Author Archives: Jonathan Finegold

Unemployment’s Demand Side

About four months ago, I wrote on a for-fun empirical model, to test whether cyclical unemployment is predominately supply- or demand-driven. At the time, the results suggested that aggregate demand was the main determinant, although “labor freedom” (the only statistically-significant supply-side factor) could explain quite a bit in countries where unemployment is highest. I wanted to come back and see what the results look like if I try to incorporate the Phillips curve. Also, it would be interesting to know whether a demand shortage’s effect accumulates as “labor freedom” decreases.

The model is,

Unemployment Rate = β0 + β1Labor Freedom + β2Business Freedom + β3Fiscal Freedom + β4Property Rights + β5%ΔMoney + β6%ΔMoney2 + β7%ΔMoney×Labor Freedom + ε

Unemployment data is from the IMF, money growth data is from the World Bank, and the Heritage Foundation provides the rest. Definitions and rationales for the variables,

(a) Labor freedom: A proxy for labor market flexibility. Where labor regulations increase hiring costs, we expect greater unemployment.

(b) Business freedom & property rights: These were included to test the regime uncertainty thesis. According to the theory, lower business freedom and ambiguous property rights are disincentives to investment (and indirectly, employment).

(c) Fiscal freedom: This is a measure of tax burden. One belief is that higher taxes are a disincentive to invest. There is also a related argument that reducing taxes is stimulating, because it increases private spending. Either way, the supply-side argument expects positive correlation between tax burden and unemployment.

(d) Percent change in the money supply: This is the aggregate demand variable — and the data i for base money. I agree, maybe NGDP may have been a better choice. I’m not entirely convinced, because I think changes in money supply might test aggregate demand as a policy more directly. There is probably a choice that’s better than both of them, because changes in aggregate income can be caused by both supply- and demand-side factors.

Unemployment v. Money Growth (version 2)

The Phillips curve is introduced through the quadratic effect. The accumulation effect is represented by the interaction term %ΔMoney×Labor Freedom. Surprisingly, the interaction term is statistically insignificant. At least, it was surprising to me, because, for countries with very high unemployment rates (e.g. Spain and Greece), the coefficients for the linear approximation did not seem able to explain, on their own, the extent of their unemployment. So, when these two factors interact, maybe their effect is much worse than simply their sum. The data says no.

The two statistically significant variables are the quadratic term and labor freedom.

Unemployment Rate = 23.05 + –0.1021Labor Freedom + –.5726%ΔMoney + 0.0138%ΔMoney2

Introducing a Phillips curve actually very slightly decreases the effect of monetary policy. The prediction is that a one percentage point increase in rate of growth of the money supply will reduce the unemployment rate by –.5576 + .0276(%ΔMoney) percent. What this implies is that there are diminishing returns to monetary policy, and that as monetary policy growth rates become smaller, the negative effect becomes greater. The data is in line with the position that the worst monetary policy — whether public (central bank) or private (e.g. a clearinghouse issuing its own emergency notes) — is pro-cyclical, but that excess supplies of money at first have only a relatively minor negative effect on unemployment and then a gradually growing positive effect. Hear, negative and positive have reverse meanings, because a positive coefficient implies a growing unemployment rate.

The marginal effect of labor freedom has also slightly increased, from –0.0961 to –0.1021. The original test, therefore, slightly underrepresented the role of inflexible labor markets. Still, labor inflexibility explains relatively little. For example, 2012 U.S. had a ranking of 95.5 out of 100; the most it could increase its labor flexibility is by 4.5 points, or a decrease in the unemployment rate by –.4595 percentage points. For cases like these, the coefficient is probably overstated, because it’s probably not the case that an increase in labor freedom from 95 to 96 is as significant as a change from 50 to 51. Likewise, if Greek labor markets were as flexible as U.S.’, the 2012 Greek unemployment rate would be 5.4521 percentage points lower. Even in cases where labor inflexibility is significant, it cannot explain even the majority of cyclical unemployment.

