Environmental Quality Analysis: Theory and Method in the Social Sciences

By Allen V. Kneese; Blair T. Bower et al. | Go to book overview

8.Environmental Quality as a Problem of Social Choice

Edwin T. Haefele


I. INTRODUCTION

It was once generally true that environmental quality could be purchased in the private market. As my income rose, I could confidently look forward to enjoying cleaner air, a quieter neighborhood, and most other elements of what might have been (and was) called gracious living. Now, even though my income rises, I find the private market for environmental quality closed to all but multimillionaires, and even they are worried.

Were environmental quality still to be bought through individual transaction (like buying Cadillacs), we could ignore the social issue posed by bad environments by treating it (like 10-year-old Chevys) as an income distribution problem.

When, however, rich and poor alike suffer from an environmental quality problem (though perhaps not equally, as Freeman indicates in chapter 7 of this volume), we know that the invisible hand has deserted us. The effect of that desertion is to turn some economists into political philosophers,1 some biologists into polemicists,2 and may well drive historians to despair.

Aristotle said it first: "For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it."3 Since we have not been able, in general, to assign private property rights to all the air and water, we have owned them in common and cared for them least. Now that we have over-

____________________
1
Kenneth E. Boulding, "The Network of Interdependence" (Paper presented at the Public Choice Society, Chicago, 1970).
2
Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science 162 ( December 13, 1968): 1243-48.
3
Aristotle, Politics, book II, chap. 3.

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