Archive for May, 2016

P. H. Wicksteed, the Coase Theorem, and the Real Cost Fallacy

I am now busy writing a paper with my colleague Paul Zimmerman, documenting a claim that I made just over four years ago that P. H. Wicksteed discovered the Coase Theorem. The paper is due to be presented at the History of Economics Society Conference next month at Duke University. At some point soon after the paper is written, I plan to post it on SSRN.

Briefly, the point of the paper is that Wicksteed’s argument that there is no such thing as a supply curve in the sense that the supply curve of a commodity in fixed supply is just the reverse of a certain section of the demand curve, the section depending on how the given stock of the commodity is initially distributed among market participants. However the initial stock is distributed, the final price and the final allocation of the commodity is determined by the preferences of the market participants reflected in their individual demands for the commodity. But this is exactly the reasoning underlying the Coase Theorem: the initial assignment of liability for damages has no effect on the final allocation of resources if transactions costs are zero (as Wicksteed implicitly assumed in his argument). Coase’s originality was not in his reasoning, but in recognizing that economic exchange is not the mere trading of physical goods but trading rights to property or rights to engage in certain types of conduct affecting property.

But Wicksteed went further than just showing that the initial distribution of a commodity in fixed supply does not affect the equilibrium price of the commodity or its equilibrium distribution. He showed that in a production economy, cost has no effect on equilibrium price or the equilibrium allocation of resources and goods and services, which seems a remarkably sweeping assertion. But I think that Wicksteed was right in that assertion, and I think that, in making that assertion, he anticipated a point that I have made numerous times on this blog (e.g., here) namely, that just as macroeconomic requires microfoundations, microeconomics requires macrofoundations. The whole of standard microeconomics, e.g., assertions about the effects of an excise tax on price and output, presumes the existence of equilibrium in all markets other than the one being subjected to micro-analysis. Without the background assumption of equilibrium, it would be impossible to derive what Paul Samuelson (incorrectly) called “meaningful theorems,” (the mistake stemming from the absurd positivist presumption that empirically testable statements are the only statements that are meaningful).

So let me quote from Wicksteed’s 1914 paper “The Scope and Method of Political Economy in the Light of the Marginal Theory of Value and Distribution.”

[S]o far we have only dealt with the market in the narrower sense. Our investigations throw sufficient light on the distribution of the hay harvest, for instance, or on the “catch” of a fishing fleet. But where the production is continuous, as in mining or in ironworks, will the same theory still suffice to guide us? Here again we encounter the attempt to establish two co-ordinate principles, diagrammatically represented by two intersecting curves; for though the “cost of production” theory of value is generally repudiated, we are still foo often taught to look for the forces that determine the stream of supply along two lines, the value of the product, regulated by the law of the market, and the cost of production. But what is cost of production? In the market of commodities I am ready to give as much as the article is worth to me, and I cannot get it unless I give as much as it is worth to others. In the same way, if I employ land or labour or tools to produce something, I shall be ready to give as much as they are worth to me, and I shall have to give as much as they are worth to others-always, of course, differentially. Their worth to me is determined by their differential effect upon my product, their worth to others by the like effect upon their products . . . Again we have an alias merely. Cost of production is merely the form in which the desiredness a thing possesses for someone else presents itself to me. When we take the collective curve of demand for any factor of production we see again that it is entirely composed of demands, and my adjustment of my own demands to the cond ditions imposed by the demands of others is of exactly the same nature whether I am buying cabbages or factors for the production of steel plates. I have to adjust my desire for a thing to the desires of others for the same thing, not to find some principle other than that of desiredness, co-ordinate with it as a second determinant of market price. The second determinant, here as everywhere, is the supply. It is not until we have perfectly grasped the truth that costs of production of one thing are nothing whatever but an alias of efficiencies in production of other things that we shall be finally emancipated from the ancient fallacy we have so often thrust out at the door, while always leaving the window open for its return.

