Archive for October, 2007

Fighting over the wheel of government

October 16th, 2007 5 comments

[update below]  Fundamentalist states on an interesting thread: “Most Americans are outright socialists; the rest are socialist sympathizers. They believe that only the government can save them from capitalists.”

In response, I raised the following questions:

Do you think Jefferson was wrong when he urged:

“I hope we shall crush … in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
–Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1816.

The concentrated wealth and long lives of corporations have long made them a special and powerful class of rent-seekers, eliminating liability for shareholders and vanquishing restrictions on life and acceptable business activities. Are citizens wrong to seek to counterbalance corporations, using in part the very tool of government that corporations have effectively seized?

Let me add here the comment that while ultimately the way forward lies in hacking back government, one cannot deny that rent-seeking by corporations has been and continues to be a major factor in politicizing and hardening conflicts that could otherwise be resolved privately.  While bashing “socialists”, “enviros” and other citizens groups, it behooves us not to forget the 800 lb. gorilla in the room.

[update in response to comments:]

I agree completely that the best way to lessen rent-seeking is to reduce the rents that are available through government. 

This implies smaller government, but also suggests that we can make progress by focussing on breathing more life into the federalist structure of power-sharing with the states, the checks and balances between the branches of government, by limiting the ability of either political party to get a local lock on power by gerrymandering.

I appreciate the agreement that citizens are not wrong to seek to counterbalance corporations, but you’ve missed a point.  Corporations are the 800 lb. gorilla not because of ongoing corporate welfare – that’s simply the effect.  Their powerful advantages over citizens in influencing government comes from their size and financial power, which derives from legislative grants of unlimited life, unlimited purposes and limited liability for their investors.  To reduce government, some effort must be made to moderate these advantages.

Sophomoric optimism?

October 15th, 2007 6 comments

Jon Bostwick agrees on another post that “Man is clever but not wise (“homo sapiens” is a misnomer)”, but further comments (emphasis added):

“True. But humanity is wise. Men create cultures, economies and law.

“Man’s flaw is that he is over confident of his own intelligence. He tries to control things he doesn’t understand, like culture, economies, and law.

You have just made an excellent case for why government involvement will not improve the environment. Because governments, like man, are not wise.” 

This is too simple, as well as self-contradictory. Humanity is wise because he collectively (but non-deliberately?) creates “cultures, economies and law” (let’s not forget governments), but individuals are foolish when they seek to use institutions to achieve particular purposes?

Our states are merely one subset of the wide universe of formal and informal institutions through which we cooperate with one another.  States are not a market, to be sure, but then neither are corporations, and there is a spectrum of ownership types between the two.  We can study all of these institutions and use that knowledge to direct how we make use of them.  Such study has informed, for example, the deliberate shifts in policy that have led to the ongoing (yet incomplete) privatization of the former USSR and of China. 

A study of institutions governing common pool resources by guru Elinor Ostrom makes the following point:

 “Whether people are able to self-organize and manage CPRs also depends on the broader social setting within which they work. National governments can help or hinder local self-organization. “Higher” levels of government can facilitate the assembly of users of a CPR in organizational meetings, provide information that helps identify the problem and possible solutions, and legitimize and help enforce agreements reached by local users. National governments can at times, however, hinder local self-organization by defending rights that lead to overuse or maintaining that the state has ultimate control over resources without actually monitoring and enforcing existing regulations.

“Participants are more likely to adopt effective rules in macro-regimes that facilitate their efforts than in regimes that ignore resource problems entirely or that presume that central authorities must make all decisions.If local authority is not formally recognized by larger regimes, it is difficult for users to establish enforceable rules.

Elinor Ostrom et al., Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges, Science, 04/09/99

Was von Mises foolish to suggest we can use the state to reform our institutions?

“It is true that where a considerable part of the costs incurred are external costs from the point of view of the acting individuals or firms, the economic calculation established by them is manifestly defective and their results deceptive. But this is not the outcome of alleged deficiencies inherent in the system of private ownership of the means of production. It is on the contrary a consequence of loopholes left in this system. It could be removed by a reform of the laws concerning liability for damages inflicted and by rescinding the institutional barriers preventing the full operation of private ownership.

And Cordato, for suggesting that Austrians take particular policy approaches to environmental issues?

“For Austrians then, public policy in the area of the environment must focus on resolving these conflicts over the use of resources that define pollution, not on obtaining an ultimately unobtainable “efficient” allocation of resources. … For Austrians, whose goal is to resolve conflicts, the focus is on clarifying titles to property and rights enforcement.

Sorry, but I cannot believe that we are condemned always to repeat all mistakes, despite our rather constant human nature.  Rather, as Yandle notes, our very history as a species is about our success in evolving, devising and adopting ways to manage shared problems.

