Lessons from the Decline of Cap and Trade

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Mark Kleiman observes that once upon a time market-simulating pollution-control regulations like emissions fees or cap and trade were the official policy doctrine of the conservative movement, put forward as superior to centralized regulation. He says “was sympathetic to that critique, and frustrated about the environmental movement’s unwillingness to see reason.” But of course now that environmentalists want such pollution controls, conservatives hate them. He draws an inference that I think is correct:

Remember this the next time a conservative explains how we ought to voucherize public education. The minute that happens, the conservatives will come back and decide that we need to means-test the vouchers. That done, they’ll attack the remaining program as “welfare.”

That’s exactly right if you ask me. Another major example I can think of is the Earned Income Tax Credit, once touted as the conservative alternative to welfare and/or restoring the real value of the minimum wage, but now supported almost exclusively by liberals while conservatives castigate the poor for not paying taxes. Section 8 housing vouchers, put forward as an alternative to public housing and then repeatedly cut by GOP congresses is another one. Of course this kind of consideration doesn’t invalidate any given idea—I think auctioned, tradable emissions permits actually are the best way to regulate most sources of pollution and that housing vouchers are superior to old-school public housing. But this kind of continual pulling away of the football by the conservative movement makes it quite difficult for us to reach stable consensus around decent policies.