Related Links in the Forum:
Related Links in the Library:
Source: New Directions in Austrian Economics, ed. Louis M. Spadaro (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1978).
Spontaneous Order and the Coordination of Economic Activities by Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr.
This paper is an essay on the coordination of economic activities. It is exploratory and speculative, connecting arguments that I have made in several other places. The essay is an attempt to give a coherent picture of some of the theoretical and practical problems facing economists, as well as society in general. Written for a conference on Austrian economics, this paper deals with questions specifically from that distinctive viewpoint. It is not that I propose to defend the proposition that economists of this school possess a uniquely correct perspective of the issues, but merely that they have much to say on the particular questions with which I will deal. I trust that my references to economists not normally considered to be members of the Austrian School will demonstrate the universality of the problems discussed here.
Those economists who view a system of free exchange—Adam Smith’s “obvious and simple system of natural liberty”1 —as the solution of the coordination problem in economics face intellectual challenges from at least four sources: first, the continuing challenge of the Keynesian legacy; second, the challenge from what James Buchanan has termed the “modern Ricardians”; third, the challenge from the new movement for national planning; and finally, the challenge from certain economists in the Austrian School.
In previous papers, I have dealt with the Austrian analysis of monetary theory (or macroeconomics) as it is concerned with the coordination of economic activities. Accordingly, I will begin with this general problem.
THE KEYNESIAN LEGACY
It has become clear in recent years that Keynes’s General Theory is a very confused work, so much that it is virtually an ink-blot test for economists: an economist’s perception of its contents tells more about the beliefs of the reader than the contents of that book.2 Indeed, Keynes’s sympathetic critics are compelled to point out these confusions in their attempts to argue that he made a significant contribution to our understanding of the economic system. The best example of this is Axel Leijonhufvud’s On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes.3 Leijonhufvud argues there that Keynes had important insights into coordination failures in market systems. Specifically, Leijonhufvud’s Keynes argued that banking and financial systems can operate so as to impede rather than to facilitate the adjustment to a change in the equilibrium rate of interest. Securities markets are incapable of moving from a higher to a lower equilibrium rate of interest, without attendant fluctuations in income and employment. This is true whether the assumed disturbance consists of a downward shift in the marginal efficiency of investment (Keynes’s marginal efficiency of capital), or an increase in the savings schedule (a decreased marginal propensity to consume out of current income). The existence of bearish speculators in securities markets impedes smooth adjustment of those markets. Keynes’s bears do this by speculating against any rise in the prices of long-lived assets, real or financial.4 Keynesian bears speculate on the basis of the historical perception that they possess of a “normal” long run rate of interest. If this normal long-rate could be taken as summarizing the real forces determining the equilibrium rate of interest, then it is quite reasonable, from a profit-maximizing viewpoint, for speculators to treat deviations from the rate as temporary fluctuations.5 Indeed, Keynes’s speculators behave precisely the way textbook examples suggest, in that they act so as to hasten the return to the perceived equilibrium position (though this effect is not part of their intention, of course). But in this instance, speculative activity, following a guide that normally proves reliable, proves to be disequilibrating in its effects. Speculators are misled into identifying as but a transitory fluctuation what in fact is the consequence of a shift in parameters.
In microtheory it is customary to point out that speculators who misidentify an equilibrium position will suffer capital losses, and that, in any case, market forces will restore equilibrium. But Keynes raised an important issue: bearish speculators, in exhibiting liquidity preference, can initiate deflationary pressures.6 Unless we assume that wage and price changes occur infinitely fast, then price deflation will be accompanied by quantity-adjustments.7 In effect, the resulting speculative losses become socialized. To put a Keynesian proposition in Hayekian terms, the unintended consequences of a speculative search for liquidity generate falling income and general illiquidity. If one adopts the position—as do most Austrians—that the market process is a continuing search for opportunities, one cannot dismiss out of hand the possibility that speculation of the Keynesian variety could inhibit the equilibrating market forces. And unless one adopts the view that prices are always correct, which no Austrian would do, then one must confront this Keynesian information problem.
Several points need to be made here. I have been talking of “Leijonhufvud’s Keynes,” because of the problematical nature of The General Theory. Yet my paraphrase of Leijonhufvud’s interpretation is a fairly straightforward argument about discoordinating market processes. The obvious question that comes to mind in this context is why Keynes didn’t say all this explicitly and simply if this is what he meant? The thesis, as I have presented it, can obviously be put very succinctly. What makes Leijonhufvud’s presentation of it so difficult is the web of confusion woven by Keynes.
In order to show that his interpretation has captured the authentic Keynes, Leijonhufvud not only must criticize conflicting interpretations, but he must deal with Keynes’s own imprecision and confusion. The clearest example of these problems occurs in Leijonhufvud’s discussion of Keynes’s views on capital. Before examining this discussion, however, one must consider the intellectual background to the treatment of capital questions in The General Theory.