The upshot of Wicksteed’s argument appears to be that cost, viewed as an independent determinant of price or the allocation of resources, is a redundant concept. Cost as a determinant of value is useful only in the context of a background of general equilibrium in which the prices of all but a single commodity have already been determined. The usual partial-equilibrium apparatus for determining the price of a single commodity in terms of the demand for and the supply of that single product, presumes a given technology for converting inputs into output, and given factor prices, so that the costs can be calculated based on those assumptions. In principle, that exercise is no different from finding the intersection between the demand-price curve and the supply-price curve for a commodity in fixed supply, the demand-price curve and the supply-price curve being conditional on a particular arbitrary assumption about the initial distribution of the commodity among market participants. In the analysis of a production economy, the determination of equilibrium price and output in a single market can proceed in terms of a demand curve for the product and a supply curve (reflecting the aggregate of individual firm marginal-cost curves). However, in this case the supply curve is conditional on the assumption that prices of all other outputs and all factor prices have already been determined. But from the perspective of general equilibrium, the determination of the vector of prices, including all factor prices, that is consistent with general equilibrium cannot be carried out by computing production costs for each individual output, because the factor prices required for a computation of the production costs for any product are unknown until the general equilibrium solution has itself been found.

Thus, the notion that cost can serve as an independent determinant of equilibrium price is an exercise in question begging, because cost is no less an equilibrium concept than price. Cost cannot be logically prior to price if both are determined simultaneously and are mutually interdependent. All that is logically prior to equilibrium price in a basic economic model are the preferences of market participants and the technology for converting inputs into outputs. Cost is not an explanatory variable; it is an explained variable. That is the ultimate fallacy in the doctrine of real costs defended so tenaciously by Jacob Viner in chapter eight of his classic Studies in the Theory of International Trade. That Paul Samuelson in one of his many classic papers, “International Trade and the Equalization of Factor Prices,” could have defended Viner and the real-cost doctrine, failing to realize that costs are simultaneously determined with prices in equilibrium, and are indeterminate outside of equilibrium, seems to me to be a quite remarkable lapse of reasoning on Samuelson’s part.

Saving a Very Old Paper from Oblivion — UPDATE

UPDATE (May 15, 2016): My account below of the events surrounding the writing of my paper elicited the following letter from James Dorn, the unnamed organizer of the conference on Alternatives to Government Fiat Money, to whom I refer in the post. His letter makes it clear that my recollection of the events I describe was inaccurate or incomplete in several respects and that, most important, Cato did not intend to suppress my paper. Their intent was to originally to publish the paper in a separate volume to be published by Kluwer, but the intended volume was never published. Dorn refers to correspondence between us in 1999 in which he apologized for the delay in publication and invited me either to submit the paper for publication at the Cato Journal or to submit it elsewhere. As I mentioned in my post I did revise the paper into the current version dated June 2000. Why I did not submit it to the Cato Journal or to another journal I am unable to say, but subsequently I somehow came under the impression that I had been discouraged from doing so by Cato. Evidently, my recollection was faulty. In any event, I should not have posted my recollections of how this paper came to languish unpublished for almost three decades without communicating with James Dorn. That, at least, is one lesson to be learned, I can also take some minimal comfort in learning that my own conduct was not quite as wimpy as I had thought. On the other hand, I must apologize to Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman, who linked to this post on their blogs, for having led them to into this discussion. All in all, not a great performance on my part. Here is the text of Jim Dorn’s letter.

Dear David,

A colleague directed me to your blog of May 13, in which you state:

“After about 10 years [1989–99] passed, it occurred to me that the paper, which I had more or less forgotten about in the interim, would be worth updating to take into account the literature on network externalities that had subsequently developed. Just to work out for myself the connections between my old arguments and the new literature, I revised the paper to incorporate the network-externalities literature into the discussion. Then, hoping that Cato might no longer care about the paper, I contacted the conference organizer, who was still at Cato, to inquire whether, after a lapse of 10 years, Cato still had objections to my submitting the paper for publication. The response I got was that, at least for the time being, Cato would not allow me to publish the paper, but might reconsider at some unspecified future time.”

