Externalities

My last post on Social Planning did not address the issue of externalities as well as I would have liked so I decided to write some more on it.

For the first part of the arguement, consider the example of a lighthouse from George Reisman’s book Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (pdf version available here. Note: I have not read it fully). A lighthouse benefits all the ships that use its light whether their owners have paid for the construction and maintenance of the lighthouse or not. So there is no immediate incentive for any individual shipowner to pay. In such cases, it is claimed that lighthouses will be under produced. Reisman writes that ship owners could make their payments contingent on the payment of a sufficient number of other ship owners’ payments thus creating an incentive for everyone who wants a lighthouse to pay for it. These kinds of solutions do not figure in economic models based on the assumption that individuals act to maximize their utility, with no consideration for what effect their acts have in a wider context. This is simply not true. How would such a model explain the existence of this blog, activist groups, charities etc? Man is not homo-economicus. He is capable of a wider understanding of the world. Stripped of all the mathematics, the externalities arguement is essentially a claim that men are too short-sighted to act for their long term good. It is ironic that proponents of social planning use economic models based on short-sighted decision making to “prove” that the free market must fail and then use this “proof” to argue that people should elect a government which will magically not be hampered by short-sightedness. How do the votes of millions of short-sighted men result in an elite group that is not short-sighted? The fact is that governments voted into power by short-sighted men are far more short-sighted than any of the voters. Witness the incredible spending sprees that governments around the world are indulging in, with no thought of who, when and how will create the goods to support all the extra money being created and what will happen to the economy when the money is finally presented for consumption. Witness the fact that the liabilities of all social support programmes keep on increasing.

Secondly, as I mentioned briefly in my previous post, the solution suggested by the proponents of social planning – taxing/subsidizing – necessarily violates the property rights of individuals. Once the government has the power to violate property rights, a different kind of “externality” sets in. Henry Hazlitt describes the process

Special interests, as the history of tariffs reminds us, can think of the most ingenious reasons why they should be the objects of special solicitude. Their spokesmen present a plan in their favor; and it seems at first so absurd that disinterested writers do not trouble to expose it. But the special interests keep on insisting on the scheme. Its enactment would make so much difference to their own immediate welfare that they can afford to hire trained economists and public relations experts to propagate it in their behalf. The public hears the argument so often repeated, and accompanied by such a wealth of imposing statistics, charts, curves and pie-slices, that it is soon taken in. When at last disinterested writers recognize that the danger of the scheme’s enactment is real, they are usually too late. They cannot in a few weeks acquaint themselves with the subject as thoroughly as the hired brains who have been devoting their full time to it for years; they are accused of being uninformed, and they have the air of men who presume to dispute axioms.

Each time such a project gets through, it establishes a further precedent for the violation of rights. This leads to ever increasing government interference until government becomes nothing more than an unstable coalition of special interest groups. The proposed cure for economic “externalities” ends up creating a political “externality”.

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2 Responses

  1. You might be interested in this:

    http://www.ccer.edu.cn/download/7874-2.pdf

    Published in an academic journal, it explains why, in fact, lighthouses were profitable ventures for people to engage in, for hundreds of years, before they were eventually nationalised.

  2. Rory,
    Thanks for the link. It serves to illustrate Rand’s claim
    “If it [Capitalism] perishes, it will perish by default, undiscovered and unidentified: no other subject has ever been hidden by so many distortions, misconceptions and misrepresentations. Today, few people know what capitalism is, how it works and what was its actual history.”

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