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.

Institutional Diversity and Trade

A popular argument against free trade is that the logic of trade requires identical (or at least similar) rules/institutions between the trading parties.  Dani Rodrick recently made this argument, and you can see Don Boudreaux’s response here.  There is absolutely nothing in the logic or argument for free trade that necessitates similar institutions between the partners.  Only one thing is required: both parties benefit.

However, for both parties to benefit from trade, they must inherently be different from each other.  If the two were identical, then no trade would ever occur.  Diversity in tastes, in endowments, in incomes, even in rules, are desirable and, to differing degrees, necessary.  The idea that trading partners must be similar to one another, including in their belief structures, undermines the logic of trade.

Moving from the individual level to the national level, institutional diversity helps show actual costs and benefits of various institutions.  For example, if the whole world were as protectionist as Red China in the 1950’s, no one would know what a horrible scheme that is as the whole world would have looked like massive starvation.  Fortunately, the Chinese realized their mistake and have become rapidly more open-trade, thus leading to their huge economic gains lately, but it was the fact that institutional diversity existed that such folly was understood.  If a given national government decides not to allow peaceful trading between their citizens and another group of citizens, then their citizens are harmed and the true costs of their institutions, as well as their true benefits, are not known.

Diversity is a necessary ingredient of trade.

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is found in a letter from Frederic Bastiat to Richard Cobden (leader of the Anti-Corn Law League) dated 8 April 1845.  The letter can be found on page 58 of the Liberty Fund’s collection of Bastiat’s correspondence, The Man and the Statesman (emphasis added):


Since you have permitted me to write to you, I will reply to your kind letter dates 12th December last.  I have been discussing the printing of the translation [of Cobden’s speeches and pamphlets] I told you about with M. Guillaumin, a bookseller in Paris.

The book is entitled “Cobden and the League, or the Campiagn in England in Favor of Free Trade.”  I have taken the liberty of using your name for the following reasons: I could not entitle this work “The Anti-Corn Law League.”  Apart from the fact that this would have a barborous sound for French ears, it would have brought to mind a limited conception of the project. It would have presented the question as purely English, whereas it is a humanitarian one, the most notably so of all those which have brought campaigning to our century.

By presenting the issue of free trade as a humanitarian issue rather than a sectarian or nationalist issue, he demonstrates the universality of the principles of free trade.  Many opponents of free trade like to argue that free trade is conditional.  They may argue that free trade requires “transnational rule-making institutions.”  Or that trade only is good if one nation (ie the nation of the speaker) benefits.  Or that free trade needs to be “fair” (whatever that means).  But Bastiat makes no such prerequisites.  Bastiat and Cobden both argue that free trade is not an English concern, not a French concern, not an American concern, but a human concern.

The Anti-Corn Law League that Cobden was part of was founded in opposition to the Corn Laws, a series of mercantilist legislation that raised the price of food within Great Britain by restricting imports.  Given this legislation occurred at the same time as the Irish Potato Famine, the Corn Law, by artificially increasing scarcity of food, likely caused many deaths in Ireland from the famine.  The Corn Laws contributed to a humanitarian crisis.  We are seeing similar situations going on in Puerto Rico, where scarcity is increased because of the Jones Act, and Houston and Florida where scarcity is increased because of anti-price-gouging legislation.  Free trade is a humanitarian concern, not a sectarian concern.

Let’s Talk Taxes

Seemingly every 2-4 years, the Federal Government starts talking tax reform.  The same talking points are repeated over and over: high tax, low tax, red tax, blue tax.  But from an economic standpoint, taxes are much more subtle.

The standard economic story of taxes is fairly simple: as the price of something goes up (in this case, the price increase is due to taxes), you get less of it.  Higher taxes on labor (income tax, payroll tax, etc) discourage labor.  Higher taxes on cigarettes discourage smoking.  Therefore, many economists argue, taxation should be as low as possible.  Therefore, tax cuts can stimulate economic growth.

However, taxation does go to support government and institutions like stable property rights (under which I am classifying law enforcement and national defense), courts, and the like.  Other economics argue these institutions encourage economic growth, so taxation should be relatively high to fund and develop these institutions.  So tax hikes can stimulate economic growth.

