Posts filed under ‘Classical Liberalism’

Notes on Inequality

| Peter Klein |

Everyone’s talking about inequality. I confess don’t find inequality terribly interesting, intrinsically. Of course, inequality that results from special government privilege — the incomes of top executives at Lockheed Martin or Goldman Sachs, the speaking fees earned by Hillary Clinton, the wealth of US sugar farmers — should be analyzed and criticized, and those privileges removed. Firm policies that result in pay differentials — pay-for-performance schemes, for example — are important and interesting, not because they generate inequality per se, but because they have systematic and significant effects on firm behavior and performance. Of course, inequality may have important long-run social and cultural effects, but these are highly speculative and not obviously actionable.

I haven’t yet read Thomas Piketty’s new book but am aware of — and amazed by — the buzz it’s generating. I suspect most of the excitement reflects confirmation bias: people who think inequality is the major issue of our time naturally think this is the most important economics book of the decade, probably before reading it. (Naturally, I’d love to exploit that formula in marketing my own books.)

I do have a few thoughts on how the discussion is framed, in light of Piketty’s work. First, Piketty and his admirers define “capital” as a homogeneous, liquid pool of funds, not a heterogeneous stock of capital assets. This is not merely a terminological issue, as those familiar with the debates on capital theory from the 1930s and 1940s are well aware. Piketty’s approach focuses on the quantity of capital and, more importantly, the rate of return on capital. But these concepts make little sense from the perspective of Austrian capital theory, which emphasizes the complexity, variety, and quality of the economy’s capital structure. There is no way to measure the quantity of capital, nor would such a number be meaningful. The value of heterogeneous capital goods depends on their place in an entrepreneur’s subjective production plan. Production is fraught with uncertainty. Entrepreneurs acquire, deploy, combine, and recombine capital goods in anticipation of profit, but there is no such thing as a “rate of return on invested capital.” (more…)

23 April 2014 at 10:32 am 5 comments

Solution to the Economic Crisis? More Keynes and Marx

| Peter Klein |

We’ve previously discussed attempts to blame the accounting scandals of the early 2000s on the teaching of transaction cost economics and agency theory. By describing the hazards of opportunistic behavior and shirking, professors were allegedly encouraging students to be opportunistic and to shirk. Then we were told that business schools teach “a particular brand of free-market ideology” — the view that “the market always ‘gets prices right’ and “[a]n individual’s worth can be reduced to one’s worth in the market” — and that this ideology was partly responsible for the financial crisis. (My initial reaction: Where to I sign up for these courses?!)

The Guardian reports now on a movement in the UK to address “the crisis in economics teaching, which critics say has remained largely unchanged since the 2008 financial crash despite the failure of many in the profession to spot the looming credit crunch and worst recession for 100 years.” If you think this refers to a movement to discredit orthodox Keynesianism, which dominates monetary theory and practice in all countries, and its view that discretionary fiscal and (especially) monetary policy are needed to steer the economy on a smooth course, with particular attention to asset markets where prices must be rising at all times, you’d be wrong. No, the reformers are calling for “economics courses to embrace the teachings of Marx and Keynes to undermine the dominance of neoclassical free-market theories.” To their credit, the reformers appear also to want more attention to economic history and the history of economic thought, which is all to the good. But the reformers’ basic premise seems to be that mainstream economics is too friendly toward the free market, and that this has left students unprepared to understand the “post-2008″ world.

To a non-Keyensian and non-Marixian like me, these arguments seem to come from a bizarro world where the sky is green, water runs uphill, and Janet Yellen is seven feet tall. It’s true that most economists reject economy-wide central planning, but the vast majority endorse some version of Keynesian economic policy complete with activist fiscal and monetary interventions, substantial regulation of markets (especially financial markets), fiat money under the control of a central bank, social policy to encourage home ownership, and all the rest. We’ve pointed many times on this blog to research on the social and political views of economists, who lean “left” by a ratio of about 2.5 to 1 — yes, nothing like the sociologists’ zillion to 1, but hardly evidence for a rigid, free-market orthodoxy. I note that the reformers described in the Guardian piece never, ever offer any kind of empirical evidence on the views of economists, the content of economics courses, or the influence of economics courses on economic policy. They simply assert that they don’t like this or that economic theory or pedagogy, which somehow contributed to this or that economic problem. They seem blissfully unaware of the possibility that their own policy preferences might actually be favored in the textbooks and classrooms, and might have just a teeny bit to do with bad economic policies.

