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Sweet-Singing Economists


Garrett Hardin, Human Ecologist


TUCSON (A-P) — From:

Exploring New Ethics for Survival

The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle

Garrett Hardin 1972


Sweet-Singing Economists

"If you make us meet your unrealistic air-pollution standards," said Union Carbide to the Environmental Protection Agency, "we’ll just have to close our Marietta plant and put 625 workers on the relief rolls."

"It will ruin us if we have to treat the discharge from our Port Angeles pulp mill," said Rayonier: "we’ll have to close down."

"Impossible!" said US Steel. "We’ll go out of business if we can’t dump ten million gallons of acid waste each year into San Francisco Bay."

The EPA was adamant, and all three industries gave in. They spent millions of dollars on pollution-control and stayed in business. They had threatened to use their workers as hostages in an environmental shoot-out. But they had been bluffing.

When it comes to the environmental shoot-out not all businesses are bluffing. Sometimes the imposition of higher standards is followed by the closing down of a factory. Cause and effect? Not necessarily. The factory may have been marginal anyway, and the occasion merely made a convenient excuse that was inevitable sooner or later.

Or, to put it another way, which straw breaks the camel’s back?

The imposition of external standards is sometimes a blessing in disguise. When US Steel realized it really had to do something about its acid waste in San Francisco it found a user for it and saved the costs of dumping. It was money ahead. This is the sort of success story that technilogical Pollyannas cherish, but it is rare. (If it were the rule, pollution would not be a problem.) Once, a long time ago, a factory was forced to clean up the suffocating sulpher dioxide in its flue-gas found it could convert it to sulpher and sell it for more than enough to pay for the cleaning process. The story is often cited. But that was a long time ago. In the meantime the market has changed, and it now costs $30 a ton to extract sulpher from flue-gas—and the sulpher can only be sold for $15. You don’t get rich that way. That’s typical.

Businesses fight pollution-control for economic reasons—but that doesn’t account for the vigor with which they resist. In the long run, there may be no real economic reason for opposing a clean-up, because management can pass the costs on to the customer. The vehemence of the resistance springs from moral ferver. Management feels it’s being screwed. Moralistic hang-ups often prevent managers from even looking for a way to turn a penny by cleaning up. Indignation interferes with economic judgement.

Why the moralistic stance? Is it really unfair to demand that a business cleans up the mess it makes? We can hardly expect a businessman to be unbiased enough to to give an unbiased answer, but then, perhaps neither can an environmentalist, who has a vested interest of a different sort. How can we acquire the objectivity needed to answer this question?

Objectivity may be a gift of grace (as theologians might say) –something unsought, conferred on one as if from the outside. But it may also be won by seeking. There are psychological tools for cultivating it. One of the best of these is the “man from Mars” gimmick, an invention (I believe) of the ninteenth-century philosopher-essayist Ernest Renan.

The trick is this: suppose that I were a man from Mars, visiting the earth, observing it, and reporting back home to my people. I am (by hypothesis) perfectly rational, keenly observant, and admirably intelligent. I have no preconceptions. I have no vested interest in earthly affairs, and no reason to soften my speech to spare earth-men’s feelings, since I am reporting only to my fellow Martians...looking at the pollution-control problem, what do I write to the folks back home? Let’s see how a Martian report might read:

I’ve stumbled (says our Martian) across a rather puzzling situation. In this town there is a factory called the Acme Widget Works. It turns out two products (a) widgets, for which there seems to be a great demand (though I haven’t yet figured out why); and (b) smoke, for which there is no demand whatever.

Black fumes fan out over the town, darkening paint on the workers’ homes, killing the more delicate plants in their gardens, soiling their clothes, and in a hundred ways making more work for the housewives [ok, this was written a LONG time ago]. Furthermore it shortens the lives of all by increasing the incidence of asthma, emphysema, and other respiratory disease.

It’s obvious to any Martian that the situation borders on idiocy; but it’s not obvious to Earthlings. In fact, the most vocal ones are divided into two groups: the “ecologists” and the “economists.” Ecology is the study of the relation of all living things to each other and to all the nonliving things in their environment. (There are over three million living species on Earth.) Economics is a study restricted to the mutual relationships of the members of a single species, Homo sapiens, with a cursory glance at only a few of the nonhuman components. The names of both sciences are derived from the Greek word oikos, which means home or household. Logically, it is obvious that economics is but a small specialty in the much larger science, ecology.

Sociologically, it is quite otherwise: the tail wags the dog. My studies show that the average salary of ecologists is $12,643 per year, while that of economists is $29,078, or 2.3 times as much. By a well-known Law, the social power of economists, relative to ecologists, is given by:


In round numbers, the social power of an economist is ten times as great as that of an ecologist. There are 73 times as many economists as ecologists, so the total social power of economists is 730 times that of the ecologists. Understandably, the public listens to the economists.