This is a message of profound optimism, not cynicism — said the fool.

Ron Bailey of Reason congratulates Al Gore

October 15th, 2007 No comments

[updated] A great new post by libertarian Ron Bailey of Reason here:

Congratulations to Al Gore
But be wary of the man’s proposed solutions for global warming.
Ronald Bailey | October 12, 2007

1.  Here are some excerpts (emphasis added), followed by a copy of my comments over at Reason:

[Gore is] wrong to characterize global warming as a moral and spiritual problem. Man-made global warming is not some kind of environmental sin. It’s just another commons problem that has emerged as human civilization continues to develop. Most environmental problems arise in what are called open-access commons. That is, people pollute air and rivers, overfish lakes and oceans, cut down rainforests, and so forth because no one owns those natural resources and therefore no one has an interest in protecting them.

The point is clearest in the case of tropical forests and fisheries. No one owns the forests or fisheries, so anyone may exploit them. No one has an incentive to leave any trees or fish behind because, if they do, someone else will harvest them and get the benefits for themselves. In other words, those who immediately benefit from exploiting the resource do not bear the long-run costs of its ultimate destruction. This mismatch between benefits and costs is a recipe for disaster. Similarly, no one owns the global atmosphere, so there is no incentive for anyone to protect it from various pollutants, including greenhouse gases that tend to raise average global temperatures.

Generally, humanity has solved environmental problems caused by open-access situations by either privatizing the relevant commons or regulating it.  …

As a skeptic of government action, I had hoped that the scientific evidence would lead to the conclusion that global warming would not be much of a problem, so that humanity could avoid the messy and highly politicized process of deciding what to do about it. Although people of good will can still disagree about the scientific evidence for climate change, I now believe that Gore has got it basically right. The balance of the evidence shows that global warming could well be a significant problem over the course of this century.

Yale economist William Nordhaus … calculates that the optimal policy would impose a carbon tax of $34 per metric ton carbon in 2010, with the tax increases gradually reaching $42 per ton in 2015, $90 per ton in 2050, and $207 per ton of carbon in 2100. A $20 per metric ton carbon tax will raise coal prices by $10 per ton, which is about a 40 percent increase over the current price of $25 per ton. A $10 per ton carbon tax translates into a 4 cent per gallon increase in gasoline. A $300 per ton carbon tax would raise gasoline prices by $1.20 per gallon. Following this optimal trajectory would cost $2.2 trillion and reduce climate change damage by $5.2 trillion over the next century. …

Man-made global warming is an economic and technical problem of the sort that humanity has solved many times. For example, forests are expanding in rich countries because they have well-developed private property rights. Also in rich countries, regulations have helped once polluted rivers and lakes to become clean and have drastically cut air pollution. One of the keys to solving environmental problems is economic growth and wealth. …

In any case, global warming is not the result of environmental sin; it is the result of human progress creating another commons problem. … I have no doubt that man-made global warming is an economic and technical problem that an inventive humanity will solve over the course of the 21st century.

Still, congratulations are in order to Al Gore for being recognized by the Nobel committee for his persistence in trying to get humanity to pay attention to this new commons problem.

2.  Here is a digest of my comments to Ron:

Basically, a great post, but I’ve got a few small quibbles.

1.  You were right last year when you said that “In the end, the debate over global warming and its obverse, humanity’s energy future, is a moral issue.”

2.  I share your understanding of the economics and institutional problem and agree that a straightforward explanation of these is important for very many.

3.  However, you forget what evolutionary psychology, Ostrom and Yandle have explained to us so well about how our innate moral sense drives and underpins mankind’s success as a species by enhancing our ability to cooperate and to overcome commons issues.

Our long history of developed rules and institutions (informal and formal now overlapping) are based on our moral sense and the effectiveness of these rules depends critically on our moral investment in accepting their legitimacy – witness our views on murder, theft, lying and “not playing by the rules” – and in voluntarily complying with them.

Our moral sense reinforces our judgments about when rules/institutions are not working and the need to develop new ones in response to changing circumstances and new problems.  When we see a problem that we think requires change, it is unavoidable that we respond to the status quo, the behavior of people within it and the need for change with a moral sense. 

This is simply a part of our evolutionary endowment.  (Of course, other parts of our endowment accentuate our suspicions of smooth talkers and help us catch free riders and looters and to guard against threats from outsiders.)

4.  Accordingly, while it’s unclear how deliberate Gore’s talk of “a moral and spiritual challenge” and “lifting the global consciousness” is or whether this is a productive approach for some people, I think it is fairly clear that, in order to build consensus for a solution to the climate commons problem (and other difficult commons problems) and to ensure that any agreed solutions are actually implemented, we will need to bring our moral senses to bear.