I’m reminded of Sheldon Richman’s pithy summary: “No matter how much the government controls the economic system, any problem will be blamed on whatever small zone of freedom that remains.”

11 November 2013 at 10:24 am 4 comments

More AoM PDWs

| Peter Klein |

There are too many good AoM sessions to mention them all — there’s even a Tweet Up for social-media freaks (hey, where’s the Insta-Slam?) — but I’ll mention two more Professional Development Workshops of interest:

Myths and Realities of Capitalism: Micro and Macro Perspectives
Session #609, Sunday, Aug 11 2013 4:30PM – 7:30PM at WDW Dolphin Resort in Asia 3

Organizer: Rajshree Agarwal, U. of Maryland
Speaker: John Allison, Cato Institute
Speaker: Yaron Brook, Ayn Rand Institute
Speaker: Paul Green, Morning Star
Speaker: Jay B Barney, Eccles School, U. of Utah
Speaker: Doug Kirkpatrick, Morning Star Institute
Speaker: Peter G Klein, U. of Missouri
Speaker: Edwin A. Locke, U. of Maryland, College Park
Speaker: John Sullivan, Center for International Private Enterprise
Organizer: Hildy Teegen, U. of South Carolina
Speaker: Paul E. Tesluk, U. of Buffalo

The theme of the 2013 Academy of Management Meetings is based on a call into question of the efficacy and merits of capitalism—and the free enterprise system that it entails. However, all of the economic systems in the world today represent varying degrees of free enterprise and government intervention. This PDW addresses the call of examining micro and macro perspectives on some of the myths and realities of capitalism. A critical and informed examination of perhaps the most foundational underpinning of business and management —voluntary trade among producers based on the premise of human rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness—is urgently called for. The PDW brings together micro and macro scholars within the Academy, along with leading businessmen and spokespersons from policy institutes. The format of the PDW allows for an articulation of premises that guide both micro individual behavior and macro institutional factors that are required for value creation under a capitalist system, and a discussion of the alleged virtues and vices of capitalism. The workshop is designed in four parts and is structured to provide workshop participants with the opportunity to learn from experts and each other and to co-develop relevant implications for management faculty around the world.

Entrepreneurial Opportunity—The State of the Debate and The Linkages to Management
Session #258, Saturday, Aug 10 2013 10:00AM – 12:00PM at WDW Swan Resort in Mockingbird 1

Chair: Robert Joseph Wuebker, U. of Utah
Discussant: Roy R Suddaby, U. of Alberta
Presenter: Jay B Barney, Eccles School, U. of Utah
Participant: David Audretsch, Indiana U., Bloomington
Presenter: Dimo Dimov, U. of Bath
Presenter: Sharon Alvarez, The Ohio State U.
Presenter: Peter G Klein, U. of Missouri
Presenter: Mike Wright, Imperial College London
Presenter: P. Devereaux Jennings, U. of Alberta

For more than two decades, the field of entrepreneurship has struggled to converge on a definition of a core distinction in the field—entrepreneurial opportunity. The recent publication of a series of reflection papers in the Academy of Management—along with the published reactions, comments on the reactions, and meta-commentary—highlight both the importance of this dialogue to the field and illuminate the competing and mutually exclusive perspectives on (1) the nature of entrepreneurial opportunity and (2) the importance of the debate itself. This workshop offers a structured discussion about the status of entrepreneurial opportunity with the individuals who are at the “sharp end” of the debate, and framed by the journal editors that are directly involved in promoting, framing, and shaping it. We accomplish this through a panel format in which we curate representative positions on the question of entrepreneurial opportunity. Each panelist will reflect on the historical and theoretical roots of their position; note key assumptions and important priors; and elucidate the consequences of each position on the research and teaching program for the field. Following our panel, editors from Academy of Management Journal and Organization Science will offer their perspective and lead a Q&A session between panelists and participants.

