Category Archives: Institutions

Ancient Athens’ Economic Freedom Ranking

The abstract:

We use the Economic Freedom Index to characterize the institutions of the Athenian city-state in the fourth century BCE. It has been shown that ancient Greece witnessed improved living conditions for an extended period of time. Athens in the fourth century appears to have fared particularly well. We find that economic freedom in ancient Athens is on level with the highest ranked modern economies such as Hong Kong and Singapore. With the exception of the position of women and slaves, Athens scores high in almost every dimension of economic freedom. Trade is probably highly important even by current standards. As studies of contemporary societies suggest that institutional quality is probably an important determinant of economic growth, it may also have been one factor in the relative material success of the Athenians.

— Andreas Bergh and Hampus Lyttkens, “Measuring Institutional Quality in Ancient Athens.”

Instrumentally Rational People Will Not Follow Social Rules

Instrumentalists such as Gauthier tried to show that the best way to achieve our ends is to reason ourelves into being the sorts of instrumental reasoners who do not reason about the best way to achieve our ends. Although I have shown why this project comes to naught, the core idea needs to be explored: rule-based, cooperative, reasoning is best for us, and it tells us not to always decide on the grounds what is best for us. As Brian Skyrms has demonstrated so well, although rationality cannot explain this uniquely human characteristic, an evolutionary account can do so. Rationality, we have seen, must be a respecter of modularity and dominance reasoning, but evolution is not. Evolution can select strategy T on the grounds that those employing T outperform those who do not employ T in terms of who well they achieve their goals and yet T constitutes an instruction to those employing it not to perform some acts that would achieve their goals. The important lesson that Skyrms has taught us is that evolutionary selection can do for us what our reason cannot.

— Gerald Gaus, The Order of Public Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 104–105.

The Skyrms book Gaus is citing is Evolution of the Social Contract.

Note that Gaus writes that “rule-based, cooperative, reasoning” is a “uniquely human characteristic.” I think he’s mentioned that another time since the above excerpt, except he admits that there may be a few other animals who also evolve social rules. Actually, most animals probably follow social rules, and we’re just not aware of them.

A few months ago, I went to the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles. There is an underground field of asphaltum, which seeps up through the ground. You can see small puddles of this stuff at the La Brea museum, as it bubbles and evaporates into the air. This has been happening for tens of thousands of years. The museum collects fossils from animals who were trapped in these puddles, or small lakes, of liquid petroleum. The theory is that animals lower on the pecking order would get stuck in the tar, attracting predators. These, in turn, would rush into these tar pits, and get stuck themselves — the heavier the animal is, the more difficult it is to get out.

The museum has quite a few saber-toothed cats,* including a full skeleton on display. I took a guided tour, and when we got to display the guide starting discussing several social welfare instincts groups of these cats would have. I had actually made a comment, in passing, to someone who came with me on the tour about how injured animals must have lived horribly, because they most likely died. Not so, apparently. The guide told us that saber-toothed cats would tend to their wounded, sharing their hunted food with them, and caring for them.

Why would a predator which survives on strength and agility to hunt for its prey care for weak links? Doesn’t that bring down the group as a whole? Well, injuries happened fairly often. She, the tour guide, told us about an injury to the cat’s spine, because they would jump on the backs of larger prey and these would shake violently — this was common. Prey often fought back. And, a dead cat is worth less to your group than an injured cat, especially if you can nurse the latter back to full health. No doubt, groups that could maintain a full strength membership survived over those which allowed their members to gradually die off. Thus, saber-toothed cats adopted evolutionary social rules, just like humans do.

What I wonder is if some saber-toothed cats were frustrated that their hard earned income was being re-distributed to what they saw as a bunch of lazy cats who just didn’t want to work.


* My memory isn’t 100 percent, so if the animal I have in mind isn’t the saber-toothed cat it’s okay, because the important part of this post is the general point being made.

Inequality and the Rentier State

Thomas Piketty distinguishes between “hyperpatrimonial” and “hypermeritocratic” societies. The latter is a society where relatively high inequality is caused by wage differentials. In contrast, a hyperpatrimonial society is one in which relatively high inequality is caused by differences in capital ownership. Piketty’s data shows that hyperpatrimonial countries were common prior to 1914, while hypermeritocracies are modern. This reminds me of Douglas Allen’s The Institutional Revolution (my review here). In that book, Allen argues that “pre-modern” English bureaucrats accumulated large stocks of low-return capital as a way of posting collateral against their privilege as bureaucrats.