Both arguments are reasonable and not mutually exclusive.  There is likely some optimal level of taxation necessary to promote desirable institutional development without being a net drag on the’s say that the economy is beyond that optimal point of taxation, that the current level of taxation is too high and is a net drag on the economy.  Does it immediately follow that taxes should be cut to stimulate growth?

Let’s say that the economy is beyond that optimal point of taxation, that the current level of taxation is too high and is a net drag on the economy.  Does it immediately follow that taxes should be cut to stimulate growth?  I argue no.  If taxes are cut without regard to spending, that is taxes are cut and deficits emerge, then it won’t do much to stimulate growth.  This is because people are rational and forward-looking.  If taxes drop and deficits rise, then people will realize that, at some point, those deficits will need to be covered, either by higher taxes in the near future, or by government borrowing, which means higher taxes down the road.  People will begin to prepare for these higher taxes by saving more in the meantime knowing they’ll have a higher tax bill coming.  In short, there would be little (if any) effect on the economy from the tax cut; it’ll be no different than if there had been no cut at all.

However, if the tax cut were permanent, that is coupled with a cut in spending so that there is no deficit, then the cut would likely have a more positive effect.  Knowing (to the extent they can) that taxes won’t rise means they see their higher amount of kept income not as a temporary thing, but as a permanent change.  The tax cut would have a more stimulative effect on the economy.

When discussing taxation, it’s important to remember that deficits matter, too.  A tax cut that only generates deficits won’t have the same effect as a tax cut that does not generate deficits.

Why Have Property Rights?

The purpose of this essay is to flesh out some aspects and properties of property rights.  For many readers, this is probably redundant.  Nothing I will write here is original or particularly new.  However, following recent conversations I have had, I feel it is worth it to rehash some of these ideas.

Property rights, defined as the right to use resources*, exist to help resolve conflicts.  In a world of scarce resources with more than one person in it, conflicts will inevitably rise.  The prototypical Robinson Crusoe, who finds himself alone on a desert island, need not worry about conflicting uses of resources.  He can choose to eat the berries or plant them, and there will be no other objections to their use.

However, once Friday comes ashore, now there is the risk of conflict.  If Robinson wants to eat berries and Friday wants to plant them, then there is a conflict; doing one necessarily means the other cannot happen.  The clear delineation of property rights, who owns the berries, in this case, helps solve/prevent the conflict.  If Robinson and Friday agree that Robinson owns the berry bushes and Friday owns the fruit trees, then Friday can use the fruit trees and Robinson can use the berry bushes to their hearts’ content.  Indeed, they could even trade with one another!

But, what about if there are conflicts with the use of the resources?  Does Robinson have any right to object to Friday’s use?  In other words, are property rights absolute?  Let me be absolutely clear by what I mean by “absolute,” and here a very little mathematical formalism would be helpful: By “absolute,” I mean that the use of the resource will be determined by the resource owner with a probability of 1.  If Joe owns a resource, and its use is determined by Joe and Joe alone 100% of the time, then his ownership is absolute.  If the probability is less than 1 at any time, then the property right is not absolute.

Going back to Robinson and Friday, let’s say that one of Friday’s trees is a coconut tree.  I have already said above that Friday has the property right to the trees.  He can use the trees for his purposes.  But does Friday and only Friday determine how those resources are to be used?  Can we think of an example where his right might be restricted, that is its use would not be determined by Friday?  Yes: Friday may not use his coconuts to bash in Robinson’s skull.  One can think of many other examples.  Therefore, Friday’s property right is not absolute.

Another example: I own a crowbar.  I can use that crowbar for many things, but I cannot use that crowbar to pry open my neighbor’s door without his consent.  Therefore, the use of my crowbar is not 100% determined by me.  For a very select few set of cases, the use is determined by my neighbor.  The property right is not absolute.

The discussion of using property to harm another (whether intentionally or not) is of major importance in law and economics.  As Ronald Coase pointed out when property rights are ill-defined, that is to what extent their use is defined, then conflicts arise.  If rights are absolute, then conflicts are inevitable and cannot have a just resolution.

To be clear, just because property rights are not absolute does not mean they are arbitrary.  They cannot be revoked, renegotiated, or reneged without due cause.  But the glorious thing about common law is that it allows for the flexibility needed to address conflicts which are at the present unseen but may arise down the road without sacrificing the right itself.