Because it’s interesting to some, that neither business freedom or property rights are statistically significant suggests that regime uncertainty is not a relevant explanation for cyclical unemployment — at least, not in this recession.

Stagnation and Technology

One line of reasoning tells us that growth is stagnating, because we have picked the majority of “low hanging fruit” and we haven’t been adequately reproducing it through technological invention. Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon may, for example, claim that the internet is incomparable to the railroad, the automobile, et cetera. On the one hand, maybe their judgment on the value added by the internet is flawed; on the other, maybe their judgment of 19th century inventions is too,

On this basis the social saving made possible by the 59,000 million ton-miles of non-agricultural freight service provided by railroads in 1890 was $189 million. The last figure added to the ” pure ” agricultural saving yields a total of $329 million on all commodities. Thus, the availability of railroads for the transport of commodities appears to have increased the production potential of the economy by about 3% of gross national product.

— Robert W. Fogel, “Railroads as an Analogy to the Space Effort: Some Economic Aspects,” p. 40.

Institutional Discrimination Against North American Football

Why don’t Spanish teams recruit heavily from Spanish-speaking leagues in North America (all those north of, and including, Panama)? While these countries produce the occasional star, the average quality of their players is relatively lower than that of South America and Europe. Panamanian, Nicaraguan, even Mexican (the strongest league in North America), players do not attract the lucrative offers that many South American players do. Why is that? Because the way regional football associations are organized. The average quality of their continental tournament is much, much lower than South America’s. Thus, their players are exerted less as they develop, and their average quality is lower when compared internationally.

It makes sense to recruit from countries with lower transaction costs. There are, for example, many African players who leave for France early in their careers. 19 out of 20 Ligue 1 (top flight) teams have African players on their roster (for Paris Saint-Germain, few transaction costs are high enough to impede them from signing players). France’s national team’s last roster include two players born in Africa. 20 out of 20 Belgian Pro League teams include African players in their roster. English Premier League clubs also buy relatively heavily from African leagues, but often French clubs act as intermediaries. Spain recruits heavily from Argentina, and has started to increase recruitment in Chile and Colombia; countries which have built strong national teams without (originally) having access to strong players playing in strong European leagues.

Why are transaction costs lower? Countries with shared history — namely, colonialism — form “linkages,” such as a widely known common language, oftentimes looser immigration laws — especially for those with high MVP (marginal value product) —, strong immigrant communities in receiving states, et cetera. Apart from the attractive relative real cost (weighing for average skill) of African players, linkages also make assimilation within teams easier. A team with relatively perfect substitutes performs better than those with relatively imperfect substitutes on average, because the strength of the relationship between the players matters a lot in football (it’s a common characteristic in teams with high discipline, relative to other teams in their league).

Although Spain colonized much of North America, including most of the geography between the western United States and Panama, it does not draw on players born in these countries nearly as often as those originating in South America. I suspect the reason for that is that the average quality of the North American player simply cannot compete with those of the South American and African leagues (growing African migration to Spain also creates a network effect through migrant communities, lowering transaction costs). The reason this is the case is because of the way continental FIFA associations are organized: CONCACAF is one of the weakest associations. It is one of the weakest associations because of the countries which make it up.

Consider the size of national football markets in CONCACAF nations. Most of Latin American enjoys football as its major sport, but most Latin American countries have very small national economies — they are not comparable to those of larger South American and European nations —, and in the two largest economies, United States and Canada, football (i.e. soccer) is not big compared to rival sports (basketball, American football, hockey, and baseball). In other words, the football market in CONCACAF is very small, and therefore much less competitive (assuming the football industry enjoys increasing returns to scale). In less competitive environments, the motivation to innovate  is relatively low, and top leagues do not have to very internationally competitive to be regionally competitive. Think of Mexico’s domination of CONCACAF (on the league level especially), but the relative paucity of Mexican players in Europe.