Hayek was quite critical of Keynes’s earlier book, the Treatise on Money, when he reviewed that work. The general tenor of his criticism is that Keynes, at the time he wrote that book, was largely ignorant of capital theory. Hayek recognized that Keynes had developed a neo-Wicksellian theory, but without the necessary theoretical foundations.8 And he observed that:
It is a priori unlikely that an attempt to utilise the conclusions drawn from a certain theory without accepting that theory itself should be successful. But, in the case of an author of Mr. Keynes’ intellectual calibre, the attempt produces results which are truly remarkable.9
In an amazing piece of candor, Keynes all but admitted the legitimacy of Hayek’s criticism; after defending himself by observing that there was no “satisfactory theory” of capital in “completed form,” Keynes stated:
Nevertheless, substantially I concede Dr. Hayek’s point. I agree with him that a clear account of the factors determining the natural rate of interest ought to have a place in a completed Treatise on Money, and that it is lacking in mine: and I can only plead that I had much to say for which such a theory is not required and that my own ideas about it were still too much in embryo to deserve publication. Later on, I will endeavor to make good this deficiency.10
Did Keynes ever “make good this deficiency”? I do not believe so, and I offer the following observations in support of this judgment. Much of the confusion surrounding the nature of Keynes’s message can be accounted for if one accepts the thesis that Keynes remained largely ignorant of capital theory. He had difficulty, then, in presenting his message because he did not possess the requisite technical knowledge. Of course, one could also infer that Keynes was not sure of the message that he wished to present. There is evidence for this interpretation in the recent observation of one of his close associates at Cambridge, Joan Robinson, who noted that certain of Keynes’s putative followers “... had some trouble in getting Maynard to see what the point of his revolution really was ...”11
But I would offer as a final judgment of Keynes the observation of his recent interpreter, Axel Leijonhufvud. By far the most difficult chapter of the latter’s book is the fourth, “The General Theory of Liquidity Preference,” in which both the state of capital theory in the thirties and Keynes’s own views on the subject are presented. Of this complexity, Leijonhufvud remarks: “This chapter will be a lengthy affair, partly because of the intrinsic difficulty of capital theory, partly because Keynes did not work out his ideas on the subject in much detail so that we are left with only what amounts to an unfinished sketch.”12 In short, Keynes never made up the self-admitted deficiency of the Treatise. Moreover, it is only by having thus demonstrated Keynes’s lack of knowledge and clarity that Leijonhufvud can make it at all plausible that Keynes had a comparatively simple point to make (i.e., stickiness of interest rates), though this point is not the one commonly attributed to him (i.e., stickiness of money wage rates).
There are several approaches that one can take to Keynes’s challenge. Conceptual errors abound in The General Theory; and I have suggested that in the area of capital theory, Keynes is quite confused. One can fairly easily engage in piecemeal criticism of Keynes’s ideas. I do not believe that the Keynesian system can stand up to such a criticism. But I am not sure that this is a fruitful approach, though I myself have adopted it on previous occasions.13 The reasons are several-fold. First, no one, I believe, can get beyond the exegetical problem—I refer the reader again to my ink-blot analogy. No matter which Keynes one criticizes, a new Keynes is proffered in its stead. More to the point, one m st consider the possibility that the most interesting recent interpretation bears scant resemblance to Keynes’s ideas. Yeager has argued, for instance, that Leijonhufvud and Clower both seem prepared to credit Keynes with their own, original contributions.14 Perhaps, then Keynes is the wrong target of any criticism.
Nonetheless, the Keynesian debate does raise important theoretical issues that Austrians must confront, regardless of who is adjudged the author of particular views. And I believe that there is one unifying theme running through most, if not all, versions of Keynesian economics: the self-correcting forces of the market economy cannot be relied upon to maintain full-employment and reasonable price stability. In its most extreme version, this criticism would even deny the existence of self-correcting market forces. It is to the issue of the strength of these market forces that Austrians should address themselves, for it is now becoming increasingly accepted that macroeconomics is in fact concerned with the coordination of economic activities. Leijonhufvud has stated the problem as follows:
... The central issue in macroeconomic theory is—once again—the extent to which the economy, or at least its market sectors, may properly be regarded as a self-regulating system ... How well or badly, do its “automatic” mechanisms perform?15
Before continuing, it would be well to consider this latter issue in detail.
THE PRINCIPLE OF SPONTANEOUS ORDER
The principle of spontaneous order—or of “undesigned order,” as it might more properly be called—can be viewed as the first principle of economics. Indeed, James Buchanan has recently gone so far as to suggest that it is the only principle of economics. The principle is, in any case, a cornerstone of modern economics, whether we trace modern (i.e., post-mercantilist) economics back to Adam Smith and the other Scottish moral philosophers, or to the Physiocrats. With this principle, scholars for the first time could see economic phenomena as interdependent events. Indeed, this principle made it possible to reason systematically and coherently about economic phenomena. Much of nineteenth century economics can be seen as consisting of developments of this principle (along with minority criticisms of the principle and the systems of thought deduced therefrom).
