Windmills and the problem of deciding what’s most important

The Mackinac Center recently published an article on a kerfluffle in setting noise limits on windmills in Michigan. I don’t want to comment much on the article, except to say that it reminded me that things always get messy when the government tries to order the economy from on high. And the reasons things get messy is because any such government is required to decide, for everyone, what we value more and most. (In this case, it is noise and electricity that are being weighed on the scales.) And those decisions are often difficult and ultimately subjective.

Take renewable energy in general, for example – in mandating a certain percentage of electricity come from renewable sources (as we do in Michigan), the government has decided that it is more important that energy be clean, than it is that energy be cheap. Another (important!) way to say this is that they’ve decided that we should all spend some of our money on greening our electricity, rather than spend it on anything else we might choose. All money for these projects ultimately comes from our pockets and our labor.

In fact, we get more specific than that. Not only have our governments decided that “green” energy is more important than “cheap” energy, but they’ve also decided that CO2 is the biggest environmental threat we have to worry about when considering how to make our electricity “green”. By some measures, coal power plants are actually greener than wind or solar – they take up less space for the amount of power generated, they don’t chop up birds, etc. But we’ve decided that CO2 is problem number one.

I know these issues are a bit more complicated than just deciding “A” is more important than “B” – there is also the problem that choosing a “dirty” energy source might harm your neighbor. And I’m definitely no anarchist, and I recognize that all government spending represents some decision about what matters. But it’s worth pointing out that state-ordering of the economy, which ultimately means deciding where you should (and must) spend your money, is always freedom-limiting. You, personally, deciding what is most important to you, and ordering your finances accordingly, is an important personal freedom. (There is a reason Jesus talked about money so often! How we spend it is a pretty good indication of who we are.) And all or nearly all attempts to regulate the economy take some measure of this freedom away from you. That’s why I do think the regulatory hand of government should be as light as possible.

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