Social Cooperation Is the free market argument in need of rebranding?

The standard free market analysis places the individual at its center. As Adam Smith famously noted in 1776, although they act in their own self interest, an individual in a free market is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” And it is generally argued that competition is the driving force behind the benefits of the market process. Entrepreneurs constantly search for new opportunities to make profit, and as a result they find more efficient ways to provide goods to consumers.

Phrased in this way, the free market argument tends to evoke images of Social Darwinism – the best rise to the top, and the weak are left behind. Competition implies a constant struggle between market participants to seek their own benefit at the expense of others. This vision often leads critics to argue that the free market ideal generates an uncaring society. If everybody acts only in their own self interest, there is no room for cooperative behavior that is essential for human interaction. Morality, emotion, personal connections – none of it matters. The free market places “profit over people.”

This critique stems from a wildly incorrect reading of the free market argument.

Go back to Adam Smith. At the center of his work is the idea of division of labor. A market economy thrives not because individuals work in isolation. Instead, it depends entirely on the relationships between individuals, focusing each person’s talents on an activity where they possess a comparative advantage.

Perhaps the best illustration of the role of cooperation in a market economy is Leonard Read’s famous essay I, Pencil (there is also an excellent video inspired by the essay). Read points out that no individual on their own knows how to make even something as simple as a pencil. The production process requires dozens of firms and hundreds of workers each performing specialized tasks with little knowledge of the final product. There is no planner describing how to make a pencil and yet through the actions of individuals as well as the interactions between individuals, the production process arises spontaneously. An individual acting alone would quickly fail in a market economy.

Ludwig von Mises’s famous treatise Human Action, a comprehensive analysis of the working of the free market system, was almost given a different titleSocial Cooperation. Although Mises dropped this alternate title, the theme that markets depend as much on cooperation between individuals as they do on individual action itself runs throughout the book. Mises notes:

Within the frame of social cooperation there can emerge between members of society feelings of sympathy and friendship and a sense of belonging together. These feelings are the source of man’s most delightful and most sublime experiences. They are the most precious adornment of life; they lift the animal species man to the heights of a really human existence.
Human Action p. 144

A free market, in Mises’s view, doesn’t destroy relationships between individuals, but instead fosters these feelings. Even if we take the idea of “Social Darwinism” seriously, even if we admit that all individuals are driven by the desire to fight for their own survival, that doesn’t lead us to a world of selfishness (in a narrow sense) because “the most adequate means of improving his  condition is social cooperation and the division of labor” (Human Action, p. 176).

But the argument that markets and morals are inconsistent faces an even deeper flaw. In a market economy we have a choice. Of course we can choose to think only of ourselves, to put money over family, to value material goods over relationships. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the free market itself. Nothing in the market argument says that I should only care about wealth. If you want to put other priorities first, nobody in a free market has any right to stop you (the catch is that you also don’t have any right to make other people pay you).

A free market doesn’t place any moral judgement on the actions of individuals. It is perfectly consistent with both a savage society where everybody fights for their narrow self interest and ignores others as well as a responsible one where we care for our fellow humans. It is up to each of us as individuals to choose to live our lives morally (but of course, this choice is only an illusion).

What is the alternative? The only clear alternative I can see is to use the state to try to impose your morals on others. By enacting laws that force people to behave morally, maybe we can create a more caring society.

Such a system seems doomed to have the opposite effect. Let’s say you believe that redistribution of wealth is important. Poor people aren’t poor because they didn’t work hard. They just had bad luck. It’s the responsibility of the rich to help these people out. I am sympathetic to this reasoning. However, by forcing people to give up their wealth through taxation, we change the equation from one of responsibility to one of coercion. Rather than giving to the poor out of some sense of moral duty, I give because I don’t want to go to jail. Is attempting to legislate morality in this way more likely to generate a caring society or a resentful one? Respect between classes, or class warfare?

The free market argument should not marry itself to the individual. It is true that all actions must at their core come from individual decisions, but the market only works through the relationships between individuals. Human Action is only half of the story. Social Cooperation is equally important. By obscuring this fact, defenders of markets concede too much. Emphasizing efficiency and the incredible material progress society has made since adopting a market system is fine, but we can’t ignore the moral argument. Morality can’t be imposed. It has to be a choice. And only a free society offers that choice. “Liberty is an opportunity for doing good, but this is so only when it is also an opportunity for doing wrong” (Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p. 142).

What’s Wrong With Modern Macro? Part 9 Carrying on the Torch of the Market Socialists

Part 9 in a series of posts on modern macroeconomics. This post lays out a more philosophical critique of common macroeconomic models by drawing a parallel between the standard neoclassical model and the idea of “market socialism” developed in the early 20th century. 