On the other hand, most of twentieth century economics has consisted of reactions against systems in which this principle plays a central role. In this, Keynesian economics is but one among a family of theories that deny the existence of a spontaneous or undesigned market order in which plans are coordinated. The reaction has been so complete that what was taken by earlier economists to be an empirical law—the existence of a spontaneous market order—is now frequently viewed as the product of ideological bias or prejudice. If anything, modern economic discussions presuppose the absence of the very order whose existence was the cornerstone of much of nineteenth century economics. In this sense, modern economics is fundamentally inconsistent.16
It is apparent now that the principle was not firmly enough established in economics to withstand the criticisms that were levied against it. Yet the question of the existence of a spontaneously generated order remains the central question of economics—and of social theory generally—even thought it is seldom recognized as such. Theories of the instability of investment, of saving, and of aggregate demand are all variants of the general proposition that the economy lacks strong forces leading to an undesigned order. These are not simply disputes of technical economics, narrowly defined, though they too long have been treated as such. The question of the necessary amount of governmental stabilization policy will not be decided by running yet another money-demand equation through a computer. Nonetheless, it is imperative that the question be addressed directly once again.17
As intellectual descendants of Carl Menger, most Austrian economists have defended the proposition that spontaneous market forces are capable of producing an overall order in society. Hayek, for one, is well-known for his emphasis on the role of nonpurposive social organizations in this process.18 Indeed, the persistence of members of this school in their views in the face of the contrary opinion of much of the profession has contributed to their intellectual isolation. In this sense, and alone among the neoclassical schools, the Austrians can today lay claim to being the inheritors of the Smithian system. In this, the bicentenary of the publication of The Wealth of Nations, it would be well for Austrian economists to seize the opportunity to reestablish the importance of the principle of spontaneous order—an order that, though designed by no one, emerges from the individual and independent planning of market transactors.
THE NEW RICARDIANS19
There is yet another tradition in the history of economics, distinct from both the Austrian and Smithian traditions, and from those that are overtly hostile to these traditions. It is a tradition epitomized by David Ricardo’s general approach to economic questions. In the Ricardian tradition, attention is focused on the long run, in which full adjustment to all disturbances has occurred. Periods of transition are abstracted from.20 It would be anachronistic to credit Ricardo with a theory of perfect information, but he wrote as though the laborers, capitalists, and rentiers of his system had full access to future events. The difference between the Smithian and Ricardian traditions is a subtle, though important one; and it separates theorists even today.
In Smith’s world, changes are constantly occurring, and adaptations to these changes are never complete. These changes may be of comparatively simple variety, such as variations in the corn harvest from year to year (with attendant effects on real wage rates).21 More importantly, Smith was concerned with the continuous process of market adaptation to invention and further extensions of the division of labor. Changes in institutions and the legal structure are of prime concern.22 It is not, of course, that Smith had nothing to say about the long run. His value theory is a long-run theory, though I find it one of the least developed parts of his system.23 Nonetheless, the emphasis in The Wealth of Nations is on change. Moreover, Smith’s actors suffer various illusions and misunderstandings about future events, and, indeed, about their own self-interest. None of this would make sense in a Ricardian world.
Whether it is a question of monetary economics or of fiscal policy, Ricardo generally treats all disturbances as though they were fully and completely anticipated.24 In the Ricardian world, then, the problem of coordination disappears. It is not that Ricardo denied the principle of spontaneous order. Rather he did not treat the emergence of coordinated behavior on the market as a problem. He in effect assumed that economic behavior will be coordinated. Most importantly, and unlike Smith, Ricardo generally ignored the question of what institutional arrangements are necessary for the emergence of that order upon which the soundness of his arguments depends.
The institutional setting and the allocation mechanism matter in economics precisely because behavior in a changing world is not automatically coordinated. Laws and institutions have a significant impact on human behavior precisely because some facilitate and some inhibit the flow of information that is necessary for adaptation in a changing world. This realization is certainly contained in The Wealth of Nations—Smith’s emphasis on the importance of these matters suffuses that work. Not so with Ricardo’s Principles.
