The Greatest Good

Bjorn Lomberg has a brilliant essay up on Project Syndicate. In it, he argues that the Kyoto protocol (and upcoming agreements) are a lot of expense for little good. That sentence is nothing new; we’ve heard global warming denialists and business interests arguing that same point for decades. Unfortunately for them, however, Lomberg doesn’t stop there.

His point is not that “it costs too many jobs” or any such twaddle; it is about getting the maximum return for the minimal expense. He’s not a priori against reducing carbon emissions – he just wants to do as much good as efficiently as possible. This kind of economic thinking is unfortunately rarely exhibited among the chattering and political classes. A failure to think leads to stupid and ineffectual “security laws”, people being scared of flying on planes instead of driving, or worrying more about side effects than the diseases prevented by a vaccination.

Or thinking that Mother Theresa has done more good than a politician, economist, teacher, or childcare provider.

The calculation of maximum good for individual effort is going to be different for each person. Some people could more effectively teach than build habitats for humanity. Has the inventor of the polio vaccination done more good than Mother Theresa, or should he have dedicated his life to doing what she did?

This American Life recently ran a story about a group of nuns “who chose to leave the Catholic Church in the 1960s but still stay nuns, more or less
“. What they quickly found was that it was nearly impossible for them to effectively carry out their aid to the poor in Appalachia without external funding and support.

All this goes to reinforce and illustrate my prior assertion: That some degree of selfishness or profit maximization can be a good thing – as long as that surplus goes to aid others. Bjorn Lomberg is not upset that the world may spend too much fighting global warming; he’s upset that it might be spent ineffectively. Pursuing our own self-interest is only good for society if we keep society’s common goals before us at the same time.

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