Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is from Adam Smith’s 1783 letter to William Eden, Lord Auckland, to which Prof. Smith responded to a question on whether or not England should have preferential and different duties on other nations (page 271-272 of the Liberty Fund’s Correspondence of Adam Smith):

I shall only say at present that every extraordinary encouragement or discouragement that is given to the trade of any country more than to that of another may, I think, be demonstrated to be in every case a complete piece of dupery, by which the interest of the State and the nation is constantly sacraficed to that of some particular class of traders.

JMM: Indeed so.  As I wrote before, when there is ambiguity of purpose, when multiple excuses may be given for various government handouts, we must expect that there is going to be abuse and “dupery” and firms and individuals vie for such handouts.

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is from pages 101-102 of Paul Krugman’s 1997 book Pop Internationalism:

There is no question that in many cases comparative advantgae arises from self-reinforcing external economies rather than as a result of underlying national resources.  In such cases international competition may exclude a country from an industry in which it could have established a comparative advantage, or drive a country from an industry in which comparative advantage could have been maintained.  In these cases, a [sic] intellectually respectible argument can be made for government policies to create or preserve advantage.

The fact that an argument is intellectualy respectible does not mean it is right.  Concerns over competitiveness that are valid in principle can be and have been misused or abused in practice.  Competitiveness is both a subtler and a more problematic issue than is generally understood.

Absolutely.  Some folks like to justify Trump’s economic policies based on obscure or particular economic arguments: optimal tariffs, or increasing terms of trade, or forcing other nations to lower tariffs and subsidies, or national defense.  All of these arguments are intellectually respectable (if not consistent with one another).  The internal logic of them holds.

But just because something is possible does not mean it is probable.  It is possible that a tariff could improve the well-being of a nation (subject to some key caveats).  But how probable is it that government could effectively create and enforce such a tariff and not face public choice concerns?  How probable is it that there would be no additional costs to the process, or that it won’t get hijacked for self-interested uses?

It’s trivially easy to come up with some theoretical reason why something can happen.  Translating that into reality, however, is a totally different beast.

Today’s Quotation of the Day…

…is from page 22 of Paul Krugman’s 1996 book Pop Internationalism:

So let’s start telling the truth: competitiveness is a meaningless word when applied to national economies.  And the obsession with competitiveness is both wrong and dangerous.

Although this sentence was written over 20 years ago, not much has changed.  The arguments of Clinton Krugman refutes in this first chapter of his book are identical to ones being put forth now by Trump: concerns about “competitiveness,” bad mathematics, incorrect claims of the trade deficit destroying jobs, etc etc etc.  The scarcityist fancies himself a “practical” man, but he deals in false and long-dead ideas.

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…comes from page 29 of “Modern Principles of Economics” (4th Edition) by my GMU professors Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen:

The most important tools in economics are supply, demand, and the idea of equilibrium.  Even if you understand little else, you may rightfully claim yourself economically literate if you understand these tools.  Fail to understand these tools and you will understand little else.

Amen to that.

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is from Chapter 3 of Frederic Bastiat’s final work Economic Harmonies (page 499 of the Mises Institute Edition):

Can we concieve a time when man can no longer form even reasonable desires? Let us not forget that a desire that might be unreasonable in a former state of civilization–at a time when all the human faculties were absorbed in providing for low material wants–ceases to be so when improvement opens to these faculties a more extended field. A desire to travel at the rate of thirty miles per hour would have been unreasonable two centuries ago–it is not so at the present day [or 70mph in Bastiat’s time! -JMM]. To pretend that the wants and desires of man are fixed and stationary quantities, is to mistake the nature of the human soul, to deny facts, and to render civilization inexplicable.