5 August 2013 at 10:54 pm Leave a comment

Keynes in the Spotlight

| Peter Klein |

NPG P363(14); John Maynard Keynes, Baron Keynes by Ramsey & MusprattAs the Niall Ferguson kerfuffle begins fading from memory it’s worth revisiting the underlying issue: What kind of person was John Maynard Keynes, and (how) did his social, cultural, moral, and aesthetic views affect his scientific work?

Here are a few recommended readings:

These works are not kind to ole’ John Maynard (I’m posting them, what did you expect?). Rothbard, for example, emphasizes Keynes’s “overweening egotism, which assured him that he could handle all intellectual problems quickly and accurately and led him to scorn any general principles that might curb his unbridled ego,” also referring to Keynes’s “deep hatred and contempt for the values and virtues of the bourgeoisie,” including savings and thrift. It’s hard to imagine that Keynes’s personal views on thrift could be unrelated to the now-ubiquitous, über-Keynesian idea that spending, not savings and capital accumulation, is the driver of economic growth.

On time preference, and its social and cultural causes and consequences, I recommend Time and Public Policy by T. Alexander Smith (University of Tennessee Press, 1988), which unfortunately appears to be out of print. Here is a brief review by Israel Kirzner.

17 May 2013 at 2:07 pm 2 comments

Henderson on Business Ethics

| Dick Langlois |

Rebecca Henderson, one of my favorite management scholars, has a new paper (with Karthik Ramanna) on – Milton Friedman and business ethics. Here’s the abstract.

Managers and Market Capitalism

In a capitalist system based on free markets, do managers have responsibilities to the system itself, and, in particular, should these responsibilities shape their behavior when they are attempting to structure those institutions of capitalism that are determined through a political process? A prevailing view — perhaps most eloquently argued by Milton Friedman — is that managers should act to maximize shareholder value, and thus that they should take every opportunity (within the bounds of the law) to structure market institutions so as to increase profitability. We maintain here that if the political process is sufficiently ‘thick,’ in that diverse views are well-represented and if politicians and regulators cannot be easily captured, then this shareholder-return view of political engagement is unlikely to reduce social welfare in the aggregate and thus damage the legitimacy of market capitalism. However, we contend that sometimes the political process of determining institutions of capitalism is ‘thin,’ in that managers find themselves with specialized technical knowledge unavailable to outsiders and with little political opposition — such as in the case of determining certain corporate accounting standards that define corporate profitability. In these circumstances, we argue that managers have a responsibility to structure market institutions so as to preserve the legitimacy of market capitalism, even if doing so is at the expense of corporate profits. We make this argument on grounds that it is both in managers’ self-interest and, expanding on Friedman, managers’ ethical duty. We provide a framework for future research to explore and develop these arguments.

On the one hand, we might quibble about whether they get Friedman right. Friedman meant in the first instance that managers should pursue their self-interest within the framework of “good” institutions, not in the (Public Choice) context of changing the institutional framework itself. I haven’t actually gone back to see what Friedman says about this, but here is how Henderson and Ramanna interpret the Chicago tradition: “Friedman and his colleagues were keenly aware that capitalism can only fulfill its normative promise when markets are free and unconstrained, and that managers (and others) have strong incentives to violate the conditions that support such markets (e.g., Stigler, 1971). But they argued both that dynamic markets tend to be self-healing in that the dynamics of competition itself generates the institutions and actions that maintain competition and that government could be relied on to maintain those institutions—such as the legal system—that are more effectively provided by the state (on this latter point, see, in particular, Hayek, 1951).” There is a sense in which Chicago saw (and economic liberals in general see) the system as self-healing in the longest of runs: every inefficiency is ultimately a profit opportunity for someone who can transmute deadweight loss into producer’s surplus; and economic growth cures a lot of ills. But one can hardly accuse Chicago of being insensitive to those bad incentives for rent-seeking in the short and medium term.