Inter-regional competition matters. European leagues are strong because the UEFA Champions League is strong. The Copa Libertadores is a much more difficult competition than the CONCACAF Champions League — the latter almost exclusively dominated by Mexican clubs. Being inter-regionally competitive is attractive because it means higher revenue flows, largely as a result of prize money. Atlético Madrid, in Spain, has an average revenue between 120–140 million, and typically makes a loss (and has to sell players, on net, to make a profit). So far, UEFA will pay them ~40€ million for participating in the Champions League, a 33 percent increase in revenue. Most teams do not earn that much, but the prize money is lucrative and all participants draw from the cash pot. Regional competitions are strong when national football markets are large in association member countries. UEFA benefits from England, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, et cetera (the list is long); strong local economies, where football is the main sport.

Size of the market matters because of the assumption of increasing returns to scale. A few implications are,

  1. Larger markets will enjoy lower average costs, shifting the long-run average cost schedule down, and increasing the amount of firms in an imperfectly compMonopolistically Competitive Marketetitive market. In the football industry, this can mean stronger overall football associations, because of stronger competition between national leagues (stated another way, Spain’s second division is much better than Mexico’s). This creates a good environment for innovation and progress. Most groundbreaking tactical discoveries are made by UEFA teams — e.g. catenaccio, total football, and tiki-taka;
  2. Returns to scale internal to the firm will increase profits as average cost falls (and output increases). Relatively wealthy clubs have a broader recruitment base, as they can offer higher salaries (and often a wealthy life in the receiving state) than local competitors. They also typically have better youth programs, so they can better exploit the qualities of non-national players;
  3. If there are external economies of scale, lower average costs bring with them a cumulative advantage relative to competing regional industries. These industries attract more investment, at a higher rate than clubs in associations with relatively high average costs.

CONCACAF simply cannot compete with UEFA or CONMEBOL (yea, FIFA abbreviations are absolutely horrid) in average quality. I reckon that CAF (Africa) is marginally more competitive than CONCACAF. But, it’s not because their local markets are strong — well, that explains comparatively little. However, most of Africa enjoys strong, and exclusive, linkages with many European nations (France, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy). These same European countries do not recruit as heavily from Spanish-speaking countries (except for Brazil and Argentina, because of the strength of their leagues — CONMEBOL is the second-most competitive association in FIFA). Likewise, France, England, and Belgium recruit more Africans than Spanish team do on average. Spain often serves as an intermediary for South American players, who pass through Spanish clubs and then move on to other European squads. Thus, African players have a large market for their labor that is exclusive to them. National teams draw on their players who play for European clubs, and therefore perform more strongly than what the strength of their leagues suggests.

But, CAF also has decently sized economies where football is the primary sport. Africa might be the poorest continent in per capita income, but it has several large countries in population. Many of these countries also have large deposits of highly valued raw materials. Their national associations are most likely subsidized, and in absolute terms subsidies (and cash prizes) are likely to be higher in larger economies. CAF clubs have done better than CONCACAF clubs in the FIFA Club World Cup. The CAF Champions League is relatively competitive. Mexican teams have won six out of ten of their continental competitions. If the MLS is slowly improving it’s not because of CONCACAF, it’s because of the growing market for the sport in the United States.

Another piece of evidence is Australia’s national football association’s, the FFA, 2006 decision to leave the OFC (Oceania) confederation for AFC (Asia). While Australia dominated the OFC, not only enjoying the major share of regional cups, but almost virtually guaranteed entry into the World Cup finals, it judged that it could simply not grow in quality unless it benefited from stronger competition. And, the A-League and the Australian national team have benefited from this change. Regional competitions matter. They determine the total size of the market. Regional associations, or what are also known as confederations, which have large markets will be stronger than those which have small markets.

I originally asked why Spain recruits much more from South African than it does from North America, While there are many countries in CONCACAF that have strong linkages with Spain, the low average quality of their confederation makes CONCACAF players relatively less attractive. Where soccer as a sport is strong, the national economies are usually very small. Mexico is an exception to the rule, but neither is Mexico as wealthy as England, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Canadian soccer is probably the most uncompetitive in the region. And, the market in the U.S. is still comparatively small (although growing). Therefore, Spanish clubs prefer to recruit from South America and Africa. The geographic fate of North American Latin America has condemned it to facing an extreme inequality in football quality, from the perspective of the worst-off (excepting AFC and OFC). Only very exceptional North American players are recruited by European teams, and its the rules which determine membership within regional associations that are fault.

