Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Climate Change and Market Definition of Property Rights

A fellow named Gregory responded to my post, "Can the Free Market Solve the Problems Posed by Climate Change?" with an argument which I think deserves to be discussed in some depth. Gregory wrote:
If the market has not arrived at an efficient means regulating itself (compensating those damaged) then a government certainly will not be able to affect such a regulation efficiently. The cost of the regulation must be weighed against the benefit it provides. If economic growth is retarded by inefficient regulations, do we not harm future generations more than by waiting for the market to develop a mechanism to efficiently distribute justice?

Gregory highlights the fact that the market has not yet developed an efficient way to enforce the property rights involved in discussions of climate change. I agree that on some level, to indict the free market for this fact would be problematic. In his essay, "Market-Based Environmentalism and the Free Market: They're Not the Same," Roy Cordato wrote
...environmental problems are not an unavoidable side effect of a free-market economy. Instead, they occur because the institution setting--the property rights structure--required for the operation of a free market is not fully in place. Because, in all modern societies, government has taken nearly complete responsibility for the establishment and maintenance of this institutional setting, environmental problems are more appropriately viewed as manifestations of government failure, not market failure.

Mark Pennington bolsters this view in his essay, "Liberty, Markets, and Environmental Values: A Hayekian Defense of Free-Market Environmentalism," when he writes, "Transaction costs are not the sole preserve of the market system...and we commit the "nirvana fallacy" if we suggest the alternative to an imperfect market is a government immune from the same sort of problems."

I completely agree with these two authors, and Gregory, in saying that ill-defined and unenforced property rights are at the root of most (if not all, depending on your definition of "property rights") of the problems associated with climate change.

Further, I agree that the free market can solve some of the inadequacies in the process of enforcing justice, but often only if allowed to work without interference. Pennington writes:
Although proponents of free-market environmentalism recognize that environmental markets have limits owing to the prevalence of transaction costs, they contend that these problems are more like to be overcome within an institutional framework supportive of private contractual arrangements. In this perspective, all environmental externalities represent potential profit opportunities for entrepreneurs who can devise ways of defining private-property rights and arranging contracts (via technological innovations, for example) so that those currently free riding on collective goods or imposing negative external effects (for example, water pollution) on their neighbors are required to bear the full costs of their actions.

That being said, I do think that we oversimplify if we simply suppose that the market will find a way to handle the problem in an acceptable manner, and leave it at that. In issues of justice, the "There are many ways to skin a cat" approach taken by the free market might not be acceptable. Improper conceptions of property rights are not simply inefficient, they are unjust. In his speech, "Another Take on Free Market Environmentalism: A Friendly Critique," David Roodman highlighted this idea when he said:
Fine, I own my car. And you own your lungs. Property rights are allocated, seemingly. So now can we reach happy agreement about how to resolve the conflict? Fat chance. More likely, thousands of drivers and breathers will end up suing each other and then the problem will end up in the lap of the court, which would have to decide precisely where the right to free enjoyment of one's car stops and the right to free enjoyment of one's lungs starts.

Later, he quipped, "Judges did not free the slaves; in fact, they tightened the bondage."

I don't mean to imply that libertarian judges would be unable to come up with a decent solution. I'm only suggesting that the answer might not be as simple as Rothbard made it sound when he wrote, in chapter 13 of his Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Human Nature:
...it would not be a very difficult task for Libertarian lawyers and jurists to arrive at a rational and objective code of libertarian legal principles and procedures based on the axiom of defense of person and property, and consequently of no coercion to be used against anyone who is not a proven and convicted invader of such person and property. This code would then be followed and applied to specific cases by privately-competitive and free-market courts, all of whom would be pledged to abide by the code, and who would be employed on the market proportionately as the quality of their service satisfies the consumers of their product.

The problem, in addition to the simple fact that this could be difficult to do, is that this group of Libertarian lawyers and jurists would need to arrive at decisions somehow. Either they could do so in accordance with majority opinion or some other procedural way, or (as I suspect Rothbard is aiming at) they could do so in accordance with the true principles of justice. If the former were the case, then I see no reason why we would call the result "rational and objective." And if the latter, then we should be able to replicate the activities of these lawyers and jurists on our own. But as those who have been keeping up with my work have undoubtedly seen, the task is not quite as simple as Rothbard makes it sound.

One approach would be to take a somewhat left-libertarian angle and say that climate change represents injustice due to an over-enclosure of the atmospheric commons. Edwin Dolan took this approach in his essay, "Science, Public Policy, and Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Perspective." Dolan wrote:
Liberalism in America, in particular, grew up in a Lockean state of nature where it was really true, or at least seemed true, that homesteaders, loggers, grazers, and industrialists could take what they needed while leaving "enough and as good for others." What the environmentalist side of the global warming debate is telling us is that we no longer live in such a world.

Because those responsible for climate change have, according to Dolan, taken more than their fair share, they must be subject to the demands of justice. He insists, "Defending the rights of property that has been unjustly acquired is a conservative position, not a liberal one."

But this approach has its difficulties. One problem is the fact that the atmospheric CO2 sink is not really a limited resource. The problem is not that "...the atmospheric commons - namely, the Earth's carbon absorbing capacity - are finite and depletable," as Tariq Banuri and Erika Spanger-Siegfried characterized it in their essay "Equity and the Clean Development Mechanism: Equity, Additionality, Supplementarity." As far as we're concerned (though technically this isn't true), we can dump as much CO2 into the atmosphere as we want. It's not like one day we'll light a fire and the CO2 won't go into the atmosphere. The thing that's available in limited quantities is the atmosphere's capacity to absorb CO2 without causing any harm.

In light of this fact, the right way to allocate the resource in question is somewhat unclear. In a world in which we do exceed the total CO2 emissions we could release without causing objectionable climate change, what is the real significance of the amount of CO2 which we could have emitted without causing harm? This, I think, is a problem which reflects the fact that climate change is an emergent problem, and is therefore sort of different from other problems we normally face.

Of course, even if we figure out the significance of this "harmless sink capacity," there still remains a boatload of work to do in order to determine exactly who is responsible for what emissions, what rights are violated by climate change, whether non-rights-violating actions can be justly interfered with, what exactly we should hold people accountable for, who should bear what burdens, what accountability entails, what our accountabilities to future people are and how they should be enforced, and how we should administer all of this (I'm sure I'm leaving stuff out). Never mind the scientific uncertainty plaguing every step of the process!

At the end of the day, we can talk all we want about the market figuring out the answers to climate change through incentives for the enforcement of justice, but someone's going to have to figure this stuff out. If it can be done, hopefully I'll be able to figure out how, or at least set the process in motion for other people. I really hope that answers your question somehow!

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