While Piketty mentions “civil servants” as being in the top income decile, and more-or-less surviving the Great Depression comfortably, one wonders how their relative status changed over time. Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, there was a transition from an aristocratic bureaucracy to a merit-based bureaucracy. What made this change possible was the introduction of new technologies, such as watches, that made employee-monitoring more accurate and less expensive. In other words, trust started mattering less, because it became easier to track who was pulling their weight and who was not.

Why did trust matter more when monitoring efficiency was more difficult? Those who head government want their employees to fulfill a certain role. When monitoring is difficult and expensive, employees have more leeway — it’s easier for them to do something other than their official function. Thus, trust has to be established between the aristocrat and the government he or she is serving.

To signal trust, a prospective aristocrat needed capital to post as collateral. This capital was often in the form of large country homes, with sprawling gardens. It was low-return, and apparently low social value. In other words, apart from being what was needed to become an aristocrat, these types of investments were largely worthless. If a bureaucrat was seen to veer away from his proper function, he could be “fired” and this would mean something, because he would now be short a salary that accrues from his past position, and his wealth was mostly low return real estate. For an aristocrat, being “fired” was a lowering of status, and that was also reflected in a further shock to that person’s capital: aristocrats hold large social gatherings on their property, fired aristocrats don’t.

There were auxiliary rules that limited what aristocrats could do with their capital. There were, for example, inheritance laws, where the bureaucrat would leave the capital he posted as collateral against his position to a single family member, typically the eldest son. While in 1614 common law courts made it illegal to enforce perpetual restrictions on property rights, aristocrats would voluntary accept “temporary” (in practice, permanent) restrictions. These constraints guaranteed that a large chunk of a family’s wealth would be tied up, as they were unable to do anything with it other than pass it on to the heir.

Because of the cost of being an aristocrat — the cost of collateral —, “private investment” on their part was discouraged. They were also discouraged to make contacts outside the aristocracy. The rules were set up to sever opportunities for alternative income sources. To attract possible aristocrats/bureaucrats, then, government had to offer a competitive salary. They did this by paying a wage for a position an aristocrat held. Government incomes, those days, were relatively high. Allen writes, “prior to the eighteenth century, being wealthy and being a member of the aristocracy were almost synonymous. That is, the gross rate of return to the aristocracy was greater than to the merchant market for the average wealthy individual” (p. 72). The loss of government income was a big deal, and it disincentivized veering from one’s proper role in their position.

Piketty suggests that high inequality can be politically destabilizing. In the case of pre-modern England, inequality, in part, actually had the exact opposite effect. The rules of the game of the time called for a class of wealthy people, who invested their wealth into assets that signaled intentions of loyalty to the government. If it had been otherwise, there would have been no rules to help maintain some degree of efficiency in government organizations. In that sense, some inequality in pre-modern England was stabilizing — it improved social outcomes.

What Does a Football Manager Do?

I am watching the Benfica–Juventus match, and I couldn’t help but notice some of the behavioral patterns of members of both teams. The players are clearly following rules that they learn during their training, and that are both generalized (for all matches) and specific (to deal with specific qualities of the opposing team). It reminded me of a comment Atlético de Madrid manager Diego Simeone said a couple days ago. He said that managing is not so much about motivation, because all top division players are winners; rather, managing is about providing players with a specific set of instructions, to help them along with their own skills and intelligence. What characterizes a good football team?  A good set of instructions, or rules.

There is a similarity between what makes a good football team and what makes a well-off society. My discussion on rules and football serves as an analogy for rules, or institutions, and coordination between society’s members. Likewise, it may serve as a more direct analogy for what makes the firm what it is.

A football manager is similar to an entrepreneur, in that this person is responsible for finding the best way of allocating the inputs (the players) at his disposal. He is responsible for finding and producing along some demand curve. The way the manager does this is by imputing on to his team a set of tactics. Tactics specifies how the different players interact between each other, and therefore how they are allocated. But, it’s not enough to just organize your players on the field — i.e. decide on a formation —, and then let your players simply decide for themselves what to do on the field. Well, a manager could do this, but he wouldn’t be very successful (and they rarely are).

