The Straw Man: A Politics of Sound and Fury

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.

By Philip Decker

One of the most banal pronouncements in contemporary political discourse is the need for a “conversation.” We are told that we need a “conversation” about immigration, economics, race, gun control, and innumerable other issues. Similarly tiresome is the critique of “polarization” and “excessive partisanship,” by which it is usually meant that the two parties disagree on major policy questions and are unlikely to change their positions without exacting concessions in return. It is often the case that those who call for “conversations” also seek complete surrender from their opponents. The word “conversation” might be better termed “monologue”—a declamation with little regard for the response. If we are to break free of political gridlock, we must resolve this contradiction.

Part of the political game has always been to pretend to make concessions, and to position the opposing party as “extreme” because it does not offer concessions of its own. Although this is a dishonest approach to politics, it is attractive because it bestows on the user a feeling of intellectual or moral superiority without the cumbersome task of facing an opponent’s argument. Politicians mold a narrative for voters in which they are tireless negotiators who make reasonable overtures to the other side, only to be rebuked by “obstructionists,” “radicals” and, naturally, “extremists.” It is a specific tactic to bill oneself as diplomatic by calling for a conversation, then demanding that the other side accept in full one’s own worldview, knowing well that it will not. Those who behave this way are not demonstrating ideological purity but intransigence. They engage the weakest expressions of their opponents’ positions—sometimes straying from any reference to those positions at all—and in so doing create a line of straw men to be shot at and ridiculed. These politicians regress from logic into a vituperative stalemate, reciting self-aggrandizing platitudes instead of argument. In essence, our political system is plagued by intellectual laziness.

The individual politician sees many advantages in the straw man technique. Straw men offer great rhetorical material; they are usually realistic enough to pass as an actual stance but exaggerated enough to be mocked. If he or she is a skilled peddler, the politician can convince a low-information voter that the other side’s ideas consist of straw men. Effective as such posturing is for people seeking election or reelection, it is a grossly parasitic and unproductive feature of our body politic. Legitimate debates are subsumed to finger-pointing and self-righteous accusation, sophisticated views to a set of crude caricatures, and much-championed “conversations” to ideological catfights.

There are many examples to choose from, but the most vivid ones relate to President Obama’s various statements on the campaign trail. The futility of the straw man approach to politics will be amply displayed.

In 2011, the president proposed a set of new environmental regulations and had recently overseen the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans objected to regulations on the grounds that a larger regulatory state would stifle growth and limit the expansion of business in an already poor economy. They protested the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that the law would cause millions to lose their health insurance and would raise premiums, among other concerns (in hindsight, we know that these predictions about the health law ultimately came true).

Yet President Obama seldom contested the conservative counter-arguments in any meaningful way. In October 2011, he made the following remark at a campaign event: “My plan says we’re going to put teachers back in the classroom, construction workers back to work rebuilding America, rebuilding our schools. That’s my plan. Then you’ve got their [Republican] plan, which is, let’s have dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance. So far at least, I feel better about my plan.” The president twisted sensible objections to his ideas—to the extent that he even noticed them at all—into evidence of the right’s callousness, punching into empty air. He accomplished nothing but producing a vitriolic sound bite.

The right is not exempt from this kind of behavior either. During his campaign for reelection, President Obama frequently discussed the role of government investment in facilitating economic expansion. He argued that the use of public funds to build or improve roads, bridges, and other works allows private business to expand. This point is neither controversial nor new:  it was the position of Henry Clay in the early nineteenth century, who advocated for “internal improvements,” or publicly funded infrastructure projects to stimulate agricultural markets.

Yet President Obama’s infelicitous phrase from July 2012, “You didn’t build that,” which in context referred to the fact that private businesses do not build public infrastructure, was swiftly converted into a straw man. Republicans seized on the sentence and billed it as a proclamation that individual entrepreneurs owe their entire success to government. While I agree wholeheartedly with Republican objections to President Obama’s policies, there is no long-term benefit in distorting a badly-worded statement to confirm accusations. It panders to the conservative base and makes for a few decent campaign ads, but all it does in the greater scheme of American politics is perpetuate intellectual lethargy. Instead of providing a cogent argument for why infrastructure spending is an inferior stimulant to tax cuts or loosening of regulation, Republicans took the easy route and turned a reasonable assertion into an emblem of Obama’s affinity for big government. A poor choice indeed—there is other, better proof for this.

The reasons for the use of this political tactic are understandable. It requires self-discipline and courage to properly engage an opponent’s argument, because one runs the risk of being outmatched. Losing debates is bad publicity; having an ideology dissected is even worse publicity.  It is not in the interest of politicians’ careers to step on stage and be exposed as wrong. It is much simpler to slip into an ideological echo-chamber.

But—as we have seen over the past years—this is the road to stagnation and decline. Sociopolitical blindness has existed as long as there have been politics, but what distinguishes our era from others in recent history is that few prominent figures in government have resisted the temptation that lies in the straw man. Economic and social reform rarely occurs when both sides’ arguments are skirted, changed, or flatly ignored. If we are to have an honest “conversation” in this country, we must move past the impulse to view our respective ideologies as inviolable absolutes. It is hard, but it has been done before and can be done again.

There is nothing wrong with having a philosophy or specific worldview. But to maintain a healthy political culture, these must be presented clearly and must be able to withstand disagreeable scrutiny. If you believe something deeply, you should be able to defend it.

Sex with the State

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.

By Eric Yao

A new sexual revolution is looming in America—a movement to criminalize innocent lovers. California’s “Yes Means Yes” affirmative consent, bill signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in late September, requires postsecondary institutions that receive state funds for student financial aid to adopt a sexual assault policy of affirmative consent and a preponderance of the evidence standard for campus adjudications, among other things. SB 967 defines affirmative consent as an “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” that “must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.”

Preponderance of the evidence is a legal standard that is met if a proposition is more likely to be true than not—just greater than a 50 percent chance. Organizations as varied as Families Advocating for Campus Equality, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, the Reason Foundation, and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments have denounced SB 967 as illiberal. Though mainly supported by feminists and progressives, affirmative consent legislation, a noble idea gone rogue, fails on philosophic, legal, and constitutional grounds.