Whom do the economists listen to? When I asked several of them they said, “Truth!” or something like that, but this didn’t jibe very well with their actions, so I carried my investigations further. Fortunately, I was helped in this by stumbling across the work of a natural philosopher of the untouchable caste called “Poets.” I neglected to make a note of his name, but here is his theorem:

Whose bread I eat,
His song I sing.

This has been checked against reality and has been found to be 99.44 percent true. (The rather large discrepancy of 0.56 percent is yet to be explained.)

The bread of the economists comes from the factories, the song they sing is true.

I asked an economist who specializes in widgets: “What does a widget cost?”

“In today’s market, $3.98, or $41.49 a dozen.”

I asked the same question of an ecologist.

“The price,” he said, “is $3.98. The cost is unknown, but includes the cost of repainting homes, cleaning clothes, paying for the time of housewives, making recompense for illness and shortening of lives, as well as the much more difficult problem of paying people for the enjoyments they are denied—for instance the scent of delicate flowers, the intoxicating smell of clean air, and the heavenly vision of crystalline skies. The cost is unknown, but it must be great. A helluva lot more than the $3.98 price tag of a widget."

I took this distinction back to the economists to see how it grabbed them. Their mouths looked as though they had bit into a green persimmon.

“Where’d you get that idea?” asked one: “From an econut?”

“Must have been some dickey-bird-watcher,” said another.

“Or a flower-plucker,” said a third.

“You don’t speak very clearly,” said yet another, and they all went off into gales of laughter.

In my small sample, I found only one economist, Milton Friedman by name, who agreed that the distinction between price and cost was sound. The others didn’t argue with him. They just went back to their factories for more bread.

Had the man from Mars carried his investigations further, he would have discovered that the run-of-the-mill economists do have a way of dealing with this situation. They distinguish between “external costs” or “externalities,” and “internal costs,” which significantly, are just called “costs” period. In the making of widgets, this is the way they divide it up:

(i.e. interna costs)

Raw material
Amortization of factory
Workmen’s compensation insurance
Social-security contributions

External Costs

Repainting houses, Repainting houses
Cleaning clothes
Medical care
Compensation for shortening of life
Compensation for loss of amenities (pure air, pure water, pleasant surroundings)

I don’t know who first coined the term “external costs,” but it is quite obvious that he was an economist, sitting in the factory manager’s office, looking out. A genuinely objective economist standing in the town square, looking in every direction, would not think of this dichotomy, internal—external. It is a company-oriented dichotomy, not a community-oriented one.

What is objectivity? The concept is subtle and easily perverted. Most professional jargon that poses as objective is merely euphemistic. The implicit logic seems to be this:

a. That which is objective is unemotional.
b. Euphemisms are unemotional.

Therefore, euphemisms are objective.

A couple of examples will suffice to illustrate the point:

(1.) Statement: “While his personal intellectual capacity is limited, he rarely hesitates to absorb
knowledge from others around him in order to ehnance his image as a well-rounded pupil.”

Translation: “He cheats.”

(2.) Statement: “The president was less than candid.”

Translation: “The president lied.”

Posing as objectivity, euphemisms sap the springs of action. If the economist’s “external costs” had, from the outset, been called “larcenous costs” or “the cost of business larceny,” we would not have tolerated them. Larceny has been perpetrated: clean air, clean water, and good health have been stolen from us. The economists should have told us so. Bluntly. A few have. William Kapp, Ezra Misham, Kenneth Boulding, and Alan Kneese, for example. And a few others.

But most economists have just sung sweetly.


"Few pains hurt quite so unremittingly as the dull ache of realizing that we have been wrong, wrong, wrong—for a long time."

"For generations we have had a society shaped by the larceny of 'externalities.'"

"Whatever words we use, it is a fact that the human mind secretes theory as a gland secretes hormones. The necessity is undoubtedly connected with the fact that we are a verbal animal [Homo narrator]. The verbal secretion is called (variously) theology, law, alchemy, or science. Those who have not the intellectual ability to create the sort of theoretical framework required in these disciplines make due with crude typological images about personalities—"stereotypes"—that explain a world awry as the fault of thieves, hypocrites, devils, infidels, Bolsheviks, imperialists, or racists. [per left-leaning ideologues, Hardin was racist, anti-emigrant, anti-poor, anti-fair, anti-justice, antihuman]. Such stereotypes, which vary from age to age, are always available to the unscrupulous who seek to manipulate the minds of others cheaply."


Above from Chapter 10: Read the book, bitches.




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