Posted by on February 27, 2017

Sometimes I receive comments that are so good, and produce such a useful exchange, that I like to bring them to the attention of all of my readers.  (It also fits my basic laziness since this lets me create a blog post from writing that has already been done.)  Recently, a comment from reader “Alfredo” in response to Trump: Over His Skis On Asset Forfeiture met this standard.  I have  reproduced the comment and the response below.  Thanks to Alfredo for giving me this opportunity!

Comment

Thank for another excellent post, Roger. I was familiar with the basics on CAF [editor’s note, “Civil Asset Forfeiture”], but I enjoyed learning about the history behind how this aberration became accepted practice. Our constitutional protections, you would think, should shield us from this sort of thing. I share your pessimism on the hope of any reform from the current administration. I did notice that Representative Amash of Michigan introduced a bill regarding CAF recently. Whether it has legs remains to be seen, but I hope it will at least raise the profile of the issue.

Regarding your first footnote, I read your post shortly after having come across cspan’s poll of presidential historians that ranked Wilson as our 11th best president. It would seem the scoring system gives a boost to wartime presidents, while not penalizing them when they abused the Constitution (note Lincoln and FDR.)

I would be curious to hear your thoughts on the future of the EPA. I believe the consensus is that it will be hollowed out, an outcome I think most Libertarians will cheer. But is there a recognized market mechanism that will dis-incentivize companies or individuals from damaging the environment in ways that directly injure other citizens? I have this on my mind as I am currently reading Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, and the first section was devoted to discussing Montana’s Bitteroot Valley. Short version is, runoff from mining operations over the years damaged a nearby town’s water supply. By the time the townspeople became aware, the mining interests had closed up shop, so there was no way to seek redress.

Response

Hi Alfredo and thanks for the comments. Sorry I have taken so long to respond. For some reason, I am no longer receiving notices of comments being posted and therefore didn’t realize that some had been made.

Justin Amash, who is probably the most libertarian Congressman these days, appears to be doing a great job on this and a bunch of other subjects (eg., Trump’s immigration Executive Order). He is one worth watching, particularly because his has a very marketable personal narrative (the son of Palestinian refugee father and a Syrian immigrant mother). Here is a good article on Justin behind the WSJ paywall. He also apparently did a very good job in a recent town hall, in circumstances where less principled and knowledgeable Republicans have been wimping out or taking a beating.

Yes, the polls of presidents are completely skewed by the liberal/interventionist inclinations of most of the historians who participate. Among other things, this biases the polls in favor of wartime presidents, both because of the war themselves (so long as they are thought to be “good” wars by the historians, that is, ones where America ignores the wise advice of John Quincy Adams not to go “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”) and also because war greatly facilitates the expansion of the state. In Wilson’s case, I suspect that he also benefited from being an academic, which is sure to appeal to other academics. Wilson probably would have scored even higher except for the fact that his, and the entire Progressive Movement’s, racist and eugenic beliefs are becoming more widely known.

Regarding the EPA, environmental policy is a classic case of the “tragedy of the commons.” Although many libertarians of the Rothbardian type believe that these problems can be solved with a strict interpretation of property and trespass rights, which would allow victims of pollution to sue, I am not in this camp. This is because of examples like you mention but also because of the general difficulty and cost of reaching “Coasian bargains” in circumstances with a large number of polluters and a large number of victims, including with delayed consequences and the risk of “holdouts.” This strict interpretation of property rights may also, ironically, lead to situations of too little pollution being produced since, as you know, the right answer on pollution is not zero but an optimal amount which balances the benefits of polluting activities with the costs of the pollution.

In general, I think that a suitable approach to pollution would involve the following elements:

1. Use property rights and legal redress, followed by Coasian bargaining, to the extent possible. This is the “free market” solution to pollution and is mostly likely to produce optimal outcomes, tailored to the specific circumstances of the pollution and its victims. Recognize that the range of activities where property rights and legal redress can be relied upon is movable, depending on technological advances. In general, technological improvements tend to expand the range of voluntary, free-market actions. (As an example of this, think about private roads. The major impediment to private roads in the past is the high costs, in time and money, and imprecision of collecting tolls. With EZ Pass wireless technology, it obviously becomes easier to do this type of thing. Likewise, with wireless technology which is turning many previous “natural monopolies” into something competitive. For example, Google is testing wireless internet services which will replace the “last mile” natural monopoly produced by previous systems.)

2. This would still leave scope for government action. In these cases, the important thing is to avoid “command and control” regulation in favor of

rules that use price incentives and market mechanisms (such as carbon taxes and “cap and trade”) to achieve the pollution goal. “Command and control” regulations, which I discussed in the Bootleggers and Baptists section of an earlier blog, are both inefficient, since they prescribe a specific technological and economic fix that may not be or remain suitable, and are massively prone to special interest “rent seeking.”

In terms of whether Trump and Scott Pruitt, his nominee for the EPA, are going to “hollow out” the EPA, I don’t have a firm opinion. Pollution regulation is a balancing act. I think, as my earlier blog post makes clear or as is demonstrated by the shenanigans associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline, that there is a good case to be made that the pendulum needs to be pushed in the opposite direction from where it swung during the Obama Administration. Certainly, a recent op-ed from the WSJ that I have read about Scott Pruitt does not suggest that he intends to return us to the London of Charles Dickens anytime soon.

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom

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Posted in: Policy

Comments

  1. Mike
    February 27, 2017

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    Hi Roger: Can we agree that this blue marble we’re temporarily occupying is precious, and if not unique, it’s the only game in town for us humans for the foreseeable future. So let’s make the premise that our goal in environmental discipline should be, “people first”; not amoeba first, not toadfish first, humans first. The tragedy of the commons, as I understand it, refers to the structure of the problem, not a prescription. Yes, privatizing the grassy square gave the owner the incentive to control grazing by the competing herds of sheep. And as a hunting guide, my exclusive right to book hunters into my concession encouraged me to manage the animal populations sustainably, without fear that some fly-by-night would rape the place. When speaking about poisoning our environment, I agree that government must act as the leviathan. Why? The externalities of the true costs of environmental degredation never get priced in because the polluter can’t and won’t pay, and doesn’t have to pay because enforcement after the fact is so difficult. Crap and run. Or, Crap and the Runs. And we’re talking about poison, locally and at scale. This stuff hangs around for eons, gets into the food chain. So we have to catch it before it happens, to pre-empt the incentive to pollute, to strip, at scale, if we want to avoid massive health costs, which are again, off balance sheet. I’m just getting warmed up, but it’s dinner time. All the best. Mike

    • Roger
      February 28, 2017

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      No disagreement here, Mike. But just to emphasize again that:

      (1) It is a balancing act. The right answer is not zero pollution and the private market — given the right incentives (ie., cap and trade or taxes) — is much better at doing this balancing act than the government; and

      (2) There are many ways to skin a cat. Having some guy in Washington dictating not only that the cat must be skinned but HOW to do it is a recipe for crony capitalism and inefficiency.

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