On the other hand, Henderson and Ramanna make a valuable point when they draw our attention to the gray area in which market-supporting institutions (the same term I tend to use) are often forged through private action or through public action in which the private actors possess the necessary local knowledge. There is a scattered literature on this – the setting of technical standards, for example – but it is not a major focus of Public Choice or political economy. Perhaps it is naïve to say that managers in this gray area have an ethical duty to support institutions that make the pie bigger rather than institutions that transfer income to them. But what else can we say? It’s a lot better than blathering on about “public-private partnerships,” which are frequently cover for rent-seeking behavior. One (possibly embarrassing) implication of this stance is that it makes a hero of the much-reviled Charles Koch, who funds opposition to many of the rent-seeking institutions from which his own company benefits.

At one point Henderson and Ramanna mention the Great Depression as a “market failure” that incubated anti-capitalist sentiment. The second part of that assertion is certainly true, but the Depression was not a market failure but a spectacular failure of government. (Read Friedman (!), whose once-controversial view about this is now widely accepted by economic historians and monetary economists, including Ben Bernanke.) The Depression is actually an interesting case study in the gray area of institutions. Before the Fed, private financiers acted collectively to provide the public good of stopping bank panics. Now that role has fallen to the state, with private interests – and their asymmetrical local knowledge – influencing the bailout process. Which system was less corrupt? A more general question: are there any examples of fully private creation of institutions in which the self-interest of the participants led to inefficient rent-seeking?

27 March 2013 at 2:33 pm 2 comments

Creativity and Property Rights

| Peter Klein |

I haven’t been following the Cato Unbound debate on US copyright law, but Adam Mossoff directs me to Mark Schultz’s post, “Where are the Creators? Consider Creators in Copyright Reform.” Mark thinks current debates over copyright law neglect the role of creativity: “Too often, the modern copyright debate overlooks the fact that copyright concerns creative works made by real people, and that the creation and commercialization of these works requires entrepreneurial risk taking. A debate that overlooks these facts is factually, morally, and economically deficient. Any reform that arises from such a context is likely to be both unjust and economically harmful.” Adam thinks Mark’s position “calls out the cramped, reductionist view of copyright policy that leads some libertarians and conservatives to castigate this property right as ‘regulation’ or as ‘monopoly.’”

As one of those libertarians critical of copyright law, but also an enthusiast for the fundamental creativity of the entrepreneurial act, let me respond briefly. Mark is certainly right that creative works are created by individuals (not, “discovered,” as some of the entrepreneurship literature might lead you to believe). But I don’t see the implications for copyright law. The legal issue is not the ontology of creative works, but the legal rights of others to use their own justly owned property in relation to these creative works. Copyright law is, after all, about delineating property rights, and whether legal protection should be extended to X does not follow directly from the fact that X was “created” instead of “discovered.”

Mark uses the language of entrepreneurship, and I think this argues against his conclusion. Property law protects the property of the entrepreneur, and the ventures he creates, not the stream of income accruing to those ventures. Suppose Mark has the brilliant insight to open a Brooklyn-style deli on a street corner here in Columbia, Missouri, makes lots of money, and then I open a similar shop across the street, cutting into his revenues. No one would argue that I’ve violated Mark’s property rights; the law rightly protects the physical integrity of Mark’s shop, such that I can’t break in and steal his equipment, but doesn’t protect him against pecuniary externalities. The fact that Mark’s restaurant wouldn’t have existed if he hadn’t created it — that “real people make this stuff,” as he puts it — has no bearing on the legality of my opening up a competing restaurant, even though this harms him economically.

Likewise, if I write a book, and Mark makes a copy without my permission, he may have reduced my income stream, but he doesn’t “steal” my book — I still have the original. The thorny issue in these debates over copyright is whether my underlying idea — the thoughts that are expressed, in a particular way, in that book — constitutes “property” that deserves legal protection. I’ll state for the record that I think ideas are not property per se, and that preventing Mark from copying my book is a violation of Mark’s property rights. But wherever one comes down on this issue, the fact that the book resulted from a creative act — that it wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t exercised my creative faculties, worked hard, and so on — does not, it seems to me, have any particular implications for copyright law. Creative things are created by real people, but it doesn’t follow that all created things warrant legal protection.