Professor Lachmann has recently reminded us that the problem of economic coordination is intimately involved with the twin problems of acquisition and diffusion of knowledge among transactors. In dealing with the characteristic assumption that the state of knowledge is among the data of the system, he queries:
Do we assume that all market actors know all the tastes and resources in all markets in which they, actually or potentially, do or might operate? But if so, equilibrium should at once be attained in all markets. If we were to make this assumption, there could be no disequilibrium, no dealings at “false prices.” Walras’s “auctioneer” would become superfluous. If, on the other hand, we do not make it, how do we delimit the extent of each actor’s knowledge at each point of time, and how do we deal with the flow of knowledge between actors over time?25
Discussion about the importance of information may seem prosaic to economists at this point. But the radical implications of imperfect knowledge have simply not been generally absorbed in economic theory. For, inter alia, imperfection of knowledge means that prices do not necessarily coordinate economic behavior, as those prices are influenced by the inconsistent expectations on the basis of “false” price signals. To justify one’s faith in the coordinating function of markets, one cannot simply assume that prices are coordinating, or at their equilibrium level. Rather, one must be concerned with the institutional environment of economic systems and with the appropriateness of these institutions for the emergence of a spontaneous market order. One must be concerned, then, with specifying the situations in which prices will coordinate, and those situations in which prices will not coordinate, economic activity. By his attention to the long run, in which, ex hypothesi, all such problems disappear because full adjustment to all changes has occurred, Ricardo (and his followers) ignored these difficulties.
The problem of economic coordination is a theoretical and practical issue not merely because decision-making is decentralized, though this is an important aspect of the problem. Of even more importance is the fact that we live in a world of constant change. Were there decentralized decision-making, but an unchanging environment, it might be reasonable to suppose that economic activity could be coordinated under a wide variety of institutional and allocational arrangements. Learning would occur due to the repetition of events, with adjustments made as past errors were revealed.26 A price system and appropriate market institutions are of practical significance precisely because of the need to register the effects of continuous changes in the data, changes which are given to no one in their entirety. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether money, prices, or the market system would exist in the stationary state. Those who ignore this aspect of imperfect information are caught in the dilemma of dealing with phenomena, most of which would not exist in the world as they assume that world to exist—a world of perfectly coordinated plans.27
Ricardo and his epigones thus obscured the basic questions of social order that Smith had raised. They shifted the emphasis away from these questions to the theorems and lemmas of value theory. Their legacy is still with us today. Walras and the Lausanne School introduced the concept of general equilibrium into economics. But in other respects the Walrasian system is quite similar to the Ricardian: both are perfectly coordinated systems. By the sheer logic of these systems, neither is obviously concerned with the coordination of economic activities—this coordination is implicitly assumed to take place. In such systems laws and institutions do not matter. Monetary disturbances can have no significant effects—for the transition periods in which money clearly matters are de-emphasized or ignored in the Ricardian system.28 In such systems, the market would not be viewed as a process in which continual adjustment to continual change occurs, but a state of affairs in which this process was at an end.
The Chicago School can be fairly described as the modern Ricardians. In Kirzner’s terminology, the transactors in the Chicago world are nothing but Robbinsian maximizers.29 Chicago economists are Ricardian in their approach to questions of tax and expenditure policy and monetary policy, to cite two examples previously mentioned for Ricardo. The Ricardian bent of the Chicago School is important to the Austrian School for at least two reasons.
First, the time has passed when members of the Chicago School were articulate, but minority members of the profession. Increasingly, economic discussions and debates are influenced by their approach. Second, on issues involving coordination questions, their Ricardian leanings re-enforce the Walrasian approach of the dominant mathematical, general equilibrium theorists. This is an important point because economists are beginning to recognize the distinctiveness of the Marshallian approach (vis à vis the Walrasian approach) of Chicago School economists. And the differences between Chicago School economists and the rest of the profession are important for a wide variety of issues, such as the role of empirical research, partial vs. general equilibrium analysis, etc. But as regards the coordination of economic activities, the new Ricardians and the neo-Walrasians are more of one mind. They tend to take for granted that markets coordinate economic activities. By doing so, they ignore the complex questions of economic coordination, upon the solution of which depends the degree of economic coordination. This approach is objectionable because of the conclusions it engenders when markets demonstrably are not coordinating economic activity. The “market failure” mentality is an effect of this approach.30 “The market system” is adjudged a failure in such cases, with scant recognition that “the market” is a metaphor for a complex of interrelationships and institutions, any one of which may be the source of the problem. That members of the Chicago School are generally more sanguine about the efficacy of this system hardly mitigates the methodological point being made here.
Austrian economists and other adherents to the principle of spontaneous order will receive little support and should generally expect overt hostility from the Chicago School on a wide range of economic questions.31 Austrian economists tend to view most economic questions as issues involving the principle of spontaneous order. Accordingly, they take characteristic positions on these questions. Two of the areas where disagreement between the two schools is particularly intense are monetary and capital theory. Quite apart from their differences over the determination of the equilibrium values of interest rates, the two schools are sharply divided over the approach to questions of capital and interest theory, as well as those of monetary theory. Being Ricardians, members of the Chicago School naturally keep questions of monetary theory and capital theory quite distinct, since these are distinct problems in long-run equilibrium analysis. As did Ricardo, they treat deviations from the equilibrium rate of interest as temporary fluctuations. The transitional periods in which monetary disturbances influence the accumulation of capital and the level of rate of interest are typically ignored or at least de-emphasized.