If an economist had access to all of the data in the economy, macroeconomics would be easy. Given an exact knowledge of every individual’s preferences, every resource available in the economy, and every available technology that could ever be invented to turn those resources into goods, the largest problem that would remain for macroeconomics is waiting for a fast enough computer to plug all of this information into. As Hayek pointed out so brilliantly 60 years ago, the reason we need markets at all is precisely because so much of this information is unknown.

Read any macroeconomics paper written in the last 30 years, and you’d be lucky to find any acknowledgement of this crucial problem. Take, for example, Kydland and Prescott’s 1982 paper that is widely seen as the beginning of the DSGE framework. The headings in the model section are Technology, Preferences, Information Structure, and Equilibrium. Since then, almost every paper has followed a similar structure. Define the exact environment that defines a market, and then equilibrium prices and allocations simply pop out as a result.

What’s wrong with this method of doing economics? To understand the issue, we need to take a step back to an earlier debate.

Mises’s Critique of Socialism

In 1922, Ludwig von Mises published a book called Socialism that remains one of the most comprehensive and effective critiques of socialism ever written. In it, he developed his famous “calculation” argument. Importantly, Mises’s argument did not depend on morality, as he freely admitted that “all rights derive from violence” (42). Neither did his argument depend on the incentives of social planners. “Even angels,” claims Mises, “could not form a socialist community” (451). Instead, Mises makes a far more powerful argument: socialism is practically impossible.

I can’t explain the argument any better than Mises himself, so here is a quote that makes his main point

Let us try to imagine the position of a socialist community. There will be hundreds and thousands of establishments in which work is going on. A minority of these will produce goods ready for use. The majority will produce capital goods and semi-manufactures. All these establishments will be closely connected. Each commodity produced will pass through a whole series of such establishments before it is ready for consumption. Yet in the incessant press of all these processes the economic administration will have no real sense of direction. It will have no means of ascertaining whether a given piece of work is really necessary, whether labour and material are not being wasted in completing it. How would it discover which of two processes was the more satisfactory? At best, it could compare the quantity of ultimate products. But only rarely could it compare the expenditure incurred in their production. It would know exactly—or it would imagine it knew—what it wanted to produce. It ought therefore to set about obtaining the desired results with the smallest possible expenditure. But to do this it would have to be able to make calculations. And such calculations must be calculations of value. They could not be merely “technical,” they could not be calculations of the objective use-value of goods and services; this is so obvious that it needs no further demonstration
Mises (1922) – Socialism p. 120

Prices are what allow calculation in a market economy. In a socialist economy, market prices cannot exist. Socialism therefore is doomed to fail regardless of the intentions or morality of the planners. Even if they want what is best for society, they will never be able to achieve it.

The Response to Mises: Market Socialism

Although Mises argument was effective, the socialists weren’t prepared to give up so easily. Instead, a new idea was offered that attempted to provide a method of implementing socialist planning without falling into the problems of calculation outlined by Mises. Led by Oskar Lange and Abba Lerner among others, the seemingly contradictory idea of “market socialism” was born.

Lange’s argument begins by conceding that Mises was right. Calculation is impossible without prices. However, he argues there is no reason why those prices have to come from a market. Economic theory has already demonstrated the process through which efficient markets work. In particular, prices are set equal to marginal cost. In a market, this condition arises naturally from competition. In a market socialist society, it would be imposed by a planner. In Lange’s view, not only would such a rule match a market economy in terms of efficiency, but it could even offer improvements by dealing with problems like monopoly where competition is unable to drive down prices.

We are left with one final problem, which is the pricing of higher order capital goods. Lange admits that these goods pose a more difficult problem, but insists that the problem could be solved in the same way the market solves it: trial and error. In other words, just as entrepreneurs adjust prices in response to supply and demand, so could social planners. When demand is greater than supply, increase prices and when supply is greater than demand, reduce them. At worst, Lange argues, this system is at least as good as a free market and at best it is far better since “the Central Planning Board has a much wider knowledge of what is going on in the whole economic system than any private entrepreneur can ever have” (Lange (1936) – On the Economic Theory of Socialism, Part One p. 67)

The Market Socialist Misunderstanding: Why do Markets Work?

Lange’s argument should be appealing to anybody that takes standard economic theory seriously. A Walrasian General Equilibrium gives us specific conditions under which an economy operates most efficiently. We talk about whether decentralized competition can lead to these conditions, but why do we even need to bother? We know the solution, why not just jump there directly?

But by taking the model seriously, we lose sight of the process that it is trying to represent. For example, in the model the task of a firm is simple. Perfect competition has already driven prices down to their efficient level and any deviation from this price will immediately fail. As Mises emphasized, however, the market forces that bring about this price have to come from the constant searching of an entrepreneur for new profit opportunities. He concedes that “it is quite easy to postulate a socialist economic order under stationary conditions (Socialism, 163).” Conversely, the real world is characterized by constantly shifting equilibrium conditions. The market socialist answer assumes that we know the equations that characterize a market. Mises argues that these equations can only come through the market process.