Obviously yes means yes and no means no, but in many situations, neither an explicit yes nor an explicit no is given—yet the interaction is entirely consensual and enjoyable for both parties. It is undeniable that the concept of tacit consent is a common reality on college campuses and elsewhere. Sex being a lived experience, there are myriad instances in which consensual sexual encounters do not include verbal or written consent. Perhaps lovers in a relationship have previously agreed to accept initiations of sex in order to please their partners, are involved in BDSM or reluctance fantasies, wake up their partners regularly with oral sex, or simply prefer quiet, sensual intercourse. The gray area of consent should be left to individual partners to decide in each personalized occasion, not to legislators drawing up a blanket ban. When asked how students can prove they received affirmative consent, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, the bill’s co-author, replied, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

The next mistake of affirmative consent legislation is the requirement that consent be ongoing and its unintended consequences. Ongoing means continuing, still in progress, and unfinished. Applied to sex, the question is how often partners need to recertify consent. Is the time frame each minute or every few moments? The answer is that nobody, not even the law’s authors, knows for sure. But what will the law do to deter true rapists? It most likely will do nothing. The tiny minority that has set their minds to assault does not care about obtaining consent, explicit or tacit. And if a person has already premeditated rape, then that person will just lie to claim that consent was obtained. Legislation that does not help solve the problem it purportedly addresses and that has unintended consequences which harm innocent people is bad legislation.

SB 967’s codification of a preponderance of the evidence standard for campus adjudications diminishes due process for students. Preponderance of the evidence is the lowest legal burden of proof and is used in most civil cases. But federal courts provide many procedural safeguards that are not usually present in campus tribunals. These due process protections include objective, knowledgeable, and professional judges, a jury of peers, the right to legal counsel, exclusion of hearsay and criminal history as evidence, and testimony under oath, among other things.

The next question is whether campus adjudications parallel civil or criminal trials. Campus disciplinary hearings are more akin to criminal trials because they adjudicate felonies such as sexual assault and rape (hardly misdemeanors), cannot be resolved through settlement, and are punitive rather than remedial. Though campus tribunals, unlike courts, cannot send students to prison, unfairly convicted persons are still seriously injured. Conviction will expel them from college, may prevent them from reentering higher education, disqualify them from obtaining professional licenses or securing employment proportionate to their skills, and ultimately destroy their reputations and careers. The American justice system is built on the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and that principle applies even to those accused of sexual assault. Lacking basic procedural safeguards, college proceedings should use a more stringent burden of proof such as clear and convincing evidence. SB 967 weakens a crucial due process protection that is often times the only shield between scholarship and stigma.

Affirmative consent legislation also generates a practical problem before college judiciary committees: how to prove consent. If verbal consent is in question, then accused and complainant will engage in “he said, she said,” and make it difficult to reach a verdict. If written consent is in question, then the simple text message, email, or note will not suffice as ample proof. Lovers might need to produce a signed, notarized contract detailing the provisions agreed to of each sexual encounter. Even that may not be enough, for a partner could contend that he or she did give contractual consent but later withdrew it during or after the sexual acts. Perhaps the true answer would be for students to record video of all sexual encounters and playback before committees to demonstrate consent. Then students’ privacy should be considered—college judiciary committees are usually composed of students, faculty, staff, and deans. Students attempting to prove guilt and maintain innocence will invariably need to explain specific details of their sexual activity to ensure that consent was or was not present at every stage. Campus proceedings on gray areas of consent will not be decided in a straightforward way but will expose the private lives of students to people who should not inquire. Legal pragmatism is yet another reason to oppose affirmative consent legislation.

The first student to be prosecuted as a result of the California law’s passage will undoubtedly appeal on the grounds that the law is unconstitutional. Affirmative consent legislation is difficult to reconcile with the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The California law uses gender-neutral language, but its supporters assume that perpetrators are lustful males and victims are passive females. If male students successfully charge females with sexual assault when females do not ask for and receive affirmative consent, then those who supported the law will call for its repeal. Though unprecedented, male students might prevail with the argument that a facially neutral law which discriminates on the basis of sex during enforcement denies them the equal protection of the laws. At best, the California law will be invalidated; at worst, students of all genders will preemptively and frivolously race to administrators to report sexual assault after a regretful hookup.

Another curious feature of the California law is that it divides the adult population of the state into two categories, those in higher education and those outside. Obviously academic status is not a suspect classification and thus does not constitute an Equal Protection challenge. However, were the law amended to apply to everyone above the age of consent in the state, legislators who supported the bill will have sexually assaulted their husbands and wives when they kiss them goodbye without explicit permission.

Affirmative consent legislation is a crime against liberty. The First Amendment is where affirmative consent legislation definitely does not pass muster. The speech of lovers before and during sex is protected under the imminent lawless action standard established in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). Supporters of California’s law might argue that it does not prohibit speech but rather the absence of speech. But the right to not speak is also protected under the First Amendment. Just as West Virginia v. Barnette (1943) ruled that public schools could not force students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, courts will rule that public universities cannot force students to express their consent in a standardized way. The law’s regulation of private, adult, noncommercial, and consensual sexual relationships also collides with freedom of intimate association, the personal liberty to enter and maintain intimate human relationships. The law makes the partners of college men and women rapists if they do not give an ongoing verbal or written yes, in effect criminalizing many healthy relationships. Such arbitrary regulation violates the First Amendment’s freedom of expression.

Finally, the central tenet of affirmative consent legislation, the regulation of sex, violates the Due Process Clause and/or the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Courts rely on substantive due process to protect unenumerated rights, from the right to seek abortion until viability to the right to marry persons of another race or the same sex to the right to engage in private intimate conduct. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), “Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. […] Our cases recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person […] These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Surely the right to define the mystery of human life extends to one’s freedom to determine how he or she consents to and engages in sexual activity. Individual liberty ultimately means the right of people to exert control over their own sexualities and self-ownership of their bodies, to be free in the enjoyment of all their faculties. Affirmative consent legislation, which burdens the freedom of college students, is an invalid exercise of legislative power.

Society should teach people to ask for and receive unambiguous consent before a fresh sexual encounter. But the idea of education is liberal; the force of legislation, the opposite. Legislators might have wanted to send a message by passing SB 967; however, expanding the definition of rape hurts many innocent students. Supporters of SB 967 should instead lobby Congress to repeal the National Minimum Drinking Age Act so that states can freely lower their drinking ages and lobby states to provide more resources to law enforcement for handling sexual assault reports and testing evidence collection kits. These actions will reduce binge and blackout drinking, a key factor in sexual assault cases, and help provide victims of sexual assault the support and redress they deserve.

The irony is that progressives and feminists who support SB 967 once opposed abortion prohibition, wanting government out of the bedroom. If affirmative consent legislation spreads to more states, then the tyranny of government will expand unprecedentedly. Feminists and progressives who truly believe in equality and reason must join with civil libertarians to eject government from the dorm room.

In Defense of Doing Nothing


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.

Within the past month, America and its coalition allies have been making sure to bomb the living daylights out of ISIL militants in Iraq and Syria.  This particular conflict even seems to spark the righteous fury of formerly anti-war icons like Rand Paul, who now favors air strikes against the terrorist group despite previously opposing them.

There are two questions to be addressed with respect to foreign military intervention. The first question is whether it is justified.  The second question is, if it is justified, to what extent should military action be taken.  I would like to address the second question first.

The Obama administration has assured the American people that there will be no American combat troops in Iraq and Syria.  Local Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian forces will take the brunt of the front-line fire, while American armed forces will only engage in air strikes against the Islamic State.

I’ve always regarded air-strikes-only as an absurd policy.  It is a politically convenient way for politicians to claim they are doing something, while ensuring casualty figures don’t come back to haunt them.  As a matter of principle, countries should only engage in conflicts they are prepared to win.  Airstrikes cannot win wars, prop up a government or hold ground.  If military action is justified, a country must either attack with sufficient force to defeat its enemy, or it should do nothing.  Anything in between implies a reluctance to succeed, and amounts to tacit approval of the defeat of sane, democratic opposition by murderous, theocratic lunatics.

Since there seems to be bipartisan consensus that military intervention is justified in this instance, the American government must explain why it isn’t trying to succeed.  If military intervention against ISIS is so critical, why is the administration holding back? Why are (so far) ineffective air strikes justified, but the deployment of ground troops is not? It’s almost as if the government is killing people and leveling cities in the Middle East to win over the hearts (though certainly not the minds) of American voters.

To even suggest that the United States stay out of such a conflict is horrifying to most of our poll-driven politicians.  “Well, are you suggesting we do nothing?” they will cry, their eyes wide with shock, fearfully clutching their pumpkin-spice lattes. Yes, that is exactly what I’m suggesting, for the simple reason that doing nothing is better than doing something reckless and stupid.  NATO engaged in airstrikes to support the anti-Qaddafi rebels in 2011, and there is no evidence its intervention there did any good.  The Western-installed proxy government was toppled almost immediately and Libya today is in a state of chaos.  The reason for this is quite simple: air strikes may be effective in toppling a government, but are completely useless in propping one up.  Air power alone cannot hold ground or capture territory, two things necessary for the success of a ground war.  As a former British chief of staff so bluntly put it “Air power alone will not win a campaign like this…This is a conventional enemy in that it has armor, tanks, artillery… it is quite wealthy, it holds ground and it is going to fight. So therefore, you have to view it as a conventional military campaign”.

I fail to see why, given the policy’s pitiful track record, its tendency to indiscriminately kill civilians and, most importantly, its inefficacy and dismissal by military experts, NATO and the Obama administration continue to rely solely on air strikes to achieve their objectives.

Moving on to the broader question: is military intervention justified for humanitarian purposes?  Amongst politicians, this is answered with a resounding “Sometimes”. For Democrats, Kosovo and Libya are “good interventions”, while Iraq is a “bad intervention”, and for Republicans it is precisely the reverse.  In order to make sense of this ungrounded, unprincipled, and downright mad foreign policy one must come to the conclusion that, before agreeing to any foreign intervention, the first question politicians of either party consider is: “Does my party currently hold the presidency?”

As a rule of thumb, a humanitarian cause per se is not sufficient cause for foreign intervention, and the United States should generally stay removed from foreign conflicts. The reason I advocate a non-interventionist foreign policy is not because I’m some nativist or isolationist; it is because I take military action very seriously.  Soldiers are not party apparatchiks who kill people in foreign countries to quell resentment amongst the American electorate; they have volunteered their service, and indeed their lives, in defense of the United States.  To send them abroad to fight for any other purpose does them a great disservice.  This is not what they signed up for.

The Country of Brotherly Love

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.

In a statement released this September, the German Ethics Council recommended that parliament repeal its laws criminalizing sibling incest. Only one or two generations ago, such a suggestion would have been considered unworthy of serious consideration. Now, however, in the context of the widespread erosion of traditional conceptions of marriage and sexuality, the Council’s pronouncement has raised the issue of sibling incest in a way it would be irresponsible to ignore. It will no longer do to dismiss discussions of incest with appeals to deep-seated feelings of moral repugnance. What is anathema to one generation has a way of becoming, after all, the next generation’s basic human right. It is a search for reasons therefore, not rhetoric or repugnance, that must drive the discussion forward.

What reasons, then, does the German Ethics Council present? In no uncertain terms, the Council states: “The fundamental right of adult siblings to sexual self-determination has more weight in [cases of consensual incest amongst adult siblings] than the abstract protection of the family.” Such an assertion indicates, I would suggest, that the Council’s controversial determination draws upon a characteristically liberal-modern conception of human freedom and sexuality. Liberals uncomfortable with the legalization of incest, then, will inevitably find, to their even greater discomfort, that they lack the philosophical resources to produce a consistent refutation of the Council’s position. A more conservative position on sexuality and the family is needed to provide compelling reasons for the principled continuation of a prohibition on sibling incest.

The sort of liberal-modern outlook that I will be addressing here (referred to hereafter simply as “liberalism”) has its beginnings in the Sexual Revolution and is most commonly associated today with terms like “sexual liberation” and “sex-positivity”. It largely rejects the traditional conception of human sexuality as intrinsically oriented toward a procreative union of persons within marriage. But what has it established in place of this traditional understanding?

If anything may be said, it is that liberalism advocates for a vast expansion in the range of permitted and valued sexual activity. The value of conjugal love within marriage is still affirmed, but it is no longer morally privileged. It stands alongside any sort of sexual act meant to express intimacy or affection outside of marriage, and even alongside casual sex between relative strangers. This shift has occurred because reasoning about sexual value no longer seeks its anchor in the objective realities of the human person and the good of the family but rather in the subjective preferences and desires of individuals. Hence, the only salient moral and legal feature is an honest, uncoerced alignment of desires – in other words, consent.

The recommendation of the German Ethics Council (GEC) is merely the fair extension of this liberal understanding to a group formerly outside its scope: incestuous siblings. The GEC admits that such relationships are uncommon, but also acknowledges that such relationships can be filled with the same intense emotional and sexual desires as non-incestuous relationships. “[Incestuous couples] describe how difficult their situation is in the light of the threat of punishment,” the GEC explains, “they feel their fundamental freedoms have been violated and are forced into secrecy or to deny their love…[these laws] put couples in a tragic situation.”

If such a description is accurate, as it almost certainly is, then what moral or legal reason could remain to systematically deny siblings the right to express their love and intimacy through sexual acts mutually agreeable to both parties? If two, though here one might easily imagine more than two, siblings consent, then the fair-minded liberal must concede that no such reasons exist. And finding such reasons absent, the GEC identifies laws upholding the prohibition against sibling incest as the groundless enforcement of an outworn taboo.

A liberal seeking to resist this conclusion has few arguments at her disposal. Appeals to feelings of disgust or repugnance are merely prejudicial. Claims regarding the health risks to children born of incestuous union are, as the GEC notes, similarly non-starters. The risk of genetic defect in the offspring of incestuous couples is not much greater than the risk in offspring of couples thirty-five years or older. Besides, there are a number of ways in which the liberal might enjoy the pleasures of sex while avoiding conception, in the case that conception might somehow be deemed irresponsible. Because the liberal has also more or less annexed serious questions surrounding family structure, like those surrounding sex, into the domain of consenting individuals, there is little she can say about the effects of incest without begging the question against those that have integrated their lives around an incestuous relationship.

