Acton Institute Powerblog

Capitalism without Bankruptcy

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On the first half of today’s installment of The Diane Rehm Show, Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute got off a good line in the midst of a discussion concerning federal regulation of emission standards.

Concerning the performance of the American car manufacturers in comparison to that of foreign automakers, and the moral hazard involved in the various bailouts, Taylor said, “Capitalism without the threat of bankruptcy is like Christianity without the threat of hell. It doesn’t work very well.”

Other guests included Mary Nichols (Chairman of the California Air Resources Board), Phyllis Cuttino (director the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Global Warming Campaign), and David Shepardson (Washington Bureau Chief for The Detroit News). The discussion focused in large part on the attempts by California to regulate emissions within its own borders more strictly than allowed by the federal EPA.

Arguments that California is “too large” of a state and has too big of an economy to enjoy certain rights doesn’t strike me as very convincing. That’s simply a consequentialist argument: that the nationwide effects of allowing California to do this will be bad, and therefore we shouldn’t recognize the state’s right to handle its own regulation. If it really is an issue of federalism and state’s rights, the issue shouldn’t in the first place be whether or not recognition of a right will presumably have a negative economic impact. There are a lot of assumptions wrapped up in that argument.

No state is an economic island unto itself. The mere fact that the national economy is largely integrated doesn’t by itself mean that states do not have the right to make decisions about how to regulate things within their own borders. Just what is the line between acceptable and unacceptable national economic impact? Adverse feelings to this particular action on the part of California isn’t sufficient to draw lines too hastily. How might this apply to other industries and commodities?

Indeed, we can discuss whether CO2 emissions ought to be regulated at the federal level under the commerce clause, but I don’t think the size of a state should determine what rights it does or does not have. Maybe the consequentialist line of reasoning is inherently wrapped up in the commerce clause (I’m certainly no constitutional expert). But the clause has been stretched so much (e.g. it applies to a farmer consuming what he grows on his own farm) that a little pullback seems warranted, and without the creation of a(n) (inter)national carbon market (a remarkably bad idea) the clause doesn’t seem to me to be directly relevant to emissions.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.