Hayek also made an essential contribution to the market socialism debate through his work on the role of the price system in coordinating market activity. For Hayek, prices are a tool used to gather pieces of knowledge dispersed among millions of individuals. An entrepreneur does not need to know the relative scarcities of various goods when they attempt to choose the most efficient production process. They only need to observe the price. In this way, Lange’s pricing strategy cannot hope to replicate the process of a dynamic economy. When prices are no longer set by market participants looking to achieve the best allocation of resources they lose almost all of their information content.

The final piece missing from Lange’s analysis is perhaps also the most important: profit and loss. In Lange’s depiction of a market economy, he seems to imagine one that is already close to an equilibrium. In particular, he assumes that the production structures in place are already the most efficient. Without this assumption, there is no way to determine the marginal cost and no way to use trial and error pricing effectively. Mises and Hayek instead view an economy as constantly moving towards an equilibrium but never reaching it. Entrepreneurs constantly search for both new products to sell and new methods to produce existing products more efficiently. Good ideas are rewarded with profits and bad ones driven out by losses. Without this mechanism, what incentive is there for anybody to challenge the existing economic structure? Lange never provides an answer.

For a longer discussion on the socialism debate, see a paper I wrote here.

Repeating the Same Mistakes

So what does any of this have to do with modern macroeconomics? Look back to the example I gave at the beginning of this post of Kydland and Prescott’s famous paper. Like the market socialists, their paper begins from the premise that we know all of the relevant information about the economic environment. We know the technologies available, we know people’s preferences, and we assume that the agents in the model know these features as well. The parallels between the arguments of Lange and modern macroeconomics are perhaps most clear when we consider the discussion of the “social planner” in many macroeconomic papers. A common exercise performed in many of these studies is to compare the solution of a “planner’s problem” to that of the outcome of a decentralized competitive market. And in these setups, the planner can always do at least as good as the market and usually better, so the door is opened for policy to improve market outcomes.

But because most macro models outline the economic environment so explicitly, competition in the sense described by Mises and Hayek has once again disappeared. The economy in a neoclassical model finds itself perpetually at its equilibrium state. Prices are found such that the market clears. Profits are eliminated by competition. Everybody’s plans are fulfilled (except for some exogenous shocks). No thought is given to process that led to that state.

Is there a problem with ignoring this process? It depends on the question we want to answer. If we believe that economies are quick to adjust to a new environment, then the process of adjusting to a new equilibrium becomes trivial and we need only compare results in different equilibria. If, however, we believe that the economic environment is constantly changing, then the adjustment process becomes the primary economic problem that we want to explain. Modern macro has heavily invested in answering the former question. The latter appears to me to be far more interesting and far more relevant. The current macroeconomic toolbox offers little room to allow us to explore these dynamics.

 

 

Competition and Market Power Why a "Well-Regulated" Market is an Impossible Ideal

Standard accounts of basic economics usually begin by outlining the features of “perfect competition.” For example, Mankiw’s popular Principles of Economics defines a perfectly competitive market as one that satisfies the following properties

  1. The goods offered for sale are all exactly the same
  2. the buyers and sellers are so numerous that no single buyer or seller has any influence over the market price.

    The implication of these two properties is that all firms in a perfectly competitive market are “price takers.” If any firm tried to set a price higher than the current market price, their sales would immediately drop to nothing as consumers shift to other firms offering the exact same good for a cheaper price. As long as firms can enter and exit a market freely, perfect competition also implies zero profits. Any market experiencing positive profits would quickly see entry as firms try to take advantage of the new opportunity. The entry of new firms increases the supply of the good, which reduces the price and therefore pushes profits down.

After defining the perfectly competitive market, the standard account begins to extol its virtues. In particular, a formal result called the First Welfare Theorem shows that in a perfectly competitive equilibrium, the allocation of goods is Pareto efficient (which just means that no other allocation could make somebody better off without making somebody else worse off). So markets are great. Without any planner or government oversight of any kind, they arrive at an efficient outcome on their own.

But soon after developing the idea, we begin to poke holes in perfect competition. How many markets can really be said to have a completely homogeneous good? How many markets have completely free entry and no room for firms to set their own price? It’s pretty hard to answer anything other than zero. Other issues also arise when we begin to think about the way markets work in reality. The presence of externalities (costs to society that are not entirely paid by the individuals making a decision – pollution is the classic example), causes the first welfare theorem to break down. And so we open the door for government intervention. If the perfectly competitive market is so good, and reality differs from this ideal, doesn’t it make sense for governments to correct these market failures, to break up monopolies, to deal with externalities?

