Customer Reviews: Tanstaafl (There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch) - A Libertarian Perspective on Environmental Policy
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on March 26, 2015
I read the first edition of this book when I was a young instructor in a cow college in west Texas and found Dolan's libertarian approach to addressing environmental problems a refreshing change from the heavy-handed, top-down governmental regulatory programs of that period. In the years that have followed, I saw some of Dolan's suggestions (under different names) put into place with greater and lesser degrees of success. This update, presented as appendices to previous chapters, updates the reader of what has changed and what remains the same since 1971. Overall, the author succeeds in this approach. This reader was positively impressed with both Dolan's accessibility and his objectivity. It is only in his final discussion, the relatively new issue of global warming, that I found problems. First, his overall analysis is more tentative than earlier discussions, even though he indicates a high level of confidence in the theory's prognoses. Second, he stops short of proposing many of the libertarian solutions he argued so successfully for in earlier sections. Overall, however, if the reader is interested in an accessible discussion of a freedom-oriented proposal to maintain the health of our world's ecology, I highly recommend this book.
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on January 2, 2014
Many of the solutions to environmental problems take money from polluters and give it to the government; while Dolan recognises these schemes are those most likely to get broad acceptance, he also makes the point that the true Libertarian approach is that pollution is an infringement issue, and can be handled through tort law -- yes, the polluters must pay, but they should pay to those affected by the pollution (not the government).

Many conservatives oppose action on climate change as it goes against the status quo, and unfortunately some of that attitude can be seen in areas of Libertarian thought; this book is good because it does not debate science (leave that to the scientists), but focusses on the various policy alternatives and approaches that fit the Libertarian philosophy.
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on December 8, 2011
It's generally true that writing gets better with each draft, but at some point a writer must stop, as his cost of re-drafting exceeds his benefit (the benefit to readers is a different story).

But sometimes we get the chance to re-write an earlier work, not just to finesse the original perspective but to add wisdom and highlight important points.

Edwin G. Dolan has taken this second path with his "Version 40.0" 2011 update of his 1971 book, TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) - A Libertarian Perspective on Environmental Policy.*

Now some readers may be tempted to stop reading this review, since they are not interested in a "libertarian" book on environmental policy. Don't libertarians, after all, think that money should determine who gets what, in some kind of Darwinist struggle to allocate rainforest to the richest?

Not really, and definitely not in this book.

That said, Dolan doesn't shy away from highlighting the dangers of government failure and command and control myopia. In fact, he does an excellent job of exploring the tradeoffs between individual liberty and government guidance when it comes to managing our environment -- saying things I've said in the past, but adding more discussion that I wish I had and explaining more clearly than I ever did.

In other words, I like this book. I like it in the same way as I like "Economics in One Lesson: 50th Anniversary Edition", which I assigned to my Environmental Economics and Policy class at UC Berkeley, and I'd definitely assign this book to ANY class with "environment" in the title. It's important to note that the book is written in clear prose, with no equations and only a few simple tables and figures. Fantastic.

And here's the coolest thing about this book: Each chapter has two parts -- the 1971 original and the 2011 update on "what's changed" and "what hasn't changed." I really liked this structure, as it revealed how much economists had to say so long ago (the first Earth Day was in 1970!) as well as bringing the reader up to speed on current events.

The book starts with its awkward title, i.e., every decision involves tradeoffs. I make this point to environmentalists when I talk about water. For example:

The only way to leave the environment intact is to take ZERO water; that action would result in a 90% population shrinkage as we returned to a life of hunter gatherers. If you want that, fine, but if you want a modern life, then you must agree that SOME water is going to be "taken" from Nature. The only question is "how much?"

Let's go over the chapters:

A comparison of "throughput" and "closed loop" economies in which Dolan points out how the throughput basis of GDP distorts policies and decisions. In his 2011 addendum, Dolan points out the silly nature of policies designed around "willingness to pay" that do not actually involve payment. This paragraph alone should get about half the environmental economists in trouble. He then goes on to demolish the "affordable energy" lobby (oil companies that like subsidies).
A nice explanation of basic economics (in 9 pages!), i.e., how the law of decreasing marginal benefit and diminishing returns result, respectively, in the laws of demand and supply. His 2011 addendum demolishes crony capitalism ("Drill baby drill") and silly regulations, e.g., CAFE fuel standards dedicated to protecting America's dinosaur car companies.
A move from market distortions to market failures and a discussion of pollution (negative externalities), property rights, tort laws and regulation. Dolan (like me in The End of Abundance: economic solutions to water scarcity) points out that regulation can not only interfere with the discovery of "efficient" levels of pollution, but it can also fail to compensate those who are harmed by pollution AND result in far more pollution. In his update, he writes out the 20/80 rule (p. 77):

Putting a price on pollution is by far the best way to affect the behavior of people who are neither environmental activists nor environmental skeptics, but are simply indifferent.

