Archive for the ‘socialism’ Category

This week’s post at e3ne.org is about the miracle of the price system:

Natural disasters harm people’s standard of living by destroying resources, but in a free marketplace, rising prices and profits in scarce goods give both buyers and sellers an incentive to heal the economic wound. Drawn by the possibility of making good profits at high prices, sellers bring the scarce goods to market from afar. Facing high prices, buyers demand less of the scarce goods than they would if prices were not allowed to rise.

For this reason, George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok calls a price a “signal wrapped up in an incentive”…

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As it happens, I’ve also assigned this week F.A. Hayek’s article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in my Dartmouth course this term, American Political Economy. Hayek’s article is itself a kind of minor miracle, in that it was published in the world’s top economic journal, The American Economic Review, despite having no equations in it and a grand total of one cited reference.

Hayek’s point is that the free market’s price system aggregates and condenses distributed, particular information unknown to most market actors. No one has to know where all the stocks of a scarce resources are located, and what the relative valuations of that resource are to all possible consumers, for the market to allocate the resource to the highest-valuing users from the lowest-cost producers. A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive.

At the end of Hayek’s article there is a wee bit of gloating about how he and Mises had persuaded the rest of the profession that economic calculation is impossible without prices. The state of the debate ended as a sort of compromise between the two original positions. The socialists had conceded that economic calculation was impossible without market prices, and the free-marketeers had conceded that, in principle, a decentralized socialist economy could generate market prices.

The problem for even a decentralized socialism is that while it can have price signals, it lacks the virtue of the “incentive” feature of prices. I might know that the price of lumber is high in New Jersey after a hurricane, but if I’m sitting on a warehouse full of lumber in Oregon, I won’t necessarily ship that lumber to New Jersey unless I can reap the extra-normal profits afforded by those high prices. If I’m not the “residual claimant” on the value of the lumber, I might as well send it to my political cronies, or not do anything with it at all, which might be the easiest course of action. Even decentralized socialism with price signals, for instance as attempted in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s, fails on account of its poor incentives.

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Chavismo and the Economy

Back before the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were plenty of examples of what happens once the price mechanism is suspended and decisions regarding resource allocations are assigned to the state. Fortunately, Venezuela provides us with some modern day examples. Here are a few quotes from an interesting piece by William Neuman in the NYT:

“The bottlenecks at a major port were so bad this year that Christmas trees from Canada were delayed for weeks, and when they did show up they cost hundreds of dollars. A government-run ice cream factory opened with great fanfare, only to shut down a day later because of a shortage of basic ingredients.  Foreign currency is so hard to come by that automakers cannot get parts and new cars are almost impossible to buy. And all this happened while the economy was growing…”


“Mr Chávez’s own record is mixed. After doing little to address a deep housing shortage, he has given away tens of thousands of homes, but the rush to build meant that many were plagued by construction flaws or other problems. He has used price controls to make food affordable for the poor, but that has contributed to shortages in basic goods. He created a popular program of neighborhood clinics often staffed by Cuban doctors, but hospitals frequently lack basic equipment.”

Venezuela stands at the intersection of socialism, crony capitalism, and the resource curse.  The future looks quite uncertain given the legacies of current policies, the impending recession, a stagnant oil industry, and  the intense power struggles that will arise post-Chávez.

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Kevin Carson was good enough to drop by and comment on my posts about his book, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (here and here). I copy the comments below with my responses:

(Kevin) Thanks again, Jason. In general, I don’t think any paradigms are falsifiable; you can add epicycles to anything. And I think a revived LTV contributes analytical insights that are obscured by vanilla-flavored marginalism (like the normal relationship between cost and price for reproducible goods, and the intersection of the Tuckerite theory of artificial property rents with the Ricardian theory of rents as a subtraction from wages).

I see the subjective mechanism for the LTV not so much as moral as — believe it or not — praxeological.

My response: (more…)

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In my last look at left-libertarian economics, I argued that Kevin Carson’s resurrection of the Labor Theory of Value adds no new information to standard, neoclassical price theory. Carson wishes to disapprove morally of profits but does not show that capitalists add nothing to the value of production. In particular, Carson acknowledges that capitalists contribute “time preference,” providing saved or borrowed funds to production in exchange for higher consumption at a later date. Carson relabels this investment as a kind of labor.

In this installment in the series, I examine Carson’s argument in Studies in Mutualist Political Economy that “really existing capitalism” depends crucially on exploitation and coercion, and that if coercion were to abolished and markets truly freed, “capitalism” would disappear. Carson’s argument that free markets abolish economic profit is not altogether without support in standard economic theory. In introductory microeconomics classes, the model of “perfect competition” is taught. Under perfect competition, firms in each industry sell an identical product, and entry is costless. Therefore, if firms charge more than the cost of production, including the interest rate on investment, new entrants would undercut their price. The equilibrium price therefore yields zero “economic profit.” “Accounting profit” will be all that remains, representing the natural interest rate on investment, which in turn is determined by the opportunity costs of investment (forgone consumption).

Carson does seem to be relying on the perfect competition model to make the case that economic profit will not exist in a free market (116-7). But of course, really existing markets do not conform to the perfect competition model. Why not? Standard microeconomic theory points to product differentiation, imperfect information, and costs of entry as frictions that generate market power and, accordingly, economic profit. For Carson, however, the explanation of economic profit lies in coercion, the exploitation of workers and enrichment of capitalists by the state:

Without state intervention in the marketplace, the natural wage of labor would be its product. It is statism that is at the root of all the exploitative features of capitalism. Capitalism, indeed, only exists to the extent that the principles of free exchange are violated. “Free market capitalism” is an oxymoron. (129)

How plausible is this claim? (more…)

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In this post, I continue my series on left-libertarian economics by examining Kevin Carson’s arguments for the labor theory of value (LTV) in Studies in Mutualist Political Economy. I argue that this is one area in which left-libertarian economics does represent a degenerative research program, that is, a body of scientific theories that protects itself from refutation by redefining itself in such a way as to render itself nonfalsifiable. The problem is not that the LTV as Carson formulates it is false, but that it is simply a relabeling of the Marshallian synthesis with scientifically irrelevant normative claims added on.

Carson begins his book with a discussion of classical political economists’ understanding of the LTV. He persuasively demonstrates that the LTV of the classical political economists was not as naive as the later marginalists made it out to be. Both Ricardo and Marx recognized that demand played a role in determining prices, and that labor effort could not cause a good to become valuable. The classical political economists held a “correlational” LTV, that is, that in most markets the price of a good would correlate strongly with the amount of labor used to make it – and the “amount” of labor had to be understood as its opportunity cost. Expending labor on making a mud pie would not make it valuable, because no one would be willing to pay for it. Alfred Marshall synthesized the marginalist-utility and labor theories of value by modeling the way in which the interaction of supply (determined by cost of production) and demand (marginal utility) determines prices. In the short run, Marshall argued, (more…)

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I’m going to make a generalization here. Treating a good as a “basic human right” is one way to make sure you don’t have enough of it. Treating a good as a “commodity” is the only way to make sure you have plenty of it. I’m thinking about K-12 education, housing for the poor, access to a clean environment, and just about everything in a socialist system.

Other examples? Exceptions?

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