Sunday, April 16, 2006

From Nice People to Totalitarian Monsters

I was surprised to listen to a BBC radio discussion (‘Five Live’) on what was described as Britain’s ‘Ecological Footprint’ from the ‘New Economics Foundation’ ( in which Andrew Simms argued that Britain should stop importing what it could and with substantial economic investment produce for itself. The basis for this suggestion is research from the Global Footprint Network which appears from its flash website to be well funded (

Alex Singleton (Globalisation Institute) commented (

Personally, I think we should celebrate our ability to buy from around the world, not just because it gives jobs and prosperity to other, less developed countries, but because it also gives us experience of a very wide range of varieties of fruit and vegetables, products and services.”

I assume most economists would agree with him. Tim Worstall also commented in two trenchant guest pieces on the Adam Smith Institute blog ( by referring to the report as being from what he renames ‘Non Economics Foundation’ from its self-proclaimed title: ‘New Economics Foundation’.

He asks, seriously, if the reports are ‘spoofs’ because they cannot be serious. He claims that the source of the research is the unusually secretive (for scholarly) research work in that the methodology of their basic model is not publicly available, so that other scientists could analyse and run the programs and try to replicate the results. If they find the model is flawed or the results cannot be replicated, this normally ends by discrediting the model. The Global Footprint Network states:

With over 4,000 data points and 10,000 calculations per country per year, national Footprint accounts document the natural resources (e.g., cropland, pasture, forests and fisheries) available within the country as well as the country’s demand on these resources.”

Its broad point is that if the rest of world consumed the same amounts of natural resources as Britain they would consumer 3 ½ World’s worth of resources (if the USA’s annual consumption of natural resources were consumed by the rest of the entire world it would use up over 5 World’s worth). I am not sure that this is a spoof; it is more likely that its authors and its fund suppliers believe it all to be true.

For broadly ‘leftwing’ sponsors such as Michael Meacher, MP (a former Labour Minister), Rhodri Morgan (Welsh labour leader) and various Green party activists and distinguished scholars, the implications are more than a trifle authoritarian, even scary, and certainly extremely, er, rightwing.

The world population as a whole must find the will and the means to enforce policies that could save the world from what they imply (predict?) will be a catastrophic calamity – read: mass starvation, ecological collapse, and terminal decline into barbarism – which would involve many highly controversial and draconian policies that must be introduced soon, if not sooner.

At root this means undoing the dependence of people on each other – that is overturn an important insight of Adam Smith that the basis of human harmony is the inter-dependence of each on all. In what the researchers see has the problem – the interdependence of disparate peoples on each other – Smith saw as the solution.

The division of labour lifted humanity out of the pre-stone age (absolute self-sufficiency) into inter-dependency (absolute self-insuficiency). The long march, by no means inevitable or secure – from the near absolute poverty of the first c.200,000 years of humanity (life spans of 25 years, local rates of birth near to below natural population replacement rates, fatal minor bodily injuries, species-threatening disease pandemics, and absolute ‘affluence’ at absolutely low living standards) to the agricultural and commercial societies from 11 - 13,000 years ago was often tenuous, nearly always violent and totalitarian, and thoroughly unpleasant for most people, particular women and children, but also for most subordinate men too.

To prevent you living on resources outside your own nation’s territory, and to end exporting and importing anything, is a formidable agenda. If the need is serious enough – and the doomsters never have doubts that it is – there would be an early resort to measures of enforcement if they could get into power or the power to influence those in power. If people will not voluntarily stop consuming goods from elsewhere, naval and land blockades would be needed to ensure that their edicts were carried out (‘Death to importers of lettuces and Belgian chocolate!).

What a picture the nice research scientists have of how the world actually works! People do not do what others decide is good for them. They do what they think is good for themselves - that’s why there is a (violent) trade in illegal drugs. On the scale they envisage for an end to international trade, do they realise that the simpler way than persuasion to stop large amounts of such trade would be to blockade, first, the ‘dispensable’ people around the world, i.e., those unable to resist being violently isolated by those powerful enough to isolate them, and later those peoples consuming anything that the powerful covet. It has ever been thus in human history.

The people who would thrive in such a world (dis)order would combine the evil ‘talents’ of men such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and Mugabe. They would not include – for long – the nice researchers at the ‘Footprint’ project.

To reverse Smith’s insight into the growing dependence on others being the broad road to liberty, justice and opulence for the poorest orders in society, would never be easy or bloodless, and neither would it be ‘for our own good’. In Smith’s vision lies the solution to the world’s problems; ‘Footprint’ fantasies create much worse problems than the original problem.


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