Political Will and Technology

So, Obama plans to implement an auction-based carbon cap-and-trade system so onerous that it would bankrupt anybody that tried to build a coal fired plant. Not to worry, however, he will use the proceeds of the auction to fund alternative energy sources. [video, transcript] [h/t Instapundit]

Obama’s plan drives home a trait of leftists that I have noticed for several years: They do not seem to distinguish between altering human behavior (which requires nothing but the willingness to use force) and creating new viable technology (which depends on the laws of nature). In other words, they believe that if you have the will to create something, then can force people to create it. 

In this case, this trait leads Obama to set policy based on the assumption that he can order the creation of new, non-carbon-emitting power sources as easily as he can order the shutting down of coal plants.

We’ll, he can’t. It’s easy to destroy and threaten but it is very difficult to create.

Shutting down coal plants requires nothing more than a political consensus which will generate laws that will prevent people from operating the plants. The actual physical acts and knowledge required amount to little more than persuasive debate and signing a few papers. Indeed, if some bizarre set of circumstances required it, a president could order troops into every coal plant in the country and take them all offline in a matter of hours. Obama’s plan represents a slower and more deliberate method, but obviously if we muster the collective will to shut down coal plants we can, without any doubt whatsoever, shut them down. 

We cannot, however, will the creation of a new technology with an arbitrary set of characteristics.   Just because we want a non-carbon-emitting, non-radioactive, non-polluting, decentralized and cheap alternative technology to coal plants does not mean that we can actually create that technology.

Firstly, the laws of nature restrict the range of possible technologies. Just because we can imagine a perpetual motion machine doesn’t mean we can build one. Secondly, even if the laws of nature allow a technology to exist, we must possess sufficient understanding of the laws of nature to even begin to develop the technology. Just because we need to know something doesn’t mean we actually know it.  Thirdly, we use technology to create technology so we can only create new technology that we can build with our current technology. Even if we can imagine a hypothetical technology consistent with the laws of nature, we may lack the tools to create it. 

Of course, we can use political will to increase our scientific knowledge and to improve the tools we use to build other technology, but when we will ourselves down that road, we don’t know where exactly we will end up or how long it will take us to get there. Look back at history at what technology people thought possible. Look at how optimistic people were about nuclear power in the ’50s. If politicians could snap their fingers and order the creation of any technology they wanted, we’d all have atomic powered flying cars sitting in our driveways. 

Obama’s confusion between altering human behavior and creating technology is doubly dangerous because no direct feedback exists between shutting down existing plants and creating a replacement technology. Nothing in the cap-and-trade system links the cost of emissions credits to the availability of alternative power. We could easily shut down or cripple our coal-based power production for years or decades before practical alternative power sources came online.

Obama does not understand that alternative energy can’t replace coal just because he wants it to. That’s a dangerous blind spot for someone in his position to have. 

10 thoughts on “Political Will and Technology”

  1. I think you forget His campaign slogan. “YES WE CAN!”

    “YES WE CAN” does not allow for failure. We must be alert for sabotuers who want Change to fail. Personal sacrifice will be required of all of us so that the great Change can occur. Recidivist reactionary forces must be hunted down.
    Fortunately He understands and is prepared


    of course these are NOT military organizations but they will all wear the same color shirt so we will know we are protected from those who do not believe that YES WE CAN! means We Can Do Anything.

  2. Collectivism, in general, depends on an ability to deny the essence of the relationship between cause and effect.

    Where does energy come from? It’s a social product, the collectivist states. It just happens, a result of the cooperative efforts of social forces concerned with energy. Of course there must be leaders and coordinators and facilitators, but in the final analysis, it is the will and the spirit of the people that causes all things, their needs and desires. The people demand energy.

    Blanked out of all this “social action”, of course, is the role of the scientist, the inventor, the designer, any of the individual creative minds that actually created the theories and instrumentalities that made it all possible. There are no Edisons in the collective.

