Myth: Markets don’t work (or are inefficient) when there are negative or positive externalities

When thinking about the difference between government action and action taken by free people trading voluntarily in markets, we find that many myths abound. Tom G. Palmer has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The seventh myth — Markets Don’t Work (or Are Inefficient) When There Are Negative or Positive Externalities — and Palmer’s refutation is below. The complete series of myths and responses is at Twenty Myths about Markets.

Palmer is editor of the recent book The Morality of Capitalism. He will be in Overland Park and Wichita in May speaking on the moral case for capitalism. For more information and to register for these events see The Morality of Capitalism.

Myth: Markets Don’t Work (or Are Inefficient) When There Are Negative or Positive Externalities

Myth: Markets only work when all of the effects of action are born by those who make the decisions. If people receive benefits without contributing to their production, markets will fail to produce the right amount. Similarly, if people receive “negative benefits,” that is, if they are harmed and those costs are not taken into account in the decision to produce the goods, markets will benefit some at the expense of others, as the benefits of the action go to one set of parties and the costs are borne by another.

Tom G. Palmer: The mere existence of an externality is no argument for having the state take over some activity or displace private choices. Fashionable clothes and good grooming generate plenty of positive externalities, as others admire those who are well clothed or groomed, but that’s no reason to turn choice of or provision of clothing and grooming over to the state. Gardening, architecture, and many other activities generate positive externalities on others, but people undertake to beautify their gardens and their buildings just the same. In all those cases, the benefits to the producers alone — including the approbation of those on whom the positive externalities are showered — are sufficient to induce them to produce the goods. In other cases, such as the provision of television and radio broadcasts, the public good is “tied” to the provision of other goods, such as advertising for firms; the variety of mechanisms to produce public goods is as great as the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs who produce them.

More commonly, however, it’s the existence of negative externalities that leads people to question the efficacy or justice of market mechanisms. Pollution is the most commonly cited example. If a producer can produce products profitably because he imposes the costs of production on others who have not consented to be a part of the production process, say, by throwing huge amounts of smoke into the air or chemicals into a river, he will probably do so. Those who breathe the polluted air or drink the toxic water will bear the costs of producing the product, while the producer will get the benefits from the sale of the product. The problem in such cases, however, is not that markets have failed, but that they are absent. Markets rest on property and cannot function when property rights are not defined or enforced. Cases of pollution are precisely cases, not of market failure, but of government failure to define and defend the property rights of others, such as those who breathe polluted air or drink polluted water. When people downwind or downstream have the right to defend their rights, they can assert their rights and stop the polluters from polluting. The producer can install at his own expense equipment or technology to eliminate the pollution (or reduce it to tolerable and non-harmful levels), or offer to pay the people downwind or downstream for the rights to use their resources (perhaps offering them a better place to live), or he must stop producing the product, because he is harming the rights of others who will not accept his offers, showing that the total costs exceed the benefits. It’s property rights that make such calculations possible and that induce people to take into account the effects of their actions on others. And it’s markets, that is, the opportunity to engage in free exchange of rights, that allow all of the various parties to calculate the costs of actions.

Negative externalities such as air and water pollution are not a sign of market failure, but of government’s failure to define and defend the property rights on which markets rest.

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