The Law of Demand in Action

On Monday, Virgina began imposing flexible tolls on the I-66 stretch between the Beltway and Washington, DC.  I-66 is one of the most congested roads in the nation during rush hour and the goal of these tolls was to have drivers look for alternative routes so that the interstate remained relatively free-flowing for those who needed to get into the city quicker.


Lo and behold, it worked:

Traffic moved smoothly throughout the morning, and WTOP’s traffic center reported that the number of drivers on I-66 declined compared to typical Monday morning volume.

“There were no delays inside the Beltway; that’s the point of congestion pricing — to keep the carpools and paying solo drivers moving. As demand goes up, the price does too,” said WTOP’s traffic reporter Dave Dildine.

VDOT reported that the average speed on I-66 during the morning rush hour was 57 mph, up from 37 mph at the same time a year ago.

The George Washington Parkway absorbed the brunt of the traffic, with Virginia Route 123 and U.S. 50 picking up extra drivers as well.

As price rises, quantity demanded falls as people seek substitutes.  Those who are willing to pay the higher price are those who value the resource most highly.

There has been a backlash, of course.  No one wants to pay a $40 toll one-way.  There have already been calls to cap the tolls.  How does the state respond?

“If we don’t get the tolling right, all we’re going to do is clog up those lanes again, and so that’s why the algorithm is multifaceted. It may change, we’ll study it. But in terms of moving traffic, it looks like it’s doing its job,” [Virginia Transportation Secretary] Aubrey Layne said.

“I know all the publicity is ‘Oh, $40,’ but the whole idea is for the person to make a rational decision. ‘Is it worth [it for] me to pay this to use it or is another method better?’ If you start limiting that, you impact the entire network,” Layne said of requests to cap tolls or make other dramatic changes.

Price goes up, quantity demanded falls.  You put a price ceiling on the market, you “impact the entire network.”

Good to see some Econ 101 knowledge on the part of the Transportation Secretary.

Taking Models Too Literally

At Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux points us to a wise quote from Milton Friedman.  Below is a comment I left on that post, expanded:


In the highly stylized world of models, where information is perfect, markets are costless, where all preferences are known, where government is costless, and things never change, it is trivially easy to come up with exceptions to free trade and free enterprise. Shift a curve here, refuse to count costs there, and boom! a theoretical reason why tariffs or export subsidies can be beneficial.

However, when those stylized assumptions are relaxed, in other words in a more realistic world where information is imperfect, markets have transaction costs, where preferences are revealed, where governments have administration and operation costs, and where things change, these theoretical reasons disappear like a shadow in the sun. Conversely, the case for unilateral free trade becomes stronger, since it is not dependent upon those assumptions the way the other theoretical cases are; free trade is formulated under those assumptions, yes, but it is robust to movements away. Things like optimal tariffs are formulated under those assumptions but are not robust to movements away from those assumptions.

The true test of any theory is not how well it holds up in perfect conditions, or how well does it perform in the circumstances in which it was conceived, but how robust it is to movements away from those idealized conditions.  Economists from Adam Smith to Harold Demsetz and beyond have warned us against these nirvana fallacies.  True knowledge is gained when we stress-test our models and see how robust they are.  Testing this robustness gave us such fields as Public Choice, Law & Economics, Political Economy, Money and Banking, and the like.

Economic models serve a purpose: they are ways of thinking, methods of analyzing phenomena. However, they are not descriptive of reality. They were never meant to be. When basing policy off of those models, the policy-proponents are making a grave mistake: they are moving their models away from the abstract and into the descriptive. In other words, they are taking their models too literally. This literal interpretation of models can be extremely dangerous.

Hard Coase, Soft Coase

Over the course of this semester, I have been working on two research projects which parallel each other very closely.  Both look at water market exchanges (ie, people who buy and sell water), one from a Coasian perspective (ie, how changes in legislation affect markets), and the other from an Ostrom/Ellickson perspective (ie, how social norms and mores affect markets).  Both these papers are being finished up and I will post links to them here, but there is an interesting connection between the two: both forms of bargaining are “bargaining under the shadow of the law.”

“Bargaining under the shadow of the law” typically refers to working within a framework established by a court (eg, how a court determines property rights).  This is the “hard Coase” theorem.  However, “law” need not apply to just courts; indeed, it does not.  There are general rules, or laws, that develop “[From] our continual observations upon the conduct of others,” to help us “form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or to be avoided,” (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Section III, Chapter IV, Paragraph 9).  These rules are the social norms and customs, what the Romans called mos, or “a guiding rule of life” (see On Duty by Cicero, translated by Benjamin Newton, specifically Newton’s glossary at the end of the book).  These rules, customs, laws govern our behavior and our interactions just as much as legislation does (perhaps even more so) since we face not jail or prison if we violate these rules, but censure, disapprobation, and demerit from our fellow man; extreme cases could result in isolation from the community, a terrible punishment, indeed, given that man is a social creature.  It is these rules, this law, that I refer to as “soft Coase.”

In both the hard Coase and the soft Coase situations, Coase’s arguments about bargaining hold generally true: changes in the law affect how we behave and interact with one another.  This, in turn, affects how we address externalities and other economic behavior.

The Coase/Ostrom/Ellickson look at collective behavior, sprinkled liberally with Alchian/Demsetz insight and Tulluck/Buchanan public choice theory, is an important way of exploring the market process.

The Problem with Optimal

In economics, the concept of “optimal” is often used: optimal taxation, optimal pollution, optimal consumption, etc.  Optimal, in an economic sense, just means marginal benefit equals marginal cost.  For individual actors, such a definition and usage makes sense.  However, problems arise when trying to generalize optimality over collective units.