Good teams are well drilled. There are decision-making heuristics that players must known by second-nature. Defenders have to know when to challenge for the ball, and when only to harass the opponent; it might be that by challenging they can break their own defense, if they make a mistake. Players need to know when to press and when to track back. They need to be drilled on how to decide when to launch ambushes, to try to swarm an opposing player and rob the ball. In football, the team is greater than the sum of its parts. These rules are to in place to guide decision-making such that it is mostly congruent with the general tactics the manager has imposed. For the team to work the manager wants it to, the individual has to choose in certain ways that make the team work well.

Juventus provides one piece of evidence. Dominated by Benfica, they formed two lines of four, with Tévez and Vicinic looking for the counter-attack. Benfica’s midfield was passing it between themselves in front of the Italian team’s defensive lines. You could see Paul Pogba and, I think, Andrea Pirlo trotting back and forth as Benfica’s men passed it in front of them. In fact, the entire defense was synchronized. These players have internalized a set of rules that help them the display a high degree of unity and discipline as a team, oftentimes at the expense of the individual. In a Europa League semifinal, this type of intensity is to be expected, but an average team does not display this degree of tactical rigor in an average game — because they are not well drilled, that is they don’t always follow the rules.

Rules are important in attack, as well. Players are taught how to coordinate counter-attacks with each other, by passing into open spaces ahead of them and relying on their individual strengths to beat their rivals to the ball. They develop heuristics on who to seek, and what the best way of providing a teammate the ball is. A team, for example, might have a distributor, which other players might seek. This player is the lynchpin in the transition from defense to attack, because he distributes the ball to wingers or strikers. The decision to seek out a specific player to set up the counter-attack is based on a rule, because that rule leads to the best outcome on average.

If the ball is lost, a good, title-winning team needs to be drilled on how to press, and how to track-back the defense if they can’t recover the ball soon after losing it. A well drilled team will shave a good number of seconds in the amount of time it takes to recompose their defense if their counter-attack is cut short. Players need to be given instructions on how to judge when to press, when to ambush, when to track back, and how to maintain cohesion. In fact, a great example of the advantage of a well-drilled defense is Benfica’s defense during this semifinal with Juventus: their defense responded as quickly as Juventus’ counter-attack.

This Benfica–Juventus match provides yet another example of how rules are used in football. In the first half, Benfica managed to essentially nullify Juventus’ midfield. They did this by minimizing Pirlo’s interaction with the ball. How? The Benfica manager, Jorge Jesus, instructed his midfield to organize in what almost looks like a box, with four men surrounding Pirlo and moving to block passing spaces. Remember, the manager has to think about how to best associate his inputs with each other, to produce the highest value product possible. Jorge Jesus is denying Juventus the use of one of their most important inputs, their playmaker. Juventus’ manager, Antonio Conte, did not provide Pirlo, and other players, a set of rules to deal with these kind of situations. The Juventus midfield is doing better this second half, so maybe Conte has issued a new set of instructions.

Why are rules so important? A player can respond to a situation in many different ways. If he does not consider anything else but his own circumstances, there will be some optimal decision that he will come to. But, there may be circumstances which matter, but which he does not consider because he’s not aware of them. The player has an imperfect set of knowledge. Rules help him overcome this “ignorance.” Rules are informed by disparate circumstances. Good rules guide individual decision-making for the good of the team, because they help the player decide as if he held knowledge on circumstances other than his own.

The more complex a system is, the more difficult it is to plan and impose a set of rules. Rules have to be informed by many different circumstances, and the less of these any one person is aware of, the less any one person is capable of designing a set of good set of rules for the system. In complex societies, many rules may arise spontaneously. They may be developed by players, but they become popular because they work — it’s a sort of institutional evolution, of the kind Hayek had in mind. But, orders of lower complexity can be well understood, and once abstract rules come to be well-known, they can be imposed. A good manager is a good central planner, because he can devise a set of rules that allows his inputs to work best with each other and produce the most value product.

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.

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.

