Be Skeptical of Regulations Because Knowing the Market is Difficult (Even for Experts)

Given how much money business consultants make, one would think they have pretty good insight into a given industry or market.  And sure, they may have lots of information unavailable to most people, but does that necessarily imply they are better?

All data received, we must remember, is context-dependent.  Data never, ever, speak for themselves.  Interpreting and developing models for given market structures is extremely difficult in this regard because it requires certain assumptions.

Consider the following real-world example: when the guys from Xerox (the copy machine company) wanted to start selling their machines to businesses, they met stiff resistance from consultants and financial backers.  “Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars on a copy machine when we have a perfectly good, cheap substitute: carbon paper?  Copy machines will never sell.”  Prima facie, this criticism seemed legitimate.  Firms and experts observed secretaries and typists using carbon paper to make copies for distribution.  There didn’t seem to be any demand for copy machines.

Undeterred, the Xerox guys pressed on.  They decided to give companies the hardware, toner, and paper for free up until the first 2500 copies per month.  Firms jumped at the idea.  After all, how were they ever going to use 2500 copies a month?

Well, the rest is history.  Xerox is still around.  Carbon paper is not.

Why?  What did the experts get wrong?

They got wrong the scope of the market.  Copy machines weren’t for people writing letters.  They were for people receiving and distributing letters!  The market for copy machines was for the owner who got a letter from his lawyer who wanted to distribute it to the rest of the team.  It was for the product manager who needed to itemize his costs for different departments.  Etc etc.

There is an implicit conceit in economics that we know the market, the shapes of demand and supply curves.  But the reality is, we never do.  We have only data points in a certain context which may or may not provide useful information about other contexts.  This implicit conceit becomes vitally important when we start talking about regulation or “optimal taxes,” which require knowledge of the scope and shape of the market.  Knowledge we simply do not have.

Cooperation, Coordination, and the Law

Markets, by definition, rely on cooperation and coordination.  Buyers must cooperate with sellers in order to exchange; the seller must offer something the buyer wants and the buyer must offer something the seller wants.  Only through this cooperation can a trade occur.

Likewise, buyers and sellers must coordinate.  The buyer must be in the same place as the seller*.  A coordinating agent (ie a middleman) may sometimes be used to bring buyers and sellers together (think, for example, a realtor that brings home buyers to the home seller).  Similar to cooperation, buyers and sellers must coordinate on what to exchange and what their expectations are.

Cooperation and coordination are vital to the market process.

Economic texts tend to focus primarily on the coordinating and cooperation aspects of the market process, as they rightfully should, but a key factor is left out of the equation; that factor is the law.

Law here refers to the “rules of the game.”  Law is both written and unwritten; it is the set of rules, customs, norms, etc that develop through people’s interactions with one another.  Law, while shaped by peoples’ interactions, also shapes those interactions.

Law provides a useful form of coordination: who can sell what, what/how promises should be kept, what remedies exist for lawbreaking, that sort of thing.  Without law, and especially property rights, the coordination necessary for the market process would break down.

Consider, for example, property rights.  Property rights are a form of law; they may be formal (in the case of a deed registered at a local governmental authority) or it may be informal.  Property rights allow the market process to occur by defining who can trade what.  In other words, who owns the right to the use of a piece of property.  Ultimately what is being traded in any situation is a bundle of property rights.  If these are not clearly defined, then folks cannot know how to trade.  There cannot be coordination nor cooperation in this case.

Clearly-defined property rights are important to market transactions, but no property right will always and everywhere be perfectly clear.  We live in a world of “incomplete contracts.”  Not all possible situations can be anticipated and to write and understand property rights that take into account all possible conflicts is both physically impossible and economically wasteful (marginal cost exceeds marginal benefit).  In these ambiguities is where law also helps the market process.  Law, preferably by drawing on established rules of adjudication and precedent, can resolve these conflicts and allow the market process to function better (this was one of the great insights of Ronald Coase).