                                                                                                    —David Glasner (Uneasy Money blog, May 13, 2016)

If you remember, the reason your article from the 1989 conference was not included in the Fall 1989 CJ (vol. 9, no. 2) was because I had deliberately omitted several conference papers from the CJ b/c Kluwer was going to co-publish a book with the title “Alternatives to Government Fiat Money” and wanted me to differentiate it from the CJ conference issue with the same title.  So the intention was to use your paper in the book ( I sent you a letter to that effect of which I have a copy).  Unfortunately, my many other duties at Cato at that time, plus my full-time teaching schedule, put the book project on the back burner.  I accept full responsibility for that delay.

I wrote to you on December 1, 1999, apologizing for the delay in the book project and explicitly stated: “If you wish to withdraw your paper from consideration and use it elsewhere, go ahead.”  I also stated in a separate email on December 1, 1999, that “if you revise your paper, at your own pace, then as soon as I receive it, I will consider it for use in the Cato Journal.  Also, I will reserve the right to use it in the book , if the CJ comes out first.”  You had mentioned in your email (Dec. 1, 1999) that the original paper had to be updated to take account of “network effects and externalities.”  And in a separate reply to my offer, you wrote (Dec. 1, 1999): “Sounds reasonable.  I’ll have to dredge up a copy of the paper and look it over again, before I give you a definite yes or no.  I’ll try to do that by Monday at the latest.”  As far as I can tell from my files, you never did get back to me.

David, I’m sorry that your paper did not see the light of day; I wish I had used it immediately in the conference issue of the CJ in 1989.

I did, however, give you permission to publish elsewhere, as noted above, albeit with a significant lag.  If you had sent me your revised paper when I requested it, I would have certainly used it n the CJ.  I think your blog is incorrect at points and that you were unfair to Cato.  Things happen to delay publications. I value honesty and do the best to maintain my own and Cato’s reputation.  Indeed, if you have revised your paper and would like me to consider it for use in the CJ, I would be glad to do so.

Best regards,


I have just posted a paper (“How ‘Natural’ Is the Government Monopoly over Money”) on SSRN. It’s a paper I wrote about 28 years ago, shortly after arriving in Washington to start working at the FTC, for a Cato Monetary Conference on Alternatives to Fiat Money. I don’t remember how I came up with the idea for the paper, but it’s possible that I thought, having become a FTC antitrust economist, that it would be worth applying industrial organization concepts to analyze whether any of the traditional arguments for a state monopoly over money could withstand scrutiny. At any rate, the conference organizers seemed to like the idea, and I was offered an honorarium of about — I don’t remember exactly — $1000 to $1500; I was told that the conference papers would be published in a future edition of the Cato Journal.

I am afraid that I no longer have any recollection of the conference or of my presentation, except that, after the conference, I was moderately pleased with myself and my paper, and I was probably more than moderately happy with a four-figure honorarium to supplement my modest government salary. Unfortunately, my happy feelings about the experience were short-lived, being informed, not long after the conference by one of the conference organizers, that the original plans had been changed, so that my paper would not be published in the Cato Journal. That surprise was a bit annoying, but hardly devastating, because I simply assumed that what I had been told meant that I would just have to go through the tedious process of sending the paper out to be published in some economics journal. Feeling moderately pleased with what I had written, I thought that I might try my luck with, say, The Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, a step up — actually several steps up — from the Cato Journal. So when I replied – I thought fairly tactfully – that I certainly understood how plans could change, and had no hard feelings about Cato’s unwillingness to publish my paper, and that I would work on it some more before submitting it elsewhere for publication, I was totally unprepared for the response that was forthcoming: by accepting that four-figure honorarium for writing the paper for the Cato conference, I had relinquished to the Cato Institute all rights to the paper and that I was free to submit it to any publication or journal, and that Cato would take legal action against me and any publication that published the paper. My interlocutor did say that there was a chance that Cato might decide to publish the paper in the future, but I well understood that that contingency was not very likely.

