More than a decade ago, Peter Grossman and I published a long article (a pre-publication version is here), with an unusually long title, in the Wisconsin Law Review about the limitations of cap-and-trade and effluent taxes as substitutes for traditional forms of quantity-based regulations.** In “When is Command-and-Control Efficient? Institutions, Technology, and the Comparative Efficiency of Alternative Regulatory Regimes for Environmental Protection,” we explained why, as a matter of both theory and historical experience, traditional forms of environmental regulation have sometimes been, and sometimes remain, more efficient and effective than so-called “economic instruments” mainly because of monitoring and enforcement cost differentials. In at least some cases, command-and-control regulations, particularly technology-based standards, can have administrative cost advantages that offset, or more than offset, the admitted compliance-cost advantages of cap-and-trade or effluent taxes.
One important implication of our analysis in that article is that compliance costs are not the sole concern in environmental protection (although they are often treated as such by economists*). Rather, society should be concerned with minimizing the total costs of environmental protection, which are the sum of compliance costs, administrative (monitoring and enforcement) costs, and residual pollution costs. See, e.g., Peter Z. Grossman and Daniel H. Cole, "Toward a Total Cost Approach to Environmental Instrument Choice," in T. Swanson & R. Zerbe (eds), An Introduction to the Law and Economics of Environmental Policy: Issues in Institutional Design, 20 Research in Law & Economics 225 (2002) (see here). Moreover, it is a mistake to presume that minimizing compliance costs necessarily minimizes total costs, as if differential administrative or residual pollution costs are either insignificant or inevitably move in the same direction as compliance costs.
In the years since we published our Wisconsin Law Review article, it has been cited hundreds of times (more often by legal scholars than by economists). To date, our analysis and findings have not been substantially challenged. Now comes a new article in the October 2011 issue of The American Economic Review providing further empirical support for sometimes preferring traditional forms of regulations over "economic instruments."
In “Clearing the Air? The Effects of Gasoline Content Regulation on Air Quality,” co-authors Maxmiliian Auffhammer and Ryan Kellogg, analyze empirical data on national and state-level (California) gasoline-content regulations, and find that the more flexible federal approach has virtually zero cost-effectiveness (costs of compliance were minimized but at the price of completely nullifying the environmental effect of the regulation), but California's more stringent set of traditional regulations have reduced substantially emissions that contribute to low-level ozone pollution, albeit at higher cost of compliance (but providing substantial net social benefits). Here is their abstract:
This paper examines whether US gasoline content regulations, which impose substantial costs on consumers, have successfully reduced ozone pollution. We take advantage of spatial and temporal variation in the regulations' implementation to show that federal gasoline standards, which allow refiners flexibility in choosing a compliance mechanism, did not improve air quality. This outcome occurred because minimizing the cost of compliance does not reduce emissions of those compounds most prone to forming ozone. In California, however, we find that precisely targeted, inflexible regulations requiring the removal of particularly harmful compounds significantly improved air quality.The empirical information and conclusions of Aufhammer and Kellogg's article further support Cole and Grossman's conclusion that command-and-control regulations are sometimes (but certainly not always) more effective and efficient than market-based mechanisms. Where our analysis focused on differential administrative costs that sometimes favor design standards, Aufhammer and Kellogg have a somewhat different concern, that more flexible regulatory mechanisms, by focusing myopically on the minimization of compliance costs, might fail to achieve emissions reductions necessary to achieve the (exogenous) environmental goal. For reasons that should be obvious, a regulation with zero cost-effectiveness (purchasing at some positive cost zero additional increments of environmental protection) cannot be considered efficient, let alone more efficient than another regulation, albeit one with higher compliance costs, but which actually furthers the environmental protection goal (assuming the goal itself is economically sensible).
Aufhammer and Kellogg's empirical analysis provides a welcome reminder that social scientists, legal scholars, and policy analysts should not neglect or underestimate the potential of traditional command-and-control instruments in the environmental policy mix.
*In effect, all forms of regulation are economic instruments. Even technology-based standards function by raising the costs of polluting activity, which shifts the supply curve outward and (assuming some price elasticity of demand) reduces the rate of demand for pollution-intensive goods. What economists really mean when they use the phrase "economic instruments" is "economically more efficient instruments." This presumes that the compliance cost advantage of cap-and-trade and effluent taxes means that they necessarily have lower total costs than command-and-control instruments. As noted above, this presumption is unwarranted.
** Unfortunately the full, final published versions of the three articles cited in this post are not freely downloadable on the Web. Each, however, is available behind a pay-wall.