The Corner

Empowering the Priests

An interesting question from a longtime reader:

You’ve touched on something I’ve been meaning to ask you about. I have a difficult time listening to environmentalists, and it has nothing to do with my knowledge of science: for I have none. It’s just that I’m instinctively suspicious of people who put forth arguments based ostensibly on rational and humanitarian grounds, when those arguments would, if accepted by all relevant parties, result in greater power being granted those making the argument. In other words, I don’t believe people who say the earth is getting hotter because, if we all decided that the earth really was getting hotter, that would just happen to imply that we should all show more willingness to grant greater power and influence to the people telling us the earth is getting hotter. The same is true of transnational organizations who argue that power should be ceded from nation-states to . . . transnational organizations. How conveeeeeenient! Is this just rank prejudice on my part, or is there some principle worth extracting from it? I.e., should we always be suspicious of people whose arguments, if accepted by everybody, would result in greater authority being handed to those making said arguments? Are there exceptions?

Me: As I said, this is an interesting issue to noodle. I will confess that my skepticism toward chicken-littleism on the left in all sorts of areas stems from precisely this sort of thing. For a century, Progressives have greeted almost every national problem — real or imagined — as an excuse to increase social planning and the power of social planners. The fact that the same people are the loudest worriers about global warming and they offer eerily similar solutions does make me a skeptic. That’s why when my guru on global warming, Ron Bailey, came around to believing it exists (though he doesn’t embrace their solutions or necessarily subscribe to their panic) I was far more receptive to taking his word for it since he’s a deeply principled libertarian and has very little desire to empower the economic planners. But it’s a more interesting question outside the realm of climate science. I’m not a huge fan of concentrating on peoples’ motives when it comes to public arguments so long as that motive and the facts alike are presented honestly. But, skepticism about such things isn’t illegitimate by any stretch either. Anti-clericalism was certainly partly driven from the suspicion that priests and other clergy were preaching their versions of the gospel simply to empower themselves. I’ve long argued that one of the reasons Washington-based reporters are liberal, or statist, is that if the subject they cover is considered hugely important, then they in turn will be considered hugely important. A sure sign of this is how fascinated the big media is with stories about big media. If nuclear engineers took over the MSM tomorrow, stories about nuclear power plants would get a lot more front page coverage. Anyway, I don’t know that there’s a general principle here other than common sense and I’m trying to think of an area where this rule doesn’t apply. And the only place I can think of is parenthood or, more broadly, love. When the motive is love, for a child or a spouse or a friend, then advice and guidance isn’t self-empowering. But, obviously, this has some exceptions. I’ll ponder more.

Update: A reader rightly points out I could have saved a lot of time by brining up the phrase “cui bono?”