What energy policies ought conservatives favor–a good example of bad policy analysis

An opinion piece at MarketWatch makes a bundle of analytical mistakes as it tries to build the case that persons with conservative political views should prefer the energy policy views of Hillary Clinton over those of Donald Trump. In this case I read the “Clinton” and “Trump” names as a kind of stand-in or representative for certain sets of policies and not as a brief in favor or against either candidate.

Below I describe several mistakes in the analysis. Please note, it is not my position that conservatives should prefer Trump’s policies (I’ve made my own case against Trump’s presumed energy policies in a Nature Energy commentary). My position is that policy analysis should be better done than it often is, and so from time to time I complain about prominently-placed bad examples.

Here are extracts conveying the main argument (but read it all if interested):

The energy plans of the two major parties’ candidates will shock no one: Donald Trump aims to open every square inch of land in the United States for fossil-fuel extraction, while Hillary Clinton wants to invest in renewable energy and energy conservation programs. What is most interesting about these two plans? Clinton’s plan should be — by far — the more appealing to Republicans.

Pursuing fossil fuels will continue, and most likely increase, U.S. dependence on foreign nations, a trajectory that should be deeply distressing for Republicans who embrace protectionism and individual liberty….

One would think that the party that prides itself on fiscal conservatism would fully embrace energy conservatism; thus far, the party has failed to see this alignment.

Energy-conservation measures aim to solve energy problems by reducing demand rather than increasing supply. … Both offer paths forward for the United States, but efficiency is far cheaper….

[T]he United States will still need to produce an enormous amount of energy, and here, too, renewable energy is very much in agreement with Republican values. What better expression of individual liberty could there be than generating one’s own power from a rooftop solar photovoltaic system, or a wind turbine out in the back forty? ….

Republicans who are concerned about jobs should consider this report: there are now more solar jobs in the U.S. than there are jobs in oil and gas extraction and significantly more jobs than in coal mining. [Link in source.]

On use of the word “invest”: The main flaws permeating the article are (1) opposition to a bad policy implies opposition to the industry the policy would support, and (2) if something is a good idea the federal government should be in charge.

Notice the phrase “Hillary Clinton wants to invest in renewable energy and energy conservation programs.” If taken literally, conservatives have no objection. Clinton may invest her savings however she pleases. Of course the writer actually means Clinton favors government policies granting special tax and regulatory advantages to the renewable energy and energy conservation industries.

Conservative economic policy stereotypically favors small government: low taxes and little regulation. Can we imagine a less conservative position than having federal bureaucrats directing “investment” in energy development from Washington, D.C.? Simply elaborating on just what it means to say “Clinton wants to invest” reveals the fundamental error from a conservative’s point of view.

To be clear, I am not saying the Clinton policies are bad or good, just pointing out they are not conservative policies.

On protectionism: I realize it has become fashionable, since Trump became the GOP presidential nominee, for some Republicans to “embrace protectionism,” but I do not see how one pairs the terms “protectionism and individual liberty.” Either I am free to purchase my goods from whomever offers me the best deal, or the federal government has imposed upon my individual liberty. On this issue conservatives ought to be associated more with Milton Friedman than Mr. Trump. Free trade has been, over the last few decades, primarily a conservative political project.

By the way, trade generally benefits both buyer and seller, and free trade in energy resources is not an exception to the general principle. President Nixon jumped onto “energy independence” as a political slogan to scapegoat OPEC for his poor economic policies, mostly Nixon’s price controls. Each president since Nixon has found it politically useful to re-endorse the Nixonian position against energy trade, despite the well-known benefits of trade. Free trade remains the most consistent small-government principle.

(For more on trade policy consider Don Boudreaux’s commentary on the topic at Cafe Hayek–for example this article, or this one, or this one.)

On conservative conservationism: The author is right, conservatives should like conservation. Conservatives often embrace themes of stewardship and eliminating waste. But here again the author confuses technology and policy, as one can fully support conservation of resources while opposing a policy to mandate or subsidize conservation of resources.

