So, Volkswagen has been evading the EPA’s rules and regulations regarding emissions from diesel engine? Well good for them. Yes I realize that is not a very PC thing to say amongst all the cacophonous lamentations of those holding Proper Opinion on the “damage” to the environment that this little ploy has wrought. Regrettably VW swiftly engaged self-flagellation mode, seeking forgiveness from those that run the many worldwide plantations we today refer to as states. In other words, they quickly went to mommy and daddy and begged to not be spanked too hard if they would just quickly clean up their mess. If only they had stood up to the EPA and told them “Yes, we skirted your stupid rules, we do not recognize your authority, we only recognize the authority of our customers who will buy our products if they meet their standards and won’t if they don’t”. Of course that is not what happened. Instead VW bent over and obsequiously bleated, “Thank you sir, may I have another.” VW’s crime is about as morally significant as a slave stealing cookies from the master’s kitchen. It is but a technical violation of an arbitrary rule with no real victim.
I can hear the objections now, “But, but, the environment! They were damaging the environment!” Really? How do you know that? Because the EPA said so? Because this single agency run by a handful of bureaucrats established a committee whose job it was to climb Mt. Sinai and return with stone tablets upon which was inscribed the exact amount of safe emissions? Please. I do not know if the level of emissions emitted by VW diesels, or any diesel or gasoline engine is “safe”, and neither do you or anyone else. Maybe the level set by EPA now is itself “too high” but everyone seems ok with it. The level of emissions VW’s cars were actually producing complied with the EPA standards in existence as recently as 2004. So in 2004 the level was perfectly fine and not “harmful” at all, but two years later the target changed and suddenly VW is the anti-Christ for continuing to meet the old target? The new “clean diesel” standards were not a trivial change. VW and other manufacturers left the US diesel market and worked on the problem for 4 years! In the end VW balanced the demands of cost, power, and emissions and felt their customers would be better served by lower cost and higher power at the expense of higher emissions as opposed to higher cost and lower power in order to achieve lower emissions. Luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes could produce diesel engines conforming to the new rules more easily because their customers are less sensitive to cost considerations. When regulations force product costs upward it is the luxury brands that benefit at the expense of the value brands. If all diesels cost $50k because of the new rules, then why buy a VW when you can have a BMW?
Now some might object that when it comes to the environment cost should not be a consideration. However that assertion flies in the face of economic reality; everything has a cost and everything has tradeoffs relative to those costs. Those espousing the “ignore costs” mantra engage in a performative contradiction. Their actions in their own lives contradict their philosophy. If the environment should reign supreme to all other considerations they should return to the wilderness as hunter-gatherers. And yet they do not.
Cost is always a consideration, even in our daily lives. For example, we all obviously value our personal safety, but to what degree? Even with our safety we are willing to make cost tradeoffs. If we truly valued it above all other things we would either drive tanks or never exceed 5 mph. The sheer cost of driving a tank or the time-opportunity cost of traveling so slowly is far beyond what any of us deem reasonable. Nobody does this; we collectively have shifted that balance between time, safety, and money to the one we see today. Technology will likely change that balance in the future, but for now it is the best compromise available given current costs and benefits. Absent the EPA we would be afforded the opportunity to balance environmental concerns relative to cost in a market where different manufacturers would offer a variety of products that they hope will suit the demands of consumers. It would be the most successful model (the one people buy the most of) that would be emulated. This purely market based approach is thus the most democratic means of the people deciding where that tradeoff should be. To believe that the EPA knows best and we should all bow to their will is no different than believing the King or Queen is much wiser than us all and we should do whatever they say. Although we lack royalty in this country today, that is in name only. We have unwittingly elected the same sort of top down one size fits all approach to governance (tyranny) that so many pay lip service to opposing while blithely waving flags and swearing oaths in support of it (the state). E Pluribus Pluribus.