least.”(1)

          Trees are also a renewable resource, and contrary to popular belief, we are not running out of forest cover. It is decreasing in some developing countries, which may be cause for some concern, but it is also increasing in the developed world. Overall, if we were starting to run out of trees, the market (to the extent that it is allowed to function freely) would signal us to start planting more by making wood more expensive, and therefore more profitable to grow.

          Much the same is true for oil, even though this resource is not renewable—at least not in a human time frame. Price signals nonetheless have the effect of encouraging (or not) the further exploration and development of oil fields. We still have decades of proven resources, and whenever our supplies tighten, for whatever reason, we go out and find more. There is obviously a limit to how long we can do this, but will we hit that limit in 30 years or 30 decades? We won’t know until we do, but even if we begin to approach that limit sooner rather than later, or if current political instability in oil-producing countries persists for too long, the sustained rise in prices will make other forms of energy relatively more affordable, and will also spur technological development that will make them more affordable still. We have more energy than we could ever possibly use, in the form of other fossil fuels like coal and ultimately in the form of sunlight. As with sea water, the main reason we don’t use more of it is because we don’t yet need to.

1. Versions of this quotation are variously attributed to Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.


BELIEF # 09: It’s a small world

January 28, 2007

          We have only one planet, it’s true, and there are ever more of us crowding onto its surface. With six billion humans and counting, surely we must be running out of land—if not on which to live, then on which to grow the enormous amounts of food required to feed us all. As evidence, we are reminded of the large swaths of the planet mired in poverty, a tragedy that is used to justify any number of illiberal policies, from Maoist one-child population control laws to Stalinist food rationing meant to stretch out our meagre and dwindling resources.

          Thankfully, these fears are unjustified. The advent and improvement of air travel and modern communications technologies have certainly made the planet seem smaller—we can zip to the Far East in a matter of hours, or send electronic documents anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds—but it’s still the same gigantic ball of rock it has always been. The Earth is really staggeringly large; too large, in fact, to grasp intuitively. Of course, six billion is also too large a number to grasp intuitively. Only mathematics can help us understand if we are truly running out of space.

          Our planet has a surface area of approximately 510 million square kilometres, of which just under 30% (149 million sq. km) is land area. How many people can the Earth support? According to Scientific American, “With current farming techniques, a little less than half an acre can grow enough food to feed one person.” One square kilometre contains roughly 247 acres, and so can feed approximately 500 people. If all of the land on Earth were suitable for food production, our planet could therefore support a population of some 73.5 billion people (149 million times 500). Of course, not all land is suitable for agriculture, but thankfully we don’t need it to be. Our current population of six billion could be fed on just 12 million square kilometres of agricultural land, an area slightly larger than the United States. Even at nine billion people (the downwardly-revised population peak we are set to hit by 2050)(1), we would only need 18 million square kilometres, representing just 12% of the land on Earth, or an area about the size of Russia. Furthermore, this figure assumes unrealistically that no further improvements in farming techniques will be invented over the next five decades.

1. Although it is true that there are more of us than ever, the 2004 UN projections show that population growth is slowing and total population is on course to top out at around nine billion by mid-century, far fewer than previously thought.



Current Illiberal Belief >>>


08. Morality must be enforced
07. The truth is obvious
06. Good intentions are enough

05. Charity must be enforced
04. We are our brothers' keepers
03. Theft can be justified

02. Order comes from above
01. Government is good