Spain’s Cyclical Disorder

I like to read the comments people leave in articles in Spanish sports papers. I find them funny. There’s typically a decent mix of inter-team hate, intra-team hate, and general conspiracy theory. One can find a similar mix in the press of other countries, but not nearly to the same extent as in Spain. What these comments reveal — although there may be some sample bias — is an emerging culture of mistrust, caused in large part by ongoing depression in Spain and political corruption. Strong economies are built on trust, and this emerging culture in Spain can undermine forces of recovery in a country already handicapped by bad structural and counter-cyclical policy.

In “Economics and Knowledge,” Hayek developed a theory of equilibrium incorporating the role of expectations. In a division-of-labor where each agent relies in large part on others, an equilibrium occurs when the expectations of these agents coincide. For example, you, generally speaking, would only continue to work if you were certain that you would receive a paycheck at the end of the week. Businesspeople have certain expectations of the demand for their product, and of profitability. In the real world, expectations are often wrong — businesses fail, stock markets crash, et cetera. In equilibrium expectations are in harmony, so that everyone’s plans coincide.

The term “coordination” is essentially synonymous with “equilibrium.” For disparate expectations to jive, plans must be coordinated. When plans don’t coincide, there’s discoordination. Coordination differs from equilibrium, however, in that it has a more ambiguous definition. It might be useful to think about it as a spectrum. Plans may not be perfectly coordinated, but people’s actions are not always total failures. In fact, most of the time, things work out. When you take your car to the mechanic, he’s there; your paycheck arrives on time; your landlord expects and gets his rent by the monthly deadline; et cetera. We can also think about an economy having a certain degree of order, where equilibrium is maximum order. The better coordinated plans are, the higher the degree of order.

The concept of order can be applied to business cycle theory. Expectations have played a central role in business cycle research since the 1930s. Most firms do not expect a sharp decline in demand. Those that do typically mistime their preparation. A clear example is the 2007–09 financial crisis. Investment banks’ plans did not work out when a significant fraction of their assets dropped in value. The small businesses which went bankrupt had their expectations reverse. In mid-2006, few people thought that they had a large probability of losing their jobs in 2008–09. The business cycle is a period of discoordination — a loss of order.

Spain’s recession, following a housing bubble, has been particularly bad. Indeed, it feels more like a depression. Spain’s unemployment rate is over 26 percent. Much like during the Great Depression, a large fraction of unemployment is the result of bad policy. The IMF estimates Spain’s average outgap gap for 2013 at –4.338, which is comparable to that of the United States. Yet, the U.S.’ unemployment rate is “only” at 6.7 percent. Bad supply-side policy, in conjunction with bad demand-side policy, has made a disaster of an already bad situation. Spain’s structural problems, of course, have existed for a long time, but they were partly hidden by the boom of the early and mid-2000s. Schneider (2011) estimates that the value of production in Spain’s informal (extralegal) sector has been greater than one fifth of Spain’s GDP since ~1994, falling to 19.3 percent of GDP in 2007 — but, no doubt larger after the crash (although, in part because of a decline in GDP). Large extralegal sectors are typically a sign of bad supply-side policy.

Problems in Iberia go beyond bad policy. Spain’s democracy is more fragile than some people realize. The country has passed a few tests for robustness — such as the (quasi-abortive) February 1981 coup —, and high growth during the late 1990s and for much of the 2000s seemed promising. Indeed, many in Spain were looking forward to the day that the country would replace Canada in the G8! But, the country’s economic woes have been joined with corruption issues in government — and the problem crosses party lines: bribery, illegal payments, money laundering, et cetera. Further, regional banks funded local programs, and the relationship between these banks’ balance sheets, their health, and the political support they receive is unclear. These scandals have made it hard for Spaniards to trust their governments, whether national or local. The range of this distrust has spread to the royal family — especially after legitimate corruption charges against some of its members — and elsewhere.

