Thursday, June 2, 2016

I Can't Put Enough Scare Quotes Around "Free Market"

by Levi Russell

Earlier this month I read a couple of fantastic posts over at the Coordination Problem blog. The common thread between the two posts is that the "free market" moniker given to many individual economists and schools of thought is really about the conclusions reached through rigorous analysis of real-world institutions, not about any sort of ideological assumption.

The first is a lengthy post by Peter Boettke. Boettke lays out his perspective of the "economic way of thinking" and describes how it's used to analyze the real world:
From my perspective there is a core of the economic way of thinking that can be traced from Adam Smith to Vernon Smith and that deals with basic ideas about human rationality, human sociability, and the coordination of activity through time.  Incentives, Information, and Innovation are part of this core as they derive from the even more primordial ideas of property, prices, and profit/loss accounting.  We live in a world of scarcity, scarcity implies that we face trade-offs, that means we must negotiate those trade-offs and we hope to do so in the most effective way possible, to achieve that we need aids to the human mind, those aids come in the form of high powered incentives and clear signals so we may engaged in the economic calculus.  One of the many implications that follows is that demand curves will slope downward and supply curves will slope upward.  The shape and the magnitude of the effects that follows are empirical matters and is largely determined by the array of substitutes available to economic decision makers.  But the essential logic holds from a style of reasoning that attempts to derive the invisible hand theorem from the rational choice postulate via institutional analysis.  Hume's principles of stability of possession, transference by consent, and the keeping of promises -- in other words, property, contract and consent -- provides that institutional infrastructure within which the human pursuit of individual betterment is channeled in commercial life into publicly desirable outcomes (e.g., wealth creation and generalized prosperity; the least advantaged are made better off).  Again, property, prices and profit/loss gives economic actors high powered incentives and informational signals to allocate resources, time and effort to the most highly valued use, and the constant feedback on whether those decisions are the right ones and the incentives and information to constantly adapt and adjust to improve in the decision calculus. 
This basic economic calculus applies to all human endeavors, and when we find ourselves outside of the realm of the market sphere of monetary calculation, the question for the analyst is what institutions will serve the same function in terms of incentives, information and innovation that property, prices and profit/loss served in the marketplace.  Does electoral politics possess those institutional proxies?  Does the bureaucratic organization of public administration? How about the philanthropic entities in the non-profit sector?  This would be an implication of the economic way of thinking -- how do people weigh the marginal costs/marginal benefits of decisions in the different contexts of human interaction? 
Nothing about what I have said is "libertarian" or "free market", but it is economics.  Consider, for example, a report that was on NPR this morning as part of a series that is being developed on Politics in Real Life as the campaign season moves from primaries to the main event in 2016 -- it was on Paid Family Leave.  Again, the economist in me kicks in while hearing the story -- not the libertarian or free market, but economists.  Thus, I want to think about Means-Ends and the logical consequences of the various proposed means to obtain the desired end, and I want to learn from as much empirically as one can from historically analogous policy experience.  I empathize with the Ends sought and do not question them in the least, my concern is solely with whether the proposed means would achieve the ends sought and at what cost.  This requires recognizing that Paid Family Leave will have its impact on the labor market, and also one must think about the impact on the least advantaged in the labor market -- not the most advantaged, because the tragedy that motivates our initial concern is not the impact on the most privileged in the work force, but the least advantaged -- in economic jargon, the marginal employee.
 Boettke concludes:
But what if, I ask, the very social ills we see before us are due not to malfeasance but due to the logic of individual decision making within the institutional context so reorganized.  The same style of reasoning that explains why individuals pursuing their self-interest can produce publicly desirable outcomes such as productive specialization and peaceful social cooperation within a specific institutional context also explains why that pursuit of self-interest in other institutional contexts results in social tragedies and social tensions. 
That is ECONOMICS, not "libertarian" nor even "free market", but just ECONOMICS pursued persistently and consistently.  And unless we get away from the habit of labeling folks and arguments in order to pigeon hole and disregard our intellectual cultural will continue to fail to understand what is causing the social ills that plague us, let alone encourage creative thinking about how to address these social ills.  That would be tragic on so many dimensions.
The whole post is certainly worth a read.

Another much shorter post by Steve Horwitz also fits into this same theme.
I have been thinking a lot about the misunderstandings of Hayek's "The Use of Knowledge in Society" essay. Below I offer what I think is a quick summary of his argument that stresses both the importance of private property and the price system as jointly necessary for economic coordination.
1. Knowledge IS decentralized in that each of us has our own personal knowledge of time and place (and that is often tacit).
2. Therefore, planning and control over resources SHOULD BE decentralized so that people can take advantage of those forms of knowledge.
3. HOWEVER, decentralization of control over resources (what Hayek calls "several property") is necessary BUT NOT SUFFICIENT for social coordination.
4. Effective decentralized planning also requires that people have access, in some form, to the bits of knowledge that other people have so that they can form better plans and have better feedback as to the success and failure of those plans.
5. Providing that knowledge is the primary function of the price system. Prices serve as knowledge surrogates to enable people's individual knowledge and "fields of vision" to sufficiently overlap so that our plans get COORDINATED. 
6. In other words: decentralized control over resources is NECESSARY BUT NOT SUFFICIENT for a functioning economy. Such decentralization requires some process that actually ensures that separately made decisions are, to a significant degree, based on as much knowledge as possible so that economic coordination can be achieved. That is what the price system enables us to do. [EDIT: and the prices in question are not, and need not be, equilibrium prices.]
Decentralized decision making without a price system will produce very little coordination and prosperity. Centralized decision making will render a price system useless for economic coordination.
The fact of decentralized knowledge requires that an economy capable of producing increased prosperity for all has both decentralized decision-making (private/several property) and a price system to coordinate those decisions.

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