Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Adam Smith and Nuclear Power

From the Washington

Nuclear Dinosaur By Peter Asmus Wednesday, 6 July 2005; Page A17

“The recent call by President Bush to restart a major nuclear power program in this country in response to concerns about our dependence on foreign energy sources and global climate change would have Adam Smith rolling in his grave.
There is no power source less compatible with the GOP's love of free markets and disdain for regulation and subsidy than nuclear fission. Without government intervention, there simply would be no nuclear industry.”

Without getting into a long dispute about the benefits or otherwise of nuclear power and whether this would contribute to countering global warming, I think it appropriate to correct the line of argument used by Peter Asmus to include Adam Smith in his case against nuclear power.
It is no business of mine (I have no views on nuclear power) how Peter Asmus argues but I draw the line at an incorrect attribution to Adam Smith, apparently, “rolling in his grave” because President Bush wants to switch resources towards the nuclear option.
In “Wealth of Nations” (Book V) Smith advocates the funding by government of those projects which it would not pay a private person or group of them to fund, though the benefits to national commerce would be high. In Smith’s time he conceived of large projects, such as national roads, canals, harbours, city pavements and street lighting, as being large project beyond the commercial reach of individuals. Clearly, he considered that “without government intervention there would be no” such projects completed.

In other words, the requirement for government intervention did not preclude Adam Smith being in favour of undertaking these projects on the basis of government funding. Smith was sceptical of how such projects should be managed (private commissioners or government paid managers - he criticised both). He favoured the users being charged fees for the benefits they obtained from the projects. But at no time did he advocate that the projects should not be undertaken even if the government had to fund them from taxation, borrowing or fees.

Peter Asmus clutches at rhetorical straws by dragging Smith’s name into the nuclear option debate and by trying to embarrass the Republican Party (GOP) and the Republican President’s “love of free markets and disdain for regulation and subsidy”, itself a tenuous statement.

What is US defence spending about if it isn’t about government intervention and regulation, with hardly any ‘free markets’ in sight? Even the dredging of rivers and harbours is undertaken by the US state – no free market there.

One could go on and mention the ‘pork barrel’ politics of US legislators, but the point is made: Adam Smith was never a free market or laissez faire ideologue.

Peter Asmus can find out more by reading “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy” (Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 1-4039-4789-9).


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