The extent of distrust can be seen in Spain’s changing football (soccer) culture. Referees are always criticized. It’s hard to find an article on a big Premier League game without reading one manager’s criticism of the referee’s handling of a game. There are constant complaints against refereeing in all sports. But, in Spain, it’s especially bad, because complaints have given way to conspiracy theories. There is this notion that the governing body in Spain, RFEF, implicitly or explicitly supports a status quo that favors Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two highest earning football teams in Spain. The theories go as far as to claim that referees make their calls to purposefully help the the two “big teams” (los grandes). And, of course, between the two big teams fans accuse the other club of corruption. Even players have made these accusations — Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, players for Real Madrid, made comments to this effect after last weekend’s match against Barcelona.

There is, in general, an emerging culture that sees corruption and scandal everywhere. Bonds of trust are disintegrating. This can have dire long-term consequences. Trust, in some sense, is an institution; or, it’s a value manifested in certain institutions. Businessmen spend a lot of time and money establishing a relationship of trust with their clients. They offer warranties, they make sure to always leave their customer satisfied (hoping for the relationship to be repeated over time), et cetera. When there is no trust, the economy suffers. The transaction costs to some exchanges can become too high, and trades which would have led to gains for all parties involved simply don’t take place. To put the role of trust into perspective, recall the 2011 paper by Nunn and Wantchekon, finding evidence that slavery created a culture of mistrust, holding development in sub-Saharan Africa back. This is happening in Spain. While political corruption is hard to compare to slavery, the emerging culture in Spain may have dire economic (and political) consequences for years to come.

Mistrust might make political reform more difficult. Note how untrustworthy Ukrainian protestors have been of the “reformed” Ukrainian government. The same is true of Spain, although in different areas and to a different degree. Governments with fragile relationships with their people are going to have a hard time passing structural reforms that may not produce immediate results. Mistrust also makes a situation ripe for regime uncertainty. Uncertainty over the political climate makes business more difficult and less attractive, especially if this business requires large investments. Mistrust can spill over into the private sector in other ways around. Large businesses — which tend to be villainized when it’s the worst off who suffer the most — can lose demand for their product, even if their product confers to the consumer the highest satisfaction relative to other choices. Mistrust can even hurt relationships between small businesses, and even between small time vendors and their customers.

The effects of the business cycle, especially if these effects are made worse by bad policy and political corruption, can influence an economy for many years thereafter. They can make recovery more difficult. When a people lose faith in their institutions of governance, this mistrust tends to spread to other sectors of life, including business. It itself is corrupting, because it changes the institutions which guide economic processes. It limits trade, and when trade is limited we lose out on gains from trade. Countries like Spain (and Greece) are undergoing this transformation, and if this process isn’t reversed, the consequences can become more dire than they already are.

Institutional Comparisons and Growth

This post is really a comparison of three books: Peter Leeson’s The Invisible Hook, Douglas Allen’s The Institutional Revolution (review), and Daron Acemoglu’s and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail. All three talk about institutions, and the latter two talk about institutions in the context of economic growth. I sense a friction between the Acemoglu–Robinson and the Leeson–Allen narratives. Leeson and Allen tell us that we have to look at institutions in the context of constraints. Acemoglu and Robinson look at various institutions, historically and internationally, and try to compare them directly, but they don’t consider constraints. I wonder whether the Acemoglu–Robinson narrative tells us less than they think it does.

Allen’s and Leeson’s books share a similar purpose. The Institutional Revolution attempts to explain various customs by looking at the rules of the game and what ends these rules seek to accomplish. Specifically, Allen explains a set of the institutions of ~1600–1850 England, including several aspects of the institutions of governance. Leeson, in the Invisible Hook, does much of the same, but focuses on the golden age of piracy. They both find that the institutions they look at make sense within the context of the ends of the agents and technological (exogenous) constraints. In the real world nothing is perfect, but we could think of these institutions as optimal. Replacing them with an alternative set of institutions, even if this set works well in certain situations (e.g. the institutions of governance of the modern developed world), would most likely lead to inferior outcomes.

In their book, Acemoglu and Robinson look at global income inequality between nations and argue that institutions are the cause of this inequity. They look at, for example, North and South Korea, two countries with similar cultures and geography, and explain the divergence in income growth through institutional comparison. North Korea is governed by an extractive dictatorship, while South Korea is an inclusive democracy (nevermind that this political dichotomy was probably not so clear in the late 1950s and 1960s). Their general argument is that extractive regimes slow income growth and inclusive (plural) regimes promote growth. An easy policy recommendation, then, is that developing nations should embrace inclusive institutions of governance.

