At the end of a comment on Windfall, a new documentary on the effects of wind power development on a community in upstate New York, Michael Munger pulls out the key Pigou quote.
Pigou is relevant because the best possible case to be made for subsidizing wind power production involves correcting for the externalities associated with conventional electric power production. Maybe we imagine a Pigovian tax on conventional generators as a sort of first-best solution, and direct subsidy to alternative generators as a second- or third-best solution.
Well, here Munger whips out the Pigou:
It is not sufficient to contrast the imperfect adjustments of unfettered enterprise with the best adjustment that economists in their studies can imagine. For we cannot expect that any State authority will attain, or even wholeheartedly seek, that ideal. Such authorities are liable alike to ignorance, to sectional pressure, and to personal corruption by private interest. A loud-voiced part of their constituents, if organized for votes, may easily outweigh the whole.
From A. C. Pigou, Economics of Welfare, chapter 20, paragraph 4, available online free via the Library of Economics and Liberty.
Yes, well before James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Mancur Olson, Robert Tollison or even Michael Munger were objecting that government intervention may go awry, Professor Pigou was already there.
[ASIDE: I was led to wonder why this insight was seemingly lost from economics for several decades after Pigou published his work. Maybe someone has researched the question carefully. In the absence of someone setting me straight, I’ll blame Paul Samuelson.
Samuelson’s influential Foundations of Economic Analysis refers to Pigou several times, according to the book’s index, but so far as I noticed just once it mentions that the presence of Pigou’s external costs means “there is of course need to interfere with the ‘invisible hand’.” (p. 196) Samuelson neglects Pigou’s qualification: “The case, however, cannot become more than a prima facie one, until we have considered the qualifications, which governmental agencies may be expected to possess for intervening advantageously.” (And then Pigou continues with the public choice-like lines Munger quoted.)]