Shocked at what had just happened I felt helpless and violated, and I now reproach myself bitterly for my timidity in acquiescing to Cato’s suppression of my work, not even insisting on a written explanation of Cato’s decision to stop me from publishing my own paper. Nor did I seek legal advice about challenging Cato’s conduct. I could have at least tried writing an article exposing how Cato – an institution whose “mission is to originate, disseminate, and increase understanding of public policies based on the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace” — was engaged in suppressing the original research that it had sponsored with no obvious justification.

After about 10 years passed, it occurred to me that the paper, which I had more or less forgotten about in the interim, would be worth updating to take into account the literature on network externalities that had subsequently developed. Just to work out for myself the connections between my old arguments and the new literature, I revised the paper to incorporate the network-externalities literature into the discussion. Then, hoping that Cato might no longer care about the paper, I contacted the conference organizer, who was still at Cato, to inquire whether, after a lapse of 10 years, Cato still had objections to my submitting the paper for publication. The response I got was that, at least for the time being, Cato would not allow me to publish the paper, but might reconsider at some unspecified future time. At that point, I put the paper away, and forgot about it again, until I came across it recently, and decided that it was finally time to at least post it on the internet. If Cato wants to come after me for doing so, I guess they know how to find me.

Here’s the introductory section of the paper.

I have chosen the title of this paper to underscore an ambiguity in how the term “natural monopoly” describes the role of the government in monetary affairs. One possible meaning of “natural monopoly” in this context is the narrow one that economists attach to it in their taxonomies of market structure. The term then denotes special technical conditions of production that make it cheaper for just one firm to produce the entire output of an industry than for two or more firms to share in that production. However, the term “natural monopoly” is not necessarily confined to that narrow meaning even when the term is used by economists. In these looser usages, “natural monopoly” is intended to refer to any conditions or forces that either explain or rationalize why the production of money is or should be monopolized by the government. But since the production of money (or at least of a non-trivial subset of monetary instruments) is nearly universally monopolized by governments, it seems reasonable to infer that there must be some forces (that economic theory ought to be able to identify) that can account for the universality or, if you will, “naturalness,” of a government monopoly over money. While there is nothing sacred about the narrow usage of the term “natural monopoly,” the presumption among economists that natural monopolies in the strict sense should be regulated or taken over by the government is so strong, that it seems worthwhile to distinguish between those explanations of the monopoly over money that can, and those that cannot, be subsumed under the narrow meaning of that term.

My first task, therefore, will be to review and evaluate some of the reasons commonly advanced to support the proposition that the production of money is a natural monopoly. The strict natural-monopoly explanations for a government monopoly do not seem to me to withstand critical scrutiny. But in discussing them, I shall point out that several of what purport to be natural-monopoly explanations are actually arguments that the production or use of money involves some type of externality that can be internalized only by a monopoly, or a monopoly. The specific externality is often not explicitly described, but, upon careful analysis, one can distinguish between few possible externalities that might justify some government role in monetary affairs. These disguised externality arguments will draw me into an explicit discussion of the externality justification for a government monopoly. But even if one grants that one or more of these possible externalities may justify some government role in monetary affairs, it does not necessarily follow that a government monopoly is necessary to compensate for the externality. Since I have elsewhere (Glasner 1989, 1998) tried to account for the pervasiveness of the monopoly on national-defense grounds, I shall not repeat myself here. I shall merely conclude by mentioning some implications of the national-defense explanation that suggest that the basis for the government monopoly is weakening and that the supply of money has, and will continue to, become increasingly competitive.

Click here to continue reading.

Whither Conservatism?

I’m not sure why – well, maybe I can guess – but I have been thinking about an article (“Hayek and the Conservatives”) I wrote in 1992 for Commentary. I just reread it — probably for the first time this century — and although I can’t say that I agree with everything I wrote over 20 years ago, it somehow still seems relevant, perhaps even more so now than then. So I thought I would share it.

At the time of his death on March 23, 1992, less than two months before his ninety-third birthday, F.A. Hayek was widely if not universally acknowledged as this century’s preeminent intellectual advocate of the free market and one of its leading opponents of socialism. His death, coming so soon after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the abandonment of Marxism and socialism as intellectual ideals, occasioned understandable comment by his admirers about the vindication that Hayek, after years of vilification at the hands of critics, had received at the hands of history.

Though long in coming, however, Hayek’s vindication did not occur all at once. For his work had exerted a crucial, though basically indirect, influence over the renascent conservative and libertarian movements that had grown up after World War II in the United States and Great Britain. Indeed, the revival of those movements culminated in the rise to power of two politicians, Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in England, who were proud to list Hayek among their intellectual mentors. And his vindication had also been presaged, though in an oddly ambiguous way, when Hayek was named co-winner, with the Swedish socialist economist Gunnar Myrdal, of the 1974 Nobel prize in economics.

Still, most of Hayek’s career was spent in the relative obscurity befitting an expatriate Central European intellectual of reserve, urbanity, erudition—and unfashionable views. Hayek’s economic theories had apparently been superseded, first by those of John Maynard Keynes and then by the increasingly mathematical economic analysis of the postwar period, and his political philosophy was considered either a relic of an obsolete Victorian liberalism or, less charitably, an apology for the worst excesses of capitalist exploitation. Before winning the Nobel prize, Hayek, who never served either officially or unofficially as an adviser to any political figure and never sought a mass audience, only twice transcended the obscurity in which he labored for so long: first in the early 1930’s when, as a young man newly arrived in Great Britain, he was briefly considered the chief intellectual rival of Keynes, and a decade later in the mid-1940’s when, much to Hayek’s own surprise, his book, The Road to Serfdom, became a trans-Atlantic best-seller. . . .

Ironically, Hayek’s death occurred not only after his critique of socialism had just received decisive historical confirmation, but when the conservative movement in the United States, whose free-market and free-trade principles he, perhaps more than anyone else, had shaped, was undergoing a fundamental crisis. To understand the nature of the crisis, one must first understand how Hayek came to play such a crucial role in the development of conservatism.

Before World War II what passed for conservatism in the United States was an amalgam of views and prejudices which lacked sufficient coherence to be summarized by any clear set of principles. The chief characteristics of the Old Right were a fanatical opposition to . . . Roosevelt’s New Deal or indeed to any national measures aimed at improving the lot of the least well-off groups or individuals in the country; opposition to international alliances, coupled with decidedly nativist tendencies and a bias in favor of protectionist trade policies; a primitive bias against banks, speculation, high finance, and Wall Street; and complacent toleration of, or occasionally even active support for, racial and religious discrimination against blacks, Jews, and other minorities. . . .

Even more disastrously, American conservatives, mistrusting the federal government and its tendency to become involved in European conflicts, and viscerally hating Roosevelt, bitterly opposed any U.S. efforts to resist or contain the spread of European fascism. These attitudes gave birth to the America First movement of the 1930’s, whose often implicit and occasionally explicit anti-Semitic overtones can only be understood in the light of the broader set of fears, hatreds, and neuroses that animated the movement.

The onset of World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent horrific revelations about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis (with whom the America Firsters had uniformly urged coexistence and for whom some of them had expressed sympathy) left American conservatism discredited both morally and intellectually, just as the Depression and a reflexive opposition to the New Deal had discredited conservatism programmatically.

Thus, when The Road to Serfdom was published in 1945, it filled a gaping moral and intellectual vacuum. For here was a book, written by an Austrian expatriate of impeccable anti-Nazi credentials, fundamentally opposed to the socialist ideas now guiding progressive thought everywhere. Moreover, in a profound and eloquent argument, The Road to Serfdom contended that the path the fascists had followed to absolute power had been prepared for them by the very instruments of central planning and the ideology of an all-powerful state which socialists had created before them. The Nazis, after all, had been National Socialists, and Mussolini had been a leader of the Italian Socialist party before starting the Fascist party. The common characteristic of all such movements was to subordinate the individual to the supposed interests of some abstract collective entity—class, nation, race, or simply society.

In a relatively brief span of time, Hayek’s version of free-market, free-trade liberalism (in the traditional European sense of the word), and political internationalism, which had never before taken root among either American conservatives or liberals, became the bedrock on which the generation of American conservatives who came of age after 1945 built a political movement. Liberated from nativist, protectionist, and isolationist tendencies, this generation could turn its energies to the struggle against Communism and other forms of collectivism, and to the promotion of a free-market economy.

Naturally the transformation of American conservatism was never complete. . . The lingering Old Right influence is today most noticeable in the conspiratorial cast of mind, the obsession with betrayal and disloyalty, the search for alien influences, the siege mentality, the anti-intellectualism, the chauvinism, and the free-floating anger that unfortunately still pervade parts of the conservative movement. It is just these qualities that Patrick J. Buchanan would restore if he should ever succeed in “taking back” the movement from those who, in his words, have hijacked it. . . .

The key distinction for Hayek was not big government versus small government, but between a government of laws in which all coercive action is constrained by general and impartial rules, and a government of men in which coercion may be arbitrarily exercised to achieve whatever ends the government, or even the majority on whose behalf it acts, wishes to accomplish. Though Hayek contemplated with little enthusiasm the absorption by the state of a third or more of national income, the amount and character of government spending were to him very much a secondary issue that directly involved no fundamental principle. . . .

Hayek’s point is that there is no deductive proof from self-evident axioms that will establish the case for liberty. Rather, he argues, liberty is a condition and a value that has evolved with society. If we value liberty, it is because Western civilization has evolved in such a way that liberty has become part of its tradition. That tradition, the provisional outcome of a contingent historical and evolutionary process, cannot be explained in purely rational terms.

This approach to social theory, the product of a thoroughgoing philosophical skepticism, is decidedly incompatible with the religious beliefs to which a large segment of the conservative movement subscribes, and equally unattractive to those, conservative or libertarian, who ground their political beliefs in natural law or in any other set of self-evident truths. This no doubt explains the regrettably limited influence that Hayek’s later work has exerted on American conservatives—particularly unfortunate because his rich contributions to legal and constitutional theory have much to offer both conservatives and liberals struggling to formulate a coherent philosophy of adjudication.

That apart, however, it remains undeniable that the primary goals of American conservatism in the postwar era evolved steadily from an Old Right toward a Hayekian agenda: from isolationism to containing the military expansion of Communism and other aggressive totalitarian movements; from protectionism to reducing the extent of government interference with and disruption of the free-market economy both domestically and internationally; from wholesale opposition to the New Deal to reforming and rationalizing its social-insurance measures along more market-oriented lines, and focusing government efforts on helping the least well-off rather than redistributing income generally.

Given the conflicting pressures under which policies are made, this agenda has been far from perfectly implemented even under conservative administrations. Yet it was only by embracing such an agenda that conservatism attracted not just new intellectual supporters—the neoconservatives—but, at least in presidential elections, a majority of votes. A retreat to the Old Right stance advocated by Patrick J. Buchanan and his supporters would mean not just throwing overboard the neoconservative “parvenus,” it would mean eradicating root and branch the fundamental consensus that enabled American conservatism to grow and to thrive in the postwar era.

About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. 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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