The GEC writes, therefore, that “the fundamental right of adult siblings to sexual self-determination has more weight in such cases than the abstract protection of the family.” Contemporary liberalism, it would appear, is the natural home for the embrace of consensual incest amongst siblings. They are like long-lost brother and sister, finally reunited under the affirming eye of the GEC.

Unfortunately for those liberals still unsettled by the GEC’s recommendation, only the traditional conservative perspective is capable of presenting a consistent, rationally compelling case against incest. This case begins by breaking down a few assumptions typically made, either explicitly or implicitly, by mainline liberalism. These assumptions are as follows:

(1) The subjective feelings and preferences of consenting individuals, especially when joined together by a close friendship, are the final arbiters of the value of a sexual act.

(2) In protecting the freedom of individuals, the vitality of individual-building communities and institutions is likewise protected.

There are strong reasons, I will argue, to reject both of these assumptions.

A little reflection will show that a mere alignment of subjective preferences is not sufficient for a sexual act to be valuable in either its relational or self-reflexive aspects. Human acts, we want to say, ought to express respect for others in the fullness of their being as rational, embodied persons. Whatever stronger claims might be made, it is at least certain that sex aimed primarily at pleasure, even consensual sex between or amongst close friends, is incapable of meeting this standard. For sex aimed primarily at pleasure treats one’s own body and the body of one’s partner(s) as extrinsic instruments for the gratification of the conscious, desiring aspect of the self. In other words, it treats the body, an essential, constitutive aspect of the personal reality of the individual, as a sub-personal vehicle, geared up solely for the satisfaction of the will. The relational message communicated by such an act, then, is not one of friendship, which naturally embraces the full person, but one of instrumentalization. In this way, it expresses a lack of concern for the integrity, the mind-body unity, of oneself and of one’s sexual partner(s).

The self-reflexive impact of such actions is likewise undesirable, as it disposes the partners to understand themselves and others as fundamentally dis-integrated persons, open in certain circumstances to instrumental use for the sake of personal gratification. It disposes the partners against the idea that friendship and fundamental respect for persons must embrace others in their totality, as necessarily embodied bearers of a rational nature. Sex aimed primarily at pleasure, then, erodes the capacity of individuals to incorporate sex and sexual desire into a well-ordered framework for living.

So much for (1). Decisive counterexamples to (2) are easy to find. Consider, for example, the decline of the Christian religion in Western Europe. Whatever one believes about the ultimate truth of the Christian religion, it is difficult to deny that Christian communities and institutions have served as a source of life-shaping values for the countless individuals that grew up, lived, and worked under their influence. Nevertheless, at a time in Western European history marked by a relatively robust protection for the freedom of individuals, the influence of these communities and institutions, their ability to build up individuals in the way they once did, has significantly declined. Whether one believes this shift is for good or for ill, it demonstrates that the continued strength of character-shaping communities and institutions is not guaranteed solely by protecting the freedom of the individuals that constitute them. Rather, their strength within a given society is influenced by a complex of legal and extra-legal factors.

But what do these points have to do with incest? Relaxing liberal assumptions (1) and (2) allows us to look critically at the effect of incest on the family. The family is the first, and arguably the most important, of human communities. A strong, loving family provides for the socialization of children and contributes, often more so than any subsequent education, to the development of their character and to the inculcation of moral values. It can be a sanctuary from the world, a cohesive network of support that helps children to flourish, even and especially during times of moral or psychological vulnerability. If (1) is false, then the family is of the utmost importance in passing on a well-integrated, fully human understanding of sexuality to its children. To persevere in this effort is especially important during adolescence and young adulthood, an important time in character formation but also a time not especially known for chastity or restraint.

Now, allow sibling incest into the family. The temptation to act on and reinforce sexual desires that undermine the integrity of the person, temptation almost ubiquitous in the world outside the family, comes to infect the family as well. Because the goal of the family is not merely to teach theoretical or technical knowledge but also, and more importantly, to teach a way of acting and relating to others, it is paramount that the family remain, as much as possible, a sanctuary from such temptation. To attempt to convey to adolescents and young adults an approach to sexuality that urges moderation and restraint, both of which are necessary if sexual desire is to be integrated successfully into a well-ordered life, is challenging enough; to do so in a family environment that is itself already sexually charged would be like trying to keep dry in a rainforest.

The sexual openness of a family would be especially difficult on teenage girls who, too often viewed as sexual objects in the outside world, would find no relief at home, having to endure similar treatment and pressure from their male siblings. Allowing incest into the home would compromise one of the primary functions of the family, to lead its children to live flourishing lives sensitive to the dignity and the integrity of the human person.

If (2) is false, then it is of no avail to retreat behind the easy assumption that the family will always function the way it has in the past. As alluded to earlier, the law is not just a policeman; across generations, it can act as a teacher. Force the law to abandon its teaching on incest, and there is no guarantee that the family, the first and most important community in personal and civic life, will remain unchanged. In fact, if developments in marriage and, less recently, divorce, are any guide, there is strong reason to believe that it will not. In its inability to provide a consistent refutation of the GEC’s recommendation, liberalism shows itself caught in a paradox. In its blind commitment to protecting the choices of the individual, liberalism destabilizes the moral environment necessary for the individual’s moral formation, the foundation of authentic human freedom. The liberal’s implicit position on incest would compromise not just society’s families, and therefore its children, but also anything resembling a living culture of respect for human sexuality and for the human person.

In Solidarity

Photo by Sarah Tupchong

Photo by Sarah Tupchong

This post originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.

I hadn’t realized it would be Game Day when I went to visit my friend Natasha at Boston College (BC). It was sensory overload and a strange mix of referents; about as often as Swarthmore’s campus features a cluster of carefully cultivated native plants, BC’s lawn gives way to a grease-darkened grill, around which were clustered (on this particular afternoon) what felt like thousands of sports fans in full regalia. Where Swat’s solid, square-edged buildings indicate the secular nature of our educational experience, BC, which is a Jesuit school, is all spires and stained glass. It demands a different sort of awe. As far from Swarthmore as I felt, these features of BC referenced a different part of my life, when I attended a giant regional high school with Natasha. My own square-mile town had four churches within its borders. Football was a big thing. Walking with Natasha through campus, I sensed the flickering chance to recapture something I’d lost.

At BC Natasha has a best friend, Mary Kate, and a boyfriend, Jake. She and I have the kind of friendship that renders Mary Kate and Jake my friends by extension. When I arrived on campus, Jake showed me a map he’d printed from a David Foster Wallace wiki with drop-pins for all the places the writer had lived in nearby Brighton, the inspiration for the Enfield of Infinite Jest. Mary Kate and Natasha laughed at him for being so eager to talk about the book with someone who’d read it, but I knew the feeling. “Let’s get going,” said Jake. We set off to explore.

