Posts filed under ‘Classical Liberalism’

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

More on Free Speech

| Nicolai Foss |

We have blogged a number of times in the past on (the economics of) free speech. John Stuart Mill is, of course, the towering figure when it comes to philosophical defenses of free speech. Here is a recent working paper, “Speech, Truth, and Freedom: An Examination of John Stuart Mill’s and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s Free Speech Defenses,” that compares Mill with Holmes’ views, undertakes a dehomogenization exercise, and argues that their different free speech positions are rooted in different underlying views of liberty. For free speech afficionados, perhaps, but still recommended.

12 June 2011 at 2:04 pm Leave a comment

The Treasury Bill as Myth and Symbol

| Peter Klein |

My father was a historian and helped organize local events to commemorate the bicentennials of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 and Constitution in 1987. I particularly remember the Freedom Train, a traveling exhibit housing memorabilia such as original copies of the Declaration, Constitution, Louisiana Purchase, and (I learn from Wikipedia, though I don’t remember these) Judy Garland’s dress from the Wizard of Oz and Joe Frazier’s boxing trunks.

Several years later, my Dad gave a conference paper (unfortunately unpublished) on “The Constitution as Myth and Symbol.” He noted that for many Americans, the founding documents, along with the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, images of George Washington and Betsy Ross, etc., play the same kind of role as a Britain’s crown jewels, the Bastille, or Lenin’s tomb. The Constitution is important, in other words, not only for its text — some would argue the text is largely ignored today anyway — but for its symbolic value. It represents a particular myth of the American founding, usually associated with reason and noble ideals (Bernard Bailyn, Ayn Rand, Schoolhouse Rock) but occasionally with power or material self-interest (Charles Beard, Bertell Ollman).

In following the debates over raising the US debt ceiling I”m struck by the frequent claim that defaulting on public debt is unthinkable because of the “signal” that would send. If you can’t rely on the T-Bill, what can you rely on? Debt instruments backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States” are supposed to be risk-free, almost magically so, somehow transcending the vagaries of ordinary debt markets. The Treasury Bill, in other words, has become a myth and symbol, just like the Constitution.

I find this line of reasoning unpersuasive. A T-bill is a bond, just like any other bond. Corporations, municipalities, and other issuers default on bonds all the time, and the results are hardly catastrophic. Financial markets have been restructuring debt for many centuries, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it. From the discussion regarding T-bills you’d think no one had ever heard of default risk premia before. (Interestingly, this seems to be a case of American exceptionalism; people aren’t particularly happy about Greek, Irish, and Portuguese defaults but no one thinks the world will end because of them.) So, isn’t it time to de-mythologize all this? Treasuries are bonds just like any other bonds. There’s nothing magic, mythical, or sacred about them. A default on US government debt is no more or less radical than a default on any other kind of debt.

30 May 2011 at 8:59 pm 3 comments

Who Benefits from Coups?

| Peter Klein |

Not surprisingly — private interests:

Coups, Corporations, and Classified Information
Arindrajit Dube, Ethan Kaplan, Suresh Naidu
NBER Working Paper No. 16952, April 2011

We estimate the impact of coups and top-secret coup authorizations on asset prices of partially nationalized multinational companies that stood to benefit from US-backed coups. Stock returns of highly exposed firms reacted to coup authorizations classified as top-secret. The average cumulative abnormal return to a coup authorization was 9% over 4 days for a fully nationalized company, rising to more than 13% over sixteen days. Pre-coup authorizations accounted for a larger share of stock price increases than the actual coup events themselves.There is no effect in the case of the widely publicized, poorly executed Cuban operations, consistent with abnormal returns to coup authorizations reflecting credible private information. We also introduce two new intuitive and easy to implement nonparametric tests that do not rely on asymptotic justifications.

In what can only be a pure coincidence, the following item appeared just below the NBER paper in my RSS reader: “Halliburton Profit More Than Doubles.”

18 April 2011 at 9:06 am 1 comment

Creative Destruction in Popular Culture

| Peter Klein |

Thanks to Thomas B. for forwarding links to US Sen. Rand Paul’s Monday-night appearance on the Daily Show (part 1, part 2, part 3). At the start of part 3, while discussing government bailouts, Paul uses the words “creative destruction,” and Jon Stewart bursts out laughing, apparently hearing the term for the first time. I guess Schumpeter is not as culturally relevant as I thought!