On the other hand, many of the twentieth century members of the Austrian School have dealt with the interface between monetary and capital theory. Mises and Hayek were most persistent in their analysis of the interrelation between monetary and capital questions, precisely because of their interest in adjustment problems. Hayek, for instance, has been consistent in treating economic fluctuations as manifestations of economic discoordination, brought on by monetary disturbances.32 For Hayek, monetary disturbances change entrepreneurial expectations and lead to capital accumulation that, ex post, is revealed to have been malinvestment. These malinvestments cause real scarcities, whose existence becomes manifest in subsequent price changes. The price changes compel entrepreneurs—because of the capital losses that they eventually incur—to revise their investment plans. It is in this sense that modern Austrians view cyclical expansions brought about by monetary and credit inflation as self-reversing and inherently unstable.33
Hayek and Mises thus dealt with phenomena virtually ignored by monetary theorists of the Chicago School—the transition period between a monetary disturbance and complete adjustment to its effects.34 To the extent that Professor Friedman, for instance, deals with the transition period, it is only in terms of one, comparatively narrow problem—anticipation of future price levels.35 As a practical matter, monetarists generally view inflation as synchronized inflation, with all prices rising pari passu. for Hayek and Mises, synchronized inflation is a fantasy, so long as monetary disturbances impinge at specific points.36 And full adjustment to inflation would be all but inconceivable, as it would involve each actor’s anticipating correctly the precise changes in each relative price that will occur in each future period, due to the assumed monetary disturbances.37
Once again, the Ricardian approach to monetary questions blinds its users to the issues considered paramount by the Austrians. In so doing, this approach inhibits an understanding of important issues confronting market economists. For the Ricardian, quantity theory approach is one in which prices continue their coordinating function even in an inflation. Yet, the point at issue is whether spontaneous market forces operate as usual in an inflation. If monetary disturbances not only generate pure price inflation, but also interfere with the coordinating mechanisms in an economy, then the quantity theory approach ignores an important research programme in economics—the study of the monetary framework necessary for prices to fulfill their coordinating function.38 In the words of one expositor of Hayek’s ideas:
[Hayek] regarded prices ... as empirical reflectors of specific circumstances and price changes as an inter-related series of changes in these “signals,” which produced a gradual adaptation in the entire price structure (and hence in the outputs of different commodities and services) to the constant, unpredictable changes in the real world. Pricing, in short, is seen as a continuous information-collecting and disseminating process, but it is the institutional framework that determines both the extent to which and the degree of success with which, prices are enabled to perform this potential signalling or allocative function.39
That nonpurposive social organizations will naturally evolve and that an undesigned order can be the product of self-regarding acts are radical ideas in Western thought. These ideas run counter to the dominant approach to social questions and were in ascendency for only a brief period in Western intellectual history. It is not, then, entirely surprising that in economics these ideas have not gained complete acceptance; and that among the general public, even the so-called educated public, they are scarcely understood at all. But there is danger that because of essentially reactionary developments in social thought, the insights that were the product of the Enlightenment will be all but lost in practice. Adam Smith has aptly characterized the far older conception of social order:
The man of system ... seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.41
The liberal conception of society of Adam Smith and the classical economists stands in sharp contrast with this older view. Yet once again in the United States, we see evidence of this older conception’s becoming prominent, under the guise of national economic planning. Proposals for planning are embodiments of the chess-game conception of social affairs, adapted to the problem of economic allocation. These proposals implicitly or explicitly deny that market forces guide decision making, so as to produce an overall, yet undesigned order; and they virtually ignore the function and role of nonpurposive economic organizations.