1 February 2013 at 2:32 pm 14 comments

Social Justice Quote of the Day

| Peter Klein |

Hayek, interviewed in 1983 by Encounter:

Hayek: “I regard ‘social justice’ as a nonsensical term….”

Interviewer: “But do we have the concept of the ‘social market economy’?”

Hayek: “May I tell you the story of when I last spoke to Dr. Ludwig Erhard? We were alone for a moment, and he turned to me and said, ‘I hope you don’t misunderstand me when I speak of a social market economy (Sozialen Marktwirtschaft). I mean by that that the market economy as such is social, not that it needs to be made social. . . .’ If you had to make the market economy ‘social,’ . . . you can justify every demand that cannot be reconciled with having the market determine prices and incomes. There’s no better way of destroying the market economy than with the concept of ‘social justice.’”

27 October 2012 at 9:10 am 2 comments

Luigi Zingales Blogging on EconLog

| Peter Klein |

Luigi Zingales, an important contributor to organizational economics as well as finance and macroeconomics, and frequently cited here at O&M, is guest blogging at EconLog. I’m looking forward to his posts!

1 October 2012 at 11:06 pm 1 comment

With the Pols

| Peter Klein |

Two years ago I was in D.C. on Hayek-Klein day and found myself on an elevator with Ben Bernanke, upon which I persuaded him to sing me a few bars of Happy Birthday. True story. This year I was in D.C. again, this time to give an organizational economist’s perspective on the Federal Reserve System to the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology. You can read my written testimony here and see the oral remarks at C-SPAN which has archived the event.

That’s Jeff Herbener to my right and John Taylor to my left, with Jamie Galbraith by Taylor. The one on the end is not Yoda, but Alice Rivlin.

Because the hearing was televised, I can truthfully say, “I’m not a macroeconomist, but I play one on TV.”

8 May 2012 at 2:52 pm 4 comments

The Bizarro World of Professor Sen

| Peter Klein |

Here is another of those head-scratchers, this one from Amartya Sen, about how neoclassical economics is partly responsible for the financial crisis because neoclassical economists believe that markets work “perfectly”:

Since the crisis broke out the economics profession in general and mainstream economics in particular have been severely criticised. Do you think this is justified?

The criticism of mainstream economics is justified to a limited extent. It is certainly true that the focus of attention in mainstream economics has tended to be on assuming the market to be working perfectly and there being no need for regulation. However, while this view has been a very dominant part of mainstream economics, you have to bear in mind that mainstream economics is not all centered around one unified theme. I don’t think all of mainstream economics should be held responsible.

Do you think that neoclassical macro economists should bear the brunt of the blame?

This would be an oversimplification. Neoclassical economics has many different paths. There are mainstream neoclassical economists who have been very critical of the complete reliance on the markets.

I’ve been around neoclassical economists since my undergraduate days and I can’t think of a single neoclassical economist who says that markets work “perfectly” and favoring “complete reliance on the markets.” David Friedman comes to mind, but even his arguments for anarchism are not based on the belief that markets are somehow “perfect,” but that they are less imperfect than regulation. The truth, of course, is that virtually all neoclassical economists favor a substantial amount of economic regulation — government production of law and order, government control of the monetary system, competition policy, and other government actions to combat purported market failures.

Statements like Sen’s make sense only as a rhetorical ploy to fool the reader. If the mainstream thinks, say, that government should control 25% of the economy, and you think government should control 75%, you describe the mainstream as “extremists” who believe in “no government,” thus making your position seem like a reasonable middle ground.  Krugman of course employs the same rhetorical strategy. Sen is obviously too intelligent to mean what he says literally, so I can only assume mendacity. Am I missing something?

26 April 2012 at 10:12 am 2 comments

Review of Allen’s Institutional Revolution

| Peter Klein |

I wrote earlier about Doug Allen’s The Institutional Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Here’s a new EH.Net review by Mark Koyama.