By the end of our walking tour it had begun to rain. We caught a BC shuttle bus heading back to campus. It was just before six, but already almost lightless beneath the stormclouds. The bus was humid and harshly lit. Most of our co-riders had just been at the game. The couple snuggling behind me seemed to vaguely know the girl across the aisle, who kept nodding off. Every several minutes or so, the man would clasp her shoulder or thigh and give her a little shake. “You okay? Hey, you okay, bud?” Other than this, the bus was nearly silent.

After about ten minutes or so, we were no longer moving, but hadn’t yet arrived. The windows were completely fogged over, preventing a personal evaluation of the post-game traffic. I was hot inside my layers, ready to be somewhere where conversation could resume. Around me I could hear other people start to complain. “Too hot,” said someone behind me. “Yeah.” Then, unusual for public transport, a full sentence shouted out from the front: “Can we get this thing moving, please?” A few titters. “Fuck it, I’d get off the bus right now!” The voice turned out to be that of a man in sports-fan clothes but none of the the relevant colors. His large blue eyes were the one feature I noted immediately. To my surprise, I saw that he was coming over to where my friends stood by the second set of doors.

“Do these open?”

The four of us avoided eye contact with each other and him. The man who kept shaking his friend muttered “I wish.”

Blue Eyes strode back to the front, rejoining what I assumed was his crew: several other white guys in tight shirts whose holds on the overhead bar seemed to be an opportunity they were taking to flex their arm muscles rather than a strategy to support themselves through the long-stopped sway of the bus. “How about the emergency exits?” This prompted a more general mutter from those assembled, suddenly cast as audience.

I was keeping my head down and didn’t see who it was, Blue Eyes or a comrade, who leaned over me to look at my window. “Will this shit open?” A couple of people laughed. I still wasn’t sure if it was a joke. When the agitator moved to actually push at the window behind me, people began to stir. “Hey man.”

“Don’t open the emergency exit,” articulated Natasha and Jake, speaking over one another.

“Hey man,” said the crowd.

The man in question retreated. There were a few moments of silence. Then:

“Hey, will you let us off this bus!”

The silence had become loud enough to match the shouts.

“It’s fucking hot! I could walk faster than this!”

“…” (Picture that in caps.)

“Hey, why is no one answering?”

“Don’t you all want to get off this bus?”

“Why the FUCK won’t they let us off!”

“Yo bus driver why are you keeping us LOCKED here!”

“Bus driver! Let us off!”

“What if I said I had Ebola!”

“I have Ebola!”

“Ebola on the bus! Let us off!”

I stared at the ground and willed the noise to die down.

“ISIS! ISIS is on the bus!”

“Let us the fuck off!”

“Why are we SLAVES to this BUS! Where are our RIGHTS!”

The voices were overlapping more and more. A slap of foot sounds forced me to look up, where all of the sudden, six or seven guys had collected their muscles from where they hung and amalgamated into one pulsing, muscular unit, crowded right on the edge of the white line which marks the edge of the bus driver’s territory.

In a flash, Jake, who is also a muscular guy, had joined the group, skewing its shape towards the back and away from the driver.

“Hey guys-“ I couldn’t hear the rest of what he said. The mob refocused itself around him and his voice reemerged.

“I just feel uncomfortable, as a fellow passenger, with the way you’re swarming the bus driver, and I also think that a lot of the things you’re shouting are degrading to him.”


“We aren’t degrading!”

“Do you want us to ‘degrade’ YOU?” They stepped in close.

Natasha hurried forward. “Listen, don’t you see how we all want to get off the bus? We don’t disagree with you that you should want to exit the bus! That’s what all of us want! It’s just that you’re threateningly swarming the driver-“

Threatening? Swarm?

Mary Kate was already walking up. “We could swarm you-“ someone said as I joined. With the four of us together the threat of a swarm dissipated slightly.

“You know that the bus driver is just doing his job! He probably has a contractual obligation to not let people off at the bus between stops-“

“How is his OBLIGATION stronger than my PERSONAL RIGHT to leave a place I don’t want to be?”

“Because – it could be a liability for BC-“

“Who gives a fuck about BC’s liability! I’m only here for four years, I don’t want to spend any of it trapped on a bus-“

“You should care because the driver might stay here for longer and could lose his job if something happened to you-“

Natasha was doing most of the heavy reasoning. Jake was sequestred behind her; as a male his was our only body which could suffer physical violence under their honor code. MK stood directly behind Natasha and stared through each man who yelled at her. In the back, I faced the tallest of the men, who seemed to be closer to the happy side of drunk. He took up his flex pose on the bar once more to parry insults with me.

“You don’t have to come up here and tell us we’re being dicks, you know. We’re just having fun. We have rights. This isn’t ISIS.”
“No one said that.”

“No but then why are you coming up here and talking to us like-“

“We just want you to leave the bus driver alone.” I was uncomfortably aware of my first person plural.

“How is it a liability for BC if I am totally satisfied and doing exactly what I want to do?” He bobbled his head at me. “You don’t have to tell us we’re being dicks when you’re coming up here where you’re clearly not wanted-“

“So I can’t stand here? As a fellow passenger? With passenger rights?” Natasha interjected.

“-which really makes YOU…well, you know,” Tall Guy finished to me, smiling a smug smile.

“So you guys are being dicks, but us coming up here to call you out on it makes us dicks?”


“How, exactly?”

“If you don’t see…that’s part of it.” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully.

“We don’t want to call you dicks, really. We want you to stop being dicks.”

“Listen, assholes,” said a new voice, a man with a cap seated behind the argument. His girlfriend clutched his arm. All the men spouted partial sentences and made jeering faces at one another until it became clear that no one really wanted to throw a punch. Dissatisfied, Blue Eyes called over:

“I see you’re wearing a Nantucket cap, PUSSY.”

The man in the cap snorted and was re-absorbed into the crowd as we all turned to look at Blue Eyes, who hadn’t spoken in awhile. His outburst was so unequivocally absurd that I think everyone expected some kind of backtrack. Instead, having secured universal attention, he faced Natasha straight on.

“You come up here RUINING our bus ride – we were NEVER trying to get off – we didn’t  SAY ANYTHING to the bus driver –“ His blue eyes were huge and encompassing. However, in the face of this logic, his first person plural was beginning to dissociate. A couple of guys mumbled their “Hey man”’s and slunk back.

“Hey man, she’s right,” a guy in a yellow shirt said suddenly. “We were being dicks, let’s just leave it.”

Blue Eyes broke through and stormed away, and I realized all at once that most of these men had just met.