It is not that the arguments for national (i.e., central) economic planning constitute a direct intellectual challenge to opponents of such planning. As Professor Hayek has recently demonstrated in a devastating rebuttal of these proposals, modern exponents of “planning” possess as naive and ill-thought-out an approach to the problem as did the Bolsheviks and European socialists in the immediate post-World War I period. As he notes:
The conception [collectivist economic planning], originally developed by some of the organizers of the German war economy during World War I, was thoroughly discussed by economists in the 1920’s and 1930’s; and all those familiar with that discussion will agree that it greatly contributed to the clarification of concepts and that one ought today to be entitled to assume that no competent economist who lived through that discussion would ever again talk about the issues in terms of the vague and confused concepts initially bandied about.42
Indeed, if this debate were being carried out in the scholarly arena, I doubt that the proposals put forth by those in favor of central planning would survive Hayek’s recent criticisms. Unfortunately, the debate is not being carried forth in learned journals, or, generally, by learned men; rather, the proposals are being developed in the pages of the New York Times, and are being presented by politicians, businessmen, and labor union leaders. This is an instance in which those who accept the Smithian insights have won the intellectual battle, but are in danger of seeing their arguments lose out in practice. This situation surely represents a dilemma for economists. Economists generally disdain polemics, but they now face a situation in which influencing important political questions depends on their ability to present economic ideas in a polemical fashion. Certainly those economists who have chosen, for whatever reasons,43 to ally themselves with the misleading arguments of the “planners” have not eschewed polemics.44
Hayek has done an admirable job of marshalling the chief arguments against central planning in his recent article. I do not intend to repeat these arguments here. But it is worth reminding ourselves of the central confusion of the early advocates of central planning, as it is the central confusion of the current advocates. The confusion concerns the very concept of “planning.” If nothing else developed from the earlier debates over the question, it was the realization that a market economy is characterized by continual planning and plan-revision, albeit on a decentralized level.45 As Hayek put it over thirty years ago, and recently repeated:
The dispute between the modern planners and their opponents, is, therefore, not a dispute on whether we ought to choose intelligently between the various possible organizations of society; it is not a dispute on whether we ought to employ foresight and systematic thinking in planning our common affairs. It is a dispute about what is the best way of so doing. The question is whether for this purpose it is better that the holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully; or whether a rational utilization of our resources requires central direction and organization of all our activities according to some consciously constructed “blueprint.” The socialists of all parties have appropriated the term “planning” for planning of the latter type, and it is now generally accepted in this sense. But though this is meant to suggest that this is the only rational way of handling our affairs, it does not, of course, prove this. It remains the point on which the planners and the liberals disagree.46
The challenge of “planning” confronts liberal economists with both the necessity and the opportunity of once again entering the popular debate over the trend of society that we will shape for the future. For it must be remembered that in constructing economics upon the principle of spontaneous order, earlier economists were ultimately interested in the problem of social and political organization. In part, then, I am proposing a return to an earlier conception of our task as engaging in political economy, though we now recognize a specifically scientific part of this field, viz., economics. If economists do not conceive of their task thusly, it is doubtful whether there will be any practical opportunity in the future for the scientific pursuit of the implications of the principle of spontaneous order.
In order to pursue this goal, however, Austrian economists in particular must settle among themselves certain theoretical and seemingly purely scientific issues. I have argued above that among the neoclassical economists, the Austrians have most consistently adhered to Adam Smith’s conception of the economic problem. Ironically, recent debates indicate anything but agreement among living members of this school. The positions of some could be construed as an implicit attack on the idea that there is a spontaneous market order in the economy. It is thus that I am led into a final section, involving a discussion of the Austrian approach to the question of the operation of spontaneously generated forces in a market economy.
THE AUSTRIAN SCHOOL AND SPONTANEOUS ORDERING FORCES
In a recent paper, Professor Kirzner speculates about the exact status of the proposition that profitable opportunities have a tendency to be exploited.47 He concludes that the propensity to discover opportunities is “inseparable from our insight that human beings act purposefully.”48 In fact, he even suggests a sympathetic reinterpretation of the perfect knowledge assumption of neoclassical price theory. Though orthodox use of the assumption is “carefree,”49 it does reflect a real insight: our “instinct” is seen as assuring us that profitable opportunities will be discovered. He then concludes that: “The perfect knowledge assumption of neo-classical economics carried this instinctive assurance to altogether unjustified lengths. In rejecting this dangerous assumption, we must take care not to expunge the entirely healthy instinct on which it rested.”50
Kirzner’s approach to the issue of profit exploitation in a market economy differs markedly from Lachmann’s. Nonetheless, this proposition is not easily demonstrated, for two, interrelated reasons. First, Lachmann to my knowledge nowhere explicitly asserts the contrary proposition, viz., that we have no grounds for believing that market participants will discover and exploit profitable opportunities. Second, though the figure of Professor Lachmann lurks in the background throughout the second half of Kirzner’s paper, the latter never brings this figure into the foreground.
