Archive for the 'Ronald Dworkin' Category

Cluelessness about Strategy, Tactics and Discretion

In his op-ed in the weekend Wall Street Journal, John Taylor restates his confused opposition to what Ben Bernanke calls the policy of constrained discretion followed by the Federal Reserve during his tenure at the Fed, as vice-chairman under Alan Greenspan from 2003 to 2005 and as Chairman from 2005 to 2013. Taylor has been arguing for the Fed to adopt what he calls the “rules-based monetary policy” supposedly practiced by the Fed while Paul Volcker was chairman (at least from 1981 onwards) and for most of Alan Greenspan’s tenure until 2003 when, according to Taylor, the Fed abandoned the “rules-based monetary rule” that it had followed since 1981. In a recent post, I explained why Taylor’s description of Fed policy under Volcker was historically inaccurate and why his critique of recent Fed policy is both historically inaccurate and conceptually incoherent.

Taylor denies that his steady refrain calling for a “rules-based policy” (i.e., the implementation of some version of his beloved Taylor Rule) is intended “to chain the Fed to an algebraic formula;” he just thinks that the Fed needs “an explicit strategy for setting the instruments” of monetary policy. Now I agree that one ought not to set a policy goal without a strategy for achieving the goal, but Taylor is saying that he wants to go far beyond a strategy for achieving a policy goal; he wants a strategy for setting instruments of monetary policy, which seems like an obvious confusion between strategy and tactics, ends and means.

Instruments are the means by which a policy is implemented. Setting a policy goal can be considered a strategic decision; setting a policy instrument a tactical decision. But Taylor is saying that the Fed should have a strategy for setting the instruments with which it implements its strategic policy.  (OED, “instrument – 1. A thing used in or for performing an action: a means. . . . 5. A tool, an implement, esp. one used for delicate or scientific work.”) This is very confused.

Let’s be very specific. The Fed, for better or for worse – I think for worse — has made a strategic decision to set a 2% inflation target. Taylor does not say whether he supports the 2% target; his criticism is that the Fed is not setting the instrument – the Fed Funds rate – that it uses to hit the 2% target in accordance with the Taylor rule. He regards the failure to set the Fed Funds rate in accordance with the Taylor rule as a departure from a rules-based policy. But the Fed has continually undershot its 2% inflation target for the past three years. So the question naturally arises: if the Fed had raised the Fed Funds rate to the level prescribed by the Taylor rule, would the Fed have succeeded in hitting its inflation target? If Taylor thinks that a higher Fed Funds rate than has prevailed since 2012 would have led to higher inflation than we experienced, then there is something very wrong with the Taylor rule, because, under the Taylor rule, the Fed Funds rate is positively related to the difference between the actual inflation rate and the target rate. If a Fed Funds rate higher than the rate set for the past three years would have led, as the Taylor rule implies, to lower inflation than we experienced, following the Taylor rule would have meant disregarding the Fed’s own inflation target. How is that consistent with a rules-based policy?

It is worth noting that the practice of defining a rule in terms of a policy instrument rather than in terms of a policy goal did not originate with John Taylor; it goes back to Milton Friedman who somehow convinced a generation of monetary economists that the optimal policy for the Fed would be to target the rate of growth of the money supply at a k-percent annual rate. I have devoted other posts to explaining the absurdity of Friedman’s rule, but the point that I want to emphasize now is that Friedman, for complicated reasons which I think (but am not sure) that I understand, convinced himself that (classical) liberal principles require that governments and government agencies exercise their powers only in accordance with explicit and general rules that preclude or minimize the exercise of discretion by the relevant authorities.

Friedman’s confusions about his k-percent rule were deep and comprehensive, as a quick perusal of Friedman’s chapter 3 in Capitalism and Freedom, “The Control of Money,” amply demonstrates. In practice, the historical gold standard was a mixture of gold coins and privately issued banknotes and deposits as well as government banknotes that did not function particularly well, requiring frequent and significant government intervention. Unlike, a pure gold currency in which, given the high cost of extracting gold from the ground, the quantity of gold money would change only gradually, a mixed system of gold coin and banknotes and deposits was subject to large and destabilizing fluctuations in quantity. So, in Friedman’s estimation, the liberal solution was to design a monetary system such that the quantity of money would expand at a slow and steady rate, providing the best of all possible worlds: the stability of a pure gold standard and the minimal resource cost of a paper currency. In making this argument, as I have shown in an earlier post, Friedman displayed a basic misunderstanding of what constituted the gold standard as it was historically practiced, especially during its heyday from about 1880 to the outbreak of World War I, believing that the crucial characteristic of the gold standard was the limitation that it imposed on the quantity of money, when in fact the key characteristic of the gold standard is that it forces the value of money – regardless of its material content — to be equal to the value of a specified quantity of gold. (This misunderstanding – the focus on control of the quantity of money as the key task of monetary policy — led to Friedman’s policy instrumentalism – i.e., setting a policy rule in terms of the quantity of money.)