A common conservative theme in support of free markets is price signals arising from free markets help direct resources to their most-highly valued uses. Interfering with markets impairs the effectiveness of price signals. Especially when the concern is for avoiding waste, a conservative may oppose policy interference which distorts market prices and shifts decision-making power toward distant bureaucrats who lacks both the local knowledge and individual incentives needed to avoid waste.

On the green jobs argument: Here again is the jobs claim: “Republicans who are concerned about jobs should consider this report: there are now more solar jobs in the U.S. than there are jobs in oil and gas extraction….” Job counts do not constitute policy arguments. In 2014, approximately 580,000 persons were employed as bartenders and just under 300,000 were employed as pharmacists. What policy conclusion follows for “Republicans who are concerned about jobs” or anyone else?

Would it matter whether bartenders or pharmacists formed a faster growing occupation?

The article’s conclusion: Near the end of the article the author offers a bit of speculation on Republican policy motives: maybe money made them do it.

There’s no doubt that Republicans receive help from big donors, such as the Koch brothers, who have a vested interest in fossil-fuel energy projects. And, perhaps part of the answer why Republicans are reticent to embrace renewable energy has to do with campaign financing.

If the author’s somewhat shabby logic has not yet convinced you, the author wants to scare you into tax-and-regulate policy by invoking a bogeyman.

Here is a rule: If a writer starts off an article with ad hominem attacks, it is a sign of a limited intellect. When (as here) a writer resorts to ad hominen attacks in the end, it is a sign they have lost the debate. (And nevermind that the oil and gas industry is giving much more money to the candidate pushing Clinton’s plan than to the other candidates.)

My conclusion: In some sense the article constitutes a valuable effort. I infer the author is not a conservative himself, but nonetheless he attempts to persuade conservatives to accepts his policy preferences based on what he takes to be conservative principles. This rhetorical approach is to be much preferred to policy arguments merely attacking the views or questioning the motives of one’s opponents.

The author here has failed the “ideological Turing test,” which is to say has failed to fully understand the conservative principles he seeks to draw upon. That failure, combined with some loose logic, renders the result a good example of bad policy analysis.

2 thoughts on “What energy policies ought conservatives favor–a good example of bad policy analysis

  1. Mr. Giberson,

    I do not know you as far as I am aware, but I have been a secret fan of Professor Kiesling for many years. I really enjoyed your critique here. I am a committed conservative, former Republican elected official and appointee, who has been troubled by conservatives and Republicans missing the boat on conservation.

    I agree with your point that interfering with markets impairs price signals, and that is something conservatives should ideally prefer to avoid. Yet the problem I see is that conservatives, perhaps for political reasons, erect and perpetuate barriers to access to markets for the benefit of the interests of large incumbents. In other words, the market institution we start with is not efficient, and price signals are already impaired because markets are not truly open to new entrants or new technologies. In a market without barriers to entry, or without artificial or artificially high barriers to entry, market interference should not be necessary and are bad. (when you find that type of market for electricity anywhere in the world, please let me know)

    What if the market institution itself is flawed, and the political will does not exist to fix it, is it not prudent to address the market failure by other means? And why does one need to worry that doing so should cause him to sacrifice his conservative pedigree? What you might see as a market distortion, is what I might see as a correction for an embedded market failure due to a flaw in the market institution. Sure I would prefer to fix the market failure by fixing the market rather than interference. But if that is not possible, I don’t support maintaining the economic waste of an inefficient market. I will get rid of my market interference and stop supporting them as soon as those in power fix the market and rid of the barriers and flaws that make it inefficient. But, alas we do live in the real world, and fixing markets systemically is no easy task.

    What drives me up the wall are conservatives that oppose (or do not support) reforms that would make markets truly competitive and then also opposing market interventions that correct for the inefficient outcomes that results. Those so-called conservatives are not conservative at all in my opinion.

    I think the distortion argument against interference is an honest one only if you believe that markets are otherwise efficient and competitive or have the ability to become that way through the natural unfolding of commerce. But where you are working with flawed markets, and the prospect for fixing them correctly is not possible in the real world, I see nothing wrong or anti-conservative about making markets more efficient by correcting for a market failure. I think my position is the real conservative position that supports avoiding waste.

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