Inglis Provides Grist to Interventionists


Former Republican South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis has started up a new 501(c)(3) organization reportedly to show conservatives the light on climate change and other energy issues. Yet Inglis’ case for a “free market” heavy hand of federal intervention makes little sense.

The following excerpt is from an interview Inglis gave David Roberts, an environmental writer at It provides good flavor of Inglis’ views:

[David Roberts:] Tell me about the new organization you’re starting.

[Bob Inglis:] It’s called the Energy & Enterprise Initiative. It’s an effort to advocate for the elimination of all subsidies for all fuels and the attachment of all costs to all fuels. That’s the free-enterprise fix to energy and climate…

The freebies for coal and petroleum are substantial even if you leave out the climate change impacts — just consider the health impacts, or attach to petroleum some of the defense costs in the Persian Gulf.

And to the economic-issue conservatives, the argument is, don’t you see the market distortion? If those costs aren’t attached to coal, how will you ever build a nuclear power plant?…

For the libertarian conservative, our case will be that we shouldn’t socialize costs and privatize profits. And for the national-security conservative, the case is, why haven’t we broken this addiction to oil?…Because we haven’t said we’re ready to fight this thing; we’re gonna make the economics right.

There are so many things wrong here, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, a modest but crucial point: Suppose for the sake of argument that Inglis is correct about the underlying climate science and the economic tradeoffs involved. Even so, how can anyone talking to libertarians and conservatives possibly say with a straight face that the U.S. federal government is “gonna make the economics right”? When has the federal government ever gotten the economics right?

This isn’t a throwaway line; it alone would demolish Inglis’ case. Inglis is making it sound as if the reason the tax code’s economics are currently not “right” is that policymakers up until now have been ignorant of the impacts of climate change.

But that’s not it at all. No, the tax code is a convoluted nightmare, with all sorts of wild inefficiencies from the perspective of economic theory. More generally, federal policies often operate at cross-purposes, where you have (say) subsidies to tobacco farmers amidst money spent on anti-smoking campaigns. Inglis is essentially telling conservatives, “Look how screwed up the federal government is right now. Give it even more power to tax and regulate oil, coal, and natural gas , so that we will then have the ability to do things the way economic theory would recommend.”

Beyond Inglis’ charming confidence in the willingness of policymakers to implement the “right” economic policies, he suffers from what Friedrich Hayek called the fatal conceit. Even if it is true that most professional climate scientists believe that industrial activities play a significant role in climate change, the proper policy response in light of the economic tradeoffs is much less clear, and some of the loudest voices in the debate have misled the public. For example, the “consensus” (if we want to use that term) of economic studies shows that climate change will confer net benefits on humanity for another fifty years. Is Inglis’ educational outfit going to spread that message to the public?

If Inglis wants to appeal to conservatives and libertarians, by all means he can champion the removal of all subsidies to energy companies, including the ones to solar and wind projects (which receive far, far more subsidies in terms of energy output than the fossil fuel companies). If he is worried about dependence on unstable regimes for oil, then Inglis can champion the development of North American oil and gas resources. But when he goes further and calls for new tax and regulatory powers at the federal level, Americans of all stripes should be suspicious.

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