Archive for the ‘Pigou’ Category

Can Pigovian taxes be Coasean bargains? – The case of climate negotiations

July 14th, 2008 1 comment

David Zetland’s libertarian-environmental blog, Aguanomics, has recently been carrying on some excellent discussions on resource and environmental economics, with interlocutors like Bob Murphy, Gene Callahan and others.  In the context of two recent posts on government approaches to climate change, I commented on one thread (An Ounce of Prevention…) that

As for the setting the level of carbon taxes, you and Gene keep assuming that there is a global government that sets taxes in a vacuum. Instead, we have a multi-player game, where any politically sustainably prices are set at levels that the chief emitters are willing to agree to.

This is analogous to ranchers, lobstermen or shrimpers deciding to close a range or fishery. No single one of them is setting a price.

On an earlier thread (Pigouvian Libertarians), I noted to the effect that:

Bob, the standard objections to Pigovian taxes don`t apply to climate change, as there is no single government administering the world. Rather, we are engaged in multi-player negotiations as to how to regulate a commons.  The taxes (or other schemes) that individual governments may impose will ultimately be coordinated, and much more resemble a Coasean trade among nations with respect to a shared resource.

David has kindly made this point the subject of a new post:  How to Set a Carbon Tax.

Allow me to elaborate my point.  A C Pigou, is often trotted out by supporters of government economic regulation, for the proposition that governments should regulate or impose taxes in order to force economic actors to internalize the “external costs” of their actions (costs that are imposed on others outside of that transaction without their consent).  This use of Pigou is a bit unfair, as Pigou himself noted that taxing authorities would always lack the information needed to determine the correct tax, but nevertheless the perception that externalities are ubiquitous has helped to justify a wide range of governmental regulatory interventions.

Other objections to Pigou can of course be raised, as Ronald Coase prominently did when he argued that, when trade in an externality is possible and there are no transaction costs, bargaining will lead to an efficient outcome regardless of the initial distribution of property rights.  Pigou and those using him did not consider the real world dynamics of self-help among economic actors, and many ignored Pigou’s acknowledgment that governments are seldom positioned to calculate external costs.  Coase noted that because transaction costs are NOT zero, many bargains would not be reachable, so that the initial distribution of property rights would affect ultimate outcomes in resource allocation.  Coase properly turned the focus of the debate over “externalities” towards a focus on the use of bargaining between parties to accommodate differences in personal objectives, and to fruitful discussions of how property rights and bargains are defined and enforced and whether information and transaction costs can be lowered.  Austrians have further criticisms of Pigou and Coase, but those can be set aside for the moment.

In ongoing discussions over at Aguanomics, Bob Murphy and others have trotted out that standard Coasean attacks on the proposals by economists (such as Robert Nordhaus and other members of Gregory Mankiw’s “Pigovian Club”) for carbon taxes, i.e., that government can’t know at what level to set carbon taxes, that such carbon taxes will prevent private transactions among parties that might fully address climate concerns at less costs, etc.

In the context of this discussion, I ask that people step back from the theoretical and observe the pragmatic – that we are in the midst of a multi-decade multinational negotiation of a GLOBAL resource that no one nation controls, in which there are no private property rights or common legal systems and in which transaction costs for private transactions are enormous and swamp individual economic benefits that may be achieved by them, and that in this context, our governments are essentially our negotiating proxies who can more efficiently negotiate for us and come to terms with others than can any private entities or groups.  Given these circumstances, even though our governments are all subject to domestic rent-seeking pressures, because no effective approach to climate change can be reached without the voluntary agreement of all major emitters, is it not the case that the discussions that our governments conduct – including the possibility of coordinated Pigovian taxes at the national level for implementation purposes – ARE efforts at Coasean bargaining?

Any thoughts?