In other words, it is RIGHT to worry about climate change, but no meaningful/effective “solution” can be reached or implemented unless it is FAIR and the parties involved have sufficient TRUST (backed by information) in each other.

5.  You have understated the AGW problem, especially in light of the inertia both in our energy systems and in the climate, the long duration of CO2 and other GHGS, and the rapidity with which the climate is already changing – faster than even this year’s IPCC reports:

6.  It is surprising that in referring to Nordhaus you have not indicated the ways in which it seems clear that Nordhaus has understated the costs and risks of climate change and the utility of acting sooner rather than later, as noted by Weitzman, Sterner & Persson, Quiggin and others, or that by “revenue recycling” as noted by McKitrick we can substantially reduce the costs of carbon abatement policies.

7.  You fail to note that while there are real costs to our economies to build climate change institutions, once established in principle any resulting carbon pricing reflects real costs and is not a “cost” to the economy.

8.  It is a puzzle that you did not note that the most powerful way to call forth the investment and behavior changes that would help us to “find a cheap, low-carbon source of energy” and to limit GHG emissions would be to find ways that would effectively price GHG emissions.

9.  Finally, one further comment on this:

“One of the keys to solving environmental problems is economic growth and wealth.  … So keep in mind that anything that unduly retards economic growth also retards ultimate environmental clean-up, including global warming.”

Not sure what you’re driving at here.

As far as developing countries go, efforts by Western nations to address climate change are actually net subsidies to them (by dampening Western demand for fossil fuels) and are providing incentives and investment for growth.

And as for Western economies, at least in principle internalizing externalities by enclosing commons (that have provided value which has not been factored into GDP) doesn’t retard economic growth, but enables it by forestalling the destruction of resources, permitting greater wealth-generating private transactions and reducing inefficiency.

Boycott China and India?

October 12th, 2007 No comments

“Advanced democracies export their problems to emerging economies, thus shoving the whole problem neatly under the carpet. If the west really believed in being good global citizens we would (just for starters) refuse to trade with China and India. Then there is the small matter of cleaning up our own act.”

I posted the following (with minor tweaks) on a recent thread ( in response to the above assertion: 

The “small matter” of cleaning up our own act (misgovernment in the US) is actually a huge matter and the one that poses the greatest present threat to us, which is why it is hard to get people’s attention for a crusade to run off and save the rest of the world.

Of course, our domestic resource issues are largely under control (though regulation is too rigid and attracts eternal rent-seeking, politicking and division) and we are not literally exporting any problems – other than through our bumbling wars, of course!

However, as I previosuly noted, I fully agree that our market demands are providing incentives for much of the environmental devastation that we are seeing, even while it also creates opoportunities for wealth-generation in the developing world. I think we need to think much harder about these problems, but they are not problems that are so much being deliberately swept under the rug as they are problems that stem from institutional failures elsewhere that do not stare us in the face, even as they are important and though we may be complicit in and share some responsibility for them.

Largely, our relations with China and India are heading in the right directions, though I do think we (using our governments for support – in this others here are likely to disagree with me) should be doing more to help them combat their own environmental and institutional problems, as well as to work to create meaningful property rights in tropical forests (in other countries) and oceans.

On the climate change front, of course we have trade levers to use in getting them to sign onto measures that will help us all to rein in our impacts on climate, and help them to control their destruction of their own environments.

The use of trade levers must be coordinated with others, but clearly we have NO legal claims to prevent them from developing their economies, even were we to consider it moral – for the sake of the planet – to restrain them.

I am in favor of much greater and proactive efforts to deal with our various tragedy of the commons problems, but as they require international cooperation clearly we are not going to make much headway if we make China, India and development generally our enemy. We have to remain focussed on the problems, and under an Austrian framework, that means engagement.

Using the State to solve common resource problems?

October 12th, 2007 No comments

How exactly do you transfer commons into private ownership in a fair way, even for easily divided up stuff like land?

That’s the trillion dollar question that someone asked me on a recent thread ( regarding my suggestion that better definition and enforcement of property rights is key to addressing climate change and other environmental problems in the developing world.  I have excerpted and augmented my response here:

Libertarians do not insist that open-access resources (or common property resources/CPR) be divided up by creating individual property rights; cooperative ownership  via formal agreements or informally developed practices and customs (such those developed by Maine lobstermen, English angling clubs, indigenous peoples and Wikipedia and online communities) may work better at solving the prisoners’ dilemma issues and are just as acceptable.