Law, of course, can have its own problems.  Just like any institution (including the market), it can be abused.  But it is vital to the coordination and cooperation functions of the market process.  Without law, trade cannot exist.  Only war.

*This place need not be physical

Adam Smith was More Preceptive Than We Give Him Credit For

My previous post sported a quotation from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  As I was going through that section again, I noticed the editor’s footnote I had overlooked last time.  It pointed me to Book IV, Chapter IX of the Wealth of Nations where Smith makes the following argument (Pages 680-681):

Except with Japan, the Chinese carry on, themselves, and in their bottoms, little or no foreign trade; and it is only into one or two ports of their kingdom that they even admit the ships of foreign nations.  Foreign trade, therefore, is, in China, every way confined within a much narrower circle than that to which it would naturally extend itself, if more freedom was allowed to it, either in their own ships, of in those of foreign nations.

The perfection of manufacturing industry, it must be remembered, depends altogether upon the division of labour; and the degree to which the division of labour can be introduced into any manufacture, is necessarily regulated, it has
already been shown, by the extent of the market.  But the great extent of the empire of China, the vast multitude of its inhabitants, the variety of climate, and consequently of productions in its different provinces, and the easy communication by means of water carriage between the greater part of them, render the home market of that country of so great extent, as to be alone sufficient to support very great manufactures, and to admit of very considerable subdivisions of labour. The home market of China is, perhaps, in extent, not much inferior to the market of all the different countries of Europe put together.  A more extensive foreign trade, however, which to this great home market added the foreign market of all the rest of the world; especially if any considerable part of this trade was carried on in Chinese ships; could scarce fail to increase very much the manufactures of China, and to improve very much the productive powers of its manufacturing industry, as by a more extensive navigation, the Chinese would naturally learn the art of using and constructing themselves all the different machines made use of in other countries, as well as q the other improvements of art and industry which are practised in all the different parts of the world. Upon their present plan they have little opportunity of improving themselves by the example of any other nation; except that of the Japanese.

The tl;dr version: Smith argued (along the lines of the QOD) that China, under their current regime of laws and institutions, has maxed out their ability to grow.  China has a great ability to manufacture, and yet a poorer than Europe.  Why?  Smith predicts that it is because of their disdain for foreign trade.  If they were to open their markets to foreign trade, China would become considerably more wealthy.

We are blessed, in the 21st Century, to be able to test Smith’s hypothesis.

Prior to the 1970’s and 1980’s, China was very much anti-foreign trade.  The desire to be self-sufficient and reject all “Western” influences was strong (eg the Great Leap Forward) and China was abjectly poor.  In 1981, approximately 81% of China’s population lived in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 a day).  Their economy was stagnant.

However, beginning in the 1980s and accelerating in the 2000’s, China opened itself up to international trade.  According to the Economic Freedom of the Word report, China dramatically reduced tariffs and more moderately reduced non-tariff barriers to trade between 1980 and 2015 (most recent data).  Coincidently, China’s growth skyrocketed.  After hovering around 0% for the 60’s and 70’s, China started to grow consistently at 8+%.  Poverty fell to about 12% by 2010.  China’s average standard of living (as measured by GDP per capita) while still quite low, is quickly converging to the world average.

Adam Smith appears to have been quite right.

On a related note, this paper from the Journal of Legal Studies (gated) is another example of the percipient nature of Adam Smith

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…comes from page 111-112 Adam Smith’s 1776 masterpiece, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations:

But perhaps no country has ever yet arrived at this degree of opulence. China seems to have been long stationary, and had probably long ago acquired that full complement of riches which is consistent with the nature of its laws and institutions. But this complement may be much inferior to what, with other laws and institutions, the nature of its soil, climate, and situation might admit of. A country which neglects or despises foreign commerce, and which admits the vessels of foreign nations into one or two of its ports only, cannot transact the same quantity of business which it might do with different lawsand institutions. In a country too, where, though the rich or the owners of large capitals enjoy a good deal of security, the poor or the owners of small capitals enjoy scarce any, but are liable, under the pretence of justice, to be pillaged and plundered at any time by the inferior mandarines, the quantity of stock employed in all the different branches of business transacted within it, can never be equal to what the nature and extent of that business might admit. In every different branch, the oppression of the poor must establish the monopoly of the rich, who, by engrossing the whole trade to themselves, will be able to make very large profits.