With optimality, it is important to remember a key characteristic about benefits and costs: they are subjective.  All value, whether a benefit or a cost, is subjective.  Therefore, an individual can optimize his behavior by aligning his subjective marginal benefits and subjective marginal costs.  But this is not true with collective action.  When analyzing collective action, the point of view of the analyzing person comes into play.  Collective agencies cannot have subjective feelings about things, they cannot optimize; the one who does the analysis optimizes based on his/her subjective values.

Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to talk about the optimization of collective units in the same way it does to talk about the optimization of individual units.  Concepts like “optimal tariffs,” “optimal taxation,” etc., lose their meaning when we start considering subjective costs.  It comes down very heavily to the subjectivity of the person who is doing the calculating, what he/she believes the costs/benefits are.  When that individual is responsible (ie, they pay the cost if they are incorrect) for the results of their actions (eg, the owner of a firm), then such subjectivity is not an issue; they are properly incentivized to make sure their subjective understanding aligns with their collective goal.  When the person is not responsible (eg, government agents), then such optimization becomes…problematic.

The Hayek Memorial Pathway


The picture above is what I like to call the Hayek Memorial Pathway located on GMU’s Fairfax campus.  This pathway is the result of thousands of students deciding to go the shortest path rather than the long paved path.  In other words, this path is a spontaneous order; the result of human action but no one person planned such a path.


At Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux has a blog post discussing the rather frequent argument used by some protectionists who object to foreigners owning American assets.  Don writes:

One of the facts that I pointed out [in Don’s recent debate with Ian Fletcher] is that a U.S. trade deficit is good for the U.S. insofar as such a deficit means that capital is flowing into the U.S. and creates new businesses (or bolsters existing businesses).  Think, for example, of BMW’s factory in Greer, South Carolina, or of any of the many Ikea stores across the United States.

In reply, Fletcher agreed that such investment is productive, and even that it’s beneficial for Americans.  “However,” he replied (and here I quote from memory), “it would be even better if those assets were owned by Americans.”

The core error in Fletcher’s reply is the assumption that the productive assets that are brought into being by foreign investment would exist in the absence of foreign investment.  Fletcher assumes, for example, that the successful Ikea store in Dale City, Virginia, would exist in the absence of Ikea’s decision to build and operate a store there.  Fletcher assumes, in other words, that the ownership of an asset is economically distinct from the creation of an asset.  But this assumption is plainly mistaken.  Nothing prevented Americans from building a large furniture (or other kind of) store on that very location before Ikea built its store there – nothing, that is, other than the failure of any Americans to have the vision or the willingness to do so.  Ikea’s entrepreneurial vision and willingness to take the risk of building a store in Dale City added tothe capital stock in America (and in the world).

To build upon Don’s point:

People like Fletcher treat assets and resources as if they are mana from Heaven, that these factories and stores and the like just fall to the Earth, waiting to be claimed by whoever walks by.  But goods and services are brought into existence and traded through human action. It’s man, not God, that transforms and produces. God just gave us the faculties to do so.

However, there is also a crucial element of what Israel Kirzner called “surprise” needed.  That is, being aware when an opportunity presents itself.  Allow me to explain via metaphor:

Two shoe salesmen land in a foreign country. Both notice no one in this country wears shoes. The first calls back to headquarters: “I’m headed home. There are no sales opportunities here. No one wears shoes!” The second calls back to headquarters: “Send me more people. There are lots of sales opportunities here. No one wears shoes!”

The point of this story is that entrepreneurial activity includes “surprise,” that is: being aware of an opportunity that presents itself even when not actively searching for it.  One of the salesmen, the one who thought no opportunity existed, had no such element of surprise.  The other did.

There’s no reason to assume that if Ikea hadn’t shown up, someone else would have. This isn’t a “search cost” thing (ie, other people did not simply look hard enough and Ikea just looked harder/longer), but rather an entrepreneurial surprise thing. Ikea spotted an opportunity and invested. It’s probable no one else would have spotted (or, at least spotted at the same time) this opportunity.

But let’s say more. Let’s say that some American firm did spot the same opportunity at the same time and were competing against Ikea for the same resources (land, labor, etc). Would it be safe to say that the community would be better off if the assets were owned by the American firm rather than Ikea? Not necessarily. Given that Ikea won the bidding war, that probably means Ikea had a higher value on the resources than the other firm. This, in turn, means that Ikea can likely produce more value out of the resource, which means providing value to the consumers of furniture. By being more efficient (that is, using fewer inputs to achieve the same or greater outputs), Ikea produces more value for the community than the other firm that lost the bid.

Economic growth occurs through the mechanisms of discovery and surprise (a la Kirzner) and resources going to their most valued uses.  We cannot take for granted either one of these processes.

What I’ve Been Reading

The following is a short list of some of the non-technical books I have been reading over the past few months:

The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Adam Smith): A classic of classical liberal philosophy

The Man and the Statesman (Frederic Bastiat): The collected correspondence and several articles by the noted French economist and statesman

The Firm, the Market, and the Law (Ronald Coase): A collection of the famous essays and notes/responses by Coase on their receptions and interpretations

The Calculus of Consent (James Buchanan & Gordon Tullock): The foundations of public choice theory

Human Action (Ludwig von Mises): A classic work on economics and human interaction

Free Market Environmentalism (Donald Leal and Terry Anderson): Exploring environmental issues through the eyes of price theory

Governing the Commons (Elinor Ostrom): How people come together to solve commons problems

Order without Law (Robert Ellickson): A similar story to Ostrom: how people come together to deal with externalities without the state

De Officiis (Cicero, translated by Benjamin Newton): a classic of moral philosophy