Quote of the Week

To be sure, older individuals are certainly richer on average than younger ones. But the concentration of wealth is actually nearly as great within each age cohort as it is for the population as a whole. In other words, and contrary to a widespread belief, intergenerational warfare has not replaced class warfare.

— Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014), pp. 245–246.

Crony Capitalism, Crony Communism, and Crony Anarchism

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Matt Zwolinski poses a challenge to libertarians who defend capitalism by suggesting that its current iteration is “impure.” He shows that there may be some hypocrisy if we also critique communism because it has historically led to oppressive dictatorships — that communism could be just as “impure” as current capitalism. This is not the first time I have read this challenge, and I feel that it has been largely ignored by libertarians — but, I think there is an intuition behind that choice.

In the comments, I wrote,

You can make a case that the “pure” communist society leads to an authoritarian, extractive dictatorship. You can also make the case that a capitalist system leads to a liberal society. I think the empirical evidence is broadly in favor of this interpretation.

But, I’m not entirely satisfied with my answer. I believe that a welfare state, of a size determined endogenously, is perfectly compatible with capitalism (which does not mean that all welfare states are compatible). But, those who disagree with me will still consider that a state of “impure” capitalism.

One way to look at social change is to interpret (part of) history as a gradual improvement of institutions. These institutions make our weaknesses less relevant, and they promote coordination between agents. Consider institutions such as property and contract rights, the rules that make bad people less relevant in government (there are positive outcomes, regardless of the intentions of a single agent), et cetera. Economists interpreted these institutions, but only within a narrow time frame: ~1700–present. They called the institutional framework they saw “capitalism,” referring to a narrow set of institutions that define “the market.”* Government was seen as exogenous to market institutions, but this probably isn’t right. Institutions of governance form part of the process of social change just as much as institutions of markets, and the often are interrelated.

A critique of communism could be: communism disrupts this process of change for the worst, causing institutions to deteriorate, rather than improve. Capitalism, on the other hand, embraces the process of change, causing institutions to improve. I think the first is right, and the second is wrong. What we define as capitalism today is the product of institutional change, and if we force the process towards a defined end — what some may call “pure” capitalism (anarcho-capitalism?) — we will end up with institutional deterioration. In that sense, “pure capitalism” and “pure communism” may not be that different. Both “pure capitalism” and “pure communism” are ideals we construct, but as such they are both equally weak to the accusation of a “fatal conceit.”

* Marx, however, did not interpret market institutions so narrowly. He thought that capitalism led to a deterioration of political institutions, or crony capitalism.

Frank Hollenbeck’s Parallel Universe

I have a hard time believing that “The Sad State of the Economics Profession” was written by a professional economist. It is entirely wrong, including in its assessment of the profession, and it’s narrow, idealized history of thought. Frank Hollenbeck, the author, makes a number of claims, which are extremely unorganized, making it difficult to write a general comment. I want to address certain specific arguments,

  1. Hollenbeck’s attempt to contrast between economists who specialize in disproving “popular misconceptions” and those who “have sold themselves to the enemy” (government — maybe Hollenbeck should quit the University of Geneva, since it’s a public research school).
  2. The claim that mathematical models are not useful in economics, because “the parameters are not constant, most of the variables are interrelated with constantly changing interrelationships and omitted variables, like expectations, some of which being immeasurable, are conveniently assumed away as unimportant.”
  3. That empiricism is useless, because “it is difficult to distinguish between association and causation or correctly determining the direction of causation.” (Economists must be idiots for missing such a simple fact!)

If there is any element of truth in those three statements, Hollenbeck has done them a great disservice, because his defense of those claims is very weak.