Maybe, but it’s not that simple. The perfect competition model, despite being a cool mathematical tool that is sometimes useful in deriving economic results, is also an unrealistic benchmark. As Hayek points out in his essay, “The Meaning of Competition,” the concept of “perfect competition” necessarily requires that “not only will each producer by his experience learn the same facts as every other but also he will thus come to know what his fellows know and in consequence the elasticity of the demand for his own product.” When held to this standard, nobody can deny that markets constantly fail.

The power of the free market, however, has little to do with its ability to achieve the conditions of perfect competition. In fact, that model leaves out many of the factors that would be considered essential to a competitive market. Harold Demsetz points out this problem in an analysis of antitrust legislation.

[The perfect competition model] is not very useful in a debate about the efficacy of antitrust precedent. It ignores technological competition by taking technology as given. It neglects competition by size of firm by assuming that the atomistically sized firm is the efficiently sized firm. It offers no productive role for reputational competition because it assumes full knowledge of prices and goods, and it ignores competition to change demands by taking tastes as given and fully known. Its informational and homogeneity assumptions leave no room for firms to compete by being different from other firms. Within its narrow confines, the model examines the consequences of only one type of competition, price competition between known, identical goods produced with full awareness of all technologies. This is an important conceptual form of competition, and when focusing on it alone we may speak sensibly about maximizing the intensity of competition. Yet, this narrowness makes the model a poor source of standards for antitrust policy.
Demsetz (1992) – How Many Cheers For Antitrust’s 100 Years?

Although the types of competition outlined by Demsetz are a sign of market power by firms, they are not necessarily a sign that the market has failed or that governments can improve the situation. Let me tell a simple story to illustrate this point. Assume a firm develops a new technology that they are able to prevent other firms from immediately replicating (either because of a patent, secrecy, a high fixed cost of entry, etc.). This firm is now a monopoly producer of that product and can therefore set a price much higher than its cost and make a large profit. The government sees this development and orders the firm to release its plans so that others can replicate the technology and produce their own version. Prices fall as new firms enter and profits go to zero. Consumers are better off since prices are lower and they have a larger choice of products. (A similar story could also be told if the government simply mandated a lower price by monopoly firms).

But the story isn’t over. If I’m another entrepreneur (or even an existing firm) watching this sequence of events, I’m a bit worried. That new idea I was thinking about is going to cost a lot. If I had the possibility to make a large profit, maybe I would be willing to take the risk and go for it anyway. If, on the other hand, I knew for sure that even when I achieve success the government immediately reduces my profits to zero, am I still going to undertake that project? Not a chance. The potential for future profits is an incredibly important incentive for innovation.

Here’s another example from the real world that illustrates the opposite case. In the late 1990s, Microsoft tried to bundle Internet Explorer with their Windows operating system (essentially giving away Explorer for free). This move made it difficult for independent internet browsers to compete (Netscape was the market leader at the time). An antitrust lawsuit was brought against Microsoft and they were initially ordered to break up (which never actually occurred in the end as far as I know, but that doesn’t matter for the story). In the EU, they were required to provide a browser choice page when installing Windows.

In each of the two examples above, there is a clear tradeoff. In the first, consumers are better off in the short run (lower prices), but potentially worse off in the long run (less innovation). The second case is exactly the opposite. Consumers are worse off in the short run (they don’t get a browser for free) but potentially better off in the long run (more browser competition). Can we say for sure whether regulation helps or hurts in either case? Can we even say whether the regulation would push the market to be more competitive or less? I don’t see how (but which browser you are using right now despite the relatively lenient restrictions on Microsoft might give some indication).

I’m not saying regulation is never a good idea in theory. But in practice, it turns out to be really hard. Even in the cases above where it is obvious that a firm is trying to take advantage of monopoly power, it remains unclear whether a move closer to “perfect competition” will result in an increase in actual competition. You can of course pick apart the stories above and come up with some regulatory scheme that balances present and future costs and benefits. But doing so in general would require governments to have even more information than the already ridiculous knowledge assumptions implicit in the perfect competition model. It’s easy to point out imperfections in markets. It’s much harder to figure out what to do about them.

Notice that I haven’t necessarily made an argument against regulation. The takeaway from this post should not be that markets always work or that regulation always fails (I’ll leave that for future posts!). My point is simply that pointing out a flaw in the free market does not automatically imply an opportunity for a regulatory solution. The question is much more complicated than that.

But having said that let me leave you with one final thought. Markets are incredibly dynamic. Whenever the market “fails,” all it takes is one clever entrepreneur to come up with a better method and correct the failure. When government fails? Well, maybe we can come back to that in ten years when they get around to discussing it.