Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly

I take a break from packing to note that Yglesias has a very good point:

It's worth going back to first principles on markets, property rights, and air pollution. To have a functioning market, you need to have property rights. And property rights need to be defined in some way or other. This includes taking some view of the relationship between property rights and particulate emissions into the air. On one conceivable conception of property rights, the Sierra Club could buy up a field somewhere and then assert that its property rights over the field give it the right to exclude any form of air pollution from wafting into its field. On that definition of property rights, which is the one "the Greens" would favor if we really wanted Stone Age economic conditions, industrial production would swiftly become impossible. You couldn't so much as warm yourself with a fire before neighbors were accusing you of tresspassing for depositing microscopic soot particles in their lawns.

So obviously we don't define the property rights that way.

Another way would be to say the air is just a kind of free-for-all. You just dump however much of whatever you want into it and forget about it. This is, needless to say, convenient for people who are producing a lot of pollution. But it's not so convenient if there's acid rain falling on your roof. Or if smog is wrecking your view. Or if you develop asthma as a result of poor air quality. Or, indeed, if your gets drowned in a flood or your fields go dry or your drinking water vanishes because of climate change. A third way is a find a middle ground. You're allowed to emit some sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere so that industrial production can continue, but an unlimited amount so as to prevent the acid rain situation from getting out of control. The "green" proposal for carbon dioxide is essentially similar to this. It's important, economically, that we allow there to be some carbon emissions. But it's also important that we not have unlimited levels of greenhouse gases making the world hotter and hotter and hotter and hotter with all sorts of deleterious consequences for people's lives.

Libertarians frequently underweight the long evolution of institutional arrangements that allow us to function without government intervention.  And non-local pollution simply hasn't been around long enough for those institutions to evolve.  There is no such thing as a free market approach to air quality or water rights.

That doesn't mean we can't have freer market approaches, or that the lessons of markets aren't valuable.  But strict property rights simply don't function in those commons.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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