    And the costs? Well, society is wealthy. Don’t ask so many silly questions about opportunity or political vs economic decisions or all these other things. The anointed might get the idea you are not “on the team”. A troublemaker. A wrecker. Not a good place to be, you know?

  3. Given the current economic conditions, it is unlikely that any kind of “global warming” legislation like what Obama is pushing is going to go anywhere in congress. If Obama chooses to push global warming issue next year, it is likely to do for him what health care reform did for the Clintons in 1993.

    In the unlikely event that such a global warming scheme does get passed in the U.S., it will simply drive more heavy manufacturing to China and other Asian countries. It may even drive medium to light manufacturing to Asia as well. Of course, congress could pass tariffs and other import restrictions. However, these would simply create considerable inflation in addition to economic stagnation. Every democrat worth their salt remembers that it was this kind of stagflation that did in Carter. So, it is unlikely that these things will come to pass.

  4. I’ve long held that the success of the United States has been based largely on the fact that politicians have either lacked the hubris to attempt to micromanage things they do not comprehend or have just been plain unsuccessful at grasping the levers that would give them the power. This is the first time I’ve ever felt like we’re about to put into office a President who hasn’t successfully run anything but his own mouth, yet feels compelled to command everyone to act in a certain way based on some ill-conceived ideas of “social justice.”

    We’re likely to be squatting in the dark a few years from now as a result.

  5. Your defeatist attitude will be noticed.

    Just as Mao, the Great Helmsman, successfully industrialized China by force of will during The Great Leap Forward, so too will The One lead us audaciously to a new Hopeful, Changed future where non-polluting energy sources replace all carbon emitting and nuclear energy plants.

    Certainly The One expects that there will be saboteurs and revanchist thinkers who will attempt to thwart the new way of doing things. Sadly that type of limited, backward looking thinking is all too common among the engineers and technical class as it currently exists. That is only to be expected in a field that has maintained itself as a disproportionately white and male bastion against the progressive forces of diversity for far too long. However once the ranks of the technologist classes have been properly diversified, we can expect to hear a lot less defeatist carping and more enthusiastic production of non-polluting energy sources.

    As Trofim Lysenko said when confronted by naysayers who sought to thwart the will of the people: “Darwin himself, in his day, was unable to fight free of the theoretical errors of which he was guilty. It was the classics of Marxism that revealed those errors and pointed them out.” Through similar study, we can be as successful at increasing energy production as Lysenko was in increasing farm productivity.

  6. Obama can alter behavior with force and law, but he can’t raise productivity through central planning.

    North Korea would be the richest state in the world if that were possible.

    The irony is that people who correctly see past slavery as an evil, are blind to the crushing effects of slavery by edict at the hands of a central government.

    Doctors will be required to work in a medical bureaucracy, at lower salaries than the bureaucrats. Power companies will be required to do the good things specified by an energy bureaucracy, or go bankrupt — their choice.

    Don’t worry, they say, after about 100 years of painful adjustment, all will be peace and prosperity. With them in charge. That is their idea of modern thought and historical insight.

    Modern Russia is the result of just such an experiment.

    Unfortunately, it is not just Obama who believes this. The Democratic leadership in the Congress thinks the same way.

    Most of the public has no idea what it takes to create power. They think they are being overcharged for something easy to produce. They think: if only the big corporations could be pried away from the technology they own, energy would be almost free for all. The government has been pushing this line for years.

    See also Magic Power

  7. Most people think electricity starts in a box in their basement or maybe on a pole in the alley or nearby, when they think about it at all… they occasionally drive by a powerplant or sub-station, or under a high-voltage line, but don’t think about how it all interconnects, let alone the expense and time and effort in putting it all together and operating and maintaining it.

    So, why not believe that the wish can create the deed? People still believe that GM has suppressed technology that would let its cars get 100 mpg, why not believe that the only reason we don’t have cheap, 100% clean power is that until now no one has cared, so we can simply direct it to be so.

  8. Because new technology is so important to Obama, he should create a White House level official “Director of Inventions” whose task is to invent these things in the first 100 days

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