Posts Tagged 'Ronald Reagan'

Does Economic Theory Entail or Support Free-Market Ideology?

A few weeks ago, via Twitter, Beatrice Cherrier solicited responses to this query from Dina Pomeranz

It is a serious — and a disturbing – question, because it suggests that the free-market ideology which is a powerful – though not necessarily the most powerful — force in American right-wing politics, and probably more powerful in American politics than in the politics of any other country, is the result of how economics was taught in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1960s at UCLA, where I was an undergrad (AB 1970) and a graduate student (PhD 1977), and at Chicago.

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, free-market economics had been largely marginalized; Keynes and his successors were ascendant. But thanks to Milton Friedman and his compatriots at a few other institutions of higher learning, especially UCLA, the power of microeconomics (aka price theory) to explain a very broad range of economic and even non-economic phenomena was becoming increasingly appreciated by economists. A very broad range of advances in economic theory on a number of fronts — economics of information, industrial organization and antitrust, law and economics, public choice, monetary economics and economic history — supported by the award of the Nobel Prize to Hayek in 1974 and Friedman in 1976, greatly elevated the status of free-market economics just as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were coming into office in 1979 and 1981.

The growing prestige of free-market economics was used by Thatcher and Reagan to bolster the credibility of their policies, especially when the recessions caused by their determination to bring double-digit inflation down to about 4% annually – a reduction below 4% a year then being considered too extreme even for Thatcher and Reagan – were causing both Thatcher and Reagan to lose popular support. But the growing prestige of free-market economics and economists provided some degree of intellectual credibility and weight to counter the barrage of criticism from their opponents, enabling both Thatcher and Reagan to use Friedman and Hayek, Nobel Prize winners with a popular fan base, as props and ornamentation under whose reflected intellectual glory they could take cover.

And so after George Stigler won the Nobel Prize in 1982, he was invited to the White House in hopes that, just in time, he would provide some additional intellectual star power for a beleaguered administration about to face the 1982 midterm elections with an unemployment rate over 10%. Famously sharp-tongued, and far less a team player than his colleague and friend Milton Friedman, Stigler refused to play his role as a prop and a spokesman for the administration when asked to meet reporters following his celebratory visit with the President, calling the 1981-82 downturn a “depression,” not a mere “recession,” and dismissing supply-side economics as “a slogan for packaging certain economic ideas rather than an orthodox economic category.” That Stiglerian outburst of candor brought the press conference to an unexpectedly rapid close as the Nobel Prize winner was quickly ushered out of the shouting range of White House reporters. On the whole, however, Republican politicians have not been lacking of economists willing to lend authority and intellectual credibility to Republican policies and to proclaim allegiance to the proposition that the market is endowed with magical properties for creating wealth for the masses.

Free-market economics in the 1960s and 1970s made a difference by bringing to light the many ways in which letting markets operate freely, allowing output and consumption decisions to be guided by market prices, could improve outcomes for all people. A notable success of Reagan’s free-market agenda was lifting, within days of his inauguration, all controls on the prices of domestically produced crude oil and refined products, carryovers of the disastrous wage-and-price controls imposed by Nixon in 1971, but which, following OPEC’s quadrupling of oil prices in 1973, neither Nixon, Ford, nor Carter had dared to scrap. Despite a political consensus against lifting controls, a consensus endorsed, or at least not strongly opposed, by a surprisingly large number of economists, Reagan, following the advice of Friedman and other hard-core free-market advisers, lifted the controls anyway. The Iran-Iraq war having started just a few months earlier, the Saudi oil minister was predicting that the price of oil would soon rise from $40 to at least $50 a barrel, and there were few who questioned his prediction. One opponent of decontrol described decontrol as writing a blank check to the oil companies and asking OPEC to fill in the amount. So the decision to decontrol oil prices was truly an act of some political courage, though it was then characterized as an act of blind ideological faith, or a craven sellout to Big Oil. But predictions of another round of skyrocketing oil prices, similar to the 1973-74 and 1978-79 episodes, were refuted almost immediately, international crude-oil prices falling steadily from $40/barrel in January to about $33/barrel in June.