Because Friedman wanted to convince his friends in the Mont Pelerin Society (his egregious paper “Real and Pseudo Gold Standards” was originally presented at a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society), who largely favored the gold standard, that (classical) liberal principles did not necessarily entail restoration of the gold standard, he emphasized a distinction between what he called the objectives of monetary policy and the instruments of monetary policy. In fact, in the classical discussion of the issue by Friedman’s teacher at Chicago, Henry Simons, in an essay called “Rules versus Authorities in Monetary Policy,” Simons also tried to formulate a rule that would be entirely automatic, operating insofar as possible in a mechanical fashion, even considering the option of stabilizing the quantity of money. But Simons correctly understood that any operational definition of money is necessarily arbitrary, meaning that there will always be a bright line between what is money under the definition and what is not money, even though the practical difference between what is on one side of the line and what is on the other will be slight. Thus, the existence of near-moneys would make control of any monetary aggregate a futile exercise. Simons therefore defined a monetary rule in terms of an objective of monetary policy: stabilizing the price level. Friedman did not want to settle for such a rule, because he understood that stabilizing the price level has its own ambiguities, there being many ways to measure the price level as well as theoretical problems in constructing index numbers (the composition and weights assigned to components of the index being subject to constant change) that make any price index inexact. Given Friedman’s objective — demonstrating that there is a preferable alternative to the gold standard evaluated in terms of (classical) liberal principles – a price-level rule lacked the automatism that Friedman felt was necessary to trump the gold standard as a monetary rule.

Friedman therefore made his case for a monetary rule in terms of the quantity of money, ignoring Simons powerful arguments against trying to control the quantity of money, stating the rule in general terms and treating the selection of an operational definition of money as a mere detail. Here is how Friedman put it:

If a rule is to be legislated, what rule should it be? The rule that has most frequently been suggested by people of a generally liberal persuasion is a price level rule; namely, a legislative directive to the monetary authorities that they maintain a stable price level. I think this is the wrong kind of a rule [my emphasis]. It is the wrong kind of a rule because it is in terms of objectives that the monetary authorities do not have the clear and direct power to achieve by their own actions. It consequently raises the problem of dispersing responsibilities and leaving the authorities too much leeway.

As an aside, I note that Friedman provided no explanation of why such a rule would disperse responsibilities. Who besides the monetary authority did Friedman think would have responsibility for controlling the price level under such a rule? Whether such a rule would give the monetary authorities “too much leeway” is of course an entirely different question.

There is unquestionably a close connection between monetary actions and the price level. But the connection is not so close, so invariable, or so direct that the objective of achieving a stable price level is an appropriate guide to the day-to-day activities of the authorities. (p. 53)

Friedman continues:

In the present state of our knowledge, it seems to me desirable to state the rule in terms of the behavior of the stock of money. My choice at the moment would be a legislated rule instructing the monetary authority to achieve a specified rate of growth in the stock of money. For this purpose, I would define the stock of money as including currency outside commercial banks plus all deposits of commercial banks. I would specify that the Reserve System shall see to it [Friedman’s being really specific there, isn’t he?] that the total stock of money so defined rises month by month, and indeed, so far as possible day by day, at an annual rate of X per cent, where X is some number between 3 and 5. (p. 54)

Friedman, of course, deliberately ignored, or, more likely, simply did not understand, that the quantity of deposits created by the banking system, under whatever definition, is no more under the control of the Fed than the price level. So the whole premise of Friedman’s money supply rule – that it was formulated in terms of an instrument under the immediate control of the monetary authority — was based on the fallacy that quantity of money is an instrument that the monetary authority is able to control at will.

I therefore note, as a further aside, that in his latest Wall Street Journal op-ed, Taylor responded to Bernanke’s observation that the Taylor rule becomes inoperative when the rule implies an interest-rate target below zero. Taylor disagrees:

The zero bound is not a new problem. Policy rule design research took that into account decades ago. The default was to move to a stable money growth regime not to massive asset purchases.