This blog post is a little over 600 words.  I will not pretend to have done justice to the issue of property rights here.  For a more detailed discussion, I’d recommend the following readings:

The Property Right Paradigm, by Armen Alchian and Harold Demsetz

Toward a Theory of Property Rights, Part I and Part II by Harold Demsetz

The Problem of Social Costs, by Ronald Coase


Institutions Matter

While cruising around Facebook this morning, I came across this argument against immigration by one Jasen Tenney:

Illegal immigration is down over 50% with Trump and now to get legal immigration way down. Glad to see them go. Since these people are so good for an economy they can make their own crappy home country a better place to live.

Jasen’s argument is somewhat typical of many man-in-the-street arguments against illegal immigration (and immigration in general).  If immigration is good for the US, if specifically, these people are really a net benefit to the country) and not, as President Trump said infamously, criminals, rapists, and drug dealers, why don’t they stay in their own country and make it a better place?

The economist’s response to this question is simple: institutions matter.  Institutions like rule of law, secure property rights, impartial judiciary, individual rights, etc (in other words, classically liberal institutions) go a long way in producing economic growth.

A person is more likely to flourish, and help others flourish, in an area with institutions that encourage economic growth than s/he is in an area that discourages or predates upon economic growth.  Why produce in an area where property rights are insecure (eg, roving bandits can just steal your stuff, or government can appropriate anything at will)?  Even the best producer may not produce anything under such circumstances.  But, under a different institutional structure, s/he may thrive.

To return to Jasen’s question that motivated this post: why can’t these immigrants simply return to their “crappy” home country and make it a better place?  Quite possibly, because the institutional arrangements necessary to make the country a better place do not exist (or are sufficiently weaker compared to the country the immigrant was headed to)!

Coase, Transaction Costs, and Environmental Entreprenureship

Today’s Quote of the Day comes from pages 7-8 of Ronald Coase’s 1988 book The Firm, the Market, and the Law [emphasis added]:

Markets are institutions that exist to facilitate exchange, that is, they exist in order to reduce the cost of carrying out exchange transactions.  In an economic theory that assumes transaction costs are nonexistant, markets have no function to perform and it seems perfectly reasonable to develop the theory of exchange by an elaborate analysis of individuals exchanging nuts for apples on the edge of a forest or some similar fanciful example.

Many readers of Coase (including economists!) misunderstand him.  This is evident in the improperly named Coase Theorem (it’s improper in that it’s not a theorem).  In fact, Coase is so often misunderstood, he felt compelled to write the book this quote is from to clarify his point!  Coase is often understood to say that, absent transaction costs (or sufficiently low transaction costs), externality issues (eg pollution, noise, etc) can be solved by an allocation of property rights and, regardless of their initial allocation, will result in a Pareto-efficient outcome.  This is correct, but only a partial understanding of Coase.

Much of Coase’s work (and work that spun off from him, such as with Armin Alchian, Harold Demsetz, Gordon Tullock, and many others including my own) focus on the role of the market in addressing externality issues.  Detractors from Coase argue that his insights, that markets for externalities can exist only if there are no/low transaction costs, are not applicable to the “real world,” since transaction costs abound and, therefore, government intervention is necessary.  But this argument represents a misreading of Coase.  In a purely ideal world, there would be no transaction costs, but then no market would be necessary.  As Coase says in the above quote, it is in the world of transaction costs that the market is most useful!  The existence of transaction costs gives rise to firms and other means of human collaboration, which in turn reduce transaction costs, and increase the market exchange of individuals (see The Nature of the Firm (1937) for a more in-depth conversation on this point).

Expanding the idea of markets, firms, and transaction costs to environmental issues, we see the rise of “enviropreneurs” (to use the phrasing of PERC), that is people who seek out and find ways to mitigate these transaction costs in order to achieve desired environmental ends; in short, a market process of environmental concerns (for a detailed look at many different kinds of enviropreneurs, see Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation, especially Chapter 9).  The fact transaction costs exist is not a detriment to free market environmentalism, like the detractors of Coase argue, but rather what allows it to come about!

Like Coase (and Buchanan and many others) before me, I realize the market is not a panacea.  There may be conditions for government to get involved (namely where involvement by the firm or an individual are too costly).  But the work of Coase (and Alchian and Demsetz and Buchanan and Tullock and Anderson and many others) show us that the mere existence of an externality and transaction costs is not enough to justify intervention.