On Equilibrium in Economic Theory

Here is the introduction to a new version of my paper, “Hayek and Three Concepts of Intertemporal Equilibrium” which I presented last June at the History of Economics Society meeting in Toronto, and which I presented piecemeal in a series of posts last May and June. This post corresponds to the first part of this post from last May 21.

Equilibrium is an essential concept in economics. While equilibrium is an essential concept in other sciences as well, and was probably imported into economics from physics, its meaning in economics cannot be straightforwardly transferred from physics into economics. The dissonance between the physical meaning of equilibrium and its economic interpretation required a lengthy process of explication and clarification, before the concept and its essential, though limited, role in economic theory could be coherently explained.

The concept of equilibrium having originally been imported from physics at some point in the nineteenth century, economists probably thought it natural to think of an economic system in equilibrium as analogous to a physical system at rest, in the sense of a system in which there was no movement or in the sense of all movements being repetitive. But what would it mean for an economic system to be at rest? The obvious answer was to say that prices of goods and the quantities produced, exchanged and consumed would not change. If supply equals demand in every market, and if there no exogenous disturbance displaces the system, e.g., in population, technology, tastes, etc., then there would seem to be no reason for the prices paid and quantities produced to change in that system. But that conception of an economic system at rest was understood to be overly restrictive, given the large, and perhaps causally important, share of economic activity – savings and investment – that is predicated on the assumption and expectation that prices and quantities not remain constant.

The model of a stationary economy at rest in which all economic activity simply repeats what has already happened before did not seem very satisfying or informative to economists, but that view of equilibrium remained dominant in the nineteenth century and for perhaps the first quarter of the twentieth. Equilibrium was not an actual state that an economy could achieve, it was just an end state that economic processes would move toward if given sufficient time to play themselves out with no disturbing influences. This idea of a stationary timeless equilibrium is found in the writings of the classical economists, especially Ricardo and Mill who used the idea of a stationary state as the end-state towards which natural economic processes were driving an an economic system.

This, not very satisfactory, concept of equilibrium was undermined when Jevons, Menger, Walras, and their followers began to develop the idea of optimizing decisions by rational consumers and producers. The notion of optimality provided the key insight that made it possible to refashion the earlier classical equilibrium concept into a new, more fruitful and robust, version.

If each economic agent (household or business firm) is viewed as making optimal choices, based on some scale of preferences, and subject to limitations or constraints imposed by their capacities, endowments, technologies, and the legal system, then the equilibrium of an economy can be understood as a state in which each agent, given his subjective ranking of the feasible alternatives, is making an optimal decision, and each optimal decision is both consistent with, and contingent upon, those of all other agents. The optimal decisions of each agent must simultaneously be optimal from the point of view of that agent while being consistent, or compatible, with the optimal decisions of every other agent. In other words, the decisions of all buyers of how much to purchase must be consistent with the decisions of all sellers of how much to sell. But every decision, just like every piece in a jig-saw puzzle, must fit perfectly with every other decision. If any decision is suboptimal, none of the other decisions contingent upon that decision can be optimal.

The idea of an equilibrium as a set of independently conceived, mutually consistent, optimal plans was latent in the earlier notions of equilibrium, but it could only be coherently articulated on the basis of a notion of optimality. Originally framed in terms of utility maximization, the notion was gradually extended to encompass the ideas of cost minimization and profit maximization. The general concept of an optimal plan having been grasped, it then became possible to formulate a generically economic idea of equilibrium, not in terms of a system at rest, but in terms of the mutual consistency of optimal plans. Once equilibrium was conceived as the mutual consistency of optimal plans, the needlessly restrictiveness of defining equilibrium as a system at rest became readily apparent, though it remained little noticed and its significance overlooked for quite some time.

Because the defining characteristics of economic equilibrium are optimality and mutual consistency, change, even non-repetitive change, is not logically excluded from the concept of equilibrium as it was from the idea of an equilibrium as a stationary state. An optimal plan may be carried out, not just at a single moment, but over a period of time. Indeed, the idea of an optimal plan is, at the very least, suggestive of a future that need not simply repeat the present. So, once the idea of equilibrium as a set of mutually consistent optimal plans was grasped, it was to be expected that the concept of equilibrium could be formulated in a manner that accommodates the existence of change and development over time.

But the manner in which change and development could be incorporated into an equilibrium framework of optimality was not entirely straightforward, and it required an extended process of further intellectual reflection to formulate the idea of equilibrium in a way that gives meaning and relevance to the processes of change and development that make the passage of time something more than merely a name assigned to one of the n dimensions in vector space.

This paper examines the slow process by which the concept of equilibrium was transformed from a timeless or static concept into an intertemporal one by focusing on the pathbreaking contribution of F. A. Hayek who first articulated the concept, and exploring the connection between his articulation and three noteworthy, but very different, versions of intertemporal equilibrium: (1) an equilibrium of plans, prices, and expectations, (2) temporary equilibrium, and (3) rational-expectations equilibrium.