“Yes!” said Natasha. “Let’s just be human-“ said Jake, who I remembered then I’d met just hours ago. “Yes human what’s your name I’m Natasha-“

“I don’t WANT to be human with you,” said Yellow Shirt. I took hold of Natasha’s shoulder in preparation to pull her back, but then he relented and said his name, which I didn’t register over the pounding of blood in my ears. Tall Guy unslung his hand from the bar again and offered it to me.

“Hey, I’m sorry.” He had a good handshake, and, I was to discover, a nice smile. “We were just being dicks. I didn’t mean to call you a dick. Or imply you’re a dick or whatever.”

“Yeah no I mean you were advancing a pretty good argument there-“

“Do you guys go to BC?” asked Jake.

“Naw, we graduated last year!” said Yellow Shirt. “Class of ’14,” chimed Tall Guy.

Natasha listed all the ‘14’s she knew with no common acquaintances. The conversation had changed drastically, but she kept her tone of supplication, which made it sound like a prayer.

The bus had started to move. We’d really been quite close to the stop the whole time. Within a few minutes, the doors opened and all spilled out. Yellow Shirt was still talking to Natasha and Jake, and when Tall Guy came out, he faced me and asked if I was also a sophomore.

“Yeah, but at Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia.”

He laughed. “Swarthmore! I love it. You totally fit their aesthetic.” I looked down at my two plaid jackets and recently duct-taped Birkenstocks (which literally broke from being paired with too-thick socks) and wondered if I was being insulted.

“No no no!” he affirmed, and touched me on the arm. “It’s just that I knew a girl who went there – she was a genius – whole family of geniuses –“ etcetera.

When he reached the end of his thought, Yellow Shirt asked us where we were going.

“To eat!” said Jake.

“You aren’t gonna come to the party up in…” I didn’t know the place. “You guys would be welcome to head over with us.“

“No, no,” we insisted together.

“But it was really great to meet you-“

In the dining hall we ambulated mostly in silence, collecting various eats, until we could crowd into an already-trashed side booth (the cushioned equivalent of a Sharples date table) and say:

“That was insane.”

“I could cry just from adrenaline,” I admitted.

“I don’t want to cry. I’m still so fucking angry,” said MK, looking as calm as she had for the entire altercation. “Those guys were threatening physical violence.”

“Well, not once Natasha got there,” said Jake.

“Is my face red?” asked she, testing the skin against the backs of her hands. (It was.)

Safe in our corner, hot chocolate secured, our first person plural loosened to allow for more lengthy expressions of individual experience. Jake was elated that we had succeeded in (by his interpretation) making peace with some of the guys.

“I was pretty surprised that you actually interfered,” I told him, “and that you took it as far as you did,” I told Natasha. And that we got invited to a party.

“I’m so confused,” she said. “Did we do the right thing? Were we within our rights, or overstepping them?”

“I think we were okay, because we had a lot at stake in making sure that nothing happened to the bus driver, since we could be killed on the bus,” I decided. “Jake, is that why you decided to go up?”

“Honestly, I kind of decide all these things beforehand.” He shrugged. “I made the choice awhile ago that I would never be a bystander. Then I don’t have to hesitate and think things through as the situations develop.”

I thought of Tall Guy’s friendly smile and felt the converse of Jake’s elation. It was not that drunk game-goers could turn out to be okay people, but that behind every friendly smile is the capacity for mindless cruelty.

I couldn’t stop problematizing. Were we only able to defuse this situation because we were so externally similar to our opponents, all average-sized, average-looking, white, young, and wearing basically “normal” clothes excepting my apparently Swarthmorean aesthetic touches? What if it had been a crowd of black guys swarming the bus driver? How would that have changed things? Would Jake have still interfered?

Although I have known Natasha since elementary school, we only really became friends senior year. Our friendship is built less on shared experience than the shared experience of trying to understand the worlds we grew up in and the assumptions they encouraged. At Swarthmore, there is a lot that’s no longer safe to assume, and that’s important. We have space here to build a parallel system, where assumptions like “Passengers are more important than bus drivers”; “American football is America’s sport”; and “Ignorantly invoking ISIS will scare people into giving you what you want” don’t need to exist.

At the same time, I am disturbed by my own, inherently Swat-influenced response to the altercation we witnessed on the shuttle bus. We could have been killed, so it’s okay that we said something. This is what I said aloud to my friends, that we were just looking out for ourselves, but it’s not what I believe. Really I felt a sense of solidarity with the bus driver – something that may or may not have arisen in other circumstances – while he was being berated. No one likes to be berated for things that are outside their control.

“Let’s just be human,” said Jake, and Natasha sent up all the names she remembered.

Any altercations which happen at Swat are between people who probably know at least each other’s names, if not scores of other personal details, from the get-go. This is a different system from BC for sure, a place where the rhetoric Natasha and Jake applied would not be enough. What interests me is the positionality and self-perception of the Swarthmore bystander. I find myself, in an effort to acknowledge the inherent mystery of other people’s experiences, conducting an ongoing project to abandon the notion that I might actually understand them. It would be patronizing to take action on anyone else’s behalf, even if, like the bus driver, they are momentarily or permanently incapacitated, because how could I know what they would really want?

To me this is a lonely feeling. Individuality is something to value, but if the only assumption we make is that everyone is acting as a true, pure individual at all times, actualizing themselves through the identities to which they can rightly lay claim, what space does that leave us to take care of one another?

I don’t know what kind of rhetoric we need to start reminding one another that we are all human, but I hope I find it soon.

The Tragedy of Green


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.

Imagine a bag of sugar spilled on the kitchen floor. A colony of ants, attracted by the sweet smell, parades into the house to swarm the found treasure. Disgusted, you crush them underneath your foot, one by one, before they can reach the bag. But more keep coming and you realize how fruitless your endeavor will be.

This is the strategy of the modern environmentalist movement. The kitchen floor is our unpolluted environment. The ants have many names—the Keystone XL pipeline, a college endowment invested in ExxonMobil, hydraulic fracturing technology with the promise of access to natural gas. The movement seeks to crush these ants randomly, unsystematically, while ignoring the reason why they come in the first place—the spilled bag of sugar.

The environmental movement ignores the problem of incentives. Economic actors such as consumers seek to maximize their welfare, and the good life these days requires plenty of energy. As long as fossil fuels provide a cheap source of energy, people will use them. Environmentalist attempts at blocking the fossil fuel industry will never work as long as the sugar remains on the floor.

But cleaning up the sugar—changing the incentives—is hard. Not only are there political barriers to overcome, but barriers of conscience: leaving to find a broom requires allowing some ants to reach the sugar. It can feel good to score small victories by crushing the ants underneath your shoe. Indeed, this focus on small “victories” with entirely symbolic value has become the main strategy in the environmentalist movement’s policy war. It is a strategy that has done nothing to slow the effects of climate change, and alienated the American public along the way. It has set up a false dichotomy between economic well-being and environmental sustainability. It has chased Democrats—supposedly the party of progress—away from action on climate change. And it has purposefully associated itself with a draconian and ultimately hollow set of policies that ignore the incentives which drive economic activity.

