The Historical Contingency of Rules and the Immutability of Economic Laws

In a lengthy online discussion on my post on the role of the division of labor within the economics profession, I saw someone make the argument that the historical contingency of rules disproves the immutability economic laws. While I don’t have an argument as to why economic laws are or aren’t timeless, I can say that the historical contingency of rules has nothing to do with the immutability of laws, because institutions and economic laws are not the same thing.

First, an overview of what institutions are. Institutions can be defined as ‘the rules of the game.’ These are constraints on our ability to choose, because we conform to, or follow, them. These rules are important, because they help us overcome ‘inconveniences,’ or aspects of the world that hold us back. For example, the Royal Navy implemented a rule requiring their naval commanders to attack the foe on contact, because prior to the 19th century, it was difficult for them to monitor their officers’ when these were at sea. This rule was enforced by ordering different logs to be kept by different people, often with opposed interests. These logs could be inspected when the ship arrived to port, and captains found avoiding their responsibilities were punished. The Royal Navy had altered the rules of the game to improve its ability to coordinate with its assets at sea.

Another example of an institution are the various methods salespersons use to build a reputation. Certain markets are burdened by the fact that buyers find it difficult to distinguish between similar goods of different quality. Taking advantage of an asymmetry in information, some sellers will put their worse quality goods on the market, because they know buyers have difficulty in telling between different qualities. You might buy a 2002 Honda Civic on Craigslist thinking it runs fine, only for the engine to die two months later (actually, it happened to a friend — although his was one of those Oldsmobile 88s). Consumers eventually learn, lower their expectations of the quality of the average car, which is analogous to shifting the demand curve to the left. This lowers prices, and the process can continue until the market implodes.

It pays sellers within certain industries to distinguish between each other, and especially to build a reputation for trustworthiness. While the used car market still most certainly sucks, nowadays we have things like CARFAX and many sellers are willing to have your mechanic look at the car (although, not all of them — the ones looking to rip you off definitely aren’t, thus the purpose of signalling). Reputation spreads by word-of-mouth, and many customers have preferred sellers whom can be trusted. By changing the rules of the game, markets can often get around obstacles, helping agents coordinate between each other (such as buyers and sellers of used cars).

Many, if not all, institutions, or rules, are historically contingent. The impediments to monitoring naval warfare changed between centuries. Direct and immediate communication made certain rules obsolete. New limitations may require new rules. The anti-ship missile was invented in the middle of the 20th century, and it required a change in world navies’ rules. Fleets had to fight in a different way to win.

The historical contingency argument is not saying that the rules work differently depending on what period of time we’re in, it’s claiming that the relevance of rules changes. ‘Slavery is legal/illegal’ meant the same thing to Hammurabi as it does to you. It’s just that ‘slavery is legal’ was, thank goodness, replaced with ‘slavery is illegal.’ The implication is that the rules’ causal mechanisms are immutable.

How do rules differ from ‘economic laws’? Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there are such things as economic laws. One such law could be that of time preference: people prefer X now rather than later, unless they’re compensated. Suppose minimum required compensation is Y, and there is a natural rate of interest equal to (X+Y)/X. This hypothetical law also states that if real world markets have their interest below the natural rate, they will eventually suffer from mass business failure. If the market rate is above the natural rate, there are unused savings. Either way, the result is discoordination. That’s the law.

But, what use is that law to anyone, really? How do we know what the natural rate is? A perfectly coordinated market would have an equilibrium rate of interest (or equilibrium rates, if also considering differences in liquidity). But, markets are not perfectly coordinated. Assets are often overpriced. Ask someone who bought a home before 2007. Other asset are undervalued. There are people who make profits buying undervalued stock. Our estimates of the value of different goods/assets are always off, because society suffers from a knowledge problem. Humans act on imperfect and asymmetric knowledge, and this causes discoordination. Early cavemen may prefer to kill one another, because each one isn’t sure whether the other guy is friendly. We have to develop rules to overcome this limitation.

Humans develop rules that can be followed to gain trust. This makes cooperation attractive, because we can be sure that others will actually cooperate. Much like how the Royal Navy developed rules to work around a knowledge problem of its own, not being able to actually directly control (or track) its assets on the seas. Principal–Agent problems are knowledge problems, and we develop rules to help us get around them. Even if there are immutable laws, historically contingent rules are still absolutely necessary, because these immutable laws don’t speak to humankind’s limited knowledge on how the world works.

What matters most is that saying ‘rules are historically contingent’ is not the same thing as saying that ‘the same rule works differently depending on the year.’ Rules are necessary because our understanding of the world is imperfect, and they help us coordinate despite our cognitive limitations. Rules are historically contingent, because the state of our knowledge is always changing.

Leave a Reply

  1. “‘Slavery is legal/illegal’ meant the same thing to Hammurabi as it does to you.”
    Why do you think that?

      • Well, it’s a little odd that you changed the phrase in your response, but yes, of course it could and did: the meaning of “good” has been very different at different times and places! Consider: for Aristotle, happiness was something that could only be judged over an entire lifetime, and never for a minute or a day only. Clearly, if he said “Gene is happy” that meant something very different than if the average person today said it.

        • Sure, you can change how words are defined. But, Aristotle’s definition of happiness meant the same thing back then that it does today. We might just not agree with it, so we change the definition.

          It’s analogous to changing the rule, not changing how the rule works.

          • “Sure, you can change how words are defined.”
            No, that is not what I am describing. Aristotle didn’t use the word “happy” to indicate, say, a pear or a tree: no, he conceived of happiness differently than the average person does today. If you said to him, “I was happy for a few minutes, but now I’m not,” he’d say you are talking nonsense, not that you had re-defined the word.

          • I don’t know what you are trying to say now. Concepts don’t mean anything! Words mean things, but the concept just is itself. Of course, if someone is has Aristotle’s concept of happiness today, then it they have it today. It doesn’t “mean” the same thing, it IS the same thing. But what does any of that have to do with whether “legal” meant the same thing to Hammurabi as it does to you or me? (And I guarantee you it did not! People in the ancient “cosmic empires” would have seen illegal actions as a threat to cosmic order.)