I’m working on a project looking at libertarian views on copyright (more on that soon), and I’d like to solicit your feedback on an analogy I’m developing. I’ve set up a comment thread at Google+ and I’d sincerely appreciate your thoughts on this post. Email feedback is also appreciated. Here goes…
Libertarians, conservatives and other supporters of a free market tend to be critical of government programs that subsidize particular industries. For example, the loan guarantees that allowed Solyndra to set up shop. We don’t like them because they distort the market and tend to lead to rent-seeking, if not corruption.
Why do we have loan guarantees for renewable energy projects like Solyndra’s solar power technology? Quite simply it’s because we’d like to see more renewable energy technology developed; more than is profitable to develop right now. So, the government offers a subsidy to incentivize the creation of such technology, which will eventually benefit the public at large. So far so good, but there are problems with this kind of government privilege.
First, there is a knowledge problem. How do we know that we’re not already getting the right amount of investment in renewable technologies? Without a government subsidy, there would still be investment in renewable energy technologies. We just think it’s not enough. But even putting aside how we can know that, the other question is, how much investment is optimal? Without a market process to guide investment, we don’t know how much is enough. So when the government offers subsidies, it’s guessing. It’s likely offering too little or too much, with each error introducing its own inefficiencies.