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Trespassing on Common Property


Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 4: The Limits of Privatization (pages 49-63)

Free Market Environmentalism
One other version of privatism is worth considering. Its premise is that nature can be preserved, and pollution reduced, by expanding private property rights. This line of thought is called free market environmentalism, and it’s favored by libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute.

The origins of free market environmentalism go back to an influential paper by University of Chicago economist Ronald Coase. Writing in 1960, Coase challenged the then-prevailing orthodoxy that government regulation is the only way to protect nature. In fact, he argued, nature can be protected through property rights, provided they’re clearly defined and the cost of enforcing them is low.

In Coase’s model, pollution is a two-sided problem involving a polluter and a pollutee. If one side has clear property rights (for instance, if the polluter has a right to emit, or the pollutee has a right not to be emitted upon), and transaction costs are low, the two sides will come to a deal that reduces pollution.

How will this happen? Let’s say the pollutee has a right to clean air. He could, under common law, sue the polluter for damages. To avoid such potential losses, the polluter is willing to pay the pollutee a sum of money up front. The pollutee is willing to accept compensation for the inconvenience and discomfort caused by the pollution. They agree on a level of pollution and a payment that’s satisfactory to both.

It works the other way, too. If the polluter has the right to pollute, the pollutee offers him money to pollute less, and the same deal is reached. This pollution level — which is greater than zero but less than the polluter would emit if pollution were free — is, in the language of economists, optimal. (Whether it’s best for nature is another matter.) It’s arrived at because the polluter’s externalities have been internalized.

For fans of privatism, Coase’s theorem was an intellectual breakthrough. It gave theoretical credence to the idea that the marketplace, not government, is the place to tackle pollution. Instead of burdening business with page after page of regulations, all government has to do is assign property rights and let markets handle the rest.

There’s much that’s attractive in free market environmentalism. Anything that makes the lives of business managers simpler is, to my mind, a good thing — not just for business, but for nature and society as a whole. It’s good because things that are simple for managers to do will get done, and often quickly, while things that are complicated may never get done. Right now, we need to get our economic activity in harmony with nature. We need to do that quickly, and at the lowest possible cost. If it’s easiest for managers to act when they have prices, then let’s give them prices, not regulations and exhortations.

At the same time, there are critical pieces missing in free market environmentalism. First and foremost, it lacks a solid rationale for how property rights to nature should be assigned. Coase argued that pollution levels will be the same no matter how those rights are apportioned. Although this may be true in the world of theory, it makes a big difference to people’s pocketbooks whether pollutees pay polluters, or vice versa.

Most free marketers seem to think pollution rights should be given free to polluters. In their view, the citizen’s right to be free of pollution is trumped by the polluter’s right to pollute. Taking the opposite tack, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, argues that polluters have long been trespassing on common property and that this trespass is a form of subsidy that ought to end.

The question for me is, what’s the best way to assign property rights when our goal is to protect a birthright shared by everyone? It turns out this is a complicated matter, but one we need to explore. There’s no textbook way to “propertize” nature. (When I say to propertize, I mean to treat an aspect of nature as property, thus making it ownable. Privatization goes further and assigns that property to corporate owners.) In fact, there are different ways to propertize nature, with dramatically different consequences. And since we’ll be living with these new property rights — and paying rent to their owners — for a long time, it behooves us to get them right. ... read the whole chapter



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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper