When was the Golden Age of conservative intellectuals?

Paul Krugman says a mix of “never” and “certainly not now” (my paraphrases, not actual quotations from him).  Here is one bit:

On environment, a similar turn took place a bit later.  The use of markets and price incentives to fight pollution was, initially, a conservative idea condemned by some on the left.  But liberals eventually took it on board — while cap-and-trade became a dirty word on the right.  Crude slogans — government bad! — plus subservience to corporate interests trump analysis.

I believe this is pretty far from the reality, here are a few points:

1. Conservative intellectuals never have turned against the idea of a carbon tax, as evidenced by Greg Mankiw’s leadership of the Pigou Club.  Cap-and-trade is somewhat less popular, but that is probably the correct point of view, given the time consistency problems with governments that increase the supply of permits, as has happened in Europe.

2. Water economics is a big part of environmental economics.  “Raise the price” and “define property rights better” remain central ideas in that field, commanding a lot of attention.  David Zetland is one recent exemplar of these ideas.

3. The idea that there can be too much environmental regulation in many particular cases remains a central contribution, often associated with the Right.  Of course this view is compatible with much tougher restrictions on carbon or other forms of air pollution.

4. The idea of properly applying “value of life” analysis to regulation, and seeking greater consistency (let’s save lives in cheaper rather than more expensive ways), remains a significant and undervalued insight.

5. Some of the key work on valuing biodiversity has come from Chicago-related methods, though I do not know the political affiliations of the authors.

6. Matthew Kahn, one of the leading environmental economists today, I would consider broadly in the classical liberal tradition.  He recently published an important book on air pollution in China.

6. Jonathan H. Adler is a significant ongoing contributor to environmental law and economics.  Or try the work of Terry Anderson.

7. Applying property rights analysis to animal herds, animal ownership, and the tragedy of the commons remains a significant conservative idea.  You will note throughout I don’t like calling these “conservative” ideas, they are simply good ideas or bad ideas.  Still, in the broader sociological sense you hear these ideas from conservatives and libertarians fairly often.

8. There is plenty of recent work on the political economy of the administrative state, and whether it generates abuses of the rule of law or bad incentives.

9. I could go on, with perhaps Vernon Smith”s recent work on peak-load pricing for electric utilities being next in line.  Or pro-green, pro-nuclear analysis often comes from the Right.

10. Overall, “schools of thought” have been dwindling in economics, and so it might seem that the golden ages of various ideologies or schools of thought lie well behind us.  But if we focus on the ideas and their influence, rather than whether carriers of those ideas bear particular political labels, the influence of Chicago, UCLA, cost-benefit, and Montana/PERC ideas in environmental economics never has been stronger.  In that sense the golden age is right now.

Addendum: Here is a better Krugman piece on the history of thought, though I would note that capital movements were integrated into the price-specie-flow mechanism in the 18th century and fully by the time of Henry Thornton.


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