Institutions in Allen’s view minimize transaction costs, where transaction costs include the costs associated with opportunistic behavior. Transaction costs precluded “first-best” institutions from developing in the pre-industrial world. Instead, apparently inefficient institutions such as tax farming, the sale of offices, and the aristocratic dominance of politics persisted for centuries. Allen argues that these apparently inefficient institutions were, in fact, efficient given the existing configuration of transaction costs. This insight, which builds on the ideas of Yoram Barzel, provides a powerful hypothesis for studying institutional change. Allen places particular emphasis on the importance of measurement. In the high variance pre-modern world, measurement was costly or impossible and consequently bureaucrats, soldiers, sailors, and policemen could not be paid on the basis of observable inputs. Alternative institutions had to emerge to deter opportunism and reward effort. These institutions were often elaborate, and sometimes strange; they involved making the bureaucrats, soldiers, or tax collectors residual claimants of some sort. The story of how these institutions disappeared and were replaced by modern institutions is The Institutional Revolution.

The institutional revolution Allen proposes is linked to the industrial revolution because technological change drove institutional change by reducing measurement costs. Standardization reduced variance. This reduction in variance lessened the possibilities for opportunistic behavior and enabled institutions based around the idea of rewarding individuals for their marginal contribution to emerge.

7 February 2012 at 10:16 pm Leave a comment

Charles Dickens, Capitalist

| Peter Klein |

Did you know 2012 is the centenary of Charles Dickens’s birth? Dickens is often lumped with Carlyle, Shaw, Ruskin, etc. as a Romantic, Victorian, literary anti-capitalist. (Carlyle indeed disliked capitalism, but not for the usual reasons.) But Dickens, as I originally learned from Paul Cantor, was a wildly successful capitalist and entrepreneur, a driving force behind the great nineteenth-century innovation of the serialized, commercial novel. Consider the following from one Dickens scholar:

Stephen Marcus has called Dickens “the first capitalist of literature” in the sense that he worked within apparently adverse conditions to take advantage of new technologies and markets, creating, in effect, an entirely new role for fiction. In Charles Dickens and His Publishers, Robert Patten quotes Oscar Dystel (president and chief executive of Bantam Paperbacks) on the three “key factors” in his development of a successful paperback line: availability of new material, introduction of the rubber plate rotary press, and development of magazine wholesalers as a distribution arm. As Patten points out, parallel factors operated in the Victorian era: a plethora of writers, new technologies, and expanded distribution. And as methods of papermaking, printing, and platemaking increased in efficiency, so did means of transportation. By 1836, a crucial network of wholesale book outlets in the Strand, peddlers, provincial shops, and the royal mailmade possible by the development of paved roads, fast coaches, and eventually the national railway systemhad been consolidated. The final task facing early publishers was, then, to develop the newly accessible market for their commodity. By lowering prices, emphasizing illustrations and sensational elements, and increasing variety of both form and content, publishers created readers within the largest demographic groups: the rising middle and working classes, where readers had essentially not existed before. . . . (more…)

23 January 2012 at 10:00 am 6 comments

Rafe Champion at Missouri

| Peter Klein |

It’s been fun hosting Australian writer (and frequent O&M commenter) Rafe Champion at Missouri the last couple of days. Rafe spoke to the economists about the philosophy of science (handout here), and to the graduate philosophy seminar of my colleague André Ariew on current research topics in the philosophy of biology. We’ve had many talks about Hayek, Mises, Popper, Parsons, and our mutual friend Bill Bartley, among others. Rafe  blogs at Catallaxy Files and the Critical Rationalist blog, and his website The Rathouse contains a treasure-trove of writings by, and commentary on, the most important twentieth-century philosophers of science.