But technological advances and greater demand often swamp CPR regimes, so such regimes remain vulnerable if they are not accorded legal protection. My understanding of the UK enclosures in this regard is that they were actually a legislative theft of common property by the powerful.

Can states play positive roles in solving problems? At least internally, it is rather clear that the answer is that the state works best by allowing, and providing judicial mechanisms to enforce, private transactions, and works least well when it tries to specify detailed and rigid “solutions” itself – since the government itself never has perfect information, often plays favorites and once a regulatory regime is put in place, parties have no ability to work out their differences directly with each other, but are forever in the position of trying to influence the state and in adversarial positions vis-a-vis each other.  But states can also play a positive role by disseminating information and by acting to facilitate deals between various resources users, particularly in cross-border/multi-state problems.

Elinor Ostrom is the guru of CPR regimes; anyone interested should look into her fascinating and highly-regarded work, particularly her seminal Governing the Commons (1990).

[She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, and a recipient of a number of prestigious awards. Her other books include Rules, Games, and Common-Pool Resources (1994); The Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptations (2003); The Samaritan’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Development Aid (2005); Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005); and Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice (2007).]

Here is one link to get readers started:  Elinor Ostrom et al., Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges, Science 9 April 1999:

Technology seems to provide us ability to create property rights regimes in ocean fisheries.

The stickiest problems are those where the resource is located in a country where we cannot ourselves create or enforce legal rights and in the atmosphere, which no one owns and to which all have access.  Unfortunately, many libertarians don’t even want to acknowledge, much less discuss, these problems. Since they are not confined to any one country, clearly we need to coordinate with others – for which purposes our state apparatus cannot be avoided.

Reaching any kind of effective solution for problems of this type will require much more focussed attention and bridge-building (abroad and at home), and if libertarians do not want to be part of the discussion, clearly they will have little influence on the results.

[Previously posted (with some tweaks) on a recent thread ( in response to someone who is concerned about environmental problems but is unfamiliar with Austrian approaches.]

Libertarian denial; clever but not wise

October 12th, 2007 13 comments

[Previously posted on a recent thread (Malthus and Mein Kampf come to Cork – thanks, Sean Corrigan!) in response to someone who is concerned about environmental problems but is unfamiliar with Austrian approaches.]

Man is clever but not wise (“homo sapiens” is a misnomer) and we remain very much a part of the ecosystems that we pretend to master even as we swamp them with the growing demands that our rapidly improving technology and burgeoning populations impose.

While our demands on the natural environment is much tempered in the developed economies by the feedback mechanisms of property rights, markets and pricing signals, those signals are flawed in our own economies as a result of government interference, and in any event are not working well with respect to many resources and products acquired from developing economies – due to the interwined problems of a lack of clear and enforceable property rights, government ownership and regulation/fiat, and kleptocracy and corruption for the benefit of elites.

For other shared resources/ecosystems – the atmosphere and oceans – the lack of property rights or other accepted management regime is leading to clear stresses, as we wipe out one fish stock after another and continue to unintentionally modify our global climate by various economic behavior for which actors have no liability to others.

And in the developing world, our improving technology and growing market demands are devasting tropical forests – which indigenous inhabitants are hapless to defend against theft by governments and elites – and leading to severe environmental problems in places where there are no effective ownership rights or liability rules.

As a result, despite a fair degree of property-rights-based managment in the developed economies, it does rather seem that mankind is eating itself out of house and home, and leaving less and less to our coinhabitants – other than those we`ve made expressly a part of our food chain.

These are very difficult problems that will not go away. My own view is that the reticence with which others here approach these issues is informed by the rather glaring truth – especially in the US – that the government is always susceptible to rent-seeking by parties looking for a handout or special treatment at the cost of others, hopelessly incompetent and always subject to corruption and self-aggrandizement by bureaucrats and power-broking politicians.

The concern about “socialism” is a code for the very worst excesses of government (particularly war and genocide) that we saw in the last century and are still evident today.

Libertarians have been preoccupied with trying to fight government and restore greater human dignity and freedom, and have tended (as the Western environmental crises have been largely resolved) to overlook – as largely out of view – problems of the type that you have been pointing out, while seeing those with environmental concerns as merely another set of obnoxious people trying to get what they want not through the marketplace but by pushing greater governmental involvement. Besides, they are in principle opposed to governments acting, and so find themselves at a loss to address problems that arise are a result of ineffective governance elsewhere.

So they tend to prefer to argue with you over ways in which YOU misunderstand markets (such as correctly explaining that peak oil is not a real problem as it will be handled by the markets as it involves owned resources) rather than how THEY are ignoring the significant cases where the markets are functioning very poorly due to a lack of clear and enforceable property rights.

… [MORE]

It used to be that nature itself kept us in check and our impact on the natural world relative limited. But modern, industrial man is no longer threatened by predators and our cooperative organizational abilities and evolving technology literally mean that we are eating most life on this planet out of house and home. I read recently that humans now consume something like 25% of the world`s primary production.

The question is how do we best regulate our impact? I think we have to acknowledge that man will always place a priority on satisying our personal needs, at the cost of both shared needs and concerns (more or less shared) about the broader environment that supports us and the rest of creation. But there are signs of hope in the west (as Lomborg correctly notes), even as one is easily dismayed by the destruction taking place in the oceans and in less developed countries. The hope is proved by the recovery of domestic environments when people move to protect property rights and regulate industrial activities that are ecologically/economically damaging.

The more difficult problem lies in those places where those who are concerned about the abusive use of resources are unable to express their preferences by directly acquiring and protecting resources or persuading others to do so, because of a want of sufficent law and order.

It seems that, in the face of the ongoing development of parts of the world that are still experiencing population growth, the best we can hope for is the preservation of scraps of the natural world, and that – after ocean fisheries and tropical forests are largely destroyed – that various ownership and management regimes will finally arise that will find economic benefit in restoring parts of the wild.

Mises on fixing externalities: progress along the Kuznets curve is not magic, but the result of institution-building

October 11th, 2007 No comments

“Not all externalities are crimes, and as long as CO2 does not make clear victims, it should be left as an externality for people to adapt to ….”

In response to this statement on a recent thread (, I observed, in the context of the impact of man’s activities on the climate, that:

But Mises, Yandle and others speak of transition points, that are reached when demand pressure grows as a result of social changes (including new forms of organization) or technological advances (which might also enable greater protection), when open-access resources fall first under common property regimes and then later under private property rights.

I think we are at one of those points now. (emphasis added)

When another remarked that a transition might seem to involve “mob rule”, I noted that Mises had expressly acknowledged the need for transitions and implied that the state could be used to address them, and briefly quoted Mises.  I take this opportunity quote more extensively Mises’ view on externalities, evolving property rights and the state (emphasis added):

Property rights as they are circumscribed by laws and protected by courts and the police, are the outgrowth of an age-long evolution.The legal concepts of property do not fully take account of the social function of private property. There are certain inadequacies and incongruities which are reflected in the determination of the market phenomena.

Carried through consistently, the right of property would entitle the proprietor to claim all the advantages which the good’s employment may generate on the one hand and would burden him with all the disadvantages resulting from its employment on the other hand. Then the proprietor alone would be fully responsible for the outcome. In dealing with his property he would take into account all the expected results of his action, those considered favorable as well as those considered unfavorable. But if some of the consequences of his action are outside of the sphere of the benefits he is entitled to reap and of the drawbacks that are put to his debit, he will not bother in his planning about all the effects of his action. He will disregard those benefits which do not increase his own satisfaction and those costs which do not burden him. His conduct will deviate from the line which it would have followed if the laws were better adjusted to the economic objectives of private ownership. He will embark upon certain projects only because the laws release him from responsibility for some of the costs incurred. He will abstain from other projects merely because the laws prevent him from harvesting all the advantages derivable.

The laws concerning liability and indemnification for damages caused were and still are in some respects deficient. By and large the principle is accepted that everybody is liable to damages which his actions have inflicted upon other people. But there were loopholes left which the legislators were slow to fill. In some cases this tardiness was intentional because the imperfections agreed with the plans of the authorities. When in the past in many countries the owners of factories and railroads were not held liable for the damages which the conduct of their enterprises inflicted on the property and health of neighbors, patrons, employees, and other people through smoke, soot, noise, water pollution, and accidents caused by defective or inappropriate equipment, the idea was that one should not undermine the progress of industrialization and the development of transportation facilities. The same doctrines which prompted and still are prompting many governments to encourage investment in factories and railroads through subsidies, tax exemption, tariffs, and cheap credit were at work in the emergence of a legal state of affairs in which the liability of such enterprises was either formally or practically abated.”

Whether the proprietor’s relief from responsibility for some of the disadvantages resulting from his conduct of affairs is the outcome of a deliberate policy on the part of governments and legislators or whether it is an unintentional effect of the traditional working of laws, it is at any rate a datum which the actors must take into account. They are faced with the problem of external costs. Then some people choose certain modes of want-satisfaction merely on account of the fact that a part of the costs incurred are debited not to them but to other people.

The extreme instance is provided by the case of no-man’s property referred to above. If land is not owned by anybody, although legal formalism may call it public property, it is utilized without any regard to the disadvantages resulting. Those who are in a position to appropriate to themselves the returns–lumber and game of the forests, fish of the water areas, and mineral deposits of the subsoil–do not bother about the later effects of their mode of exploitation. For them the erosion of the soil, the depletion of the exhaustible resources and other impairments of the future utilization are external costs not entering into their calculation of input and output. They cut down the trees without any regard for fresh shoots or reforestation. In hunting and fishing they do not shrink from methods preventing the repopulation of the hunting and fishing grounds. In the early days of human civilization, when soil of a quality not inferior to that of the utilized pieces was still abundant, people did not find any fault with such predatory methods. When their effects appeared in a decrease in the net returns, the ploughman abandoned his farm and moved to another place. It was only when a country was more densely settled and unoccupied first class land was no longer available for appropriation, that people began to consider such predatory methods wasteful. At that time they consolidated the institution of private property in land. They started with arable land and then, step by step, included pastures, forests, and fisheries. The newly settled colonial countries overseas, especially the vast spaces of the United States, whose marvelous agricultural potentialities were almost untouched when the first colonists from Europe arrived, passed through the same stages. Until the last decades of the nineteenth century there was always a geographic zone open to newcomers–the frontier. Neither the existence of the frontier nor its passing was peculiar to America. What characterizes American conditions is the fact that at the time the frontier disappeared ideological and institutional factors impeded the adjustment of the methods of land utilization to the change in the data. …

It is true that where a considerable part of the costs incurred are external costs from the point of view of the acting individuals or firms, the economic calculation established by them is manifestly defective and their results deceptive. But this is not the outcome of alleged deficiencies inherent in the system of private ownership of the means of production. It is on the contrary a consequence of loopholes left in this system. It could be removed by a reform of the laws concerning liability for damages inflicted and by rescinding the institutional barriers preventing the full operation of private ownership.

Ludwig von Mises, Part IV (Das Handeln in der Marktwirtschaft), Chapter 10 (Kapitel: Die Daten der Marktlage), Sec. VI (Die Grenzen des Sondereigentums und das Problem der external costs und external economies), Nationalökonomie: Theorie des Handelns und Wirtschaftens (Geneva: Editions Union, 1940). The quote provided is from Mises’s expanded English translation, Chapter XXIII: “The Data of the Market,” Sec. 6: “The Limits of Property Rights and the Problems of External Costs and External Economies,” Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949).


By the way, it has has elsewhere been noted on LvMI that with this essay, Mises explained how environmental problems arise from the lack of clear, appropriate and enforceable property rights some decades before bioethicist Garrett Hardin in his famous 1968 essay,  “The Tragedy of the Commons” we should not ignore that Mises pointed not only at the problem of externalities, but also at the transitions that societies make, deliberately or through changes in customs, to reduce externalities.






Cordato summarizes Austrian environmentalism

October 11th, 2007 No comments

Roy Cordato has cogently summarized his views and the work of his Austrian colleagues here:  Thoughts on what this framework implies for modern issues are welcome.

Below are some favorite excerpts, with emphasis added:

“Austrian economics lacks a formalized, self-conscious theory of environmental economics. But in fact all of the major elements of such a theory already exist and in that sense what is needed is to piece together the relevant aspects of Austrian economics in order to draw out and focus a theory that is already there. … In developing an Austrian theory of environmental economics, very little new theoretical ground will be plowed. But by bringing together Austrian concepts of costs and the praxeological foundations of economics we discover a unique perspective on pollution and the role of property rights in solving environmental problems. Furthermore by placing environmental problems within the context of personal and interpersonal plan formulation, we discover that they are not about the environment per se but about the resolution of human conflict.

The concept of social costs, as typically invoked, completely disembodies and impersonalizes costs.  … The “social cost” approach to environmental economics has led to the “dehumanization” of issues related to the environment [where] [p]ollution or “tragedy of the commons” problems are not problems because of the damage that some people may or may not be inflicting on others, but because they create what amounts to disembodied harms. A problem occurs because some goods are “overproduced” while other goods are “underproduced.” In its more extreme form this has led to a separation of the concepts of costs and harm from human beings completely, substituting notions such as “costs to the environment,” and damage to the ecosystem.”

Economic analysis of the environment that starts from a praxeological perspective shifts the focus from maximizing the social value of output or equating price to marginal social cost, to efficient intra- and inter-personal plan formulation and execution, i.e., the internal consistency between the means that people use and the ends that they desire to achieve. Within this context, pollution problems that are indeed problems create an interpersonal conflict over the use of means and therefore obstruct efficient plan formulation and execution. Pollution is therefore not about harming the environment but about human conflict over the use of physical resources.”

