The Case Against "The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax"*

July 28, 2008 by  

Liberal Party of Canada leader Stéphane Dion may very well lose his job following the next election. His ouster might even be justified by the fact that his unprincipled “Green Shift” platform is politically costly yet offers nothing conservatives would recognize as a benefit. However, were conservatives to press ahead with “The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax” described by National Post columnist Jonathan Kay, they would actually be functioning as the liberal collectivist’s most effective weapon against both conservativism and capitalist individualism. The leader of such a conservative movement would be more deserving of ouster than even Mr. Dion.

The Conservative Case is prefaced by the idea that it would be “too bad” if “serious environmentalism” were “killed for years to come”. This implies that conservatives regard serious environmentalism to be a good thing. Capitalists cringe, knowing that “serious environmentalism” is almost always code for anti-capitalist political efforts to combat mass production, the division of labor, and an ever-increasing quality of life. Socialists and fascists, ever seeking a crisis with which to justify more collectivist governmental intervention, smile as they see their opponents supporting the key notions that a man-made climate crisis exists, and that environmentalism is the answer.

The policy proposed by The Conservative Case is the creation of a retail sales tax on the purchase price of “any…fuel whose use results in the discharge of carbon dioxide”. Conservatives are said to believe such a tax would make sense because it would produce four things considered by “true” conservatives to be benefits:

  1. a reduction in the size of government (replacing a number of standards, ethanol subsidies, rebates, research grants and other ‘green’ programs with a single carbon tax, thereby reducing the number of government employees needed to administer said programs);
  2. a reduction in the taxation of production and of the productive (because a retail carbon tax is a single rate tax on consummables and higher income earners spend a smaller percentage of their income on consummables);
  3. an improvement of family life and an increase in civility (each resulting from less time spent driving, away from friends, family, and neighbors); and
  4. a reduction of terrorism and rogue power (via a shrinkage of the oil revenues of foreign governments and a corresponding increase the tax revenues of domestic ones).

Given that The Conservative Case is talking about a carbon tax in the context of the environment and environmentalism, what is the most striking commonality amongst these four conservative “benefits”? Answer: none of them appear to have much, if anything, to do with the environment or environmentalism.

Yes, we can reduce the size of government. However, one does not need to create a new single-rate carbon tax to do it. If smaller government is truly what you want, simply eliminate some or all of the “bewildering variety of economic interventions” currently in place (whether or not they are related to the environment).

Yes, it would be an improvement if a greater percentage of a government’s revenue came from a single-rate sales tax on consummables, but such taxes already exist everywhere in Canada, and throughout most of the industrialized world. Therefore, if one conservative goal is less-punitive taxation of the country’s most productive, one needs only to decrease or eliminate income or property taxes that have progressive rates. If there is a concern that doing so without imposing a new carbon tax would cause reduced government revenues, query whether conservatives actually want smaller government.

Yes, governments can discourage people from spending time traveling in their cars away from their family and friends by making it prohibitively expensive to purchase fuels that create CO2 when used to power a vehicle. However, if time away from family and friends is the issue, what has carbon got to do with it? If time is the issue, why not impose a similarly crippling tax on the purchase of solar-powered, hydrogen powered, or battery-powered cars, or on shoes not fit for running quickly to work?

Yes, it is possible to reduce the power of some foreign governments by taxing the heck out of fuels made with imported oil. But consider The Conservative Case’s condemnation of Stéphane Dion’s liberal plan: “His proposal is controversial and divisive without actually being courageous or principled.” If conservatives believe we must prevent Western dollars from funding foreign governments that give money to anti-Western terrorist organizations, surely the “courageous or principled” answer is not a carbon tax on both foreign and domestic oil, but a ban on the importation of oil drawn from the soil of said anti-western countries. A carbon tax on domestic oil does nothing to fight terrorism. And, if a ban on foreign oil imports is unacceptable because it is an infringement of free trade, then intellectual honesty requires that the same verdict be rendered in respect of carbon taxes.

If one gives a few minutes consideration to The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax, one will have to conclude that its professed concern about a man-made climate crisis, and its professed concern for the fate of “serious environmentalism”, is false, and that it is intended to manipulate its audience with some green-sounding political cross-dressing. Worse: that conservatives are false and manipulative. Worse still: that, ultimately, nobody is principled and courageous.

Worst of all, however, is the toll that such conservative pitches take on the cause of individualism and freedom. All too often, conservatives are falsely labeled – by some (typically libertarian) conservatives and by collectivists of every stripe – as advocates for rugged individualism or capitalism; as opponents of economic intervention by government. Therefore, when – with such arguments as The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax – conservativism sets itself up to be exposed as a movement that is disingenuous about its concern for a man-made climate crisis or about its admiration for serious environmentalism; when the alleged proponents of individualism try to make a policy more popular by resorting to falsehoods and political cross-dressing; when the proposals made by alleged proponents of capitalism ultimately are discovered to be no more principled or courageous than those made by the collectivists – individualism and capitalism get an undeserved black eye, courtesy of “true” conservativism, which suffers a similar fate.

Conservative leaders who feign concern for non-existent crises, or who feign admiration for kooky, anti-rational collectivist movements, are likely to suffer the fate that Mr. Dion is likely to suffer. They too will deserve to be sacked. However, given conservativism’s largely unearned and unwarranted reputation for defending individualism and capitalism, a conservative party leader whose feigned concern and admiration for collectivist bull gives conservatives a reputation for intellectual dishonesty will, as a consequence, do more to advance the collectivist, anti-capitalist agenda of liberals than any liberal leader could ever hope to do.

When it comes to CO2, the right course for conservatives is not a case for carbon taxes, but a case against them. Conservativism, if it is to be a force for good rather than a self-defeating weapon in the service of the sinister, must do the simplest thing in the world: be consistently honest and forthright about its means, ends, and motives. Conservatives could begin by repeating, tenaciously and unflinchingly, that Kyoto and its offspring are essentially socialist schemes to suck money out of wealth-producing nations. With the recent and large jump in gasoline prices, with jobs leaving North America for China and India, and with such countries seeking exceptions from the punitive carbon measures they are proposing for the west, the truth should finally have a large and appreciative domestic audience.

*NOTE: The foregoing was submitted to the National Post as an Op-ed on or about July 9th. Jonathan Kay is the Opinions editor for the National Post and, as you can see, my submission was a response to his “The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax” (National Post, July 8, 2008). I received an automated e-mail message asking me to forward the submission the John Turley-Ewart. I received no response from John for a few days and I wanted to post the op-ed to my own blog were the National Post to decide not to run it, so I sent him another e-mail just to make sure that I didn’t publish it were the National Post about to do so. I then received an automated e-mail from him, asking me to send my submission to Marni Soupcoff, then the National Post’s “Full Comment” blog editor. I received a (not-automated) response from Marni Soupcoff, telling me that the National Post couldn’t use my submission for their print edition, but would run it on the newspaper’s Full Comment blog if that suited me. I agreed but, when I didn’t find it upon my return from vacation, I shot another e-mail over to Marni asking if it had been published and asking, if so, for a link to the article. Today, Marni sent me an e-mail saying that, since deciding to run my article on Full Comment, she has been re-assigned to another post and is no longer the Full Comment editor. She advised that she assumes the new editor decided against running it. Ah, the politics of being critical. The upshot: sorry, dear reader, that it has taken so long for this article to appear somewhere. That said, I think you will agree that the points made in it remain valid. – PM


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