The irony in Hollenbeck’s piece is that he accuses his peers of corruption, and supports his theory by building a mythology. All theory — except, I assume, that put forth by economists friendly to Mises — since 1930 is retrogressive, because it was all developed to legitimize false truths. Yes, Hollenbeck makes this argument explicitly,

The profession is always moving forward, right? In economics, we wrongly take the same attitude. Macroeconomics as a profession has not advanced but has regressed. We had a better understanding of macroeconomics 80 years ago. Politicians put Keynes on a pedestal because he gave them the theoretical foundation to justify policies that had been justifiably ridiculed in the past by the classical economists.

Nevermind that the academic popularity of Keynes’ ideas was a result of how well they persuaded his peers, not because of their congruency with public policy of the time. Although, I suppose all of Keynes’ peers were also corrupt, except (conveniently) whichever one of them might have advanced a theory that Hollenbeck actually agrees with (but may just be unaware of, because his history of thought is so poor). But, my intention is not to defend Keynes, just to point out that Hollenbeck mistakes reasonable disagreement for corruption and malice.

Economics is tough, because society is complex. Because of reality’s complexity, economists must build theories, or ideal types, that help us explain what we observe. But, this implies a certain disconnect between theory and the real world, because ultimately the former is only an interpretation. This interpretation was made by someone who only knows only some fraction (0 < x < 1) of the facts. Because we are cognitively limited, which is the reason why complex systems are difficult to understand, the ideal types we build will be similarly limited. And, because we all have asymmetric sets of priors, our posteriors are unlikely to be exactly the same. In English: economics is exactly the kind of subject over which there will be a lot of disagreement.

Hollenbeck’s approach to this disagreement is to dismiss it as corruption. I suppose this option is attractive to someone who does not know much about, or sees no merit, in post-interwar economics. The lack of merit position is hard to square, however, with the undeniably insightful theoretical advancements since 1930: the transaction cost theory of the firm (I forgot, Coase is a socialist), New Trade Theory, asymmetric information, et cetera. Those are three examples of hundreds more. Our understanding of the economy is incomparable to that of the 19th century — it is superior. J.B. Say did not benefit from the same degree of understanding of institutions, for example, or international trade, or price theory. Although, J.B. Say was smart enough to know better than Hollenbeck on monetary theory — so, I guess that some economists’ understanding has indeed retrogressed.

What about disagreement before 1930, was it also caused by intellectual corruption within the profession? Was Adam Smith a pawn of the state for preferring a dynamic, private supply of money? I am assuming that David Hume was the economists’ equivalent of a Jedi, because he advocated for a fixed money supply. Dark forces must have been behind the disagreements between Carl Menger and W.S. Jevons. J.S. Mill’s utilitarianism must have been developed to justify public policy of the mid- and late 19th century. It’s easy to play Hollenbeck’s game, but it’s obvious that the game is bunk.

What makes Hollenbeck’s approach so unfortunate, and so disheartening (as an Austrian sympathizer), is it runs contrary to the other common claim that the mainstream simply ignores what heterodox economists have to offer (and, by heterodox, I mean “Austrian” specifically). The truth is that the ignoring works the other way: heterodox economists like to ignore the mainstream, or dismiss it is as all wrong — which is essentially the same thing. But, how could a serious economist ever take a critique like Hollenbeck’s seriously? I am sure he has good ideas, but he does them an injustice by instead accusing his peers of intellectual corruption. This being an accusation that only someone terribly ignorant of the state of economics could make.


Forget, for a second, about mathematics and formal economics. Take any theory, such as Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. This theory says that exchange will be organized in such a way to minimize opportunity cost, because people will specialize where they have a comparative advantage. You have a comparative advantage in specializations where your opportunity cost is lower relative to others’. This can be generalized, and we can say that countries will specialize where they have a comparative advantage. Ricardo missed, however, — or at least it was not explicit in his model — that factor endowments help determine comparative advantages, and so initial endowments can go some way in explaining international trade. As it turned out, Ricardo’s model of trade was missing out an entire independent cause! Economies of scale can also explain trade, and it might even do a better job at it! These were factors which Ricardo had omitted from his model.

