Friday, December 12, 2008

Setting externalities straight: the elephant in the room

A recent comment on Megan McArdle's blog gave me a chance to explain (again) what I think is wrong with "glibertarian" (glib libertarian) solutions to the problem of externalities.

Basically, I think that when people complain about negative externalities, what they are really complaining about is a negative externality that they also find morally objectionable, but for well-grounded, intuitive, practical reasons. To suggest that the victim of such shenanigans should have to pay off the wrongdoer, thus misses the point. That is exactly the reasoning I elaborate on in the comments section of that post.

So, to the discussion. Jim Glass said:

... *if* transaction costs were zero *then* "externality problems" like pollution would be bargained away in the market, but these problems aren't bargained away in the market, *thus* transaction costs are large -- and should get a lot more attention from economists and other social planners than they do.

So I responded:

Jim_Glass: actually, as I said above, I think the problem people intuitively have with this Coasean reasoning is that it's not true, even in the pure case of no transaction costs.

Think about it this way: what if while you were sleeping I came close to your window -- though still outside your property, and revved my motorcycle loud enough to keep you from sleeping. And let's say that, because of some technicality, there's no law or property right you can invoke to make me stop.

Would you seriously try to pay me to go away, thinking, "hey, problem solved!" Hopefully, you're not that stupid. Because then you just created the incentive for people to extort more money out of you. Yet economists would pat themselves on the back and say, "See? Because of property rights, this so-called 'problem' has an efficient solution."

But it's a load of crap.

Now, as an economist, you might admit that, okay, sure, you suffered a bit -- you lost some of your consumer surplus. But that "doesn't matter" because it's "just" a transfer payment. You lost, and I gained. Only when there are are *no* gainers do we see an "inefficiency" and therefore a problem. Here, there is no problem.

Hell yes there is! A system in which people can extort money this way is a system in which people just don't make as big investments in property [which results in less wealth for everyone], knowing that that will just make them a better target for extortion. It's a systematic weakening of property rights.

So no, Jim_Glass, the appropriate solution is not to "get transaction costs to approach zero, and let bargaining take over." The appropriate solution is to require those who try this extortion to pay up for it!

Deliberately annoying people should *not* be a path to wealth. People see this intuitively. And for the exact same reason, the victims of global warming should *not* be the ones that have to buy out the polluters, even if the transaction costs would be zero.

The thing is, in these internet debates, people who object to e.g. pollution, are doing so in a way perfectly consistent with the basis I laid out -- yet rarely do the participants get around to identifying these underlying assumptions! Instead, they just throw the same non-responsive points at each other, and ultimately miss identifying the optimal solutions -- both in the moral and economic senses. I seem to be the only being in the world capable of actually seeing what the dispute is ultimately about.

So, again I have to ask: is the world insane, or just me?


Brian Macker said...

"the victims of global warming should *not* be the ones that have to buy out the polluters,"

What victims? People aren't victims to climate, only to weather.

If only for the simple reason that you'll die before the climate changes enough to effect you.

Silas Barta said...

If the climate is caused by the actions of others, and that climate causes something that would be considered aggression if a human did it, then people are victim to those others.

klonopin said...

Silas, is this all about whether or not polluting should be considered an actionable property violation offense? Murphy says "no" and you say "yes"? Or, am I missing something? Thanks.

S. F. Griffin said...

"But that "doesn't matter" because it's "just" a transfer payment. You lost, and I gained. Only when there are are *no* gainers do we see an "inefficiency" and therefore a problem. Here, there is no problem."

But there is an economic loss in this example: the time energy and money expended in performing the extortion. The pecuniary transfer may balance out, but the extortion did not happen without cost, so on net there is a loss.

This case does illustrates rent seeking, which is economically inefficient, so I would imagine most economists would have a problem with it.