Neoclassical (and Austrian) economics as a whole tend to emphasise market forces as the dominant determinant of employment, distribution and output in the economy. In the neoclassical theory of the firm, firms are something of a ‘black box,’ inside which uniform inputs are uniformly processed into uniform outputs. The firm can be thought of as an agent – or collection of agents – maximising some goal subject to resource constraints. The most commonly used version of this is the perfectly competitive firm, which treats prices as a given, has the single aim of maximising profits and makes ‘normal’ profits. However, even more elaborate theories of the firm – such as ones where managers have objectives that conflict with those of shareholders – retain the standard assumption that the exhibited behaviour of the firm can be deduced from the behaviour of optimising agents inside it. Firms are rarely assumed to have internal differences in production techniques. Instead, they simply serve as channels, coordinated by supply and demand, through which resources are allocated.
But there is good reason to believe producers, rather than the impartial ‘laws’ of demand and supply, are the dominant force in an economy. It is a stretch to suggest that products are merely the expression of consumer preferences; after all, consumers rarely have input directly into the production process. Products are created by a firm and the consumers role is passive in that they can only choose whether or not to reject it. There also exists a power asymmetry between producers and consumers (and workers): since producers are the ones who own the products, they can ‘hold out’ for longer than those without. A capitalist alone can subsist; one who is merely a worker and/or consumer relies on the capitalist(s) for employment, goods and services.
In neoclassical theory, any deviations from perfect competition, and even the mere existence of firms, is thought to be either a source of inefficiencies, a result of them, or both. Hence, an ‘ideal,’ Pareto Efficient economy is thought to be one of perfectly competitive, tiny firms, which have no individual impact on the market in which they are situated. Any questions asked about firms proceed from the premise of which ‘frictions’ we can blame for the observed real world deviation from this ideal.
Several questions about how firms work and their role in the economy are never asked in neoclassical economics. First, what really goes on inside the firm: how are organisation and management used to impact the ability of the firm to convert inputs into outputs? Second, what is the nature of ‘market power?’ Could it be that some industries are so characterised by ‘market power’ that it no longer makes sense to talk about ‘the market’ as a meaningful concept? Third, to what extend do ‘imperfections’ such as these – organisation, market power, scale – actually create beneficial effects that we would not observe in the world of perfect competition?
I believe that, under contemporary capitalism, firms have such an impact that it makes more sense to use ‘the firm’ as an epistemological starting point than ‘the market.’ I also believe that, at least from material point of view, large firms are probably a superior system to one resembling the perfectly competitive ‘ideal.’
The competitive ideal seems illogical when applied to the real world. Market forces can be inherently uncertain and costly to adjust to. Any firm which is wholly subservient to market forces, and hence has no control over its future, is simply a terrible firm, and a poor prospect for any potential investor, shareholder or worker. Even consumers prefer an established brand they can trust, at least in the absence of regulation. Hence, no firm would go to an investor, shareholder or bank and say “I have a product, let’s see whether the market likes it or not;” what is expected is a clear strategy.
It would, of course, be wrong to suggest that firms are not under threat from the development on new technologies and from the demands of consumers. Even well established companies go bankrupt from time to time. Nevertheless, many firms persist for a long time, either because their position is that strong or because they insure themselves against market forces. Research and development can ensure a firm always has something new to offer and can adapt, should demand for a product fall or a new release flop. Horizontal integration – selling different products, perhaps in entirely different markets – can broaden a firm’s consumer base (Google’s massive diversification over the last decade is an example of this). Brand proliferation – the same firm creating multiple brands – can serve a similar purpose (think of the different cereals produced by Kellogg).
The challenge for a firm is to establish a degree of control over its respective market; the degree to which it manages this will be a determinant of its success; its ‘competitive advantage.’ Hence, many of a firm’s actions have the purpose of cementing that firm’s position in the marketplace, rather than simply responding passively to outside market forces. Numerous behaviours exhibited by firms support this idea:
- Some firms seek market share as opposed to profits: they want to make sure they have sufficient control over their industry.
- Prices don’t change constantly depending on the state of the economy; firms keep them the same for long periods of time to save money when performing calculations and to be able to produce projections.
- Branding, advertising, marketing and various offers are used to gain and retain customers so that the firm has at least a minimum flow of demand it can rely on. The mantra that it is far more costly to acquire new customers than retain old ones is well known; hence, firms try to make sure they are as unaffected by the whims of consumers as possible.
- Firms control supply through deals, perhaps exclusive, with suppliers; better yet, they can establish control of the supply chain themselves (vertical integration).
Firms also need to establish control over the labour market, as they often rely on the commitment of workers to a specific position in their organisation. The fact that knowledge and skills are often organisation-specific makes the cost of leaving – for both employer and employee – higher, and this effect becomes more amplified as one moves up the hierarchy of the organisation. The result is that the cost of even one worker leaving are often estimated to be well above their salary. It is no use starting a project if you know that, half way through, your manager – with his unique knowledge of what is going on – will just leave and work elsewhere. So firms retain workers with promises of career progression and rewards, as well as establishing a psychological commitment to their organisation. The most extreme example of this is the Japanese ‘employment for life‘ approach, which has proved to be remarkably competitive; moreso than many of its western counterparts.
The existence of long lived companies with significant influence over forces supposedly determined by ‘the market’ creates another problem for the state-market dichotomy. Many companies are economically bigger than countries or state and local governments, and hence their decisions have considerable political implications. A large company setting up shop in a small town, or even small country can significantly alter the landscape there.
Unfortunately, many supporter of “free markets” are driven to defending the actions of large, centralised entities as apolitical. This perspective is based on the false premise that they are simple conduits for scarcity and consumer preferences, rather than actively determining and influencing these things. It is clear this influence has largely driven us away from what economists typically mean when they speak of a ‘market.’ The implication is that, whatever you want to call the current system, it is vital that the entities which characterise it, with their significant impact on production, distribution and exchange, should be put into the political spotlight.