Extension of property rights
Property rights concern the legal entitlement to property and the right to use or sell the property, as well as the rights that other people have, or do not have, over the property. It is argued that negative externalities in particular arise because of the existence of incomplete property rights over natural resources such as air, land, rivers and seas i.e. as property rights are not fully allocated to these areas as nobody really owns them, individuals and firms are free to impose external costs from their production and consumption activities without having to pay any compensation. The dumping of toxic wastes into the sea and the riding of a noisy motorbike provide two examples.
Thus by extending property rights individuals would be able to stop others imposing costs on them or to claim compensation if they did so. A person purchasing a house, for example, could also acquire a set of 'amenity' rights that would entitle the owner to peace and quiet in the vicinity of the property as well as a supply of water and air of a reasonable quality. Any infringement of such rights e.g. by neighbours playing music unduly loudly, or trucks emitting excessive exhaust fumes into the air, would give the owner of the amenity rights entitlement to compensation. In this case the externality would be internalised as the initiators of the external costs would be forced to pay for them, and adjust their production/consumption decisions to more socially efficient levels.
However, there may be a number of problems with this solution in practice:
- for compensation to be paid, it must be possible to establish the nature and extent of external costs being imposed; in the case of most types of pollution, for example, this tends to be an extremely difficult thing to do, and so appropriate compensation levels become almost impossible to establish.
- where there are many firms or individuals imposing negative externalities, it would be exceedingly difficult to claim compensation from them all; for instance, if many juggernauts, low-flying helicopters and joy-riding teenagers passed a property, making great noise in the process, it would be somewhat impractical for the property owner to try to claim compensation from them all.
- even if those generating the external costs are few in numbers, the time and cost involved of pursuing the offenders through the courts may be prohibitive for all but the very rich; what chance would an ordinary person have, for instance, in claiming compensation from a large, multinational burger chain, which had permitted the neighbourhood to become unduly littered with burger wrappings?
- the extension of property rights has equity implications; extending private property rights is likely to favour those who already possess property at the expense of those who do not: so, Gypsies and travellers may be prevented from setting up camp, peace campaigners and other protestors could be prevented from holding their demonstrations and ramblers' rights of way in the country-side might be infringed; thus those on the political left tend to favour an extension of communal property rights and a society based more on public ownership and a set of co-operative values which, they would argue, are less likely to cause the problem of negative externalities in the first place.
Buying the rainforest
The following is a trailer for a series called 'I bought a rainforest'.
More extracts for this series can be found on YouTube.
Can you find successful examples where extending property rights has resulted in a reduction of negative externalities?