By John Klar
“The tragedy of the commons” is a phrase that describes the societal loss of resources through individual selfishness. In agrarian cultures, sheep, cows or other animals were often maintained in a “commons” where individual farm families would use large shared areas to pasture animals collectively. This worked well, unless an individual farmer exceeded the carrying capacity of the common to increase his personal wealth — and if all the farmers did that, the common would be destroyed.
This model is useful to examine modern environmental policy efforts, where the tragedy of the commons is seen in our oceans, air, soil — and global warming. An intriguing parallel to this “common” land or water concept is the “House of Commons” in democracy: the legislative body where individuals collect to craft societal rules. This is where the modern world seeks to prevent individuals from destroying the whole: this is where humanity is most abjectly failing.
A legislative body, too, must not be despoiled, overtaxed or squandered. Around our nation, Americans are concluding that individuals have crept into their governing commons, like sheep thieves, to appropriate “common” resources for individual or interest-group enrichment. And nowhere is this more evident than the so-called carbon tax.
Neither state nor federal government has a track record of protecting Americans from carcinogenic chemicals, yet now many strive to employ these entities to regulate the much more ambitious and ubiquitous substance known as “carbon.” In the name of saving the planet, and with no interest in the mathematical restraints of money supply or economics, these self-proclaimed warriors are marching on America’s commons (legislative bodies) to appropriate their own personal harvest at the expense of others.
This is easily illustrated in Vermont, where the progressive experimentation has been unstaunched because of a supermajority in both houses of state government. As they rush to fix the carbon balance, one is reminded of Thomas Sowell’s “The Quest For Cosmic Justice” — with each effort, inequities are created which reveal the folly of seeking government-imposed solutions instead of civil calls for collective personal responsibility.
Consider Vermont’s various ideas for a carbon tax, many of which call for a fuel tax to be collected at the pump and then redistributed to consumers through electricity rate offsets. Of course, this would create a moral hazard by encouraging people to use more electricity. It is unfair because it disproportionately impacts people with long commutes, poor people who have less-efficient vehicles, etc. And those people who (like this author) live completely off-grid to reduce their “carbon footprint” will be penalized by a tax then transferred to people who ultimately consume coal through their powerlines. Of course, the government will have absorbed a substantial portion of the collected funds in administrative costs and bureaucratic expansion, with zero regard for whether all that heated state office space is carbon neutral.
Vermont wishes to subsidize electric cars, and perhaps exempt them from sales tax. These $40,000 vehicles are not on the purchasing radar for most of Vermont’s citizens, who are struggling financially: Vermont presently places 32nd in GDP nationally. The carbon tax advocates propose to subsidize 57,000 vehicles in five years (by 2025), a dramatic increase that is not likely to parallel Vermonters’ economic fortunes. They also have shifted money from road maintenance to bike paths and commuter lots (which increase water runoff, and favor urban over rural Vermonters); electric buses, and short-distance rail plans that will not likely benefit commuters as much as the special interests who tout the virtues of these fantasy projects.
Legislators do not pause to consider inequities, apparently. For instance, what is the carbon (and fertilizer and other pollutant) “cost” of an expansive, obsessively mowed lawn versus that gravel-road house-trailer obscured by weeds? What of people who commute in $50,000 pickup trucks that never carry a load, versus that fellow in the $800 pickup selling cordwood to his neighbors while heating his home? Vermont wants to collect sales tax from the poor on usedrust-buckets to subsidize the wealthy to buy brand new cars; to collect fuel tax from those who use solar power to provide to people who burn fossil fuels through the electric grid. And what of swimming pools — are they “green”?
The absurdity of such folly was supposed to be prevented by the gatekeeper of the legislative commons — the United States Constitution. In Vermont, that document is a dodo. The eco-commons is the place for industrious bureaucrats to harvest not just all the grass, but stretch into the farm families’ homes as well, and see what is on the kitchen shelf, or in the barnloft. As mandatory carbon broker, the government will always get its (ever-enlarging) slice in fees, job growth, and power expansion. And like a fungus, it will grow until it is eradicated.
Vermont’s legislature uses taxpayer funds to operate a state lottery which preys on the most poor and creates addiction, and advertises that “all proceeds go to the education fund.” Which is, of course, indistinguishable from the General Fund from whence the funds would be drawn in the absence of a state lottery. The Vermont Attorney General recovered funds for smokers’ claims which he then announced would be used “to combat the opioid epidemic.” These moral arbiters are well-practiced to transfer endless sums of taxpayer funds under the carbon-tax rubric.
The determinant of who will pay for the miniscule vicissitudes of one of the planet’s most plentiful compounds (carbon dioxide) will be determined not by science, or by political party, but by the wealthy elite who pass laws that hurt the poor while enriching themselves. Those elite in Vermont are not the traditional rich Republican bogeymen (indeed, Republicans in Vermont are approaching extinction!). They are liberal academics, businesspeople, and out-of-state transplants, who are as paternalistic in their highbrow plans for Vermont’s “underclass” as any European monarch or Wall Street tycoon.
One day perhaps Vermont’s proles will rise up, and tax Olympic-size swimming pools and vacation homes — a lot of carbon is transferred when people own multiple residences. (Recall, the liberals were furious at POTUS Trump’s tax plan for limiting their previously unlimited tax deduction for vacation homes). In bitterly cold Vermont, many vacation homes are heated year-round, in case the New York City elites wish to jaunt up to ski for the weekend. (Hmmm…. How “green” is skiing? Is “leaf-peeping” green?). Golf courses are not very eco-friendly either, and might be subjected to a weighty tariff (carbon + chemicals + water!) that can be redistributed to run-of-the mill Vermonters through a “beer-keg-or-french-fry” subsidy. (That would get some greenhouse gases churning!).
The issue is not whether anthropomorphic action is causing climate change: the issue is whether there exists an anthropomorphic capacity to elevate personal responsibility above government domination. Otherwise, opportunists will ever seek to impose their infinite moral/social/carbon demands on others, plucking at the smoldering twig in their neighbor’s eye while ignoring the flaming, globe-warming logs in their own. “Carbon tax” proponents seek to create inequality via our legislative commons, like greedy individualists who put too many of their sheep on public grasslands.
Americans must restore the United States Constitution as gatekeeper of our common heritage, to repel prowling wolves.
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield. Originally published at American Thinker.