30 November 2011 at 1:23 am Leave a comment

SDAE Conference

| Peter Lewin |

This coming weekend in Washington DC, the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics will hold its annual meeting and membership dinner. This year it is honoring Leonard Liggio for his contributions to the teaching and dissemination of Austrian Economics (through his dedication to the cause of classical liberalism) over many decades. A scholarship fund in Leornard’s honor will be established from the donations —  the Leonard Liggio Fellowship Fund to enable graduate students to attend the full SEA/SDAE meetings each year at reduced cost. The Earhart Foundation and Liberty Fund are major sponsors. Table sponsors include the Cato Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Review of Austrian Economics, the Mercatus Institute, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Koch Foundation. See here for information on the panels organized by the SDAE. I will report on the event upon my return. (I promise for next year to ensure at least one panel dedicated to management themes.)

13 November 2011 at 2:16 pm 2 comments

Moral Culpability of Independent Contractors

| Peter Klein |

Anita McGahan gave two fantastic talks last week on the economics and strategy of health care, including some work on intellectual property and pharmaceutical research and a larger project on public health around the world. At lunch Anita talked about her work with Joel Baum on private military companies. As we discussed, much of the literature on privatization and contracting out takes the focal organization’s objectives as given, then studies the least costly methods of meeting those objectives. But objectives are endogenous to production costs. Predator drones lower the cost of extrajudicial killings, so we get more extrajudicial killings, ceteris paribus. If prison privatization lowers the cost of incarceration, we should expect more incarceration. And so on. For this reason, the desirability of contracting out depends on whether we want more of thing that is being contracting out, a point made eloquently by Bruce Benson.

A related question is the extent to which contractors should be legally liable, not to mention morally culpable, for the outcomes they help facilitate. Most of us reject the Nuremberg defense, but how far are we willing to go? Is Xe partly responsible for US military strategy and tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan? Do private prison operators share some of the blame for the US’s astonishingly high incarceration rate?

See below for the classic discussion of this issue.

30 October 2011 at 4:56 pm 5 comments

Business and American Literature

| Peter Klein |

Thanks to Shawn Ritenour for the pointer to Algis Valiunas’s National Affairs piece, “Business and the Literati.”

The business of America may be business, but the business of American literature in the past century has been largely to insist that the nation is, in pursuing business, wasting itself on unworthy objects. In the eyes of most novelists and playwrights who deal with the subject, business is not an honorable vocation, but rather an obsessive scramble for lucre and status. Tycoons are plunderers. Salesmen are poor slobs truckling to their bosses, though most of them aspire to be cormorants and highwaymen, too. The mass desire to strike it rich has launched a forced march to nowhere. In short, American literature hates American business for what it has done to the souls of the rich, the poor, and the middling alike.

Right-thinking people now take it for granted that, in criticizing business, American literature has saved (or at least elevated) the nation’s soul. But after a century of slander, that assumption needs revisiting.

17 October 2011 at 10:21 am 3 comments

Dissing Apple, Loving Steve

| Peter Klein |

Like so many others, I was deeply saddened to learn today about the passing of Steve Jobs. Jobs was a great entrepreneur, a visionary, a social benefactor. Business leaders like Steve Jobs  do more good for humanity than most of the do-gooders put together.

In memory of Steve, Apple fans are sharing their memories of Apple products, listing how many Macs they’ve owned, reminiscing about their first Apple II the way they talk about their first kiss. I’m not one of those. Indeed, I don’t much care for Apple products. I used an Apple II as a teenager, and currently own an iPad, the only Apple product I’ve ever bought. Steve Jobs made a particular kind of device — beautiful, specialized, simple to operate, but expensive, impossible to customize, frustrating to use if you want to use it in a different way than Steve intended. That’s fine — à chacun son goût. Isn’t that the beauty of capitalism? Markets aren’t winner-take all. Neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates nor Linus Torvalds nor anyone else decided what products we all should use and made us use them. We didn’t vote for our favorite computer or music player or phone, then all get the one that 51% of the voters preferred. No, we can all have the goods and services we like.

I don’t like Apple products, but I love the fact that other people like them, and that people like Steve Jobs provided them. R.I.P.

Addendum: Steve Horwitz makes the same point.

6 October 2011 at 5:51 am 8 comments

And Your Chicks for Free

| Peter Klein |

Fred McChesney, call your office.