Having only a marginal effect on domestic gasoline prices, via an implicit subsidy to imported crude oil, controls on domestic crude-oil prices were primarily a mechanism by which domestic refiners could extract a share of the rents that otherwise would have accrued to domestic crude-oil producers. Because additional crude-oil imports increased a domestic refiner’s allocation of “entitlements” to cheap domestic crude oil, thereby reducing the net cost of foreign crude oil below the price paid by the refiner, one overall effect of the controls was to subsidize the importation of crude oil, notwithstanding the goal loudly proclaimed by all the Presidents overseeing the controls: to achieve US “energy independence.” In addition to increasing the demand for imported crude oil, the controls reduced the elasticity of refiners’ demand for imported crude, controls and “entitlements” transforming a given change in the international price of crude into a reduced change in the net cost to domestic refiners of imported crude, thereby raising OPEC’s profit-maximizing price for crude oil. Once domestic crude oil prices were decontrolled, market forces led almost immediately to reductions in the international price of crude oil, so the coincidence of a fall in oil prices with Reagan’s decision to lift all price controls on crude oil was hardly accidental.

The decontrol of domestic petroleum prices was surely as pure a victory for, and vindication of, free-market economics as one could have ever hoped for [personal disclosure: I wrote a book for The Independent Institute, a free-market think tank, Politics, Prices and Petroleum, explaining in rather tedious detail many of the harmful effects of price controls on crude oil and refined products]. Unfortunately, the coincidence of free-market ideology with good policy is not necessarily as comprehensive as Friedman and his many acolytes, myself included, had assumed.

To be sure, price-fixing is almost always a bad idea, and attempts at price-fixing almost always turn out badly, providing lots of ammunition for critics of government intervention of all kinds. But the implicit assumption underlying the idea that freely determined market prices optimally guide the decentralized decisions of economic agents is that the private costs and benefits taken into account by economic agents in making and executing their plans about how much to buy and sell and produce closely correspond to the social costs and benefits that an omniscient central planner — if such a being actually did exist — would take into account in making his plans. But in the real world, the private costs and benefits considered by individual agents when making their plans and decisions often don’t reflect all relevant costs and benefits, so the presumption that market prices determined by the elemental forces of supply and demand always lead to the best possible outcomes is hardly ironclad, as we – i.e., those of us who are not philosophical anarchists – all acknowledge in practice, and in theory, when we affirm that competing private armies and competing private police forces and competing judicial systems would not provide for common defense and for domestic tranquility more effectively than our national, state, and local governments, however imperfectly, provide those essential services. The only question is where and how to draw the ever-shifting lines between those decisions that are left mostly or entirely to the voluntary decisions and plans of private economic agents and those decisions that are subject to, and heavily — even mainly — influenced by, government rule-making, oversight, or intervention.

I didn’t fully appreciate how widespread and substantial these deviations of private costs and benefits from social costs and benefits can be even in well-ordered economies until early in my blogging career, when it occurred to me that the presumption underlying that central pillar of modern right-wing, free-market ideology – that reducing marginal income tax rates increases economic efficiency and promotes economic growth with little or no loss in tax revenue — implicitly assumes that all taxable private income corresponds to the output of goods and services whose private values and costs equal their social values and costs.

But one of my eminent UCLA professors, Jack Hirshleifer, showed that this presumption is subject to a huge caveat, because insofar as some people can earn income by exploiting their knowledge advantages over the counterparties with whom they trade, incentives are created to seek the kinds of knowledge that can be exploited in trades with less-well informed counterparties. The incentive to search for, and exploit, knowledge advantages implies excessive investment in the acquisition of exploitable knowledge, the private gain from acquiring such knowledge greatly exceeding the net gain to society from the acquisition of such knowledge, inasmuch as gains accruing to the exploiter are largely achieved at the expense of the knowledge-disadvantaged counterparties with whom they trade.