The show had some interesting moments, but I found the discussions (in the parts I watched) pretty shallow. Stewart was grilling Paul on his “free-market” views, focusing on health, safety, and environmental regulation. Both Paul and Stewart took the milquetoast position that sure, some of this type of regulation is needed, but it shouldn’t be “too much.” They didn’t get into a serious discussion of theory or evidence, however, or explore specific trade-offs. There are huge political economy and public-choice literatures on the FDA, EPA, OSHA, etc., showing that these organizations are easily captured, tend to retard innovation, fail to weigh marginal benefits and costs, and so on. The Journal of Law and Economics under Coase’s leadership made its bones on these kinds of studies in the 1970s. The FDA has been a particular target. The Stewart view also ignores comparative institutional analysis — e.g., the role of private ordering (third-party certification, reputation, etc. ) in the protection of health and safety.

At least Paul didn’t say he intended to become the best Senator, horseman, and lover in all Washington!

9 March 2011 at 12:37 pm 2 comments

Freedom to Trade and the Competitive Process

| Dick Langlois |

That’s the promising-sounding title of a new NBER Working Paper by Aaron Edlin and Joseph Farrell. Unfortunately, the argument turns out, in my opinion, to be extraordinarily wrongheaded. Here is the abstract.

Although antitrust courts sometimes stress the competitive process, they have not deeply explored what that process is. Inspired by the theory of the core, we explore the idea that the competitive process is the process of sellers and buyers forming improving coalitions. Much of antitrust can be seen as prohibiting firms’ attempts to restrain improving trade between their rivals and customers. In this way, antitrust protects firms’ and customers’ freedom to trade to their mutual betterment.

The promising part is that they talk explicitly about the competitive process.

The freedom-to-trade perspective . . . stresses the freedom of buyers and sellers to change their trading partners whenever that is mutually beneficial. The aspect of the competitive process that we study here is buyers and sellers exercising this freedom and forming improving coalitions (i.e., new configurations of trading partners). In a highly competitive market a seller who does not give its customers good deals will find that rivals offer better deals to attract these customers. The process of firms fighting over customers and offering them better and better deals raises consumers’ utility skyward. This competitive process is closely aligned with what Schumpeter called creative destruction.

As anyone who has read Schumpeter knows, of course, this is not even close to what he actually meant by creative destruction. (more…)

4 March 2011 at 4:46 pm 3 comments

Blinder: Keynesianism is Right, Because Keynesians Are Really Smart

| Peter Klein |

Alan Blinder’s defense of QE2 is as feeble as Mankiw’s defense of “emergency measures” more generally. Blinder’s argument is simply that QE2 isn’t all that different from standard Keynesian fine-tuning (true) and that Ben Bernanke is smarter than critics like Sarah Palin (duh).”To create the fearsome inflation rates envisioned by the more extreme critics, the Fed would have to be incredibly incompetent, which it is not.” This reminds me of Janet Yellen’s unfortunate 2009 statement that “the Fed’s analytical prowess is top-notch and our forecasting record is second to none. . . . With respect to our tool kit, we certainly have the means to unwind the stimulus when the time is right.”

Blinder apparently thinks that the anti-Keynesian backlash is just some quibbles about this little jot or tittle. He cannot grasp that the growing sentiment against monetary central planning, against fine-tuning, against the whole statist monetary establishment, is a rejection of Keynesianism at the most fundamental level. People are tired of the philosopher kings and their pretense of knowledge.

But this is folly to kings. Consider Blinder’s criticism of Bernanke:

What the Fed proposes to do is neither foolproof nor perfect. Frankly, it’s not the policy I would choose. As I’ve written on this page, I’d like the Fed to purchase private securities and to reduce the interest rate it pays on reserves, even turning it negative. The latter would blast reserves out of banks into some productive uses.

Ah, to think like a king! But the days of the monetary monarchy may be numbered.

16 November 2010 at 2:15 pm 11 comments

Richard T. Ely’s Influence on Woodrow Wilson

| Peter Klein |

Researching and teaching sound economics during the Dark Era (i.e., the Keynesian Revival) can be frustrating and depressing. Keynesian doctrine has been refuted again and again; why won’t this zombie stay dead? What, more generally, is the role of economic education? Can we really transform hearts and minds through reason and dialogue? Or do students and scholars simply seek intellectual cover to justify what they already believe?