But before discussing these three versions of intertemporal equilibrium, I summarize in section two Hayek’s seminal 1937 contribution clarifying the necessary conditions for the existence of an intertemporal equilibrium. Then, in section three, I elaborate on an important, and often neglected, distinction, first stated and clarified by Hayek in his 1937 paper, between perfect foresight and what I call contingently correct foresight. That distinction is essential for an understanding of the distinction between the canonical Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie (ADM) model of general equilibrium, and Roy Radner’s 1972 generalization of that model as an equilibrium of plans, prices and price expectations, which I describe in section four.

Radner’s important generalization of the ADM model captured the spirit and formalized Hayek’s insights about the nature and empirical relevance of intertemporal equilibrium. But to be able to prove the existence of an equilibrium of plans, prices and price expectations, Radner had to make assumptions about agents that Hayek, in his philosophically parsimonious view of human knowledge and reason, had been unwilling to accept. In section five, I explore how J. R. Hicks’s concept of temporary equilibrium, clearly inspired by Hayek, though credited by Hicks to Erik Lindahl, provides an important bridge connecting the pure hypothetical equilibrium of correct expectations and perfect consistency of plans with the messy real world in which expectations are inevitably disappointed and plans routinely – and sometimes radically – revised. The advantage of the temporary-equilibrium framework is to provide the conceptual tools with which to understand how financial crises can occur and how such crises can be propagated and transformed into economic depressions, thereby making possible the kind of business-cycle model that Hayek tried unsuccessfully to create. But just as Hicks unaccountably failed to credit Hayek for the insights that inspired his temporary-equilibrium approach, Hayek failed to see the potential of temporary equilibrium as a modeling strategy that combines the theoretical discipline of the equilibrium method with the reality of expectational inconsistency across individual agents.

In section six, I discuss the Lucasian idea of rational expectations in macroeconomic models, mainly to point out that, in many ways, it simply assumes away the problem of plan expectational consistency with which Hayek, Hicks and Radner and others who developed the idea of intertemporal equilibrium were so profoundly concerned.

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8 Responses to “On Equilibrium in Economic Theory”


  1. 1 Henry Rech April 18, 2018 at 8:38 pm

    David,

    When and where will your paper be published?

  2. 2 Steve Ambler April 19, 2018 at 6:16 am

    David, Just did a search on SSRN and it’s not available there. Will you be posting the revised version somewhere?

  3. 3 Toby April 19, 2018 at 11:25 am

    David, why not start the paper with this paragraph?

    “This paper examines the slow process by which the concept of equilibrium was transformed from a timeless or static concept into an intertemporal one by focusing on the pathbreaking contribution of F. A. Hayek who first articulated the concept, and exploring the connection between his articulation and three noteworthy, but very different, versions of intertemporal equilibrium: (1) an equilibrium of plans, prices, and expectations, (2) temporary equilibrium, and (3) rational-expectations equilibrium.”

    Also wouldn’t it be useful to distinguish between the different kind of models and the purpose with which they are formulated by economists when discussing the concept of equilibrium? The difference between Hayek, Radner, Lucas, and Hicks might in part have to do with the kind of model or the purpose of the model. E.g. compare Samuelson in FAE and Schumpeter in The Theory of Economic Development. Schumpeter seemed to use equilibrium as a form of rational reconstruction and Samuelson wanted to use equilibrium to make refutable predictions. And then there are others whose use of equilibrium is subordinated to making a theoretical point.

  4. 4 C Trombley April 19, 2018 at 11:55 pm

    Possible pre-19th century origin: Hume frequently uses fluid equilibrium metaphors for what we would call equilibria. The two rowers example, for instance, works because it what we would call it’s Nash Equilibria occur when the forces on each side balance. And, of course, there’s the famous metaphor for the balance of trade:

    “All water, wherever it communicates, remains always at a level.”

  5. 5 JKH April 20, 2018 at 3:33 pm

    I think the nature of the difference between concepts of physics equilibrium and economics equilibrium could use more explication up front.

  6. 6 Spencer Bradley Hall April 22, 2018 at 10:19 am

    Reductio ad absurdum. Unless savings are expeditiously activated, and put back to work (completing the circuit income and transactions velocity of savings), a dampening economic impact is exerted, a deceleration in money velocity. Never are the commercial banks intermediaries (conduits between savers and borrowers), in the savings-investment process.

    Take the “Marshmallow Test”: (1) banks create new money (macro-economics), and incongruously (2) banks loan out the savings that are placed with them (micro-economics). This is the sole source of both stagflation and secular strangulation.

    Contrary to Keynes’ “optical illusion”, the Gurley-Shaw thesis, that there is no difference between money and liquid assets, all DFI-held savings are un-used and un-spent, lost to both consumption and investment.

  7. 7 Spencer Bradley Hall April 22, 2018 at 10:27 am

    Perpetual economic motion is putting savings back to work, ergo, the US Golden Age in Economics, George Baily’s: “It’s a Wonderful Life”.


  1. 1 My Paper on Hayek, Hicks and Radner and 3 Equilibrium Concepts Now Available on SSRN | Uneasy Money Trackback on July 30, 2018 at 3:56 pm

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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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