A bold claim: The ESSEX carbon tax is ‘conservative’

By David Flemming

If you happened to be reading the ESSEX Plan Carbon Tax for the first time, you might ask yourself, “Why did they choose $40 per ton of CO2?”

According the the ESSEX proposal, $40 per ton of CO2 “is the same level the Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends suggests as a starting price,” a federal carbon tax proposal that was authored by Reagan and Bush’s administration cabinet secretaries. With this in mind, the  ESSEX authors of the proposal make the fascinating claim that “the ESSEX Plan is more conservative than the Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends” (CCCD).

ESSEX is indeed less grandiose than the CCCD. That does not make it ideologically “conservative.” Whereas ESSEX would be phased in over 8 years to $40 per ton, the CCCD would start at $40 a ton and go up from there. Since ESSEX takes less money from the pockets of hardworking Vermonters than the CCCD, it can crudely be called “more conservative,” in the sense that a 50-watt electric shock to the groin is more compassionate than a 100-watt shock.

But choosing the better of two bad options is hardly something conservatives would like to be known for. Indeed, while the conservative tent is open to a wide range of ideas, it would be difficult to call the ESSEX carbon tax truly “conservative.”

According to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, conservatives can be broadly classified into nine distinct ideological camps today. While some of these nine might object more adamantly than others to ESSEX, none of these nine brands of conservatism would gain much from the ESSEX Carbon Tax.

To briefly explain ESSEX as it relates to five of these nine types of conservatism:

1. “Classical liberals favor a free economy and embrace the continuing truth of Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek, which means they see the place of virtue in forming productive citizens.” ESSEX would allow Vermont’s government to favor large corporations that use extensive amounts of electricity, at the expense of small businesses that rely more on fossil fuels. The government favoritism outlined in ESSEX is antithetical to free markets and the classical liberal ideal.
2. “Neoconservatives hope to continue “the tradition of aggressive American exceptionalism rooted in both American military power and confident ideological leadership.” In contrast to strong ideological leadership, adoption of the CCCD or ESSEX carbon tax would signal a willingness to let progressive ideas guide Vermont and America, so long as those ideas have a conservative rubber stamp on the actual policy proposal.
3. “Traditional Conservatives are concerned about the effects of both the modern economy and big government on ‘social ecology,’ which sustains dignified relational life rooted in particular communities.” While ESSEX tries to throw rural communities a bone with a rural rebate, Vermonters who use extensive amounts of fossil fuels for heat will end up with higher costs of living and communal decline.
4. “Populist Conservatives tend to be less concerned about limiting the size and scope of the government in favor of stronger and smarter leadership to protect the dignified lives of ordinary Americans.” The ESSEX carbon tax would hurt blue collar workers who rely on fossil fuels. Even when the growth of government is not a concern, a carbon tax doesn’t make much sense as policy.
5. “Growth Conservatives think the main reform America needs today is to cut taxes and trim regulations that constrain ‘job creators.’”Adopting a carbon tax that would force Vermonters to give even more of their income to government is hardly a recipe for job creation.

All nine types of conservatives have nothing to gain and a lot to lose under ESSEX. For that matter, many moderates and progressives concerned about the impact of ESSEX on poor Vermonters are likely to reject this carbon tax when they see its economic costs. At its base, the ESSEX Plan is a radical environmental policy that will do little to make Vermont’s environment more resilient, and will do a lot to make Vermont’s economy unresponsive to the Vermonters who need it most.

David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.

Image courtesy of Public domain