Paul David on Path Dependence

15 May 2007 at 3:59 pm 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

The second issue of Cliometrica features essays by heavy hitters Paul David, Eugene White, and Angus Maddison. David’s contribution is a summary and overview of his work on path dependence. Note the rather immodest title: “Path Dependence: A Foundational Concept for Historical Social Science.” Well. . . . David’s attachment to the QWERTY concept appears as strong as ever, though the facts of David’s examples have been seriously contested, including not only the typewriter keyboard but also the choice between AC and DC power, the VHS format over Beta, and so on. David’s response to his critics here seems surprisingly weak and tentative:

The contention that the process of “market competition” eventually works to rectify the mistakes of profit-motivated agents by harnessing the interests and capabilities of other profit-seekers — who will find opportunities for gain by eliminating existing sources of inefficiency — undoubtedly warrants serious consideration in this regard (see Liebowitz and Margolis 1990; Puffert 2002). But that means it ought not be accepted on faith. Rather the opposite approach, however, seems to be adopted by those who argue that it is implausible to suppose that market incentives will not operate rapidly to eliminate sources of substantial inefficiencies in the production and use of commodities, and that the burden of empirical proof therefore should lie upon those who claim that sub-optimal outcomes of decentralized market-guided choices in the past have saddled subsequent generations with quantitatively significant economic costs.

I hardly think the critics are asking that their revisionist historical analysis be taken on faith!

Anyway, I believe Williamson gets it right with his concept of “remediableness” — if a market outcome appears inefficient, ex post, but this could not have been foreseen when choices were made and cannot now be altered with net gains — then what of it? Moreover, there is little comparative institutional analysis in David’s research program. As I once commented on David’s essay “At Last, A Remedy for Chronic QWERTY Skepticism!”:

Suppose I were fully convinced that the market’s ex ante choices of keyboards, nuclear reactors, and agricultural technologies were suboptimal (ex post) and that the resulting welfare losses were economically significant. Is this “market failure”? Name the feasible alternative. Where is the evidence that non-market standard-setting — e.g., standard-setting by a government body — is less susceptible to QWERTY effects? Indeed, I would think that if the political-economy literature of the last 25 years has taught us anything, it is that politicized decision making is far more likely to lead to suboptimal path dependence.

Dierdre McCloskey thought I hit the QWERTY nail on the head.

Entry filed under: Business/Economic History, Classical Liberalism.

Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. (1918-2007) Syllabus Exchange III

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. spostrel  |  17 May 2007 at 6:33 pm

    The odd thing about the path dependence story is that in formal models like those of Arthur or Farrell and Saloner, you need very specific conditions on initial benefits and the network-sensitivity of benefits to get the lock-in of inferior technology. No one ever checks if any of the empirical cases adduced as examples meet those specific assumptions, which are not particularly plausible as general conditions.

  • […] Peter Klein analyzes this a bit further. Some nice points. (Be sure to check out the link to Paul David on Path Dependence.) Peter also notes that there’s a Wikipedia entry, Famous for Bring Famous, that gets at the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Nicolai J. Foss | home | posts
Peter G. Klein | home | posts
Richard Langlois | home | posts
Lasse B. Lien | home | posts


Former Guests | posts


Recent Posts



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).

%d bloggers like this: