The Historical Contingency of Rules and the Immutability of Economic Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Perverse Incentive of Armament Procurement?

There are internal economies of scale when average unit costs fall as production increases. One reason this might happen is because it might allow the firm’s workforce to specialize further, increasing their productivity. Businesses with high fixed costs, like research, development, and testing, are also typically enjoy returns to scale. Industries with internal returns to scale are characterized by relatively few and large firms. The armaments industry — e.g. Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, BAE, Raytheon, et cetera — is one such industry.

The single largest consumer of weapons, especially military-grade arms and vehicles, are national governments. Only select countries, for example, are allowed to field M1 Abrams tanks. Like a good deal of government projects, armament development programs are typically very expensive, and suffer excessive overruns. The F-35 is approximately $160 million over budget. The RAH-66 Commanche consumed $6.9 billion before being canceled. The V-22 Osprey ended up costing 2068% more than originally projected. Yea, military procurement is extremely inefficient. (Actually, for a scientific look into the relationship between the U.S. government and weapons manufacturers, see Arms, Politics, and the Economy, edited by Robert Higgs.)

Longer periods of research and development, more prototypes, testing, and other pre-production steps mean higher fixed costs. Internal economies of scale not only mean that more production will lower average cost per unit, but it also means greater profits for the firm — that high fixed cost is spread over a greater number of units of output. As long as marginal costs are below average costs, there is a strong incentive to keep producing.

For a firm looking to sell their weapon system to the U.S. government, they have to persuade the latter to buy it. If selling more equates with making a higher profit, there will be some amount of money the company will be willing to spend on lobbying. The greater the amount of output necessary to reach “minimum efficient scale” (where average costs are lowest — at some point, marginal costs will pass long-run average cost, and the latter will begin to increase again), the more sales the firm will want to persuade the government to make. The higher the fixed costs, which include budget overruns, the more the contractor will want to sell, the more it will lobby.

Cost overruns are a good signal for waste. When waste attracts more waste, which in this case is buying more military equipment, we call this a perverse incentive. Is the process I sketch out here one such way this manifest itself in the real world?

Quote of the Week

In the past, periods of monetary disturbances have always been periods of great progress in this branch of economics. The Italy of the sixteenth century has been called the country of the worst money and the best monetary theory.

— Friedrich Hayek, Prices & Production and Other Works (Auburn: Mises Institute, 2008), p. 198.

I Can’t Believe Economists Don’t Do X

You can exchange ‘economist’ for ‘scientist,’ in the title, and the point I’m about to make remains the same.

I saw, on Facebook, a comment relating to the apparent disinterest amongst economists for the philosophy of their science, on average. The person making the comment suggested that one should become familiar with the philosophy of the science, then the history, and then focus on “application of the discipline” (which, I assume, includes learning the discipline).

This approach should be met with suspicion, especially amongst economists. One way society becomes wealthier is through specialization, which is made possible by a growing division-of-labor. We focus on using a more specific set of skills, so that we can develop these skills and produce more. Further, by narrowing the skill set one needs to produce, you can focus on your greatest skills, and do away with those that hold you back. But, if we all continue to specialize, how does a single person still act in a way that jives with the division-of-labor in general?

To re-state the analogy in terms specific to the economics profession: if economists continue to specialize (e.g. spend more time learning and practicing labor economics, implying less time to learn and practice monetary economics), how does their work fit in with the rest of the discipline? If Joe the Labor Economist is conducting research that must fit in with the remainder of economic theory, how is he to accomplish this if increased specialization comes at the cost of general knowledge of your field?

Communication. In a division-of-labor, humans have developed — spontaneously or otherwise — methods of communicating useful knowledge, without having to actually spend a lot of time searching for it. The common example is the pricing process. Prices communicate certain pieces of information. If a steel buyer requires so much of that input for some project, but the only steel manufacturer suffers a fire in its factory, cutting the flow of output in half, prices can communicate this knowledge to the buyer. Similarly, humans use language to communicate, and use of language gradually becomes simpler and more direct — people want to economize their use of language. Norms, or rules and heuristics, serve a similar function: to allow us to operate in a socially beneficial way, without having to really be aware of the specifics of other cogs in the ‘machine,’ so to speak.

The same is true within the sciences. It is true that a loss of general knowledge comes at the cost of being cognizant of other parts of the science, which your own research has to be consistent with. However, it’s also true that the less you specialize, the less you can focus on your specific research. The more knowledge the field produces, the more we have to specialize, because — given decreasing marginal returns — we have to increase our productivity to produce something of equal value. This creates a strain, however, between specialization and the relevance of general knowledge (e.g. philosophy of science, or the science outside your narrow sub-field). Institutions have to arise to help us economize on that general knowledge.

We might lament the perceived lack of general knowledge amongst scientists. We might want to criticize an economist for not knowing much about economic history, for example. But, rather than seeing this as a weakness within the discipline, it’s better to interpret it as general progress. Economists are becoming more specialized, because improvements in the communication of general knowledge have made greater specialization possible.

One test as to whether I’m right is to think about how well the average piece of research fits into the overall puzzle of economic theory. If it’s true that the average economist does not know much about the philosophy, or history, of her science (I’m assuming it as true), and it’s true that greater specialization should lead to a loss of cohesion, then we’d expect the state of economics to worsen over time. We’d also predict that aforementioned loss of cohesion. But, that’s not what we’ve seen. Instead, economics is equally as unified as it used to be, and perhaps even more so — consider, for example, the ‘requirement’ of microfoundations. This despite the fact that modern economics can provide a much richer understanding of the real world than the discipline could 60 years ago, because specialization has continued to progress.

That the average economist might not know much about the history and/or philosophy of economics is not a problem. Instead, it’s evidence of the progress of the discipline. Methods of communicating ‘general knowledge’ have improved, allowing economists to focus on narrowing sub-fields. This, like specialization in any division-of-labor, allows for productivity increases. What this means for science is that specialization is an important cause of growth in scientific knowledge.

When is Transitivity Wrong?

Transitivity of preferences is an important assumption in the ‘orthodox’ theory of rational choice. Your preferences fulfill the assumption if you, for example, prefer x to y, y to z, and therefore x to z. Who wouldn’t have transitive preferences?

Failure to recognize relations of transitivity is characteristic of schizophrenics; those disposed to blatantly ignore transitivity are unintelligible to us; we cannot understand their pattern of actions as sensible ways to promote their values.

— Gerald Gaus, The Order of Public Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 70.

Benefits to High Seas Piracy

While the study isn’t recent, I came across this news brief on a study on the relationship between piracy and the colonies,

Pirates mapped new territory, expanded trade routes, discovered good ports and opened doors with the native peoples, Acosta said. “They really helped European nations explore the Americas before Europeans could afford to explore them on their own,” he said.

By selling stolen silks, satins, spices and other merchandise in ports and spending their booty in the colonies, pirates created an economic boom, helping struggling settlements and making Port Royale in Jamaica and Charleston, S.C., huge mercantile centers, Acosta said. “They didn’t bury their treasure, they spent it, helping colonies survive that couldn’t get the money and supplies they needed from Europe,” he said.

Without the infusion of money into the New World from piracy, it is possible that Britain and France may not have been able to catch up with Spain, Acosta said.

Quote of the Week

But often rent seeking involves a real waste of resources that lowers the country’s productivity and well-being. It distorts resource allocations and makes the economy weaker. A byproduct of efforts directed toward getting a larger share of the pie is shrinkage of the pie.

— Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: Norton, 2012), p. 95.

Of course, it works both ways. Many programs that aim to increase the share of the pie accruing to labor will shrink the total size. But, I doubt that’s what Stiglitz had in mind.

A heterodox perspective on theory & history