Wednesday, January 09, 2008

EXTERNALITIES: Holes in Markets

In previous posts I’ve discussed that when resources become scarce prices rise and they are used in a way that is more sustainable. I also noted how free markets incorporate the consideration of future generations when resources are used. The conclusion is that free markets are consistent with the optimal use of resources, and the crisis mentality that calls for massive government intervention is unfounded. Many critics of this position claim that there are many ‘holes’ in markets that call for government action.

Theoretically, many holes in arguments for markets have been described as negative externalities or commons problems. An example would be the consumption of pork. In producing and consuming pork, the producer and consumer may not take into account the impact that a concentrated animal feeding operation may have on air or groundwater pollution. It would appear that in this case a negative externality exists because there is a divergence between the private and social costs of producing and consuming pork.

Whenever the cost of one’s behavior is not factored into a price by which a choice can be valued, a commons problem or negative externality exists. As Coase (1960) and Demsetz (1967) point out, with the establishment of property rights and markets (bargaining) the externality of the commons can be internalized. Behavior is changed or altered to account for the negative impact our choices impose on others. This framework, part of what is known as the Coase Theorem, closes many of the holes in arguments for free markets.

Relating to our pork example, if negative externalities exist, it is due to the fact that there are poorly designed property rights to water and air. Groups like Ducks Unlimited and the USDA have caught on to this and are using market incentives to mitigate such pollution problems. Recently the USDA implemented a Water Quality Credit/Trading program. Even the KYOTO Treaty is based loosely on this logic with CO2Cap and Trade provisions.


Jerry R. Skees
J. Roy Black
Ben M. Gramig
American Agricultural Economics Association, 2003

Towards a Theory of Property Rights.
Harold Demsetz
The American Economic Review. Volume 57, Issue 2. May, 1967

The Problem of Social Cost
R. H. Coase
Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 3, Oct., 1960 (Oct., 1960), pp. 1-44

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