Hayek reports that he was originally a mild Fabian but was converted by laissez-faire by Mises’s 1922 book Socialism. Such conversion stories are rare, however, in either direction. With this in mind, I was intrigued by Gary Pecquet and Clifford Thies’s paper, “The Shaping of a Future President’s Economic Thought: Richard T. Ely and Woodrow Wilson at ‘The Hopkins'” (Independent Review, Fall 2010). Pecquet and Thies report that “Woodrow Wilson entered graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University as a classical liberal in his economic views but departed as a progressive. His fateful transformation had much to do with his apprenticeship with Richard T. Ely, who disparaged the laissez-faire policy prescriptions and deductive methodology of classical economics.” Worth a look for those interested in the impact of economic education on economic policy.

23 September 2010 at 9:06 am Leave a comment

Bruce Caldwell on The Road from Mont Pèlerin

| Peter Klein |

Don’t miss Bruce Caldwell’s review of Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds., The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Harvard, 2009). “Mont Pèlerin” refers, of course, to the Mont Pèlerin Society, the association of classical liberal academics and journalists founded by Hayek in 1947. Bruce finds the volume informative, despite its frequently disdainful tone toward its subjects. He also raises an important general point, one that I’ve wrestled with a lot since the financial crisis: does anybody listen to us?

The second question [raised  by the book] has to do with the potency of intellectuals to shape world events or, more narrowly, even economic and social policy. It is evident that members of the Mont Pèlerin Society, for all of their diversity, still preferred some form of liberalism . . . to other ways of organizing economic and political affairs.  But how important were they in the emerging global consensus that began in the 1980s in favor of trade liberalization and privatization?  Were not, for example, the dismal performance of Keynesian demand management policies in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere in the 1970s; the heavy-handed actions of the trade unions in Britain during the “Winter of Discontent”; the sclerotic performance of countries like India who had embraced a modified version of the planning model for their own; and, of course, the patent economic and political failures of the East Bloc, far more important in turning the tide, however briefly, towards globalization?  Was not George Stigler (himself a founding member of the Society) right in his comment about economists that “our influence appears to be powerful only when we support policies ripe for adoption” (Stigler 1987, p. 11)?

2 September 2010 at 11:31 am 9 comments

The Economics of Freedom of Speech

| Nicolai Foss |

Recent, uhhmm, debate here on O&M has made me wonder why we don’t have an economics of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech has been hailed as the fundamental hallmark of free, open societies and a fundamental human right. It is also clear that freedom of speech is under attack, not just by its traditional enemies within various fundamentalist factions of established religions and authoritarian, populist, and socialist/communist regimes, but also by the tendency to turn political disagreements into moral disagreements (in Europe, most prevalent among lefties who just don’t disagree with you but think you are downright evil in case you defend free markets, nuclear power, etc.).

Related to the latter point, increasingly individuals, groups, and nations define certain opinions, political positions, moral judgments, etc. as “hatecrimes.” This position seems increasingly influential in the EU. Proponents of the right to freedom of speech has countered that part of living in a free and open society is that there is simply no right to avoid insults, hurt feelings, and the like. For example, such arguments have been invoked here in Denmark in the aftermath of the Mohammed cartoon crisis, and are currently being leveled against DK legislation regulating blasphemous utterances. However, even the most ardent defenders of freedom of speech draw the line at the explicit verbal promotion of violence against others. And most defenders of freedom of speech would also argue that organizations and associations have the rights to regulate their members’ freedom of speech.

These are clearly externality and property rights issues, and would therefore seem to fall directly within the orbit of economic arguments. And yet, economists have had very little to say about freedom of speech. Specifically, negative or positive externalities are not conventionally seen as including the untraded effects of utterances. One of the few papers that have dealt with these issues, Coase’s “The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas,” basically argues that if there is a case for regulating the market for goods, there is also a case for regulating the market for ideas (specifically, politicians — which admittedly adds to the attraction of the idea). (more…)

21 August 2010 at 10:17 am 17 comments

Summary of Dodd-Frank Act

| Peter Klein |

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — I’ll refrain from snarks about the title — was signed into law today by President Obama. Here is a very useful summary by William Sweet of the Act’s contents and likely consequences. In a nutshell: “The Dodd-Frank Act effects a profound increase in regulation of the financial services industry. The Act gives U.S. governmental authorities more funding, more information and more power. In broad and significant areas, the Act endows regulators with wholly discretionary authority to write and interpret new rules.” Aren’t you shocked that it passed?