Taylor may regard the stable money growth regime as an acceptable default rule when the Taylor rule is sidelined at the zero lower bound. But if so, he is caught in a trap of his own making, because, whether he admits it or not, the quantity of money, unlike the Fed Funds rate, is not an instrument under the direct control of the Fed. If Taylor rejects an inflation target as a monetary rule, because it grants too much discretion to the monetary authority, then he must also reject a stable money growth rule, because it allows at least as much discretion as does an inflation target. Indeed, if the past 35 years have shown us anything it is that the Fed has much more control over the price level and the rate of inflation than it has over the quantity of money, however defined.

This post is already too long, but I think that it’s important to say something about discretion, which was such a bugaboo for Friedman, and remains one for Taylor. But the concept of discretion is not as simple as it is often made out to be, especially by Friedman and Taylor, and if you are careful to pay attention to what the word means in ordinary usage, you will see that discretion does not necessarily, or usually, refer to an unchecked authority to act as one pleases. Rather it suggests that a certain authority to make a decision is being granted to a person or an official, but the decision is to be made in light of certain criteria or principles that, while not fully explicit, still inform and constrain the decision.

The best analysis of what is meant by discretion that I know of is by Ronald Dworkin in his classic essay “Is Law a System of Rules?” Dworkin discusses the meaning of discretion in the context of a judge deciding a “hard case,” a case in which conflicting rules of law seem to be applicable, or a case in which none of the relevant rules seems to fit the facts of the case. Such a judge is said to exercise discretion, because his decision is not straightforwardly determined by the existing set of legal rules. Legal positivists, against whom Dworkin was arguing, would say that the judge is able, and called upon, to exercise his discretion in deciding the case, meaning, that by deciding the case, the judge is simply imposing his will. It is something like the positivist view that underlies Friedman’s intolerance for discretion.

Countering the positivist view, Dworkin considers the example of a sergeant ordered by his lieutenant to take his five most experienced soldiers on patrol, and reflects on how to interpret an observer’s statement about the orders: “the orders left the sergeant a great deal of discretion.” It is clear that, in carrying out his orders, the sergeant is called upon to exercise his judgment, because he is not given a metric for measuring the experience of his soldiers. But that does not mean that when he chooses five soldiers to go on patrol, he is engaging in an exercise of will. The decision can be carried out with good judgment or with bad judgment, but it is an exercise of judgment, not will, just as a judge, in deciding a hard case, is exercising his judgment, on a more sophisticated level to be sure than the sergeant choosing soldiers, not just indulging his preferences.

If the Fed is committed to an inflation target, then, by choosing a setting for its instrumental target, the Fed Funds rate, the Fed is exercising judgment in light of its policy goals. That exercise of judgment in pursuit of a policy goal is very different from the arbitrary behavior of the Fed in the 1970s when its decisions were taken with no clear price-level or inflation target and with no clear responsibility for hitting the target.

Ben Bernanke has described the monetary regime in which the Fed’s decisions are governed by an explicit inflation target and a subordinate commitment to full employment as one of “constrained discretion.” When using this term, Taylor always encloses it in quotations markets, apparently to suggest that the term is an oxymoron. But that is yet another mistake; “constrained discretion” is no oxymoron. Indeed, it is a pleonasm, the exercise of discretion usually being understood to mean not an unconstrained exercise of will, but an exercise of judgment in the light of relevant goals, policies, and principles.

PS I apologize for not having responded to comments recently. I will try to catch up later this week.

Ronald Dworkin, RIP

I never met Ronald Dworkin, and I have not studied his work on legal philosophy carefully, but one essay that he wrote many years ago made a deep impression on me when I read it over 40 years ago as an undergraduate, and I still consider it just about the most profound discussion of law that I ever read. The essay, “Is Law a System of Rules?” (reprinted in The Philosophy of Law)  is a refutation of the philosophy of legal positivism, which holds that law is simply the command of a duly authorized sovereign law giver, an idea that was powerfully articulated by Thomas Hobbes and later by Jeremy Bentham.

Legal positivism was developed largely in reaction to theories of natural law, reflected in the work of legal philosophers like Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf, and in William Blackstone’s famous Commentaries on the Laws of England. The validity of law and the obligation to obey law were derived from the correspondence, even if only imperfect, of positive law to natural law. Blackstone’s Commentaries were largely a form of apologetics aimed at showing how well English law corresponded to the natural law. Jeremy Bentham would have none of this, calling “natural rights” (i.e., the rights derived from natural law) simple nonsense, and “natural and imprescriptible rights” nonsense on stilts.

Legal positivism was first given a systematic exposition by Bentham’s younger contemporary, John Austin, who described law as those commands of a sovereign for which one would be punished if one failed to obey them, the sovereign being he who is habitually obeyed. The twentieth century legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart further refined the doctrine in a definitive treatise, The Concept of Law, in which he argued that law must have a systematic and non-arbitrary structure. Laws are more than commands, but they remain disconnected from any moral principles. Law is not just a set of commands; it is a system of rules, but the rules have no necessary moral content.

As a Rhodes Scholar, Dworkin studied under Hart at Oxford, but he rejected Hart’s view of law. In his paper “Is Law a System of Rules?” Dworkin subjected legal positivism, in the sophisticated version (law as a system of rules) articulated by Hart, to a searching philosophical analysis. When I read Dworkin’s essay, I had already read Hayek’s great work, The Constitution of Liberty, and, while Hayek was visiting UCLA in the 1968-69 academic year, the first draft of his Law, Legislation and Liberty. In both of these works, Hayek had also criticized legal positivism, which he viewed as diametrically opposed to his cherished ideal of the rule of law as a necessary condition of liberty. But his criticism seemed to me not nearly as effective or as interesting as Dworkin’s. Despite disagreeing with Dworkin on a lot of issues, I have, ever since, admired Dworkin as a pre-eminent legal and political philosopher.

Dworkin’s main criticism of the theory that law is a system of rules was that the theory cannot account for the role played by legal principles in informing and guiding judges in deciding actual cases whose outcome is not obvious. Here is how Dworkin, in his essay, described the role of one such principle.

In 1889 a New York court, in the famous case of Riggs v. Palmer had to decide whether an heir named in the will of his grandfather could inherit under that will, even though he had murdered his grandfather to do so. The court began its reasoning with this admission: “It is quite true that statutes regulating the making, proof and effect of wills, and the devolution of property, if literally construed, and if their force and effect can in no way and under no circumstances be controlled or modified, give this property to the murderer.” But the court continued in to note that “all laws as well as all contracts may be controlled in their operation and effect by general, fundamental maxims of the common law. No one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong, or to found any claim upon his own iniquity, or acquire property by his own crime.” The murder did not receive his inheritance.

From here Dworkin went on to conduct a rigorous philosophical analysis of the way in which the principle that no one may profit from his own wrong could be understood within the conceptual framework of legal positivism that law is nothing more than a system of rules. In fact, Dworkin argued, rules cannot be applied in a vacuum, there must be principles and standards that provide judges with the resources by which to arrive at judicial decisions in cases where there is not an exact match between the given facts and an applicable rule, cases in which, in the terminology of legal positivism, judges must exercise discretion, as if discretion meant no more than freedom to reach an arbitrary unprincipled decision. Principles govern judicial decisions, but not in the same way that rules do. Rules are binary, on or off; principles are flexible, they have weight, their application requires judgment.

If we take baseball rules as a model, we find that rules of law, like the rule that a will is invalid unless signed by three witnesses, fit the model well. If the requirement of three witnesses is a valid legal rule, then it cannot be that a will has signed by only two witnesses and is valid. . . .

But this is not the way the sample principles in the quotations operated. Even those which look most like rules do not set out legal consequences that follow automatically when the conditions provided are met. We say that our law respects the principle that no man may profit from his own wrong, but we do not mean that the law never permits a man to profit from wrongs he commits. In fact, people most often profit, perfectly legally, from their legal wrongs. . . .

We do not treat these . . . counter-instances . . . as showing that the principle about profiting from one’s own wrongs is not a principle of our legal system, or that it is incomplete and needs qualifying exceptions. We not treat counter-instances as exceptions (at least not exceptions in the way in which a catcher’s dropping the third strike is an exception) because we could not hope to capture these counter-instances simply by a more extended statement of the principle. . . . Listing some of these might sharpen our sense of the principle’s weight, but it would not make for a more accurate or complete statement of the principle. . . .

All that is meant, when we way that a particular principle is a principle of our law, is that the principle is one which officials must take into account, if it is relevant, as a consideration inclining in one direction or another.

Just as an aside, I will observe that this passage and others in Dworkin’s essay make it clear that when Chief Justice Roberts appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005 and stated that in his view the job of a judge is calling balls and strikes but not pitching or batting, he was using a distinctly inappropriate, and perhaps misleading, metaphor to describe what it is that a judge, especially an appellate judge, is called upon to do. See Dworkin’s essay on the Roberts hearing in the New York Review of Books.

Although I never met Dworkin, I did correspond with him on a few occasions, once many years ago and more recently exchanging emails with him about various issues — the last time when I sent him a link to this post commenting on the oral argument before the Supreme Court about the Affordable Health Care Act. His responses to me were always cordial and unfailingly polite; I now regret not having saved the letters and the emails. Here are links to obituaries in the New York Times, The Guardian and The Financial Times.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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