It’s strange that Hollenbeck does not level the same criticism against all economic theory. If we have to build ideal types, abstractions, to understand the real world, and these ideal types will suffer from incompleteness (because of the incompleteness of our knowledge), then they all are burdened by the same probability of omitted factors. The truth is that all economists, including Hollenbeck, are aware of this and they embrace it. That is why there is an academic process of scientific advancement. We know that our theories are not good enough, so we continue to develop them. Hollenbeck’s critique of mathematical models on account of “omitted factors” is simply nonsense.

The claim that mathematical models are useless, because their parameters are non-constant, is weak, and is equally applicable to theory in general. Theory is about positing, and rationalizing, certain relationships between variables. It’s no different whether you present a theory in words, or whether you present it in math. If you read a good theoretical economics paper, what you find is a model that is largely qualitative, in the way that I think most people understand that word. The model does not say that an increase in price by five percent will lead to a decrease in demand by one. It abstracts from those kind of specifics, focusing instead on the relationships. This is true whether the model is presented in words or in math.

Why use math at all? The problem with the written word is that it’s easy to be vague. An economist might advance a theory, their critiques would respond, and that economist might claim that his critiques completely misunderstood him. Math helps make the model more explicit. This also helps the economist to present a stronger, more complete theory, since he has to figure out the explicit model before he can present it. In other words, math helps the economist think about what he is omitting. In other words, Hollenbeck’s critique is actually stronger against the form of communication he prefers, than it is against math.

While Hollenbeck does not bring this up, one other objection to math might be that the type of assumptions that have to be made are typically much more strict, and less plausible. I think there is merit to this criticism, but it’s also something that most economists are aware of when they are drawing conclusions from their model. Mathematical models have to worry about being tractable, so that they can be worked with. Good models are always very careful about their assumptions, however, and if the simplification is too strong the model is not very useful. Economists often put work into defending their assumptions. And, when it comes to drawing conclusions, economists consider their assumptions when generalizing the results of the model.

If you think there is an “obvious case” against the use of math in economics, you are wrong.


This needs to be made clear: all economists know that correlation is not causation.

This is something students are told in the first or second week of an introductory econometrics class. Your model must be informed by theory. There has to be a reason that you assume a relationship between two variables. I mean, duh. It doesn’t make sense to use econometric techniques to test a theory if you aren’t actually basing your model on any theory. But, if your theory says that any increase in the money supply will cause a general rise in prices, then we have good reason to expect correlation between those two variables. We use econometrics to get an idea of what the direction of joint variation is, if there is direction at all. The theorist imputes causation, and the empiricists tests whether there is association at all.

Why would we want to test theory? People can make mistakes in their reason. In fact, they can make mistakes they are unaware of. We all do it all the time. We all have had that experience where we’ve thought something to be true for the longest time, we suddenly see it from another angle, and what was once true is now false. The false belief, at the time, seemed very reasonable. We even looked down on those who disagreed with us, because we thought they were missing something obvious (obvious to us, at any rate). But, it was only we who were missing something! Empiricism cannot definitely disprove or prove theory, but it can help to update our priors. It helps us to see which correlations in the data there actually are, to weed out theories that are irrelevant. And, if we posit a causal relationship between A and B, but we observe that B doesn’t occur, despite A, it might lead us to revise our assumptions. It might cause us to see the world a different way, and to discover something that we previously hadn’t considered.

All in all, Hollenbeck’s article is very confused. His readers deserve better, because they are being misled. That his arguments are very weak, however, doesn’t mean that my beliefs are right. That’s alright. Disagreement is a part of business, and we have to communicate to resolve them. But, accusing me of intellectual dishonesty is not a way to go about that. Neither is leveling a barrage of “obvious” problems at the profession, “obvious” problems that on second look are not problems with the profession at all.