Hoping to fend off any antitrust action, Google has hired at least 13 lobbying and communications firms since May, when the Federal Trade Commission ramped up its probe of the Internet giant. Firms led by figures from both parties — including former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt and the son of Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar — are going to bat for the company.

Gentlemen, don’t forget to close that revolving door on your way out. . . .

BTW for an interesting, if somewhat confused, take on the antitrust industry, see a young Robert Reich.

19 September 2011 at 4:49 am Leave a comment

Against (Karl) Polanyi

| Peter Klein |

I mentioned Karl Polanyi (not to be confused with Michael) in yesterday’s post on anonymity. Gavin Kennedy points us today to Mark Pennington, who writes that Polanyi’s claims “are either historically inaccurate or based on a crude misrepresentation of classical liberalism.” Specifically,

classical liberalism has never claimed that narrowly selfish behaviour is all that is required to sustain the social fabric. Of course markets are always “embedded” in a broader nexus of institutions, but the question we need to ask is precisely what sort of institutional and social norms are required to facilitate social cooperation on the widest possible scale. Polanyi and his followers prefer to rely on hackneyed accounts of the Wealth of Nations rather than recognise that Smith’s support for markets and “self interest” constituted part of a broader ethical system set out in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Specifically, Smith was concerned to elucidate the balance between the social norms appropriate to contexts of commercial exchange and those appropriate in more intimate environments. From Smith’s point of view feelings of sympathy which include love, friendship and reciprocity are reserved for people of whom we have detailed personal knowledge. The morals expected in commercial relations which are often between relative strangers, however, tend to be more impersonal, focussed on principles such as the observance of contracts and are oriented more towards the “self interest” of the parties involved rather than the direct benefit of “others.” The great mistake is to suppose that the type of ethos that pervades family life or that in tight knit communities can operate on a much wider scale. The development of inclusive markets requires a more impersonal ethos which enables people to engage with diverse actors who may not share the same moral outlook. If people deal only with those who share the same moral outlook or trade only with “locals” rather than engage in transactions with “foreigners” then the sphere of potentially cooperative relationships will be reduced. The alternative to self-interest is not solidarity, but suspicion if not outright conflict.

16 June 2011 at 5:16 pm 1 comment

Blessed Anonymity

| Peter Klein |

Critics of the market, from Marx and Karl Polanyi to Alasdair MacIntyre, John Gray, Robert Putnam, and some contemporary sociologists, decry the anonymity of commercial relations. Strong, local, community ties, they complain, are being displaced by long-distance, ad hoc, impersonal, weak ties. “Increasingly,” writes anthropologist Stephen Gudeman, “we commoditize things, leisure, body parts, reproductive capacities, DNA, and social relationships. As people flock to cities, sell their hardwood trees, change clothing styles, and watch television, community . . . shrinks.” (Thanks to Virgil Storr for this and many other good references.)

One response is to invoke Mises’s idea that social cooperation under the division of labor is actually the foundation of community. “The fundamental facts that brought about cooperation, society, and civilization . . . are the facts that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than isolated work and that man’s reason is capable of recognizing this truth” (Human Action, p. 144). Writers like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams argue, for example, that the growth of the market stymies racism and other forms of prejudice.

Last week’s Economist had an interesting piece on supermarkets that brought these arguments to light:

The nostalgics don’t even have their history right. A big research project at the universities of Surrey and Exeter is currently studying shopping in post-war England. For one thing, high streets were not as quaint as politicians think. As far back as 1939, chain stores and co-operative (ie, mutual) retail societies already controlled about half of the grocery market. It was middle class matrons, the sort who dressed up to go shopping, who missed the deference shown by traditional grocers. Supermarkets were often welcomed by younger and working-class women. A retired secretary interviewed by the project recalled, as a young bride, asking the butcher for a tiny amount of mince. “Oh, having a dinner party, madam?” he sneered. A woman who bought anything expensive or unusual risked disapproving gossip, spread by shop assistants. The project found press advertisements promoting the anonymity of supermarkets, as well as their convenience.

Some of you will remember a scene from Woody Allen’s Bananas, which also illustrates this point nicely.

15 June 2011 at 9:45 am 2 comments

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Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
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