I never intended to write a three part series on energy for this blog, but I felt I was starting to make an argument for something, and that I should probably do my best to finish it. However, my strict 500 word policy left me cutting corners a lot, and today’s post will be no different.
In the first part of this series, I talked about developing a new framework for thinking about energy policy (Safety, Efficiency, Economy, Sustainability), the problem with fossils fuels, possible solutions to those problems, and then problems with those solutions. In the second part, I tried to argue that a new form of nuclear energy, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, is our best solution for the world’s energy future. The LFTR is safe, efficient, economical, and sustainable. But as a friend of mine pointed out, solar and wind technologies will become more viable options in the future as technology grows. He’s absolutely right.
We have been cursed by our prosperity. There has been so much abundance since the end of the Second World War, that we take economic and technological progress as a given. I live a life filled with many more advantages than even someone like J. P. Morgan did 100 years ago. But the truth is, for much of human history, there was very little change in personal wealth from one generation to the next. A poor peasant was born, lived, and died with almost no chance of living a life above subsistence. We don’t live in a world like that anymore. The idea that one generation wouldn’t be substantially better off than their parents is almost anathema to us.
But, if you were to ask yourself how it is that “the West” became so prosperous, you might find yourself spiraling down into a very deep rabbit-hole. Economists and philosophers have been debating this issue for awhile now, but a few things seem to be agreed upon. Adam Smith, in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, laid out a set of principles he thought distinguished rich countries from poor ones. The book is extremely dense, and, try as I might, I’ve never gotten through it all. Smith makes the observation that rich countries have better institutions than poor countries. They are generally economically freer, they value free trade over tariffs, and they are countries that attract and accept immigrants.
Smith was writing in a time when Great Britain (under the infamous King George III) wasn’t exactly a paragon of those virtues. But the United States took these principles and ran with them. It’s why the U.S. overtook the UK as the world’s leading industrial power by 1880, when it had been (only 100 years before) a rural backwater clinging to life on the Atlantic coast.
What’s needed in the energy sector is an innovation boom.We need to develop technologies that will simply out compete fossil fuels. What we need is to hold true to Smith’s observation: free trade, free immigration, and free markets.