Friday, March 17, 2017

A Lawyer and a Physicist Walk Into a Bar

by Levi Russell

A lawyer and a physicist walk into a bar... 

I don't have a good joke for that intro, but I do have a punchline: physicist Mark Buchanan's recent Bloomberg View column entitled "The Misunderstanding at the Core of Economics." What is this misunderstanding, you ask? Well, it's the (mistaken) belief that markets are perfect. This belief, Buchanan alleges, is widely held among professional economists. Buchanan argues that this widespread belief has had tragic consequences:
Economists routinely use the framework to form their views on everything from taxation to global trade -- portraying it as a value-free, scientific approach, when in fact it carries a hidden ideology that casts completely free markets as the ideal. Thus, when markets break down, the solution inevitably entails removing barriers to their proper functioning: privatize healthcare, education or social security, keep working to free up trade, or make labor markets more “flexible.”

Those prescriptions have all too often failed, as the 2008 financial crisis eloquently demonstrated. ...
The trouble with all of this is that none of it is true. If political party affiliation is any indication, the fact that academic economists are overwhelmingly Democrat indicates that pro-market utopianism isn't widespread. Another survey indicates that a mere 8% of academic economists can be considered supporters of free-market principles and only 3% are strong supporters. In terms of economists, Buchanan's only reference is to the late Kenneth Arrow. He provides no evidence that a massive swath of the profession are all free-market ideologues incapable of nuance. Buchanan cites one newly-popular economic commentator, an historian and lawyer, James Kwak. Kwak has been roundly criticized by economists for his simplistic analysis of economic phenomena many times, notably here, here, here, and here and many other times over the years.

So-called "free market" economists are far more nuanced in their views of market and government solutions to the problems in our imperfect world inhabited by imperfect human beings. A short but accurate summary would be something like: "In the real world, markets are, for the most part, better at dealing with externalities and other economic problems than actually-existing governments staffed by actually-existing politicians and bureaucrats." That is, no institutional arrangement is perfect, but the problems associated with voluntarily and spontaneously generated institutions are usually relatively minor when compared with those associated with institutions designed by a central authority. Examples of this nuanced position can be found in previous Farmer Hayek posts here, here, here, here, here, and here, as well as in the writings of Jim Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Deirdre McCloskey, Pete Boettke, etc. A closer reading of these and other "free market" economists might change Buchanan's mind about the types and level of analysis that leads to "free market" conclusions.

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