JMM: What we take for granted were once unobtainable wants because we had to focus on growing food. As that food was automated (thus destroying a lot of farmer jobs) and became cheaper and taken for granted, more desires, once unobtainable, became obtainable. Desires like kitchen appliances, faster transportation, recorded music, etc. Then, as more of those desires became taken for granted and cheap (displacing lots of manufacturing jobs), we moved to other desires, like better health, better medicine, more diversions (theatre, movies, sports, TVs, etc).

Shift happens, but it happens because desires are being met, which in turn allows new desires to come about. Human desires are indefinite.

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is from page 229 Karl Menger’s 1883 book Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, specifically Appendix VIII “The ‘Organic’ Origin of Law and the Exact Understanding Thereof” (original emphasis):

However, law can also come into being, and even under the most original conditions, in another way essentially different from the above: by authority. The man in power or intellectually superior can set certain limits to the discretion of the weak men subject to him or of those mentally inferior. The victor can set certain limits for the vanquished. He can impose on them certain rules for their action to which they have to submit, without considering their free conviction: from fear. These rules, however similar they appear on the surface to those of national law, are both by origin and by the guarantees of their realization essentially different from the law which grows out of the convictions of the population and the realization of which was also originally an affair of the nation. Indeed, they can be in direct contrast to national law; they are really statute, not law. But the strong man has an interest in calling them ”’law,” in cloaking them with the sanctity of law, in connecting them with religious  traditions, in elevating them so that they become the objects of religious and ethical education. This is the case until the habit of obedience and the sense of subjection developed by them recognize in them something analogous to law and until this habit and sense scarcely distinguish any longer those rules limiting the discretion of the individual which are produced by the convictions of the nation from those which power prescribes for the weak.

JMM: What Menger means here by “national law” is not some national convention or agreement (in fact, he explicitly rejects the “social contract origin” theory of law), but rather what is more akin to custom and tradition: something that evolved over time to serve a purpose (protect individual interests) and is widely accepted and respected by members of the society.

What Menger does in this paragraph is draw a distinction between “national law” (the subject of the essay thus far) with statutory law.  The primary difference is how these two are established: national law (which is properly called law) is established through human interaction.  Statutory law is established through authority (ie imposed).  The two have superficial similarities only.

This is not to say that statutory law is inherently less desirable that law.  What it is to say is that statutory law can become unhinged from morality, in which case we are faced with the Bastiat Dilemma: “When law and morality are in contradiction to each other, the citizen finds himself in the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense, or of losing his respect for the law—two evils of equal magnitude, between which it would be difficult to choose.”  To treat statutory law as some “will of the people” or the object of some “divine intelligence” (to use Menger’s term elsewhere in the essay) is to fundamentally misunderstand law.

 

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is from Armen Alchian’s 1950 address to the Pacific Coast Economic Association, as reprinted on page 635 of the Liberty Fund’s 2006 volume of Alchian’s work: Choice and Cost Under Uncertainty (emphasis added):

The real issue [of the debate about economic methodology and mathematical models] relates to the economic substance – the applicability to real economic problems, or what I call here economic validity – of the mathematical models.  And with regard to this, it is submitted here that the mathematical analysis reveals very clearly the true scope and structure of the analysis, thereby facilitating an evaluation of its economic validity.  One may well argue that the empirical invalidity, or unrealism, of so many mathematically expressed theories and hypotheses is simply a result of their clarity, which reveals quickly the applicability of the system, whereas in literary theorists it is difficult to make such an appraisal so readily.  In any event, the mathematical approach must not be treated as the new delivery truck was treated by the delivery man who became so absorbed in the operating characteristics of the truck that he neglected to deliver the goods.

JMM:  As is characteristic of Alchian, he delivers a lot of economic insight into a small area.  Mathematical models have an important role to serve in economics: they can sharpen our thinking by pointing out logical flaws in the reasoning.  They can help solidify the pattern predictions we make by testing them against real data.  But, as Alchian warns, we should not become so obsessed with the working of our models that we economists forget that our primary duty is to provide insight into economic matters.  If our models do not do that, then they are failing in their job, as are we.