“Humans cannot harm the environment. Instead, they can change the environment in such a way that it harms others who might be planning to use it for conflicting purposes.”

“The focus of the Austrian approach to environmental economics is conflict resolution. The purpose of focusing on issues related to property rights is to describe the source of the conflict and to identify possible ways of resolving it.”

“If a pollution problem exists then its solution must be found in either a clearer definition of property rights to the relevant resources or in the stricter enforcement of rights that already exist. This has been the approach taken to environmental problems by nearly all Austrians who have addressed these kinds of issues (see Mises 1998; Rothbard 1982; Lewin 1982; Cordato 1997). This shifts the perspective on pollution from one of “market failure” where the free market is seen as failing to generate an efficient outcome, to legal failure where the market process is prevented from proceeding efficiently because the necessary institutional framework, clearly defined and enforced property rights, is not in place.

“The starting point for all Austrian welfare economics is the goal seeking individual and the ability of actors to formulate and execute plans within the context of their goals. Furthermore, in all three approaches, social welfare or efficiency problems arise because of interpersonal conflict.  [C]onflict, that similarly cannot be resolved by the market process, gives rise to catallactic inefficiency by preventing useful information from being captured by prices. … A theory of environmental economics and pollution that evolves from problems associated with human conflict then would be a natural implication of each of these welfare standards.”

[I]rresolvable inefficiencies, i.e., inefficiencies that cannot find a solution in the entrepreneurial workings of the market process, arise because of institutional defects associated with the lack of clearly defined or well enforced property rights. In a setting where rights are clearly defined and strictly enforced, plans may conflict but the resolution to that conflict is embedded in the exchange process. … In the absence of clearly defined and strictly enforced property rights this process breaks down and the conflict becomes irresolvable through the market process. Under … Austrian approaches to welfare economics, therefore, the solution to pollution problems, defined as a conflict over the use of resources, is to be found in either clearly defining or more diligently enforcing property rights.”

“[W]e have integrated the Austrian focus on the actor’s means-ends framework, including its emphasis on the subjective nature of value and therefore costs, with the definition of what constitutes an environmental problem. By defining such problems in these terms, both the nature of pollution and the definition of a polluter take on new meaning. Environmental problems are brought to light as striking at the heart of the efficiency problem as typically seen by Austrians, that is, they generate human conflict and disrupt inter- and intra-personal plan formulation and execution.”

“[T]he Austrian approach to solving pollution problems may face implementation problems at the margin, i.e., with certain “tough cases,” defining and enforcing property rights already stands as the fundamental way in which interpersonal conflicts of all kinds are avoided or dealt with. …This is not to suggest that the clear definition of property rights is an easily achievable goal in all situations. It is not. But, while the Austrian approach to solving pollution problems may face implementation problems at the margin, i.e., with certain “tough cases,” defining and enforcing property rights already stands as the fundamental way in which interpersonal conflicts of all kinds are avoided or dealt with. This approach is clearly operational as it has been in operation, to one extent or another, throughout human history. The challenge for Austrians is to explain how we apply the theory in certain tough cases, not to explain, in reality, how it can be applied at all.”

— Okay – this sounds like a productive framework for approaching environmental issues. 

But on tough cases, let’s start off by hating the enviro-nazi watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) and by letting them know exactly what we think about them.  Not because that is productive, but because it satisfies other visceral needs.  Besides, we can always rationalize that the best form of progress is stalemate, while various parts of the global environment are trashed.


Geo-Engineering – a pound of technocrats or an ounce of Gore?

October 10th, 2007 2 comments

[update: see additional links at bottom – including to discussions of Austrian concerns]

[update2: at bottom] 

Climate change skeptic Benny Peiser of the Liverpool John Moores University recently circulated these links and excerpts via his “CCNet” mailing list ([email protected] (“subscribe cambridge-conference”)):

CCNet 167/2007 – 8 October 2007


Robin McKie and Juliette Jowit, The Observer, 7 October 2007

They are the ultimate technological fixes: schemes that will span our planet and involve scientists in reshaping our world to save it from global warming. Yet only a few years ago, such projects were dismissed as the stuff of science fiction. Today many engineers and researchers – fearful of the rate at which our planet is warming – say geo-engineering projects are now mankind’s only hope of saving itself from the impact of climate change.

Geo-engineering is one of the types of thing that are worth investigating. If we can generate 100 ideas, and 97 are bad and we land up with three good ones, then the whole thing will have been worthwhile.
Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 7 October 2007,,2185343,00.html

Sue Carter, The Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2007

Scientists desperate to combat climate change have drawn up high-tech plans which include firing giant mirrors into space and covering the earth in a cloud of sulphur.  In the past, such advanced schemes, known as geo-engineering projects, were considered too outrageous to be put into action – but now some scientists believe they may be our last chance to reverse the impact of climate change.