Is economic growth as easy as embracing inclusive politics? The Leeson–Allen narrative warns us against settling for the easy answer. Oftentimes, institutional sets are not directly comparable. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that North and South Korea have two different sets of exogenous constraints. If this is the case, then it’s much harder to argue that the South’s political institutions are responsible for the income disparity. Replacing the North Korean state with that of the South may lead to another sub-optimal outcome, and not to the growth that Acemoglu and Robinson predict.

I’m not going as far as to argue that, given North Korean constraints, the current state is optimal. In fact, I think the opposite is true. Still, the optimal set of political institutions in North Korea could be very different to those of South Korea. This means that South Korea tells us very little about North Korea, and that direct comparison of institutions is misleading.

Do institutions explain global economic growth since the mid-19th century? They may, but perhaps not in the way Acemoglu and Robinson predict. Consider The Institutional Revolution. If Allen is right, modern political institutions just would not have worked out in premodern England, because the constraints were so that modern institutions just wouldn’t fit. He argues, for instance, that modern bureaucracy was made possible because of technological changes during the 19th century that allowed organizations to monitor their employees and offer them a wage based on the marginal value of their labor. Before these technological changes, it made sense to develop an aristocracy based on the accumulation of capital, which was invested into illiquid assets — assets that lost their value if aristocrats did their job poorly and were removed from office. These were the institutions in place when England went through the first industrial revolution, in the late 18th century.

The implication is that Robinson and Acemoglu might be looking at a symptom of economic growth, mistaking it for a cause. The transition to modern democracy may not have been an issue based only on the distribution of power; the emergence of modern democracy may have more to do than just the withering of extractive regimes. It might have required other things to come into place, as well, including technological developments and changes in the preferences of society. Typically, we relate technological advancement with economic growth, which implies that there is an element to growth that is independent of institutional transition.

I like the argument made in Why Nations Fail. I think there is something to the theory that extractive institutions restrain growth and inclusive institutions promote growth. My interpretation of these terms is that inclusiveness refers to the degree of plurality. Plurality is important, because the greater the fraction of society whose preferences are communicated through the political process, the smaller the externalized costs of governance (see Buchanan and Tullock, The Calculus of Consent1). If the current U.S. government were replaced by a dictatorship, I think the most likely outcome is a reduction in the rate of growth of our well-being. But, this theory loses explanatory power when we are making comparisons between institutions that exist within different sets of constraints.

Admittedly, despite my affinity for them, the terms “extractive” and “inclusive” lose concreteness. Suppose we think about these terms in the context of a spectrum, where extractive and inclusive are polar opposites — extractive on the left end, inclusive on the right. Can we put, for instance, modern U.S. democracy to the right of premodern English aristocracy? If we do, we have to accept that a more inclusive system of governance might have made premodern England worse off. If we say that the degree of inclusiveness is not directly comparable, we arrive at the problem I’ve been trying to explain throughout this post: direct institutional comparisons oftentimes tell us very little about why one society is poor and another very well-off.

The Acemoglu–Robinson narrative, however, might say a lot in certain situations. Above, I used the example of North and South Korea. I was trying to illustrate a point. I don’t know if the constraints on each country are different. If they aren’t, then directly comparing institutions might tell us something useful. In fact, I think that much of North Korean poverty is directly explained by their institutions of governance. The North Korean state is a perfect example of what Acemoglu and Robinson mean by extractive institutions. I think it also fits the model (“Why Not a Political Coase Theorem“) Acemoglu built to explain why political institutions remain extractive: North Korean leaders are afraid that economic growth will threaten their hold on power. I am not arguing that the story in Why Nations Fail explains nothing; it probably explains quite a bit, but only if we restrict institutional comparison in accordance with variations in the relevant constraints.

In a nutshell, the point I am making is as follows: which set of institutions are optimal depends on the relevant set of constraints. Therefore, a government that is optimal in one situation may be sub-optimal in another. If this is the case, the straightforward comparison between inclusive and extractive institutions does not lend us much help in pinpointing the causes of global wealth inequality. An inclusive institution that correlates with high growth in the U.S. may correlate with low growth in Laos, and the optimal set of institutions in Laos may look relatively extractive on a simple extractive–inclusive spectrum. The implication is that there is quite a bit to long-run economic growth that the narrative in Why Nations Fail can’t explain, and it may be that this aspect to growth is only indirectly related to institutional change — this change may come as a result of growth, as opposed to being a cause of it.


