H/T to Popehat for the link.
That other people place different values upon the environment than I do worries me not in the slightest. It is precisely such differences of opinions about value that make a market. What does annoy me intensely is that almost all of the environmental problems that are currently being complained about have indeed been studied by economists. And they’ve found solutions to them as well. Just about any and every environmental problem is either about externalities or common access to a resource. In many ways these are just the flip side of exactly the same problem. But we do indeed know how to solve each of them and both of them. Hardin on ownership or regulation, Pigou on tax or regulation, both mediated through Coase on transactions costs (with a decent assit from Ostrom on communal ownership). There, that’s it: far from economics ignoring matters environmental economics has solved the damn problems.
So why won’t the environmentalists listen?
Tim Worstall, “Why won’t the environmentalists learn any economics?”, Adam Smith Institute blog, 2012-10-21.
In the Globe and Mail, Mike Moffatt examines Suzuki’s latest attack on the economics profession and finds it extremely unpersuasive:
Popular environmentalist David Suzuki has described conventional economics as a form of brain damage. In a documentary called Surviving Progress, he quotes a fictional economist by saying, “who cares whether you keep the forest — cut it down. Put the money somewhere else. When those forests are gone, put it in fish. When those fish are gone, put it in computers.”
Beyond tarring the economics profession, he displays a perplexing lack of understanding of basic economic concepts. First of all, none of the rules taught in undergraduate economics course advise the owner of a resource to deplete it as quickly as possible. Perhaps he was confused with the Tragedy of the Commons problem, where lack of private ownership causes a resource to be overused.
[. . .]
The idea that economists do not care about externalities is a strange one, given how prominently they are featured in economics textbooks. An externality is, simply put, a spillover effect. It is the unintended costs or benefits from a transaction or decision experienced by third parties (that is, they were external to the decision). It does not mean phenomena that are external to economic modelling or things outside the interest of economists. Since, as Dr. Suzuki points out, the world is full of externalities, the concept is crucial in economic research.
The story is, in a few brief mottos to stand for a rich intellectual tradition since the 1880s: Modern life is complicated, and so we need government to regulate. Government can do so well, and will not be regularly corrupted. Since markets fail very frequently the government should step in to fix them. Without a big government we cannot do certain noble things (Hoover Dam, the Interstates, NASA). Antitrust works. Businesses will exploit workers if government regulation and union contracts do not intervene. Unions got us the 40-hour week. Poor people are better off chiefly because of big government and unions. The USA was never laissez faire. Internal improvements were a good idea, and governmental from the start. Profit is not a good guide. Consumers are usually misled. Advertising is bad.
Thus Anderson: “Externalities, asymmetrical information, and other collective action problems are … pervasive in economic life. Countless ways of conducting business reap gains for some while imposing unjust costs on others. Create a cartel. Stuff rat feces in sausages.” Thus Freeman: “It is a truism to say that in order to achieve the benefits of an efficient market economy (increasing productivity, greater economic output, increasing productive capital, etc.), the basic rules of property, contract, and exchange must be structured [by government] to realize efficient market relations.”
No. The master narrative of High Liberalism is mistaken factually. Externalities do not imply that a government can do better. Publicity does better than inspectors in restraining the alleged desire of businesspeople to poison their customers. Efficiency is not the chief merit of a market economy: innovation is. Rules arose in merchant courts and Quaker fixed prices long before governments started enforcing them.
I know such replies will be met with indignation. But think it possible you may be mistaken, and that merely because an historical or economic premise is embedded in front page stories in the New York Times does not make them sound as social science. It seems to me that a political philosophy based on fairy tales about what happened in history or what humans are like is going to be less than useless. It is going to be mischievous.
Dierdre McCloskey, “Factual Free-Market Fairness”, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, 2012-06-16
Posting on the Institute of Economic Affairs blog, Tom Papworth tries to clarify what the term “market failure” actually means, in comparison to how it’s commonly used by politicians and journalists:
Firstly, it seems to blur the distinction between ‘the market’ and ‘the markets’ — a very common error in current discourse. The market is an economic concept that describes the myriad of choices and exchanges that take place between people every day; the markets are the very real institutions created for handling major financial transactions. It is not clear to me that this article acknowledges that distinction. This manifests itself primarily in the title and main theme: indeed, as Jan (and at least one commentator) does tacitly acknowledge, the financial markets are so shaped by government intervention that it would be a surprise if they did correspond to a model market.
And that brings me to the second problem: the suggestion that markets don’t fail when they ‘respond rationally, quickly and often brutally to conditions as they find them’. While that description is true, it has little bearing on the concept of market failure. Market failure typically refers to situations where the effects one would expect to see in a theoretical market economy do not in fact manifest themselves in real life. As the great man himself would be — and perhaps was — the first to point out (though without using these terms) markets fail because of factors such as monopoly and externality — monopolies undermine competition and so markets do not clear; externalities enable costs to be passed onto third parties and prevent all beneficiaries contributing to the production of goods. Information asymmetry is often presented as another source of market failure.
Now, to be fair to Jan, that precision of language is hardly prevalent among the politicians he is criticising. When they speak of market failure, it seems almost as though market success is defined by a number of uneconomic measures such as social justice, or even (that ultimate weasel-word) fairness.
Predrag Rajsic looks at the economic case for governments to address externalities:
Some theorists claim that externalities are probably the most legitimate reason for state intervention in human interactions. The ethical case for intervention is that it can presumably increase overall economic efficiency. This article demonstrates that, even if one accepts this ethical principle, the usual choice of externality-generating actions that are believed to justify state intervention is purely arbitrary.
In fact, according to the definition of actions with external effects, any human action in a multi-individual society would qualify for regulation under the banner of improving economic efficiency (i.e., internalizing externalities). However, the nature of human existence renders this internalization impossible. Thus, we end up with a paradoxical situation where every action inevitably fails the ethical criterion we have put in front of ourselves.
[. . .]
Government intervention is commonly believed to be the correcting mechanism. In the cases where too much of an action is being performed, the government should coercively limit the externality-creating action (regulations, taxes, penalties, quotas, etc.) Alternatively, actions that result in positive externalities should be encouraged using the means available to the government (i.e., subsidies).
These government interventions are supposed to move the economy to the output mix as close as possible to the mix supposedly predicated by the model of perfect competition. In this sense, the model of perfect competition is adopted as a measuring stick for determining the ethical validity of individual action. According to this principle, one ought not act without taking into account the effect of his or her actions on all other individuals within the economy.
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