WASHINGTON - An unprecedentedly radical government grab for control of the American economy will be debated this week when the Senate considers saving the planet by means of a cap-and-trade system to ration carbon emissions. The plan is co-authored (with John Warner) by Joe Lieberman, an ardent supporter of John McCain, who supports Lieberman's legislation and recently spoke about "the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring."
Speaking of endless troubles, "cap-and-trade" comes cloaked in reassuring rhetoric about the government merely creating a market, but government actually would create a scarcity so government could sell what it has made scarce. The Wall Street Journal underestimates cap-and-trade's perniciousness when it says the scheme would create a new right ("allowances") to produce carbon dioxide and would put a price on the right. Actually, because freedom is the silence of the law, that right has always existed in the absence of prohibitions. With cap-and-trade, government would create a right for itself -- an extraordinarily lucrative right to ration Americans' exercise of their traditional rights.
Businesses with unused emission allowances could sell their surpluses to businesses that exceed their allowances. The more expensive and constraining the allowances, the more money government would gain.
If carbon emissions are the planetary menace that the political class suddenly says they are, why not a straightforward tax on fossil fuels based on each fuel's carbon content? This would have none of the enormous administrative costs of the baroque cap-and-trade regime. And a carbon tax would avoid the uncertainties inseparable from cap-and-trade's government allocation of emission permits sector by sector, industry by industry. So a carbon tax would be a clear and candid incentive to adopt energy-saving and carbon-minimizing technologies. That is the problem.
A carbon tax would be too clear and candid for political comfort. It would clearly be what cap-and-trade deviously is, a tax, but one with a known cost. Therefore, taxpayers would demand a commensurate reduction of other taxes. Cap-and-trade -- government auctioning permits for businesses to continue to do business -- is a huge tax hidden in a bureaucratic labyrinth of opaque permit transactions.