Me on twitter:
There are two types of people: those who read Hayek and Bastiat and think 'wow,' and those who think 'meh.'—
Unlearning Economics (@UnlearningEcon) October 14, 2012
I am primarily referring to their two well-known (on the internet, anyway) essays, The Use of Knowledge in Society, and What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen. Libertarians and conservatives consider them seminal, perhaps even irrefutable rationales for a private market economy, while leftists generally don’t consider them that important.
I shouldn’t be interpreted as saying people who aren’t impressed by Hayek and Bastiat’s essays are smarter or more perceptive; I just think one’s attitude towards these two essays reflects the libertarian-left divide. I’ll try to explain why as a leftist, I found them underwhelming – perhaps good starting points, but little more.
Bastiat’s essay made a good point at the time: when we look at government spending, we need to remember that it comes from somewhere, and consider the ‘unseen’ effects of taxing. The story he uses to demonstrate this is one where a window is broken and the community observes that the money paid to fix it generates income. This, however, ignores that the money paid to fix it could have been used to, say, buy shoes from a shoemaker, and a result the community could have had it all: the window, shoes and the income. The broken window was therefore a net loss, even though it appeared to generate income.
Bastiat is right within the confines of his own examples, but really the real world throws up so many confounding factors that there is no need to invoke him in contemporary debate. Even when ‘Broken Window’ effects take place, Bastiat himself is not necessary.
People consider Bastiat relevant when discussing tax and spend – if you take money from one place and put it into another, you cannot only observe the positives of where you spend it; you must look at the negatives at the source of tax. But generally these things are considered separately anyway, and negative effects are incorporated into the analysis.
Taxation can have a negative impact on output, but it can also have a positive impact: if the taxed were going to save their money; if an activity is tax-deductible; if we are taxing economic rents, and so forth. If there are going to be negative effects, we can discuss them, too, but this generally revolves around elasticities, dead weight loss income versus substitution effects, and so on. I am not here to debate which of these effects is stronger: the point is that we have moved beyond Bastiat.
Similarly, arguments about stimulus/spending generally revolve around the claim that there are unemployed resources. The ‘crowding out‘ argument – that government spending will displace private sector spending that would have happened otherwise – retains Bastiat in some sense, but really it too has moved beyond him. What we need to discuss – sometimes empirically – are liquidity preference, multipliers, unemployment and the like. Again, there is no need to invoke Bastiat’s essay.
Hayek’s essay centres around the point that, since knowledge in society is highly dispersed among individuals and groups, the best way to coordinate this is through a price system. Individuals buy and sell at certain prices which reflects their knowledge of demand, supply, technology and whatever else. Thus the market system helps to coordinate and bring together dispersed knowledge in a way a single central planner or group of central planners could not do.
The essay does have something of an unsupported feel to it – Hayek’s idea that prices reflect knowledge (and not, say power) is never really justified. Having said that, it is overall a good rationale for a market economy, specialisation and the division of labour as a way to distribute resources.
My major problem is how one-sided his essay is. It would have been greatly strengthened if he’d acknowledged the limits of markets in coordinating dispersed knowledge – for example, that people have disparate knowledge opens the door to fraud, which is pervasive in both small and large quantities. That most people do not know the conditions, location or process by which their goods were produced is actually a justification for a lot of regulation: ensuring people have information about their products, or feel safe that somebody else has ensured they are not being deceived. Hayek does not mention fraud at all.
Furthermore, Hayek retains the phony markets versus governments dichotomy. In his essay there are basically two entities: private folk with dispersed knowledge, who are good, and ‘the government’ – apparently a massive leviathan with its own homogenous set of knowledge – that interferes with this process. But the government, too, is fragmented: the local policeman in a small town shares roughly the same knowledge as its inhabitants; similarly, a regulator will probably know something about the field they are regulating. Note that this is not necessarily an ideological point: that regulators have similar knowledge to the regulated opens the door to regulatory capture. But again, Hayek and his followers do not explore this issue.
Finally, Hayek completely disregards the democratic process in his arguments (if you think saying ‘Public Choice Theory‘ refutes democracy please do not comment). It is far to say that private individuals have a degree of influence over the actions of public enterprise, whether through voting, petitions, protests or what have you. In some ways, democracy brings together dispersed knowledge and wants too, even if it may be, as with markets, imperfect. (Incidentally, local knowledge is actually a good argument for worker democracy, something Chris Dillow is fond of pointing out.) Hayek explores none of this, but if he did his essay would be stronger no matter the conclusions.
In fairness, I may be commenting more on how Hayek’s essay is used rather than his original intent, as it was written during the rise of central communism. But my points apply to many of his modern followers. Perhaps something similar could be said for Bastiat, who did at one point offer limited support to public works programs during recession.
In summary, my problem with these essays is not that they are ‘wrong;’ Bastiat is right, but no longer relevant, and Hayek is roughly right, but incomplete. In the case of Bastiat I see no further need to invoke him, even though we may remember the essence of his point; with Hayek, I feel his essay would be far more respectable had he explored the implications of local knowledge a little more. At any rate, this is something that his proponents should be doing, rather than holding his essay up as pure truth.