Stopping climate change is one of the twenty-first century’s defining challenges. But the movement to do so has done its cause a terrible disservice. It’s time for a new approach.

The Anatomy of the Environmental Movement

For the incognizant observer, it might be difficult to deduce that September’s People’s Climate March was actually about the climate. The main protest and its little sibling, Flood Wall Street, were as much about capitalism as they were about climate change. “Capitalism Kills,” and “Demand a Socialist Alternative” frequently popped up on cardboard signs. Even placards in support of a $15 minimum wage could be found. (What these had to do with the environment is still unclear.)

The environmentalist movement at Swarthmore and beyond frequently points to capitalism as the main cause of environmental destruction. (Never mind that communist China is the world’s biggest emitter of fossil fuels and the Soviet Union drained ninety percent of the world’s fourth-largest lake.) Since unfettered capitalism causes climate change, the government must step in to steer the economy in another direction. State seizure of fossil fuel reserves, heavy-handed regulation, and massive subsidies for the renewable energy industry are common refrains.

The association of the environmental movement with such draconian policies is alienating to the majority of Americans who recognize the enormous benefits and virtues of free-market capitalism. This is perhaps one of the reasons so many Americans are skeptical of climate science. “If I choose to believe in global warming,” the reasoning goes, “then I must also support these leftist policies.” It’s no surprise that it’s more appealing for the public—and politicians—to stick their heads in the sand rather than admit the danger of climate change and thus implicitly endorse such policies. Environmentalists have offered no solutions but the most extreme, setting up a false choice between supporting the free market and saving the planet.

A 67% majority of Americans believes there is “solid evidence” that the earth is warming, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet a minority of 40% believes that climate change is a “major threat” to the country. Yet a 65% majority also supports building the Keystone XL pipeline. Only 34% think it is “essential” for Congress to enact new climate change policies.

Presented with the false choice between the economy and the climate, many have chosen the economy. This explains the titanic 33-point gap between those who believe in climate change and those who want to act on it.

The 2014 midterm elections saw Democratic candidates run away from President Obama and the green movement on energy and environmental issues. Democratic West Virginia Senate candidate Natalie Tennant dramatically shut off the power to the White House in a campaign ad to protest Obama’s energy policy. Tennant’s counterpart in Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, proudly adopted Republicans’ “war on coal” rhetoric against the Obama administration. Republican candidates have effectively tied their opponents to the environmentalist movement and its billionaire political sponsor, Tom Steyer, in light blue states like Iowa and Colorado. In electoral politics, being tied to the leftist position on environmental issues is a losing attribute.

May I reiterate that two-thirds of Americans acknowledge that the earth is warming. The environmentalist movement is missing a tremendous opportunity to drive the climate change debate in a constructive way.

Instead, the movement relentlessly focuses on issues that carry huge economic cost for an entirely symbolic return. Nationally, the issue that fits this characterization is opposition to building the Keystone XL oil pipeline. At Swarthmore, it’s divesting the endowment of fossil fuel companies. Let’s visit each of these issues in turn.

The Keystone XL pipeline is a proposed 1200-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas that would carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries along the Gulf Coast. Building it would support construction and refining jobs (though admittedly claims about its economic benefits are sometimes overblown). The Obama administration has repeatedly blocked construction of the pipeline, making it a powerful symbol of what Republicans see as an overactive presidency stifling economic growth.

Environmentalists claim blocking construction of the pipeline is imperative to halting climate change. But this ignores several studies commissioned by Obama’s own State Department concluding that the pipeline would have no effect on carbon emissions. The reason is simple: if the pipeline is not built, the oil will get to market in other ways. Environmentalist opposition to Keystone XL ignores the massive economic incentive Canadian companies have to sell their product to refiners. Blocking Keystone XL is just crushing one of a thousand ants.

At Swarthmore, environmentalist groups on campus have adopted an almost singular focus on divesting the college’s endowment of stock in fossil fuel companies. They repeat the call despite the fact that such an action would cost the college $10-15 million per year. Yet even Mountain Justice, the divestment advocacy group on campus, admits that such an action would have no effect on the companies in question, thus making the benefits of divestment entirely symbolic. Once again the environmentalist movement has asked others to bear a massive cost for the sake of its cause.

Even the symbolic value of actions such as divestment and blocking Keystone XL is hollow. How can environmentalists claim the moral high ground against fossil fuel companies when they themselves continue to consume gasoline and electricity? Such companies would not exist without demand for fossil fuels from all Americans, including environmentalists. A vegetarian who seeks to protest the slaughtering of animals for food does so by not eating meat, not by divesting her holdings from stock in McDonald’s.

The narrow field of “solutions” to climate change offered by environmentalists, and the extremism of the ideas contained therein, has set up an us-versus-them understanding between the green movement and the public. Policies such as divestment and central planning of the energy economy are neither politically astute nor economically practicable. As for their stated goals of reducing emissions, the empirical record shows they have failed.

The Emptiness of Green “Victories”

In 2005, to meet the carbon dioxide emissions reduction goals of the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union implemented a cap-and-trade system, known as the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). For the green movement, this was a victory before its time—climate change was not yet a salient issue in America and Al Gore had yet to release An Inconvenient Truth. The scheme—by which individual EU countries would allocate tradable emissions permits, in hopes of capping total emissions of carbon—was a model for the proposed Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade system in the U.S. With a central government telling companies who could produce carbon and how much, the world would enter a new age of environmental sustainability. The free market had been reined in at last!

Fast-forward to 2011 and ETS had yielded no significant reduction in carbon emissions, according to a UBS Bank report, and rang up a price tag of 210 billion euros. The trouble was that most countries had allocated their permits for free to established polluters, entrenching these companies’ position in the economy. In fact, the German Economic Research Institute found evidence that ETS actually increased pollution, by incentivizing firms to construct new coal plants in order to take advantage of the free emissions permits.

Four years after ETS, the U.S. was poised to make the same mistake. The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate in 2010, but it would have implemented a similar carbon trading scheme whereby 85% of the permits would be allocated for free, again to established polluters. While such a system might reduce pollution on the margin, it ignores the central purpose of cap-and-trade: to make pollution more expensive, giving new firms the opportunity to get their foot in the door and innovate ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Importantly, the Waxman-Markey bill also dealt a blow to environmentalism in the court of public opinion. Democratic Senate candidate Joe Manchin famously shot (yes, with a rifle) a copy of the cap-and-trade bill in a campaign ad. Average people saw no benefit from action on climate change other than a vague promise that the future effects of global warming might be mitigated. For most of America, green policies were the pet passion of wealthy, idealistic coastal liberals that meant higher energy prices and fewer jobs in the coal, oil, and gas industries.