– Benny Peiser, National Museum Cardiff, 6 October 2007

Space-based geoengineering is controllable and reversible at any stage. Solar power generation will overcome the high cost of space-based climate control schemes

Johann Hari, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 5 October 2007

“Geo-engineering” sounds like a bland and technical term but it is actually a Messianic movement to save the world from global warming, through dust and iron and thousands of tiny mirrors in space. It is also the last green taboo.  Environmentalists instinctively do not want to discuss it. The wider public instinctively thinks it is mad. But now, the taboo has been breached. James Lovelock, one of the founding fathers of modern environmentalism, proposed a way to slash global warming without cutting back on a single fossil fuel.

[update:]Finally, I note that Dr. Reisman also broached this subject earlier this year, with a thoughtful suggestion that we proceed with a program of open air testing of atom bombs in the Arctic, to confirm possible efficacy in creating  a mild “nuclear winter” – just in case:

– March 16, 2007 – Global Warming: Environmentalism’s Threat of Hell on Earth
George Reisman

May 30, 2007 – Global Warming Is Not a Threat but the Environmentalist Response to It Is (Full Version)

There is much further discussion of geo-engineering on these two posts.  One commenter (Roger M, now “Fundamentalist”) made the following interesting remark:  “”During the 3 days that the 9/11 disaster grounded all air travel in the US, a California scientist measured temperatures across the country and found them 3 degrees warmer than normal. He thinks airline contrails block 3% of the sun’s energy and cool the earth.  In India, pollution reduces the average temp by 10 degrees. So all we need to do to reduce the effects of global warming is fly more and pollute more.”

I attach here a few further links that I noted there:

GEOENGINEERING: A CLIMATE CHANGE MANHATTAN PROJECT, Jay Michaelson (Yale JD), Stanford Environmental Law Journal January, 1998;
There have of course been many discussions of geoengineering over the past two decades. The topic is gaining interest, espcially after an article by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen last year. More here, if you are interested:
Climate change: Is this what it takes to save the world? Long marginalized as a dubious idea, altering the climate through ‘geoengineering’ has staged something of a comeback.


A Combined Mitigation/Geoengineering Approach to Climate Stabilization, T. M. L. Wigley;

Geoengineering Earth’s Radiation Balance to Mitigate CO2 Induced Climate Change, Bala Govindasamy and Ken Caldeira Climate and Carbon Cycle Group, Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory;

– Feasibility of cooling the Earth with a cloud of small spacecraft near the inner Lagrange point (L1), Roger Angel;

Only mother nature knows how to fertilize the ocean; Natural input of nutrients works ten times better than manmade injections;

– “Climate change: Is this what it takes to save the world? Long marginalized as a dubious idea, altering the climate through ‘geoengineering’ has staged something of a comeback.”


Global warming fix in can? By Andrew Richards
October 11, 2007;


Categories: climate, environment, Reisman Tags:

Environmental Markets? Links to Austrians

October 2nd, 2007 3 comments

Here’s a partial list of useful articles, alphabetically by author:

Terry L. Anderson and J. Bishop Grewell
Property Rights Solutions for the Global Commons: Bottom-Up or Top-Down?’y+F.+73+pdf

H. Barnett and Bruce Yandle
The End of the Externality Revolution

Walter Block 
Environmentalism and Economic Freedom: the Case for Private Property Rights

Robert W. McGee and Walter E. Block
Pollution Trading Permits as a Form of Market Socialism and the Search for a Real Market Solution to Environmental Pollution
John Bratland
Toward a Calculational Theory and Policy of Intergenerational Sustainability

Roy E. Cordato
Toward An Austrian Theory of Environmental Economics

The Common Law Approach to Pollution Prevention; a Roundtable Discussion (1997) ( Hope Babcock, Elizabeth Brubaker, David Schoenbrod, Bruce Yandle, Michael Krauss )

Peter J. Hill

Market-Based Environmentalism and the Free Market; they’re Not the Same

Murray N. Rothbard 
Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution

Fred L. Smith Jr 
The Bankruptcy of Collectivist Environmental Policy

Fred L. Smith, Jr. 
Eco-Socialism: Threat to Liberty around the World

Robert J. Smith 
Resolving the Tragedy of the Commons by Creating Private Property Rights in Wildlife

Ludwig von Mises 
“The Limits of Property Rights and the Problems of External Costs and External Economies”, in Human Action

Bruce Yandle
Coase, Pigou, and Environmental Rights

Bruce Yandle
The Commons: Tragedy or Triumph?