Monday, May 7, 2012

Austrian Economics Forum Spring '12 #5--Efficiency in an Open-Ended Universe

The fifth Austrian Economics forum centered on Roy Cordato's book, Efficiency and Externalities in an Open-Ended Universe.  In particular we focused on Chapter 3, "Catallactic Efficiency: Welfare Economics."  

In traditional welfare economic analysis, we make judgments about net effects of policy.  Does this policy help more people than it hurts, or is it the reverse?  Usually, this means that the economist must make a comparison between people's subjective utilities.  This analysis is called "interpersonal utility comparisons."  Since values are subjective, such a feat is impossible.  There is no way we can judge how much a person values something, and nearly all economists agree on this point.  However, this is where the Austrians an the neoclassicals part company.

The neoclassical economists will waive their hands and say that interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible, but then they do exactly that; they make interpersonal utility comparisons.  There are some theoretical constructs that confront the problem head-on, like the Pareto Optimality measure of efficiency.  However, these sorts of approaches have very little real world application.  For example, the Pareto condition says that a policy is good if, and only if, at least one person is made better-off while no one is made worse-off.  In the real world, this is never the case.  And so, as a mental exercise, such methods are fine, but the reality is that these end up calling for maintaining the status quo.

Cordato's chapter avoids this problem.  

The first thing that needs to be made clear is the distinction between positive and normative economics.  Positive economics is pure theory.  Normative economics is a value judgement made by the analyst.  For example, positive economic analysis says that whenever the price is below the market clearing price, there will be a shortage.  An example of a normative judgment is the statement that we should set the price below the market clearing price.  Normative economics deals with "should statements."  We should do policy X but should not do policy Y.  Cordato's chapter sets positive economics aside and focuses exclusively on normative economics.

The next thing that we need to examine is the concept of an open-ended universe.  So what's that?  The opposite of a closed universe, duh.  (I know, not helpful, but I couldn't resist.)   A closed universe is one that has a final state of rest, an equilibrium point toward which the market tends.  The neoclassical position tends to start in this state, which is fine for positive analysis.  However, we are dealing with normative analysis for the real world and the real world is definitely not in equilibrium.  Even if the real world does manage to get itself into an equilibrium, it would only be there for a moment.  This is because the demand curve is based upon things like tastes and preferences and the supply curve is based upon things like expectations.  When any of those factors change, the curves shift and a new market clearing relationship emerges.  

Kirzner's approach says that we are constantly chasing these market clearing prices.  It is the entrepreneurs' actions that coordinate the economy and move us closer to market equilibria.  Cordato argues that for normative economic analysis, we should jettison the very notion of equilibrium.  Let me be clear, Cordato is not saying we should jettison equilibrium altogether.  In fact, he does say that it is perfectly legitimate to still use it for positive economic analysis.  (Personally, I like the concept of "harmony" better, but that is a different discussion.)  

It is when we deal with normative economics that we should discard equilibrium.  The reason is that we have no idea where such an equilibrium would be.  We cannot argue that in the real world that each transaction moves us closer to an equilibrium, because each transaction adds new information into the system--information that was unknown before.  As new information is added into the system, the theoretical equilibrium changes.  Thus, it is impossible to determine (either before or even after the fact) whether a trade moves us "closer" to an equilibrium or not.  So an open-ended universe says that we cannot know where these equilibria are and whether a transaction moves us closer to or further from any of these points.

While this analysis is close to the Lachmann/Shackle position of economic kaledics, it is not the same.  The difference is that Cordato says that the use of equilibrium is legitimate when doing positive economics.  Lachmann and Shackle reject the concept of equilibrium for both normative and positive economics.

So then how are we to judge which policy is better, or in economic jargon, which policy is welfare enhancing?  Cordato proposes that we use a standard of "Catallactic Efficiency."  Catallaxy is an alternate word for the economy/economics.  It comes from the Greek root "katallasso" (καταλλάσσω), which means trade or exchange.  It also means "to befriend."  

Anyway, Cordato argues that methodological individualism holds that each person has his own set of goals and his own set of information.  "[Efficiency] is to be judged by the extent to which the catallaxy encourages individuals existing in a social context, to pursue their own goals as consistently as possible." (page 62)  Cordato continues,

By its very nature, then, questions of catallactic efficiency must focus on the institutional settings in which individual actors operate.  In particular there are two overriding issues.  The first centers around the institutional settings that will best facilitate the use and discovery of information, the appropriateness and relevance of which can only be known by those who need to discover and use it.  The second concerns the institutional setting that will allow individuals to gather the necessary physical resources [and use them].  pages 62-3.
So there are two conditions to be met: the first is the ability to discover information and the second is the ability to use resources to achieve the goals sought.  The conclusion is that a laissez-faire policy is best for enhancing the welfare of the community.

Such an approach, I believe, fits well with Mises' conception of Interventionism.  Mises argued that there were three manners in which the government could intervene in an economy.  The first is the role of the impartial judge and enforcer of private property rights. When there is a dispute, the government can resolve the dispute.  Mises thought that this was a normal and healthy function of government.  The second manner is when the government buys items from the market.  Suppose that the government wants to publish its annual budget.  To do so, it needs paper.  The government taxes people and then spends that money on paper.  While there are distortionary effects that result from the governmental action, the normal market process is intact.  The demand curves for the items that the taxed people would have purchased are reduced and the demand curve for paper is increased.  The market mechanism operates normally.  

The third type of intervention is where the government stops or hinders the market mechanism from operating normally.  In this form, the government prevents trades to take place by rules, regulations, or price controls.  For example, if the government passes a law that says all toys need to be tested for lead before they can be sold, this interferes with the normal market process.  If the government says that during "a state of emergency" prices can only rise above the 30-day average by 10% interferes with the normal market process.  In the first example, people will not be able or willing to sell toys and in the second, the goods  will not be rationed according to price.  Long lines will emerge and shortages will persist.

Cordato's "Catallactic Efficiency" standard and Mises' third type of interventionism go hand-in-hand.  They both focus the analyst's attention to the coordination process of the market.  How is new information generated and incorporated into the greater social order?  When obstacles restrict the market's ability to do this, we have catallactic inefficiency and interventionism.


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