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Alex Epstein Attacks Liberty

Alex Epstein, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, has a new book out, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Some parts are good, important, and not being said by many others. It's getting promoted by Objectivists and others.

When the book was a draft, I urged Alex to change some parts of it which were incompatible with the cause of liberty. Here's part of my explanation to Alex, from April, of why he shouldn't attack the tobacco industry:
cigarettes are a good thing. the tobacco industry is ... industry. it sells things to voluntary customers that they value more than what they pay (even despite large taxes and other regulatory hinderances). we should have generally positive opinions of tobacco companies.
Alex does need to pick his battles. It's not his job to write a tangent defending the tobacco industry. So I suggested the best way to handle the topic was not to bring it up, and focus on fossil fuels. Instead, Alex kept the same approach as in the draft of the book: he unnecessarily brings up the tobacco industry, then attacks it.

Alex presents himself as an Objectivist thinker, a strong advocate of capitalism, and a champion of industrial progress. But here he's an attacker of industry, who has chosen to persist with his attack after the draft was criticized (this isn't an issue he overlooked, he's doing this on purpose). He writes:
To leaders of the fossil fuel industry:

Here’s a typical communications plan of yours to win over the public.

“We will explain to the public that we contribute to economic growth.”

“We will explain to the public that we create a lot of jobs.”

“We will link our industry to our national identity.”

“We will stress to the public that we are addressing our attackers’ concerns—by lowering the emissions of our product.”

“We will spend millions on a state-of-the-art media campaign.”

Why doesn’t it work? Well, imagine if you saw the same plan from a tobacco company. It would tie increased tobacco sales to economic growth, to job creation, to national identity, to reducing tar. Would you be convinced that it would be a good thing if Americans bought way more tobacco?

I doubt it, because none of these strategies does anything to address the industry’s fundamental problem, the fact that use of the industry’s core product, tobacco, is viewed as a self-destructive addiction. So long as that is true, the industry will be viewed as an inherently immoral industry. And so long as that is true, no matter what the industry does, its critics will always have the moral high ground.

You might say that it’s offensive to compare the fossil fuel industry to the tobacco industry—and you’d be right. But in the battle for hearts and minds, you are widely viewed as worse than the tobacco industry.

Your attackers have successfully portrayed your core product, fossil fuel energy, as a self-destructive addiction that is destroying our planet, and characterized your industry as fundamentally immoral. In a better world, the kind of world we should aspire to, they argue, the fossil fuel industry would not exist.
Alex wrote this so it could easily be read as saying that in a better world, the tobacco industry would not exist. He says it's offensive to the fossil fuel industry to compare it to the tobacco industry (implication: because the fossil fuel industry is good, but the tobacco industry is bad). Alex, as an intentional tactic, used weasel words to create some deniability about his meaning. But it's clear enough what he's saying (siding with leftists anti-smoking ideas) and how it will be taken, and he knows that.

Tobacco is an industry which brings pleasure to millions of people on a fully voluntary basis. Any capitalist thinker should be pleased. Instead, Alex suggests cigarette smokers are mentally ill (setting up a reinterpretation of free voluntary trade for mutual benefit as somehow being a bad thing like feeding an addiction). Alex sounds like a leftist attacking people for having hobbies he disapproves of.

Alex is setting a precedent of making exceptions to freedom and capitalism. He's communicating that if you disagree with the customers of an industry, go ahead and attack it. And he isn't merely attacking it as a mistake people are free to make, a personal lifestyle choice that he personally disagrees with. Talk of concepts like "addiction" is saying the customers aren't actually making a free choice, but are being controlled by sinister addictive forces. That is extraordinarily dangerous, because it's saying that when certain issues come up (like addiction) then free trade is a bad idea that doesn't work. This opens the door for limiting free trade in more industries (e.g. gambling, freemium games, MMOs, candy, alcohol, coffee, anything people like a lot, etc) and ultimately the entire economy.

South Park defended smokers well. Alex not only won't defend them, he won't even leave the topic alone. On this issue, Alex is going out of his way to take the other side, the side of limiting freedom, and destroying liberty with exceptions.

What kind of Objectivist would compromise with evil on even one issue? What sort of principled industrial capitalist thinker would make an exception for a particular industry he doesn't like? How can he take psychiatry, one of the major tools being used to excuse limits on freedom, and push its agenda? (Which, FYI, Alex has repeatedly done elsewhere as well.) Objectivism explains that these compromises benefit evil. Example compromisers were Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who Ayn Rand argued were especially harmful to the cause of freedom. Alex Epstein is putting himself in the same category as them.

Whatever you personally think of the tobacco industry, you should be able to see that it's a capitalist industry which this supposed champion of capitalism and industry has gone out of his way to attack. Whatever you think of psychiatry, you should be able to see that, rightly or wrongly, it's used as a reason to limit freedom in some situations. That's incompatible with being a champion of total freedom like Ayn Rand.

Alex may not take Ayn Rand seriously. But I do. So I'm pronouncing moral judgment. Alex Epstein is dangerous and immoral.

Elliot Temple on November 20, 2014

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