I mean, you don’t have to be a socialist, I guess, to believe in global warming. It’s just that almost everyone who does believe in global warming is a socialist.
– Glenn Beck (Jan. 12, 2009)

I’ve been a socialist ever since I was old enough to have serious political opinions, for over 25 years now. For that entire time, living in the United States, I had assumed I was a member of a small minority. So imagine my surprise to find out that the country is veritably crawling with socialists. Millions and millions of socialists. I appreciate the good news. It really makes my day. (Beck’s comment, by the way, is from early last year, but a friend just forwarded it to me today.)

Now, seriously: Glenn Beck is right about one thing. You don’t have to be a socialist to believe in anthropogenic, or human-caused, global warming. You just have to agree that:

1) Increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and some other gases trap greater quantities of heat here on planet Earth (the so-called “greenhouse effect”). This leads to overall warming, as well as other, more complex, effects on climate. That’s not a tenet of socialism, but an idea proposed by climate scientists.
2) Combustion of fossil fuels (things like petroleum products and coal) and other activities undertaken on large scales in current industrial economies produce large quantities of carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. That’s mostly chemistry. At least, my chemistry teacher taught me that when you burn hydrocarbons, the carbon combines with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide. Of course, he might have been a closet socialist.

What really bothers Beck, however, is the idea that government intervention is needed to deal with climate change. “Almost everybody who says, ‘I’ve got a plan to fix it,’ ” he insists, “is a socialist.” (For right-wing bloviators like Beck, virtually any form of government intervention is synonymous with “socialism.”)

Well, to believe that government intervention is appropriate, it helps to think these two additional things:

1) There are substantial harms from climate change. These could include sea-level rise (flooding coastal areas), increased frequency of “extreme weather events” (like hurricanes), the disruption of existing ecosystems (even a modest-looking change in average temperature can make a region uninhabitable for existing flora and fauna), etc. This actually involves political values. Like the idea that people living in coastal areas will be harmed by rising sea levels or more category 5 hurricanes, and that we should care about that.
2) Unregulated markets will not yield desirable results, in general, if people act purely out of self-interest and if their activities have effects, positive or negative, on “third parties” (people who were not party to a particular market transaction). Therefore, government intervention is necessary to change the incentives under which people make decisions.

In economics, such a third-party effect is called a “spillover” or “externality,” and you can read about it in any standard introductory microeconomics textbook. Let’s take the case of a negative externality. Two parties are engaged in a market exchange. One produces and sells a certain good. The other buys and consumes the good. But instead of this exchange (and the associated processes of production and consumption) affecting only them, it inflicts some harm on a third party. (Pollution is the classic example.) This third party is in no position to demand payment from the guilty parties as compensation for the harm. Since those who inflicted this harm do not have to pay for the privilege, they will not take it into account in deciding how much of the good to produce and consume. As a result, more than the optimal quantity is produced. The market result is, in the words of mainstream “neoclassical” economics, “inefficient.”

Virtually every mainstream economics text presents at least one government response to this problem: A tax equal to the amount of the harm inflicted on third parties will provide just the right amount of disincentive to produce the good. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the conservative economist Gregory Mankiw writes in his Principles of Economics (2008): This kind of tax “gives buyers and sellers in the market an incentive to take into account the external [third-party] effects of their actions.” Instead of producing too much of that good, “producers would produce the socially optimum quantity.” As a result, this policy “raises the overall economic well-being” (Mankiw, p. 207). A “carbon tax” is exactly the kind of tax described here. It is meant to make people take into account the harm to third parties of emitting carbon dioxide.

So, in this kind of case, neoclassical economics provides all the ammunition necessary to justify some form of government intervention (though this does not mean the climate policies mainstream economists generally support are equal to the task). I guess that makes Greg Mankiw, and just about every other mainstream economist who has ever written an intro textbook, a socialist – rather than the “free market” fanatics and apologists for capitalism I always took them for.

Has anybody told them yet?

Alejandro Reuss teaches at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. He is a long-time collective member and former editor of Dollars & Sense magazine.