This bad press for the planet only multiplied following the calamitous failure of Solyndra. A government-subsidized manufacturer of solar panels run by major donors to the Obama campaign, the company went belly-up in 2011, taking with it $535 million in taxpayer money. Solyndra’s failure became a symbol of incessant and expensive government meddling in the economy to promote the favored renewable energy industry.

This view has much validity. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2013, the federal government allocated $16.4 billion in tax preferences for the energy industry—74% of which supported either renewable energy or energy efficiency. By contrast, fossil fuels only accounted for 20% of this support. This number is down from roughly $21 billion a year in energy tax preferences—again, mostly benefitting green initiatives—from 2009 to 2011.

Since the dawn of the Obama era, the federal government has tried to systematically prop up green energy with expensive interventions. Not only do these cost taxpayers billions, but also distort the economy by effectively allowing the government to pick winners and losers in the energy sector. The government cannot know which new energy technologies will succeed and which will fail. By subsidizing one company over another, the government may doom the latter company to failure—a company which might develop a better alternative energy solution, given time.

Any environmentalist would retort that some economic distortion right now is a small price to pay for a cleaner, cooler planet in the future. But that is not how Americans have come to see things. Their view is that the U.S. federal government, with its pernicious network of taxes, regulations, and subsidies, seeks to drown the American energy sector, killing millions of jobs, and while imploring its victims simply to “trust us.” For all but the environmentalist left, the famous Ronald Reagan quote holds true: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

Once again, global energy policy has ignored the problem of incentives and left the bag of sugar idle on the floor. In the EU, a failing cap-and-trade system has failed to reduce carbon emissions and entrenched the economic power existing polluters. And in the U.S., subsidies and planning have made renewable energy less about saving the planet and more about milking the government for cash. Each policy has scored small victories—some additional renewable energy capacity here and there—but has largely failed to improve our prospects of halting climate change. Mind you, we haven’t even touched yet the world’s biggest polluter—China. To stop carbon emissions on a global scale, we need the help of the most powerful innovation in human history—the free market.

Free-Market Environmentalism

In 1900, New York City was exploding. The city’s population of 3.4 million would double within 40 years. All these people required transportation—100,000 horses, to be precise—which produced approximately 1,250 tons of manure every day. Urban planners feared that if New York City continued to grow, the streets would be buried under feet of horse leavings, suffocating the booming metropolis quite literally under its own weight.

These fears did not bear out, of course, because the urban planners of 1900 did not anticipate Henry Ford’s model T and the rise of motorized transportation. The horses disappeared, and thankfully most references to horse-shit in New York nowadays are metaphorical.

The point here is that forecasts into the future frequently assume that current patterns will stay in place. This approach does not take into account technological change, such as the invention of the model T. Regarding the problem of climate change, technological progress has already slowed the growth of emissions—the proliferation of natural gas has made it a cheaper alternative to coal. Natural gas produces around half the carbon dioxide per unit of energy as coal, and none of the sulfur dioxide. After natural gas prices started consistently falling in 2005 from the all-time high of $13.42 per million btu, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions plummeted by 10% and hit their lowest level since 1994.

Even if the schemes devised by Western governments to reduce emissions had worked, the world would still face the problems of China, India, and Russia, which are respectively first, third, and fourth in the global ranking of carbon emitters. Without a strong middle class to lobby for environmental protection, these countries have little incentive to join the battle against climate change. The only way to get them to reduce their emissions is to offer them a cheaper alternative—policy will not help.

America is the world’s great innovator. It has been American innovations such as the automobile, electricity, and the telephone that have driven the exponential increase in global standards of living over the last century. In the 21st century, America can be a leader in producing alternatives to fossil fuels—alternatives that big polluters such as China and India can then incorporate into their own economies.

I am not so naïve as to rely on the assumption that the market will come up with an alternative energy source before the world feels the worst effects of climate change. Some sort of policy change is necessary. But all the policies that have thus far been tried—cap-and-trade, renewable energy subsidies, carbon taxes, divestment—have been top-down solutions that leave tremendous power and money in the hands of government bureaucrats. It’s time for a market-based, bottom-up approach.

My proposal, which builds off one offered by economist Martin Feldstein, is a variation on cap-and-trade that assigns pollution permits directly to American citizens. People are then free to sell these permits to whomever will buy them, and pocket the money. This distributes the financial benefits of cap-and-trade directly to the people, not to the government. Importantly, the policy is highly equitable, with every person in America, rich or poor, receiving the exact same benefit. Unlike the Waxman-Markey proposal, there is little opportunity here for political favoritism.

According to economic theory, this is no different from a regular cap-and-trade system, but politically it makes all the difference in the world. Rather than the government imposing a burden on American families, this solution gives everyone a personal stake in supporting and maintaining the program. While top-down policies are vulnerable to political headwinds, no legislator would touch a program that provides direct financial benefits to the vast majority of American households.

The purpose of this program is not to reduce emissions directly, but to make pollution more expensive by requiring the purchase of the permit to emit carbon. Allocating the permits to households will also offset the inevitable rise in energy prices. Imposing this extra cost will encourage more companies to look for non-polluting (or less-polluting) alternatives. It does not involve the government picking winners and losers and trying to guess which form of alternative energy will power the future. It simply sets a price on carbon, gives consumers the proceeds, and lets the free market figure out the rest. In short, it changes the incentives.

The Tragedy of Green

A free market is not only consistent with preserving the environment—it is intrinsic to it. The near-total association of the environmentalist movement with the ideological left causes me to fear for our prospects of halting climate change. Tying action on climate change to an interventionist agenda will not only fail in its goals, but it will alienate the majority of the political spectrum from supporting any sort of environmental protection policies. Yet the strategy of the environmentalist movement has not been to find green policies that can appeal to the majority of the public; it has been to support the policies which meet their goals in the quickest way possible, regardless of the unintended consequences.

Currently our political system is divided between those on the left, who support extreme, distortionary and unpopular green policies, and those on the right, who either deny the existence of climate change or refuse to act on it for fear of being associated with the radical environmentalist left. With such a sharp division, it is no wonder that a policy like the one I outlined has not come to the floor of Congress.

The passion of the environmentalist movement is admirable and honestly motivated, which is why I hope that greens can take the lead in proposing a more politically moderate and realistic approach. But that will require a reexamination of their own movement and the motivations that drive it. It will require giving up issues like divestment and Keystone XL—letting some ants through—and refocusing their energy on fixing the problem of incentives. Cleaning up the sugar is more difficult than squishing the ants, but I believe the enthusiasm of today’s environmentalist movement is up to the challenge.

Environmentalists have an opportunity to save the planet, if they can first be saved from themselves. They must not let their movement become a tragedy.