That said, he also supports government and non-government involvement when it's too difficult to use price signals.
Dolan covers "political economy" (oh boy!) and my favorite topic: who gets the costs and who gets the benefits from policies and how are we to organize collective action to make sure that the majority are not over-run by special interests (aka governments do not impose regulations ON industry; governments provide services TO industry via regulations). Wow. Every environmentalist should keep this chapter on the bedside table.
Ehrlich, Malthus, The Limits to Growth [my review] and steady-state ideas. Dolan's discussion of anti-population (Ehrlich) vs. pro-population (the Pentagon) views is still timely, but he falls (surprise!) firmly on the side of individual choice AND an end to "pro-child" ideas like welfare payments for children, etc. In his update (7 billion people!), Dolan is neither optimistic (per Julian Simon) nor pessimistic (per Population Council); he ends with a plea for a woman's informed right to choose how many children she wants. (Read, via AW, Herman Daly's comment on how we've passed the limits to net-positive growth.)
A discussion of economic development and the environment in which Dolan brings up one of my favorite taboos: if we find the way to feed the poor, then what do we do when they have children who are hungry? This awkward question should be debated every day in every aid agency that delivers superficial help (the fish) without deeper solutions (teaching the poor how to fish). He goes on to discuss the demographic transition and environmental Kuznets curve. In his 2011 update, he compares the good news (most people's lives are improving) to the bad news (massive corruption still harms many).
A discussion of government intervention -- for better or for worse -- and the special interests (from oil to greens) who profess to speak for the People. Dolan wishes that government would get out of the business of destroying the environment (e.g., USACE and their silly cost-benefit) but also that environmentalists would support non-elitist outdoors (hear that Restore Hetch Hetchy?)
A discussion of the steady state economy (don't) and plea for individual decisions instead of delegation to a "Central Environmental Administration" (the EPA was founded in 1970, so this is a funny term) in the move towards a sustainable macro-economy. In his 2011 update, Dolan reaffirms the power of prices over regulations (e.g., lightbulb prices vs bans).

That's where the 1971/2011 update ends, but Dolan adds a fascinating chapter on climate change and climate policy (reprinted from a 2006 CATO Journal article) in which he says that there's too much risk to wait for iron-clad proof of climate change AND that those who have committed the harm (more the US than China) need to pay the costs of mitigation and (Dolan also emphasizes) adaptation. These arguments are firmly grounded in libertarian economic theory (Coase, Hayek, Locke, et al.)

Bottom Line: I give this book a very firm FIVE STARS. Anyone interested in the environment (science, policy, economics, life) should read it -- and then go out and tell some emperors that they are naked!
* Searching Finance, the publisher, sent me a review copy and offered to pay me a commission on purchases from their website (paperback or PDF). You can also buy the paperback or Kindle version at Amazon. I don't care about the commissions (I wrote the review based on my real thoughts on the book), so click for convenience.
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on March 20, 2015
I read the original, not this edition, when Dolan was my freshman econ prof in 1971. He was a bright guy and good teacher. I was sold immediately on full-cost pricing, but could never see how its determination and application would require less bureaucracy than the environmental protection model we have used since the seventies, flawed as it is.
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on February 29, 2016
This was a college textbook in a MacroEconomics class taught by Professor Al Mandelson {Handsome Al] at Michigan State University. Loved the class. The Prof was amazing and I still quote the book to my daughter who is a college Jr.
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on January 11, 2012
Being an ardent fan of Robert Heinlein, the title of this book intrigued me immediately. I was not disappointed. This discussion of real-world costs of doing business and who ultimately bears those costs, is a great translation of Heinlein's description of life on the closed-system of the moon.

This notion of earth as a closed system is the basis of much of the book's discussion. The explanation of economics was accessible and didn't leave me with my eyes glazed over. There are many great ideas of how to redistribute the cost of doing business so that those who are paying also receive the benefits to which they are entitled. And for those to whom the word "entitlement" is considered profanity, the biggest receivers of those entitlements are the businesses who do not pay for the true costs of extraction and depletion of non-renewable resources.

This is a must-read for everyone. It is important to understand the underbelly of "business as usual" if anything is going to change. My only disappointment with this book is the lack of how to effect those changes. And sooner than later as the second maxim after "No Free Lunch" is "Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later" where "Later" is ALWAYS more expensive.
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on January 20, 2013
It seems like Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on the principles of economics and the environment presented in this short but excellent book. For a specific vision on what the U.S. can do in this area, I highly recommend the book "Reinventing Fire" by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute.
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on January 14, 2012
When this book was first published, the author of it and I were young men, together. Now, that can no longer be said. But, we are still together.

I greatly admired TANSTAAFL then, and even more so now.

This book, in a word, has passed the test of time, and then some. TANSTAAFL ought to be made compulsory reading for all adherents of left wing environmentalism; it is only fair that they be forced in such a way, as they have been for so long attempting to compel the rest of us to do things, and refrain from doing others; and with no rationality or coherence behind their demands. As for all others, we, too, ought to read this book, in order to better understand what economics can teach us about environmental issues. Consider for a moment those windmills now being foisted upon us by the government, at the behest of the watermelons (green on the outside, but red on the inside). The trouble is, even from their point of view, that these clean energy sources kill birds. So, what is to be done?

The lesson of all economics, as brilliantly pointed out by TANSTAAFL, is that we need comparative prices that indicate real costs. But this can only emanate in a regime of private property rights.

Read Dolan. Again and again.

Walter E. Block
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on February 9, 2012
It's the single best prescription to save the planet in light of overwhelming market forces pushing us over the edge: realign those forces to work for -- not against -- us. Don't ban flights, or coal for that matter. Make sure that travelers don't get push off the pollution cost onto everyone else, or that coal doesn't cause more in unaccounted damages than it adds value to GDP. Dolan nails these ideas like few others. If you call yourself libertarian and you breathe on a regular basis, this is your go-to guide.
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