If you missed last week’s article be sure to read it here, however, a synopsis of the article’s thesis is that “market failure” is impossible. Markets are closed systems and as such anything internal to the system affects the entire system. A market can no more “fail” than a pot of water exposed to a flame will fail to boil. Apropos the pot of water example: if a pot of water does not boil after 5-seconds of exposure to a lighter we do not say “ah-ha, physics has failed, here is proof that flames cannot boil water!” No, we realize that if sufficient heat is applied, it will boil (thermodynamics) but that the process takes time (kinetics). Failure of something to occur instantly or even within our own lifetime does not equate to “failure”. Markets regulate themselves; perhaps not as fast as some would like, but it occurs nevertheless. As the saying goes: you can have it fast, cheap, or good: pick any two. With state regulation of the market you only get one: fast, at the expense of it being both expensive (inefficient) and poor (ineffective). Natural market regulation is both good (effective) and cheap (efficient), but tends to be slow, which many find frustrating. This gradual process thus provides a framework of excuses for state intervention to speed things up. These people fail to see the thermodynamic forest for the kinetically slow-growing trees.
At first glance it might appear the pot example is not illustrative of a closed market system. The pot is exposed to the surrounding air, which can transfer the heat away. So we must clearly demarcate the borders of the system under discussion; let us say the pot and flame are in an insulated box. Everything outside is irrelevant to what occurs in the box.
So, we define the market as that system containing everything that is (apparently) part of the market. However, the counterargument here would be that things outside of the market system, unlike the pot and flame, do effect what is in the system. That is, the “commons” outside of the market (into which things may be dumped or extracted) apparently play a role. To the extent such commons are artificial in nature (“public” spaces) and thus through state coercion the market’s efforts to allocate and economize those resources via private property are frustrated, we cannot say then that any abuse of such spaces is a market failure. The state itself is setting up the very situation that opens them up to abuse. The state is not part of the market. The market is peaceful voluntary trade where both parties “win”; the state is violent involuntary trade where one side wins and one side loses.
However, there are natural common areas (the oceans and the sky) that are not amenable to conventional private property demarcations (e.g. fences) – although technology is slowly changing that reality. These would appear to be areas outside of the closed market (private) systems and thus immune to feedback from the market even though the market may benefit from them. For markets separated by a commons but connected through other means, the feedback occurs at the border with the commons and this information is transmitted via the other connection just as though they directly bordered each other.
But, let us consider the more difficult example of two isolated markets, not in communication, separated by a commons. We will consider the ocean (although the sky works equally well). Imagine that you live on the coast and fish for a living. Far across the ocean another settlement pollutes the water. Eventually that pollution reaches your shore and affects your fishing productivity. You have no idea where it is coming from (non-point source pollution), all you know is that it is a new cost you did not have before. Since you do not know the source you only have once choice: to clean up/remove the pollution at the bordering point to where you customarily fish.
Is the fact that you have to devote resources to cleaning this up a market failure? No. Why not? Well imagine that if instead of it being some far away people polluting the water it was some natural event (volcano, mudslide, etc.). Your actions would be no different (cleaning the water) yet you would not say the market has failed just because Nature foisted additional hurdles at you. If the effect is the same, the cause is irrelevant if you have no way of knowing or influencing the cause.
Now lets say you do find out who is polluting and ask them to stop but they refuse. You do not trade with them so feedback cannot occur that way. You now have two choices that prompt me to pose this question: Is it morally justified to attack and kill them until they submit to your will if continuing to remove the pollution yourself may also solve the problem? One option involves the ending of human life; the other option is a mere inconvenience. Which would you choose? If you answer yes to the former then I suggest you reflect on how the state has warped your sense of reality such that it is considered morally acceptable to initiate violent actions against others in order to resolve non-violent conflict. Now consider that all state actions rest on a bedrock of threatening violence against those that will not bend to its will, no matter how trivial the concern. History does not judge kindly those who initiate aggression to force others to do their bidding