1. To relate The Calculus of Consent directly, Buchanan and Tullock model two sources of costs to governance: the externalized costs of imperfect plurality and decision-making costs, which increase as the number of people involved in the decision-making process rises. They come up with a combined cost curve that looks like a parabola that opens upwards, where the x-axis plots cost and the y-axis plots the number of individuals involved in decision-making. Optimal plurality is where costs are minimized, which is not necessarily 100 percent plurality. Changes in the mapping of the curve can about with technological changes, and this may push optimal governance towards a greater degree of plurality, but without these technological changes it doesn’t make sense to advocate for a more inclusive government than what’s optimal.

Taking Knowledge Problems Seriously

Peter Boettke draws a distinction in the history of thought between those who are optimistic about markets, and pessimistic about government intervention, and those who are pessimistic about markets, and therefore optimistic about government intervention. Taking a look at the comments, not a lot of people wholly agree with Boettke. But, I think that he’s at least partly right. The Austrian theory of the market process is built on this idea that knowledge is decentralized and that human beings are radically ignorant and fallible, taking therefore an institutional approach to social coordination — how institutions help us overcome these issues. There is a symmetric approach to governance. But, typically, this isn’t what “interventionists”1 care about.

Most economists, it needs to be said, have always acknowledged many of the weaknesses of government. One of these is a subtle trait that characterizes all parts of society, which is that social coordination is impossible unless there are ways by which individuals can communicate to each other unique sets of knowledge/information. In markets, for example, the clearest example are prices. But, apart from prices, we should also stress the role of the entrepreneur as a “discoverer” — someone who has to grapple with the unknown, and communicate new knowledge on a trial-and-error basis. Austrians are well-known for recognizing this problem very early on, and it shapes how they view markets. As a result, they also appreciate social complexity, developing the theory that these institutions are developed spontaneously; they grow out of the interaction of agents, and are not designed by a single mind.

We can apply the same approach to governance, and economists have. This is the common thread that ties up, for example, the literature on voting as an allocational device — see for example Bowen (1943) and Barzel and Sass (1990) —, or the use of migration as a profit–and–loss mechanism — e.g. Tiebout (1956) or my rough idea of competitively choosing between governments. Thus, to one extent or another government’s knowledge problem is recognized, and we can look at the institutions which have developed over time that help us achieve superior coordination through collective action.

I have criticized libertarians who are extremely skeptical of government for suffering their own “fatal conceit” — sometimes they don’t appreciate the complexity of the institutions of governance. This is not to say that libertarians don’t consider this issue at all; after all, my opinion on this matter has been shaped, in large part, by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. But, I think it’s true that, in general and especially outside of the journals, much of the benefits to social coordination that the right institutions of governance can bring are recognized too little by critics. They don’t take the knowledge problem as seriously as they should when they judge the government, or some part of it. As Boettke writes, the market optimism, government pessimism, tends to lead economists to put different weights on what they consider to be important, at the risk of ignoring something, that you otherwise know very well, in your analysis — especially as it concerns policy (e.g. the policy of reducing government involvement).

But, the same can be said of those who are market pessimists, government optimists. Oftentimes the knowledge problem of coordinating markets is not taken seriously. Boettke brings up Janet Yellen and monetary policy, and I think he’s absolutely right. It’s not just Yellen, but the entire institution of the Federal Reserve. Consider this excerpt from a recent Stephen Williamson post,

The Fed does indeed have a credibility problem. That credibility problem comes in part from implementing policies — quantitative easing (QE) in particular — the effects of which are imperfectly understood by economists inside or outside of the Federal Reserve System. We don’t know what mechanism is at work, we don’t have any idea what the quantitative effects are, and yet Fed officials confidently support the use of QE in public, as if they knew exactly what is going on. Further, it is well-known that the real effects of monetary policy are at best temporary, but Fed officials like Kocherlakota seem to want to argue that the failure of policy to “cure the problem” is just a license for doing more.

