At FEE’s seminar last week on libertarian perspectives on current events, a participant asked: “How do we privatize the air?”
The student may have had in mind the economic principle, popularized by Ronald Coase, that externalities–especially negative externalities such as air pollution– result from ill-defined or unenforced property rights. The question also seems to reflect a common libertarian idea that in a free society all scarce resources must be owned by somebody. That would include the atmosphere when clean air is scarce.
Property Rights and Economic Development
The Coase Theorem is an economic proposition which says that when property rights are well defined and enforced, and the costs of search, bargaining, and enforcement are reasonably low, voluntary trade will tend to produce results that are economically efficient. Negative externalities will be internalized, as unowned resources are transformed into marketable goods. And if, because of incomplete property rights, entrepreneurs are unable to capture enough of the benefits from their actions (that is, if positive externalities would result), they will be less inclined to make the discoveries that drive economic development. Those benefits would be internalized, too.
There are some positive externalities that most, perhaps all, of those who favor tough property enforcement would hesitate to try to privatize. For example, cultures develop in part on the basis of imitation. Jazz musicians copy from one another all the time, from motifs to entire songs, and reinterpret them in their own creations. Classical musicians have also done this. As a courtesy, the protocol is to name the artist from whom you are copying, such as in “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.”
On an even higher level of abstraction, artists, writers, and even ordinary people partake in an esthetic ethos; scholars, intellectuals, and laymen draw on the intellectual milieu of a place and time. Without the experimentation that comes from such borrowing and give-and-take, cultures would stop evolving; they would die.
The same thing goes for economic development. One entrepreneur discovers a demand for flat-screen televisions and is soon followed by imitators, which in the long run results in lower prices and better quality–and often new products and uses, such as tablet computers.
Don’t get me wrong! Private property rights prevent the kind of free riding that hinders economic development. And of course private property is essential for personal freedom: Property rights not only help to avoid or resolve interpersonal conflict–such as the tragedy of the commons–they are what provide a person with a sphere of autonomy and privacy in an economically developed world where contact with strangers is commonplace.
Elinor Ostrom on the Establishment of Conventions
There are many instances where free riding is a net negative, and the overuse of the atmosphere in the form of air pollution is probably one of them. Despite the efforts of some economists, legislators, and policymakers to institute so-called “cap-and-trade”–which would attempt to establish property rights in the air through government policy–it may be impossible to do something similar for all scarce resources, either by legal mandate or market arrangements. But this need not discourage libertarians, of either the minimal-state or market-anarchist variety.
Consider the work of Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, the only women so far to be so honored. Sadly, Ostrom died on June 12, a great loss for social science. While few would consider her a libertarian–I don’t believe she thought she was–libertarians can learn a lot from her work. She is perhaps best known for her 1990 book, Governing the Commons, in which she presented her methods and findings regarding how people coped (or didn’t cope) with what has come to be known as “common-pool resource” (CPR) problems:
What one can observe in the world, however, is that neither the state nor the market is uniformly successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems. Further, communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time.
In those instances the nonstate, nonmarket institutions she studied were, when successful, conventions that the users of common-pool resources agreed to and used sometimes for centuries. They were made voluntarily and evolved over time, but they were not market outcomes, at least in the narrow sense, because no one “owned” the resource in question and it was not bought and sold. Ostrom added:
The central question of this study is how a group of principals who are in an independent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.
Her research covered the harvesting of forests in thirteenth-century Switzerland and sixteenth-century Japan and irrigation institutions in various regions of fifteenth-century Spain. Although not every community Ostrom studied was successful in establishing such conventions, it is instructive how highly complex agreements, enforced by both local norms and effective monitoring, were able to overcome the free-rider problems that standard economic theory–and perhaps vulgar libertarianism–would predict are insurmountable without property rights.
Dealing with air pollution is of course a more difficult problem since it typically entails a much larger population and more diffuse sources and consequences. But it’s important to realize that a “libertarian solution” to air pollution may not necessarily be a “market solution.”
Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.