For example, substantial resources are now almost certainly wasted by various forms of financial research aiming to gain information that would have been revealed in due course anyway slightly sooner than the knowledge is gained by others, so that the better-informed traders can profit by trading with less knowledgeable counterparties. Similarly, the incentive to exploit knowledge advantages encourages the creation of financial products and structuring other kinds of transactions designed mainly to capitalize on and exploit individual weaknesses in underestimating the probability of adverse events (e.g., late repayment penalties, gambling losses when the house knows the odds better than most gamblers do). Even technical and inventive research encouraged by the potential to patent those discoveries may induce too much research activity by enabling patent-protected monopolies to exploit discoveries that would have been made eventually even without the monopoly rents accruing to the patent holders.

The list of examples of transactions that are profitable for one side only because the other side is less well-informed than, or even misled by, his counterparty could be easily multiplied. Because much, if not most, of the highest incomes earned, are associated with activities whose private benefits are at least partially derived from losses to less well-informed counterparties, it is not a stretch to suspect that reducing marginal income tax rates may have led resources to be shifted from activities in which private benefits and costs approximately equal social benefits and costs to more lucrative activities in which the private benefits and costs are very different from social benefits and costs, the benefits being derived largely at the expense of losses to others.

Reducing marginal tax rates may therefore have simultaneously reduced economic efficiency, slowed economic growth and increased the inequality of income. I don’t deny that this hypothesis is largely speculative, but the speculative part is strictly about the magnitude, not the existence, of the effect. The underlying theory is completely straightforward.

So there is no logical necessity requiring that right-wing free-market ideological policy implications be inferred from orthodox economic theory. Economic theory is a flexible set of conceptual tools and models, and the policy implications following from those models are sensitive to the basic assumptions and initial conditions specified in those models, as well as the value judgments informing an evaluation of policy alternatives. Free-market policy implications require factual assumptions about low transactions costs and about the existence of a low-cost process of creating and assigning property rights — including what we now call intellectual property rights — that imply that private agents perceive costs and benefits that closely correspond to social costs and benefits. Altering those assumptions can radically change the policy implications of the theory.

The best example I can find to illustrate that point is another one of my UCLA professors, the late Earl Thompson, who was certainly the most relentless economic reductionist whom I ever met, perhaps the most relentless whom I can even think of. Despite having a Harvard Ph.D. when he arrived back at UCLA as an assistant professor in the early 1960s, where he had been an undergraduate student of Armen Alchian, he too started out as a pro-free-market Friedman acolyte. But gradually adopting the Buchanan public-choice paradigm – Nancy Maclean, please take note — of viewing democratic politics as a vehicle for advancing the self-interest of agents participating in the political process (marketplace), he arrived at increasingly unorthodox policy conclusions to the consternation and dismay of many of his free-market friends and colleagues. Unlike most public-choice theorists, Earl viewed the political marketplace as a largely efficient mechanism for achieving collective policy goals. The main force tending to make the political process inefficient, Earl believed, was ideologically driven politicians pursuing ideological aims rather than the interests of their constituents, a view that seems increasingly on target as our political process becomes simultaneously increasingly ideological and increasingly dysfunctional.

Until Earl’s untimely passing in 2010, I regarded his support of a slew of interventions in the free-market economy – mostly based on national-defense grounds — as curiously eccentric, and I am still inclined to disagree with many of them. But my point here is not to argue whether Earl was right or wrong on specific policies. What matters in the context of the question posed by Dina Pomeranz is the economic logic that gets you from a set of facts and a set of behavioral and causality assumptions to a set of policy conclusion. What is important to us as economists has to be the process not the conclusion. There is simply no presumption that the economic logic that takes you from a set of reasonably accurate factual assumptions and a set of plausible behavioral and causality assumptions has to take you to the policy conclusions advocated by right-wing, free-market ideologues, or, need I add, to the policy conclusions advocated by anti-free-market ideologues of either left or right.

Certainly we are all within our rights to advocate for policy conclusions that are congenial to our own political preferences, but our obligation as economists is to acknowledge the extent to which a policy conclusion follows from a policy preference rather than from strict economic logic.

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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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