Archive for the ‘common law’ Category

Limited liability produces both pollution and political meddling: Block on Environmentalism

December 23rd, 2008 No comments

In my recent post on limited liability, I argued that one of the perverse consequences of limiting shareholder responsibility for corporate torts was to create the moral hazard by which investors could capture the upside of risky activities that imposed costs on others, without having to worry about whether the harms such activities may impose on others exceeded the benefits to the firm. 

This dynamic can be clearly seen in the historical growth of various environmental torts, which expanded as courts, taking a signal from government policy to favor industry, turned away from a strict enforcement of property rights.  The result was massive pollution, which enriched corporate owners while transferring costs to others.  The further result?  The massive resort to federal regulatory approaches that further undermined property rights, not only by dictating to industry but by giving firms that complied with regulations a “right to pollute” within such bounds, regardless of harms caused to others.

Walter Block captures some of these dynamics in his excellent piece on the need to return to a property rights approach to environmental harms,  “Environmentalism and Economic Freedom: the Case for Private Property Rights”, Journal of Business Ethics 17: 1887–1899 (1998).  An excerpt is below (emphasis added):

But then in the 1840s and 1850s a new legal philosophy took hold. No longer were private property rights upheld. Now, there was an even more important consideration: the public good. And of what did the public good consist in this new dispensation? The growth and progress of the U.S. economy. Toward this end it was decided that the jurisprudence of the 1820s and 1830s was a needless indulgence. Accordingly, when an environmental plaintiff came to court under this new system, he was given short shrift. He was told, in effect, that of course his private property rights were being violated; but that this was entirely proper, since there is something even more important that selfish, individualistic property rights. And this was the “public good” of encouraging manufacturing.

Under this legal convention, all the economic incentives of the previous regime were turned around 180 degrees. Why use clean burning, but slightly more expensive anthracite coal rather than the cheaper but dirtier high sulfur content variety? Why install scrubbers, and other techniques for reducing pollution output, or engage in environmental research and development, or use better chimneys and other smoke prevention devices, or make locational decisions so as to negatively impact as few people as possible? Needless to say, the incipient forensic pollution industry was rendered stillborn.

And what of the “green” manufacturer, who didn’t want to foul the planet’s atmosphere, or the libertarian, who refused to do this on the grounds that is was an unjustified invasion of other people’s property? There is a name for such people, and it is called “bankrupt.” For to engage in environmentally sound business practices under a legal regime which no longer requires this is to impose on oneself a competitive disadvantage. Other things equal, this will guarantee bankruptcy.

From roughly 1850 to 1970, firms were able to pollute without penalty. This is why “there is no way to force private polluters to bear the social cost of their operations” a la Pigou; this is why there was a Samuelsonian “divergence of social and private costs.” This was no failure of the market. It was a failure of the government to uphold free enterprise with a legal system protective of private property rights.

In the 1970s a “discovery” was made: the air quality was dangerous to human beings and other living creatures. Having caused the problem itself, the government now set out to cure it, with a whole host of regulations which only made things worse. There were demands for electric cars, for minimal mileage per gallon for gasoline, for subsidies to wind, water, solar and nuclear power, for taxes on coal, oil, gas and other such fuels, for arbitrary cutbacks in the amount of pollutants into the air. The nation wide 55 mile per hour speed limit was not initially motivated by safety considerations, but rather by ecological ones. “Rent seeking” played a role in the scramble, as eastern (dirty burning sulfur) coal interests prevailed over their western (clean burning anthracite) counterparts. The former wanted compulsory scrubbers, the latter wanted the mandated substitution of their own coal for that of their competitors.

FN 23. From 1845 to 1970, approximately, polluters had a free run of the atmosphere, other people’s property and their lungs. From roughly 1970 to 1995, and counting, there was concern for invasive air and water borne pollutants, but only command and control (and in the last few years tradeable emissions rights schemes) regulations. Provision for environmental lawsuits is still, as of this 1995 writing, virtually nonexistent. See Horwitz (1977), Block (1990, pp. 282–285).