JMM:  The nature of the institutions and the legislation that is enforced in a given country has a lot to do with the potential growth of the economy.  Institutions and legislation that protect and expand the scope of markets, in other words, institutions and legislation that allow human cooperation to flourish, will bring opulence.  Conversely, those that reduce the scope of markets will bring stagnation.

Law Written By Experts Is No Law

In a discussion on jurisprudence and hate speech legislation on Facebook, commentator David Benson wrote:

[The arbitrary nature of defining hate speech] why I didn’t trust a novice like myself to come up with the wording. I DO, however, think this issue has gotten to the point where some steps need to be taken.

To understand the difficulty with this statement, we must first understand what, exactly, law’s purpose is.

The purpose of law is to govern human behavior.  This purpose appears to me to be so self-evident and to hardly require evidence.  However, I will explain further.  Any form of law, whether it be issues of justice (ie “don’t mess with other people’s stuff,”) or matters of ethics, seeks to govern human behavior: how we act in given situations, how we interact with each other, how we resolve conflicts, etc.  For example, there is law regarding behavior at a funeral: it is proper to cry or be sad/somber.  To laugh or be merry is generally considered inappropriate.  This is an example of an ethical law governing human behavior.

If the purpose of law is to govern human behavior, it follows that law should be simple.  Complex or complicated law cannot govern as effectively as simple law.  With simple law, it is easy to determine when violations happen, and more importantly, it is easy to determine how to behave.  If law is complicated, then such determinations are far more difficult to make.  And this matter is doubly important for matters of jurisprudence and legislation, where breaking the rule leads to a loss of liberty.  This is why the rules of mere justice, the fundamental arena of jurisprudence and legislation, are the most simple.

Which brings us back to David’s comment I highlighted at the beginning.  If legislation defining hate speech cannot be defined by novices, then it is destined to be bad legislation.  If it cannot be defined by novices, it cannot be understood by novices, and thus it cannot be practiced by novices.  This would leave a wide area of grey between what is punishable and what is not, determined by experts but not by novices.  And, since the vast majority of people are novices in matters of legislation and jurisprudence, such complicated law would naturally harm the vast majority of people, even if it exists for nominally virtuous reasons.

 

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…comes from page 198 of the Liberty Fund edition of James Buchanan’s 1975 book The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan:

It is unrealistic to assume that elected officials who occupy executive and legislative positions of responsibility have no personal preferences about the overall size of the public sector, its sources of revenue, and, most important, the particular components of public outlays.  A person who is genuinely indifferent in all these respects would not be attracted to politics, either as a profession or an advocation.  Politicians are likely to be those persons who do have personal preferences about such matters and who are attracted to politics precisely because they think that, though politics, they can exercise some influence over collective outcomes.  Once this basic, if simple, point is recognized, it is easy to see that budgetary results will not fully reflect voters’ preferences, even of those who are members of the effective coalition that achieves victory for its own candidate or party.

This simple, if basic, point is one often forgotten in discussions of the political.  Politicians are assumed to either be guided by the Will of the People and The People just need to be educated on an issue, or politicians are guided by experts, and it’s just a matter of getting the right experts to the right ears, or politicians are influenced by dollars and donations, and it’s just a matter of limiting money in politics.  But none of these assumptions ascribe any agency to politicians.  In short, they forget politicians are people too, fashioned from the same clay as the rest of us.

Surprise!

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.