Professor Medema on ‘ “Exceptional and Unimportant”? The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Externalities in Economic Analysis’ at the HPPE Seminar, Episode 6

This episode features the Historical and Philosophical Perspectives on Economics (HPPE) seminar at LSE with Professor Steven Medema on “Exceptional and Unimportant”? The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Externalities in Economic Analysis that took place on 8th November 2017.

About the presenter:

Steven Medema is Distinguished Professor of Economics and Director of CU Denver’s University Honors and Leadership Program. His research focuses on the history of twentieth-century economics, and his current project analyzes the origins, diffusion, and controversies over the Coase theorem in economics, law and beyond. He co-edited the 2014 book, Paul Samuelson on the History of Economic Analysis: Selected Essays (CUP) with Anthony Waterman. His 2009 book, The Hesitant Hand: Taming Self-Interest in the History of Economic Ideas (Princeton), was awarded the 2010 Book Prize by the European Society for the History of Economic Thought. Professor Medema served as Editor of the Journal of the History of Economic Thought from 1999-2008 and currently serves as General Editor of Oxford Studies in the History of Economics (OUP). He is a member of the editorial boards of several history of economics journals and served as President of the History of Economics Society for 2009-10.

About the Paper:

Economists typically locate the origins of the theory of externalities in A.C. Pigou’s The Economics of Welfare (1920, 1932), where Pigou suggested that activities which generate uncompensated benefits or costs—e.g., pollution, lighthouses, scientific research—represent instances of market failure requiring government corrective action. According to this history, Pigou’s effort gave rise to an unbroken Pigovian tradition in externality theory that continues to exert a substantial presence in the literature to this day, even with the stiff criticisms of it laid down by Ronald Coase (1960) and others beginning in the 1960s. This paper challenges that view. It demonstrates that, almost immediately after the publication of The Economics of Welfare, economists largely stopped writing about externalities. On the rare occasions when externalities were mentioned, it was in the context of whether a competitive equilibrium could produce an efficient allocation of resources and to note that externalities were an impediment to the attainment of the optimum. When economists once again began to take up the subject of externalities in a serious way, the very real externality phenomena—pollution, etc.—that had concerned Pigou were not in evidence. Instead, the analysis was targeted at identifying how and why externalities violated the necessary conditions for an optimal allocation of resources in a competitive system. In short, externalities were conceived very differently in the welfare theory of the 1950s than they had been in Pigou’s treatise. It was only when economists began to turn their attention to environmental and urban problems that we see a return to a conception of externalities as real, policy-relevant phenomena—that is, to the type of externality analysis that had preoccupied Pigou and that characterizes the economic analysis of externalities today. Even then, however, the approach to externality policy was anything but straightforwardly Pigovian in nature. The history of externality theory is therefore not a history of a continuous tradition but of changing conceptions of externalities, framed by changing ideas about what economic theory is attempting to achieve.

The paper can be downloaded here.

About HPPE:

The HPPE seminar series is organised by PhD students at the Economic History Department at LSE established by Gerardo Serra and Raphaelle Schwarzberg in 2012. The seminar brings together scholars from different disciplines to discuss the evolution of economic thinking and embraces topics from Ancient Greece to contemporary Africa. The seminar inquires how the theory and practice of economics changes with the historical and philosophical context. It aims to provide scholars at any stage of their career with an opportunity to discuss their work with a critical audience. For further information, please contact the current convener, Chung Tang Cheng.

Special thanks to both Professor Medema,Tang and all attendees for making this episode possible!

Please note that the Q&A that was part of the recording had to be cut due to poor sound quality. Rest assured that we are continuously working on making our recording practices better!

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