The limits of the Fed are rarely taken seriously. Yes, economists acknowledge that the effects of some policy or another are imperfectly understood. But, rather than seeking new “optimal” monetary policies, there is very little talk of alternative institutions. To help put the problem in perspective, consider Scott Sumner’s NGDP targeting proposal. If the Fed sets up an NGDP futures market, they can track NGDP expectations and correct monetary policy. But, this is only a very superficial solution to the knowledge problem (using the futures market as an informational channel). There needs to be more discussion on what happens when a policy fails and how to measure the success or failure of a policy. More generally, there is no serious discussion on what kind of institutions would make monetary policy more efficient.

To continue with the Fed example, consider the growing literature on free banking. We know that a privatized banking system induces competition between banks and money, constraining credit growth. But, we also know that private banking systems practiced monetary and regulatory policy of their own. For example, clearing houses established rules for membership, removing banks that did not follow them. During periods of crisis, when individual banks suffered from shocks to their assets, clearinghouses would often pool assets and issue temporary notes of their own, either to facilitate inter-bank clearings or to circulate amongst the public. When the banking system was reorganized in the 20th century, we sacrificed, to one extent or another, the possible improvements to banking institutions that would have continued to be developed, tested, and implemented by a competitive banking system (more accurately, a competitive currency market). I’m not saying that a purely private banking system is best (it may, or it may not be), but there is evidence that the Fed is inferior in many respects to alternative institutions. Yet these weaknesses  — especially as it concerns its place in the division of knowledge — are taken seriously by a smaller lot of economists than it should be.

We can say the same thing about other aspects of government. Take the recent paper on the cash for clunkers program, which argues that it was comparatively poor stimulus. The common approach to this finding is that we should use our intelligence to figure out better policies. But, to stop there is to only scratch the surface of the problem. We also need to think about what kind of institutions of governance would help increase the probability of good fiscal programs, without relying entirely on human intelligence (which is limited and fallible). Markets, for example, don’t rely on entrepreneurs who always succeed at finding good investment. The market has developed institutions to weed out failure and minimize the costs of these failures. Economists who advocate for fiscal policy rarely consider this issue; it’s not a problem that informs their policy recommendations.

I agree with Boettke that there seems to be a line of separation between two groups of economist. But, rather than market optimist/pessimist and government pessimist/optimist, we should classify economists by those who take the knowledge problem seriously and those who don’t. Austrians are very good at recognizing the knowledge problem — even if they sometimes forget to apply it fairly to governance —, and I think that other economists are oftentimes, unjustifiably, less worried about it and therefore consider it less.


1.”Interventionists” is a loaded term, but I use it only to help distinguish one class of economists. I don’t mean to imply that being an interventionist is necessarily bad.

Public Police and Violent Crime

The following passage reminds me of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature,

Today police are invariably linked to violent crime, but their history would suggest otherwise. England, in the thirteenth century, was a rather violent country: the homicide rate was 18–23 per 100,000 population, and violent deaths accounted for 18.2 percent of all criminal indictments. However, the trend in violence from this period until World War I was steadily downward. By the seventeenth century, homicide rates had fallen by half, and the fall continued throughout the eighteenth century. By 1890, “only three people in all of England and Wales were sentenced to death for murder committed with a revolver.” All of this was done in the context of private provision of police and justice. It was not until the nineteenth century that policing in England became publicly provided. The steady decline in violent offenses from the Middle Ages on is evidence that the emergence of the public police in the first half the nineteenth century was not in response to a sudden increase, or continuing high levels, in violent crime.

— Douglas Allen, The Institutional Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Allen makes a convincing case that it was product standardization that made public policing relevant. During the late 17th century and throughout the 1800s, new technologies made capable the production of non-variable output, because methods of production became more precise. Previously, output was largely artisan in nature, and the final product was variable (different units of output varied in quality and characteristics). In the case of theft, private justice was relatively efficient, because it was easier to link product with owner. Related, the lack of a public road system made it less likely that stolen wares would be taken to distant markets. However, standardization made it more difficult to know who owns what and a well-maintained public road system arose, with consequent long-distance markets, made private justice less effective, leading to the establishment of a public police force.