Knowledge and the Environment
|June 8, 2014||Posted by Fred Foldvary under Editorials|
One of the contributions to economics made by Friedrich Hayek is the theory of scattered knowledge. In his famous article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Hayek analyzed how the knowledge needed for economic activity by consumers, producers, legislators, and bureaucrats is dispersed, tacit, and ever-changing. Sellers of goods can conduct surveys to find out what people want, but such data collection reveals only a small fraction of the subjective desires of buyers. The knowledge of how to produce goods is decentralized among the firms, each of which has its own local knowledge of the costs and the demand for its goods.
Much of the knowledge about goods is tacit, not written down. A label can list the ingredients, but it will not tell the buyer about how good it will taste, and does not reveal the full story about the nutritional benefits and harmful effects. A government bureaucrat cannot know all the details about the way a company handles its goods. The biggest and fastest computers cannot be programmed to know everything the economy is doing. The supplies and demands for goods are dynamic, always changing, like the weather, so that even when knowledge is gathered and analyzed, it soon becomes obsolete.
The Hayekian knowledge problem is one reason the Austrian school of economic thought concludes that only a truly free market can effectively apply the relevant knowledge. Government officials who try industrial policy, the promotion of some goods at the expense of others, often fail. For examples, subsidies to energy from the wind end up wasting resources, as a uniform policy cannot be applied to suit local conditions, and the full effects (such as windmills killing birds) are not known in advance, resulting in bad unintended consequences.
The natural environment, everything apart from human action, is too complex for human beings to fully understand it. As with economic knowledge, the data needed to understand human effects on the environment is both global and local. The knowledge of environmental conditions is tacit, and changing. The ecologies of the earth, like the economies, have interconnected elements with feedback loops. Kill the mountain lions, and the deer multiply, eat up the vegetation, and then the rains wash away the soils.
The Hayekian perspective on global climate change as well as local impacts is to admit that we don’t know the full effects of human activity, but we do know that interference with long-established interconnections can be deadly. The policy implication is that we should minimize unnecessary human interference with the natural environment. Any human presence displaces the natural presence, as a farm replaces meadows and forests. But it is excessive to burn down large areas of rainforests in order to have a few years of crops until the soil nutrients are depleted.
The optimal application of the knowledge issue is to understand that we can apply some general knowledge but not specific knowledge. For example, we know that emissions from power plants, factories, and vehicles have bad effects. Costs are ultimately subjective, but some costs, such as lost income and resources, can be quantified. We cannot precisely measure the social cost of pollution, but by comparing places with various amounts of pollution, and the various rates of diseases in those places, we can obtain some estimates of the ill effects. Policy can therefore require a payment for emissions that invade others’ property. To do nothing is to declare a price of zero, which is less accurate than the positive price obtained by statistical means.
The Hayekian policy for emissions is therefore a payment for the estimated damage. A pollution charge requires less knowledge than detailed regulations such as engine requirements, gasoline additives, and smog tests. The emissions charge would not be based on uncertain climate changes, but on the proposition that human interventions into the atmosphere and oceans could be catastrophic. The probabilities are uncertain, but what we do know is that a small probability times a huge cost equals a substantial present value. Because the earth’s environment is a balance of water and air temperatures, cycles of carbon emissions and absorptions, feedback loops, and substances such as the ozone layer, the probability that human interventions are harmful is much greater than the chance that they are beneficial. The mutual relationship of wolves, deer, and vegetation imply that killing off either the wolves or the deer will have bad effects.
The knowledge problem implies that policy has to confront the environmental issue rather than ignore it, because human activity is inherently environmentally interventionist. In some cases, intervention can help the environment, such as with artificial coral reefs. But large interventions such as deliberately dumping iron compounds into the ocean should be avoided.
The Austrian school of economic thought is critical of central planning due to its absence of economic calculation via market prices, and due to the knowledge problem. But the absence of pollution charges itself implies mispricing and the presumption that we know nothing about the effects of emissions. Given today’s highly regulated economy, the implication of Hayek’s thought on knowledge is to replace regulations and emissions trading schemes with the requirement to pay the estimated social costs. Firms (and their customers) can then either pay that cost or else avoid that cost by polluting less. To be most effective, pollution charges would need to be applied globally.
Some free-market economists respond to the pollution issue by stating that property rights are sufficient to solve the problem. But any negotiation or lawsuit to compensate others for negative external effects necessarily requires an objective estimate of the damages. A complete prohibition of an external effect, whether of emissions or noise or visual effects, imposes a cost on the emitter. Tort law, or lawsuits, as well as arbitration and mediation, could replace governmentally enacted pollution levies when the victims can be identified, but there is no avoiding some objective estimate of costs. And where torts are not effective, an international agreement on pollution charges would be optimal.