The best way of elucidating this issue is to turn to Lachmann’s own recent paper. Toward the end of his paper, Lachmann notes that:
... Skepticism about equilibrium need not deter us from appraising the relative strength and weakness of the equilibrating forces in various situations. In fact, it must encourage us to do so. To make confident use of the notion of equilibrium means to imply that the equilibrating forces will always be of sufficient strength to triumph over all obstacles. A skeptic might readily admit that such situations may exist, but he will probably doubt whether they occur with sufficient frequency to warrant our treating them as the norm. The more skeptical we are about general equilibrium as the central notion of economic analysis, the more incumbent on us it becomes to examine each situation individually with respect to the balance of strength of equilibrating and disequilibrating forces.51
It must be noted here that Kirzner’s position is not that we should admire neoclassical price theory for its treatment of general equilibrium as “the central notion of economic analysis” or as “the norm.” Rather, he suggests that we accept the proposition that equilibrating tendencies are strong. If the propensity to discover opportunities is “inseparable from our insight that human beings act purposefully,” then we must likewise acknowledge a tendency toward equilibrium in all markets. A fortiori, there exist strong tendencies toward an overall or general equilibrium at each moment. Individuals are, then, constantly revising their plans in a way that brings them into greater uniformity. This latter proposition, when thus phrased in dynamic terms, does embody the principle of an undesigned order. It remains questionable, however, whether Lachmann wishes to embrace this principle. Thus he argues that:
Experience shows that in the real world of disequilibrium different persons will typically hold different expectations about the same future event. If so, at best one person’s expectation can be confirmed and all other expectations will be disappointed. Hence the “assumption that all other expectations are confirmed” cannot possibly hold. Nobody can take his equilibrium bearings if he does not know how others will act. In such a situation, which we have every reason to regard as normal, his equilibrium, as Hayek admits, cannot serve as a source of a “feedback mechanism.” The beacon that had been designed to keep entrepreneurs from straying from the narrow path of convergent expectations turns out, on most nights, to be rather dim.52
Lachmann makes much of “the autonomy of the human mind” (as must all Austrians):
This source of ... new knowledge may well be past experience, but the latter requires interpretation by a discerning mind, and optimists will interpret it differently from pessimists. The human mind is a filter of experience, but each individual’s filter is different from every other filter. Divergent expectations are thus as “natural,” a feature of the social landscape as are divergent tastes. Changes in the constellation of knowledge are an inevitable concomitant of the passing of time, and changes in the constellation of expectations are bound to follow them.53
There is no denying the autonomy of the human mind, but one is reluctant to follow Lachmann in his apparent conclusion that we can say nothing about the likelihood that individuals will make consistent and coordinated decisions in the face of new knowledge. If anything, he seems to be saying that they will not coordinate plans. Yet, one always supposed it was an Hayekian insight that prices facilitate the diffusion of information and the coordination of plans.54
We are faced here with an important question: Do different and disparate individuals have a common reaction to shared experience? We certainly would not want to say they always do, or there would be little sense in referring to “individuals.” Yet, there are obvious cases in which people do react to shared experiences in the same or similar ways: the perception of a fire in an enclosed room will lead to virtually everyone’s making for an exit. Each person could form a reasonable expectation about what the others will do.
Moreover, many events are implicit demonstrations of the degree to which expectations do coincide. Changes in clothing fashion might be cited as an example. The “agreement” among separate manufacturers of apparel can be amazing, though clearly retail customers do not register their preferences for new fashion in a clothing futures market. Apparently individual entrepreneurs, experiencing the same signals and trends, will often form similar expectations.
None of these considerations is decisive, of course, but they are suggestive. Lachmann has clearly done a great service in pointing out forcefully the absurdity of an approach in which expectations always prove consistent. It is an essential feature of markets that not everyone reacts equally quickly to the continual changes in the data.55 But it is true of at least some changes that they occur only because actors share a unanimous opinion about the future course of events.
Having eschewed the approach of assuming consistency among expectations at all times, one is not justified, without further argument, in arguing that economists can make no assumptions about a tendency toward such uniformity, where this tendency is based on a universally recognized “propensity to discover opportunities.” To do so would involve a non sequitur. Again, to assume that all opportunities are at any moment fully exploited (and thus do not really exist as opportunities) would be, to paraphrase Kirzner, a “carefree” use of concepts. But we must surely accept the existence of the propensity, or forsake the principle of spontaneous order. This point can be elaborated by recounting an event that happened at a December, 1975, conference on Austrian economics.
Professor Lerner argued that without the concept of general equilibrium, defenders of the market system have no basis from which to carry on their defense. His criticism was in response to Lachmann’s approach to the question of general equilibrium. I confess that I rose to the latter’s defense at the time, by pointing out that we need only assume that there is market-day equilibrium. If prices clear existing supplies, then markets can operate successfully. “That is all we need.” I am now not sure that I did not err. Lerner may have been raising an important issue for Austrians.
We must distinguish two functions of markets. The first consists simply in a method of allocating existing supplies peacefully. Without prices and free markets, society requires guns and dictatorship. Examples of the latter type of social allocation of resources are numerous. But I am not sure that defenders of the market system can be satisfied with demonstrating that free trade is an alternative to the “war of all against all,” however important this insight may be. For if supplies of goods are autonomous, if not gratuitous, it is dubious in what sense it can be said that prices coordinate activity. Indeed, I suspect that there is no coordination in the conventional sense in Lachmann’s system. For him apparently, ex ante plans bear no relation to ex post reality. There is not even reason to believe that actors will move in the right direction in correcting past errors.
