The contested conceptualisation of pollution in economics: Market failure or cost shifting success?

Publication: Scientific journalJournal articlepeer-review

Abstract

Today, environmental economics is the response of the neoclassical economic school to the ecological crisis, but at one time its leading contributors regarded it as a revolutionary development that would change the conduct and content of economics as a discipline. Understanding and addressing environmental pollution was core to that potential paradigm shift. In tracing the history of conceptualising pollution as an externality and market failure this paper covers the development of ideas by Marshall, Pigou, Pareto, Coase, Stigler, Samuelson, Ciciacy-Wantrup and Kapp. Pollution externality theory is show to have incorporate an elitist ethics and liberal market ideology. As a market failure pollution was deemed a minor correctible error of the price system. Monetary valuation of social and environmental harm became the means of justifying optimal levels of pollution. Neoliberal theories of spreading property rights further watered down potential interventionist aspects. Bio-physical realism, in the work of Kneese, Ayres and d’Arge, and social realism in Kapp’s theory of cost shifting were lost once environmental economics adopted a deductivist mathematical formalism. Kapp’s alternative theory is based on a classic institutionalists economic understanding of cost shifting and power relations. It advocates a public policy response in the form of objective social minima achieved via regulation and planning. This theory has until now been successfully supressed to prevent a potential revolutionary paradigm shift in economic price theory.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)85 - 122
JournalCahiers d'économie politique - Papers in Political Economy
Volume79
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Cite this