Update: Larry Ribstein is not happy. Weil Gotshal provides further details.

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21 July 2010 at 11:33 am 3 comments

Hayek Interviews

| Peter Klein |

In 1983 the Earhart Foundation sponsored a lengthy set of interviews with F. A. Hayek in Los Angeles. The transcripts have long been available (and form the basis of the interview parts of Hayek on Hayek), but the complete set of videos has just now been put online, courtesy of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín. The interviewers are an impressive lot as well: James Buchanan, Armen Alchian, Axel Leijonhufvud, Robert Bork, Tom Hazlett, Jack High, Bob Chitester, Leo Rosten, and Earlene Craver. (I hardly recognized the youthful Hazlett!) You can also get the transcripts, if you prefer plain text.

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14 July 2010 at 10:51 am 2 comments

Quote of the Day, Free Trade and Peace Edition

| Peter Klein |

Go into the London Stock Exchange — a more respectable place than many a court — and you will see representatives of all nations gathered there for the service of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian deal with each other as if they were of the same religion, and give the name of the infidel only to those who go bankrupt. There the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Anglican accepts the Quaker’s promise. . . . If there were just one religion in England, despotism would threaten; if there were two religions, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty religions, and they live together peacefully and happily.

—Voltaire (Letters on England, Letter 6)


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28 April 2010 at 10:40 am 3 comments

Business Ethics Symposium in Reason Papers

| Peter Klein |

From Reason Papers 31 (Fall 2009):

Articles: Business Ethics Symposium

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26 April 2010 at 9:35 pm 3 comments

Melnyk on Flew

| Peter Klein |

My Missouri colleague Andrew Melnyk penned this nice appreciation of Antony Flew, who passed away 8 April 2010. Flew “was for several decades a heroic defender of classically liberal political philosophy and indeed by far the best known professional philosopher in Britain over that period to champion classical liberalism.” As Andrew notes, “in challenging the spirit of the age as sharply and as unapologetically as he did, he was, and must have known that he was, irreparably damaging his reputation among his overwhelmingly left-leaning professional peers.”

Here are remarks on Flew’s political philosophy from David Gordon, David Conway, and Sean Gabb. Here’s a biographical sketch written for Flew’s 2001 Schlaurbaum Prize, and here’s the acceptance speech.

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20 April 2010 at 11:19 am 1 comment

Rothbard, Friedman on Health Care

| Peter Klein |

Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman are no longer with us, unfortunately, but their opinions live on. Lew Rockwell is running a 1994 piece by Rothbard on what was then called Hillarycare, while the Saturday WSJ reprinted a 1996 essay by Friedman on “Soviet-Style Health Care.” My favorite excerpts:

Rothbard on “universal access”:

[T]here is one simple entity, in any sort of free society, that provides “universal access” to every conceivable good or service, and not just to health or education or food. That entity is not a voucher or a Clintonian ID card; it’s called a “dollar.” Dollars not only provide universal access to all goods and services, they provide it to each dollar-holder for each product only to the extent that the dollar-holder desires.

Friedman, quoting a a physician character in Solzhenitsyn’s 1967 novel The Cancer Ward, on Soviet-style “free” health care:

What do you mean by “free”? The doctors don’t work without pay. It’s just that the patient doesn’t pay them, they’re paid out of the public budget. The public budget comes from these same patients. Treatment isn’t free, it’s just depersonalized. If the cost of it were left with the patient, he’d turn the ten rubles over and over in his hands. But when he really needed help he’d come to the doctor five times over. . . .

Is it better the way it is now? You’d pay anything for careful and sympathetic attention from the doctor, but everywhere there’s a schedule, a quota the doctors have to meet; next! . . . And what do patients come for? For a certificate to be absent from work, for sick leave, for certification for invalids’ pensions: and the doctor’s job is to catch the frauds. Doctor and patient as enemies — is that medicine?

22 March 2010 at 11:57 am 13 comments

Mannepalooza at Austrian Scholars Conference

| Peter Klein |

Tune in here at 3:45 EST today for a live broadcast of the ASC session, “The Contributions of Henry G. Manne,” organized by yours  truly. Panelists include me, Alexandre Padilla, Richard Vedder, Thomas DiLorenzo, and Henry Manne. And buy your copy of the Collected Works.

Update: audio files are now available: Klein, Padilla, Vedder, DiLorenzo, Manne.