The Coasean State

One justification for property rights is dispute resolution: resources are scarce, and private ownership helps reduce conflict over them. By establishing an enforced system of rules that determine ownership of goods, we can create an environment allowing for the best use of resources (property rights allow for a pricing process — most likely an unintended result of early institutions of property). Who determines these rules? In part, they are determined spontaneously. We are implicitly shaping rules when we trade property rights in a division-of-labor. Oftentimes, however, trade through markets is made unattractive by transaction costs. Thus, we also need, for example, legal and political systems.

When discussing property right exchange, Coase was specifically addressing the problem of negative externalities: costs which are imposed on an unwilling party. A factory, for example, might pollute, damaging neighboring houses. Or, a cattle rancher may not be able to fully control his cattle, which graze on land which does not belong to him. These people are consuming resources which are claimed by others, causing a dispute. The Coase Theorem states that, assuming zero transaction costs, existing property rules are irrelevant, because the parties involved will flesh out their own rules for their own particular situation. But, when transaction costs are positive, disputes may have to be resolved in other ways.

When we think of property disputes with no Coasean solutions we turn to the legal system. At least, this has been the main application of Coase’s theory. When parties cannot privately resolve a conflict, they need someone to arbitrate between them (ignoring the possibility of outright violence). On what basis does the justice system solve these conflicts? Whatever the standard, legal systems are also built on rules — not just rules that minimize inefficiency and injustice within the organization, but also rules which help arbitrators reach solutions. These rules are not the best solution all the time, but we want the ones that maximize the probability of a “good” solution for each trial. But, what if there is a conflict that a court, or a private defense agency, or an arbitrator, can’t resolve?

When a dispute involves a few people, private solutions may be easy. The legal system helps extend the range of private solutions, but it can’t solve everything. While a court might order a factory to build a smokestack, it’s more difficult for a court to impose that ruling on every factory externalizing its costs on its neighbors. These other factories might one day also be brought to court, and the ruling may still usually be on the side of the victim, but the process can be long, expensive, and not very satisfying — and, there may be some factories that aren’t brought to court at all (maybe it’s too expensive, because the externalized costs are too widely dispersed). We may need other organizations, working with a different set of rules, to resolve issues that are too costly for Coasean solutions or the legal system.

One such alternative is the state. There are many kinds of states, so to keep things simple let’s assume we are working with an “ideal” representative democracy. What I mean by ideal is that a constitution, with more-or-less unanimous consent, binds (constrains) a set of institutions and organizations of governance. These may include, for example, a bicameral (multicameral?) legislature, a division of power within governments, a division of power between various local, regional, and national governments, et cetera. Different organizations, such as the House and the Senate, may have asymmetric sets of rules; different legislatures, for example, may have different voter sources, different rules of proceeding, and so on. Decision-making need not be unanimous, as long as there is agreement with the overall rules of the game.

We don’t need to narrow down property rights disputes to things like pollution, there are many social conflicts that an economic imperialist could classify as property disputes. Discrimination imposes costs on the discriminated — psychological costs, for example. Think of the costs to women — not only foregone wages and profits, but also potential psychological burdens — a biased, limiting culture may cause. The “right to discriminate” can come at the expense of the discriminated (which is why it makes dubious sense to believe in an absolute right to discriminate/disassociate). People may also want to impose certain “meta-rules” on other institutional sets, such as markets or the legal system, as well. For example, a division-of-labor may only fully agree to associate if there is a general rule to minimax the position of the worst-off.

If we frame the state in the context of property rights, it no longer seems so alien. Humans develop rules that govern their claim to property, including their claim over each other. Some of these rules are flexible on a very simple level. Some property rights can be defined with a simple exchange between parties. But, costs to these types of transactions make alternative organizations and rules, such as the legal system, attractive. Like the legal system, governments have their own asymmetric set of rules, and they have a comparative advantage when resolving certain property disputes.

It might be worth thinking beyond “property disputes.” Just like property is one way of resolving certain conflicts, maybe there are other ways, or other kinds of conflicts that can’t be resolved through property rights. And, just like there are “private” solutions to these other conflicts, there are “public” solutions as well.