Tragedy of the commons

by Russ Roberts on October 29, 2007

in Podcast, Property Rights

Here is Bruce Yandle talking about the tragedy of the commons and the evolution of regulation of the environment. Particularly interesting is the role that common law played in preventing environmental damage. Most people seem to think that before 1970 you could dump garbage into the air and water. Not so. as Bruce points out, judicial decisions at the state level played a crucial role in improving the environment before the federal regulation of the 1970s. This is a wonderful introduction to the economics of the environment.

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{ 4 comments }

John October 29, 2007 at 11:34 pm

Dr. Roberts,

Interesting. But isn't air quality empirically better now than it was in 1970?

That's a serious question.

Russ Roberts October 30, 2007 at 8:35 am

John,

Sure it is. It was also better in 1970 than it was in 1940. And I think the pace of improvement pre-1970 was about the same or faster than it was post-1970. That doesn't prove that the EPA has accomplished nothing. What it does show, however, is that you don't need an EPA to get cleaner air. Most people are surprised by that conclusion. Most people presume that before the EPA, the air must have gotten dirtier and dirtier or at least no cleaner. The next question would be one of cost. Which method, centralized top-down regulation or the common law, is more cost-effective.

Stephen Reed October 30, 2007 at 3:44 pm

I don't have time to listen to the podcast at the moment, but will check it out later.

Can someone please explain to me how the common law method would penalize someone from releasing, say, S02 into the air which causes the paint of a barn to erode, which owned by a farmer several miles away, due to acid rain?

How is the farmer to find out whose S02 is in his air space in particular? How is he to be compensated? Wouldn't the lengthy process of identifying whose pollutants (if this is even possible) and then taking the time and effort to assess the amount of damage and go to claims court to collect not even be worth the effort for the average person?

How about pollutants that increase morbidity? The damage done by such pollutants may be far in the future and affects each person differently. It would literally be impossible to establish causality for an individual case.

Anyway, I'll certainly check out the podcast when I have the time. Am I understanding the use of common law correctly here?

Bryce October 30, 2007 at 5:22 pm

Are tax dollars (especially at the national level) sometimes a "tragedy of the commons"? Seems like they are finite in amount and people want to get as much as they can from the government, yet they don't want to pay in more. P.S. Thanks for the podcast- I look forward to it each week.

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