Lachmann does feel that the market “cannot make bulls and bears change their expectations, but it nevertheless can coordinate these.” He continues:
To coordinate bullish and bearish expectations is, as Keynes showed, the economic function of the Stock Exchange and of asset markets in general. This is achieved because in such markets the price will move until the whole market is divided into equal halves of bulls and bears. In this way divergent expectations are cast into a coherent pattern and a measure of coordination is accomplished.56
“Coordination” is being used here in a highly ambiguous sense. As Lachmann notes subsequently, he is talking not about ex ante consistency, but about a Marshallian ex post, market-day equilibrium.57 This usage of coordination is in sharp contrast to the more conventional one, and the usage that Austrians have traditionally employed.58 “Coordination of plans” in traditional usage means there is ex ante consistency among transactors’ plans. It is certainly scant comfort for one interested in this problem to be informed that there will be “coordination” ex post. Though related, ex ante and ex post “coordination” are conceptually distinct issues. To conflate the two issues is scarcely to contribute to the solution of either problem.59
It is certainly not the case that Austrian economists maintain that there ever exists ex ante consistency among all transactors’ plans. But they have traditionally maintained, as Lachmann himself notes, that there is a strong tendency toward diffusion of knowledge and increased consistency of plans. In other words, Austrian economists have always viewed the problem of economic coordination in dynamic terms. Do plans become more consistent over time? Lachmann apparently sloughs over the distinction between two very different propositions:
- 1 Economic activities are coordinated in the sense that all plans are successfully executed (“general equilibrium”).
- 2 Economic activities are coordinated in the sense that a mechanism exists (i.e., the price system) that facilitates rational plan revision and leads to greater consistency of plans over time.
Lachmann switches back and forth between discussions of “the relative strength and weakness of the equilibrating forces,” and “general equilibrium as the central notion of economic analysis” as though he were talking about the same problem (see p. 129). Surely, the statement that “the market produces strong equilibrating forces” is fundamentally different than the assertion that “the market is always in (general) equilibrium.” Does Professor Lachmann acknowledge the difference? It is certainly not clear that his arguments against the first class of statements are telling against the second. It is true that elsewhere Lachmann apparently acknowledges the existence of a tendency toward equilibrium in some areas: “A tendency toward the integration of the [capital] structure does exist.”60 But even there, he seemingly takes back what he has just granted.61 I am afraid his occasional concessions to the existence of a tendency to greater consistency of plans in markets only confuses matters.
What I find most disturbing about Lachmann’s position is that he criticizes a static general equilibrium model, but concludes that the modern Austrian approach to coordination, in a dynamic sense, is thereby called into question. I am not at all clear what he thinks “the general equilibrium perspective” is. The reader is told that Hayek’s “early work was clearly under the influence of the general equilibrium model.”62 Elsewhere the reader is reminded that as early as 1933 (in “Price Expectations, Monetary Disturbances and Malinvestments”) Hayek dealt with expectations. It was in 1936 (“Economics and Knowledge”) that Hayek launched his attack on the static, general equilibrium models of mathematical economics. From this, one must conclude that Lachmann is critical even of theories espousing a tendency toward overall equilibrium (i.e., he denies the principle of spontaneous order). I can draw no other conclusion.
It also seems that what Kirzner treats as the “equilibrating market process,” Lachmann treats as a “disequilibrating” process. At first, I thought there was a mere semantic confusion. I now believe the apparent semantic confusion is masking real conceptual differences. Kirzner sees any disturbance as developing equilibrating market forces. Lachmann sees change as disequilibrating.63 The only reason that I can adduce is that Lachmann does not see market forces as being equilibrating in nature. If this is his position for markets as a whole, then he is generalizing the position taken by Keynes about securities markets to markets as a whole, viz., that we cannot rely on spontaneous market forces to bring us to an equilibrium position after a disturbance. And if this be the case, then Lachmann’s views represent a radical challenge not only to his fellow Austrians, but to all those who accept the existence of an undesigned market order. For it certainly seems that the only effective answer to the challenges with which I have been concerned lies in Kirzner’s characterization of the entrepreneurial role.
As a final note, if I have misread Lachmann, I hope this section will at least serve to clarify issues and develop implications of the principle of spontaneous order. If the paper succeeded in nothing else, it would have served its purpose.
I would like to remind the reader that my original task was to demonstrate that seemingly diverse and particular problems are really instances of a more general theoretical disagreement. For it is only by directly addressing this general theoretical disagreement—disagreement that I have identified as devolving around the existence of an undesigned market order—that a fruitful search toward solutions of these individual problems can be begun. It is in the nature of an endeavor to demonstrate the interconnections between such seemingly disparate (but really connected) issues that no one of them is adequately treated. If the reader feels that each section calls for a separate paper on its topic, the author can only agree and express the hope that more papers on these subjects will be forthcoming, albeit papers informed by the realization of the overall problem being studied.