12 March 2010 at 9:58 am 2 comments

Mises Quote of the Day

| Peter Klein |

Nothing can be known about such matters as inflation, economic crises, unemployment, unionism, protectionism, taxation, economic controls, and all similar issues, that does not involve and presuppose economic analysis. All the arguments advanced in favor of or against the market economy and its opposites, interventionism or socialism (communism), are of an economic character. A man who talks about these problems without having acquainted himself with the fundamental ideas of economic theory is simply a babbler who repeats parrotlike what he has picked up incidentally from other fellows who are not better informed than he himself.

This is from Mises’s introduction to the 1959 edition of Böhm-Bawerk’s massive 3-volume set, Capital and Interest. Mises gives some further admonitions: “A man not perfectly familiar with all the ideas advanced in these three volumes has no claim whatever to the appellation of an economist.” This is, shall we say, a minority view. And my personal favorite: “A citizen who casts his ballot without having studied to the best of his abilities as much economics as he can fails in his civic duties. He neglects using in the appropriate way the power that his citizenship has conferred upon him in giving him the right to vote.”

Those lacking time to study Capital and Interest in its entirety may enjoy this new edition of Böhm-Bawerk’s essay “Control or Economic Law,” which is more easily digested.

10 March 2010 at 10:10 am 8 comments

I, Taco

| Peter Klein |

Some California design students tracked the ingredients in their favorite local taco and came up with this cool image.

Of course, it’s supposed to show us the horror of all those food miles, but what I see is the miracle of the market.

3 March 2010 at 2:15 pm 5 comments

Comparative Institutional Analysis and the New Paternalism

| Peter Klein |

Comparative institutional analysis — defined as the assessment of feasible organizational or policy alternatives — is at the heart of the new institutional economics. Most economists and management scholars recognize, at least implicitly, that individuals and organizations don’t think, act, and choose with reference to some kind of global optimum, but are always evaluating trade-offs among imperfect alternatives. Yet, when it comes to public policy, even trained economists and strategy scholars easily lapse into Nirvana mode. Recent examples discussed her at O&M include the debate over Fed independence, the role of financial regulators more generally, and the “soft” or “libertarian” paternalism favored by Obama’s man Cass Sunstein, among others.

The new paternalism literature suggests that private actors suffer from biases and cognitive limitations such as lack of willpower or self-control, status quo bias, optimism bias, and susceptibility to framing effects leading them to make decisions that are inconsistent with their own preferences. By making marginal changes to the options available to market participants (“nudges”), the private benefits and costs of various actions, and the informational environment in which choices are made, market participants can be led to make “better” choices without reliance on heavy-handed, top-down regulation. The problem, of course, is that this literature virtually ignores the cognitive and behavioral limitations affecting policymakers. Incentive problems are an obvious example, along with the “slippery-slope” problem: the vulnerability of new paternalist proposals “to slippery slopes that can lead from modest paternalism to more extensive paternalism” (Rizzo and Whitman, 2009, p. 667).

Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman’s have written an excellent set of papers on the new paternalism, the latest of which focuses on the knowledge problem, and how dispersed, tacit knowledge about preferences and constraints limits policymakers’ ability to plan paternalist policies that actually make people better off. The paper is here, and Mario blogs about it here. Highly recommended!

19 February 2010 at 12:08 pm 22 comments

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Our Recent Books

Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Peter G. Klein and Micheal E. Sykuta, eds., The Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics (Edward Elgar, 2010).
Peter G. Klein, The Capitalist and the Entrepreneur: Essays on Organizations and Markets (Mises Institute, 2010).
Richard N. Langlois, The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism: Schumpeter, Chandler, and the New Economy (Routledge, 2007).
Nicolai J. Foss, Strategy, Economic Organization, and the Knowledge Economy: The Coordination of Firms and Resources (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Raghu Garud, Arun Kumaraswamy, and Richard N. Langlois, eds., Managing in the Modular Age: Architectures, Networks and Organizations (Blackwell, 2003).
Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, eds., Entrepreneurship and the Firm: Austrian Perspectives on Economic Organization (Elgar, 2002).
Nicolai J. Foss and Volker Mahnke, eds., Competence, Governance, and Entrepreneurship: Advances in Economic Strategy Research (Oxford, 2000).
Nicolai J. Foss and Paul L. Robertson, eds., Resources, Technology, and Strategy: Explorations in the Resource-based Perspective (Routledge, 2000).


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