Recent posts by Noah Smith, David Henderson and Daniel Kuehn on the relationship between economics, ‘free markets’ and policy in general got me thinking about libertarians and how accepting they should be of marginalist economics, as well as how open they should be to non-marginalist alternatives. It seems to me there is an unspoken bond between marginalist economics and libertarianism (even Austrianism shares some major features with neoclassical economics), and so there may be a tendency for libertarians to have strong priors against post-Keynesian, Sraffian, Marxist, Behavioural, Ecological and other types of economics that dispute this general framework.
Let me note that I’m not accusing libertarians of being generally hostile to heterodox economics – I’m sure there are some who are and some who aren’t. Instead, I’m just warning against such a possibility, and offering some heterodox ideas to which libertarians might be receptive.
Behavioural/post-Keynesian consumer theory: behavioural economics sometimes elicits rebukes from libertarians, as it seems to imply that ordinary people are not able to make decisions rationally, and therefore that policy makers should help them along their way. Naturally, libertarians object to this idea, questioning the experimental methods of behavioural economics, pointing out that policy makers are themselves imperfect, and so forth. I’m not going to comment on the efficacy of these arguments here – sometimes they are fair, sometimes less so. Instead, what I want to point out is that while some behavioural economics implies a role for activist policy, it’s not necessarily the case that a view of consumers which differs from the optimising agent renders the agent somehow irrational and therefore ripe for intervention.
One such example is a version of the mental accounting model, used in post-Keynesian consumer theory, in which consumers organise their budget into categories before making spending decisions. Consumers will not spend money in one category until they have had their needs in a more ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ category satisfied, which creates a Maslow-esque hierarchy of spending – starting with necessities such as food & shelter and culminating in yachts & modern art. This means relative price changes do not have as much of an impact on the type of goods bought as implied by the utility maximising model; instead, the amount spent on different types of goods is primarily determined by the consumer’s level of income.
On first inspection, this might seem to imply a tirade against the efficacy of the price system for coordinating preferences and scarcity, as well as a comment on the ‘wastefulness’ of inequality (and perhaps it could be interpreted as such). However, this doesn’t necessarily make the theory generally ‘anti-libertarian’. In fact, one major implication is that placing high taxes on something low in someone’s hierarchy will not have much impact on their spending, and hence ‘sin taxes’ – which are a major expense for the poor – will not reduce their consumption of alcohol/smoking substantially; instead, these things will simply take up more and more of their income (which is pretty consistent with available evidence). This implies that paternalistic tax policies aimed at the poor will generally fail to achieve their aims.
The Market for Lemons (TML): George Akerlof’s famous paper explored information asymmetry, using used car markets as its primary example. Akerlof was trying to understand what buyers do when they face a product of unknown quality, and argued that since they are unsure, they will only be willing to bid the average expected value of a car in the market. However, if the seller is selling a ‘good’ car, its value will be above this average, so the seller will not sell it at the price the buyer offers. The result is that the best sellers drop out of the market, creating a cumulative process which results in the market unravelling completely.
Though theoretically neat and compelling, this ‘seminal’ example of market failure has always struck me as incredibly weak, for the simple reason that used car markets do not actually fall apart. Why? Maybe people aren’t rational maximisers etc etc (for example, in another nod to behavioural economics, it may be that buyers’ irrational overconfidence leads them to go ahead with a purchase, even if it’s statistically likely they’ll get a ‘lemon’). Ultimately, though, I’d argue the answer is that capitalism – or if you prefer, ‘the market’ – is a network of historically contingent institutions and social interactions, rather than abstract individuals trading in a vacuum where outcomes are mathematically knowable. The reason used car markets work ‘despite’ information asymmetry is due to hard-to-establish trust and norms between buyers and sellers, and due to intermediaries such as auto trader, who spring up to help both sides avoid being ripped off. I’ve not seen anyone provide an example of the process TML outlines actually occurring, so I don’t see why it adds to our understanding of markets.
To be fair to Austrians, they have been talking about ‘the market as a social process’ for a long time, and in places have disputed the Lemons Model on similar grounds to the above. Hence they have something in common with old institutionalists, Marxists (to a degree) and perhaps even hard-to-place heterodox economists like Tony Lawson, who argues economics should primarily be a historical, rather than mathematical subject. To put it another way, while heterodox economists typically advocate a move away from marginalist economics to understand why capitalism doesn’t work, such a move may also be necessarily to understand why it does.
Mark up Pricing: Post-Keynesian, Sraffian and Institutionalist economics typically subscribe to the cost-plus theory of prices, which states that businesses set prices at their average cost per unit, plus a mark up. Furthermore, they avoid price changes where possible, preferring to keep their prices stable for long periods of time to yield a target rate of profit, varying quantity rather than price, and keeping spare capacity and stocks so that they can do so. The problem libertarians might have with this is that it implies prices are somewhat arbitrary, do not usually ‘clear’ markets, and do not adjust to the preferences of consumers especially smoothly. However, while these things may be true, they do not mean mark up pricing comes with no benefits.
In my opinion, one such benefit is stability: I’m glad I can rely on prices only changing every so often, and that if there are a lot of people at the hairdressers he doesn’t raise the price to ‘clear’ the market. Furthermore, the fact that firms keep buffer stocks and can adjust quantity instead of price allows them to deal with uncertainty and unexpected demand more easily, making them more adaptable to real world conditions than if they always squeezed every drop out of their existing capacity. While I’m not going to pretend post-Keynesian pricing theory doesn’t imply some anti-libertarian policies (particularly with regards to price regulation), but it’s certainly not a one sided idea, and its policy implications are open to further interpretation.
I generally prefer to refrain from immediately linking everything to policy as I have done above, because, well, there are enough people doing that. However, the examples I’ve given actually help to demonstrate a point about the relationship between economic analysis and policy: theories with premises that seem to imply a certain policy may not once you’ve followed them through to their conclusions. What’s more, the same analysis can seem to imply different policies from different perspectives (at its most extreme, Austrian Business Cycle Theory seems to imply that even a teensy regulation will send capitalism off the rails, which could be interpreted as a damning criticism if you were a leftist). This means calls for pluralism in economics should be embraced by all, even if on the surface some ‘alternatives’ to mainstream economics seem to conflict with one’s world view.