Discovery Processes

A good friend of mine encouraged me to read this note published by James Jay Carafano, Vice President of The Heritage Foundation.

Despite being as compelling as it is well intentioned, the article misses to mention one of the main arguments for free markets: what once Friedrich Hayek described as “the competition as a discovery process.”

Indeed, the concept is insinuated in Carafano’s piece of writing: “He decided to make a splash in the sports car market by jumping into the race car racket. Initially, he planned to do it by buying the world’s premier race car manufacturer, Ferrari. But that plan fell flat. So Ford moved to Plan B: to field his own, all-American team.”

Businessmen, like any other kind of people, are rational: initially, they try to maximize their profits by avoiding competition. They are not heroes and nobody can ask them to be so. People, businessmen included, respond to incentives.

When there is not any other choice than competition, then innovation, ingenuity, and creativity arise. Not because of a change in the mind of certain businessmen, but for new innovative entrepreneurs outperform the non competitive ones.

The free market capitalist system James Jay Carafano praises is mostly an institutional arrangement named -once  again- by Hayek as “competitive order.” Nevertheless, the most interesting question for our times is not about the virtues of the said free market capitalist system -which seem to be out of discussion- but whether competition under the rule of law deserves to have a Kantian “Cosmopolitan Purpose.”

My Startup Experience

Over the past 4 years, I have had a huge transition in my life–from history student to law student to serial medical entrepreneur. Essentially, I have learned a great deal from my academic work that taught me the value that we can create if we find an unmet need in the world, create an idea that fills that need, and then use technology, personal networks, and hard work to create novelties. While startups obviously tackle any new problem under the sun, to me, they are the mechanism to bring about a positive change–and, along the way, get the resources to scale that change across the globe.

I am still very far from reaching that goal, but my family and cofounders have several visions of how to improve not only how patients are treated but also how we build the knowledge base that physicians, patients, and researchers can use to inform care and innovation. My brother/cofounder and I were recently on an entrepreneurship-focused podcast, and we got the chance to discuss our experience, our vision, and our companies. I hope this can be a springboard for more discussions about how companies are a unique agent of advancing human flourishing, and about the history and philosophy of entrepreneurship, technology, and knowledge.

You can listen here: http://rochesterrising.org/podcast/episode-151-talking-medical-startups-with-keith-and-kevin-kallmes. Heartfelt thanks to Amanda Leightner and Rochester Rising for a great conversation!

Thank you!

Kevin Kallmes

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 5): Logical models

There is a thin line between the abstract model of “natural selection of institutions,” its instantiation in an imaginary example that interprets it and the application of that theory to interpret historical experience. The latter does not test the model, but is the result of the organization of the record of events around this interpretive model. The instantiation in an imaginary example is a visualization that allows us to identify the inconsistencies in the model -if there are any- and to test general predictions about the behaviour of the variables. Such interpretations of the model assume that the rest of the variables remain unchanged, that is, the ceteris paribus condition.

If the abstract model does not have inconsistencies, i.e.: if in its imaginary interpretation, contradictory events do not arise, and, nevertheless, its explanatory or predictive power is contradicted with the experience, this does not imply a refutation. On the contrary, it is an indicator that another set of events are acting that neutralize the effects of the process described by the theory. In this case, although the theory does not achieve results in terms of explanations and predictions, it does fulfil a heuristic function: that is, it inspires new lines of research and discovery.

One such line of such lines is, for example, how politics plays out in the process of natural selection of social habits and practices. As indicated by the School of Public Choice, the regulations on economic activity that affect the distribution of corporate profits, assign monopolies, restrict imports, intervene in the market of credits and capital to favour certain activities over others, among others many cases of economic dirigisme encourage the development of practices known as “lobbying.” Investing in human capital and new technologies means an opportunity cost that will never be assumed if higher yields are obtained as a result of influencing government decisions that protect the producer from competition, or allowing the State to sell at a price higher than the market price. Therefore, if experience is indicating a low capacity for innovation, lack of initiative and stagnation, it is most appropriate to focus the observation on which incentives are acting effectively in that country.

The counterpart of the logical models is the empirical models, the latter consist of abstractions of elements that occur in reality, highlighting their common notes to obtain various classifications of such elements, and they are a simplified scheme of perceived reality. However, any system of abstraction of the common notes of a set of objects requires a prior conceptualization of such notes as defining a set or class. In order to classify diverse populations in countries, it is previously necessary to be in possession of the notion of population, for example.

On the other hand, abstract notions are not necessarily conformed by a deliberate operation of consciousness, but by the perception of series of events that are repeated and differentiated from one another, generating in the cognitive apparatus an association of diverse stimuli. Out of habit arises the expectation that from the appearance of a particular event or series of events a range of determined events will follow and not follow another range of events of various kinds. On these spontaneous classifications, articulated around the repetition of events, their differential in the system of stimuli of the nervous apparatus, and the predisposition generated by the habit of waiting and ruling out the consequent appearance of other events and stimuli is that consciousness is conformed and the cognitive apparatus of the knowledge subject.

But, likewise, those “spontaneous classifications” allow the appearance of an abstract set of functionally related notions whose ordering does not depend on a deliberate decision. These are the cases of norms with empirical observation and of what Douglass North called “informal institutions.” The value of the contribution of Friedrich Hayek in Law, legislation and Liberty consists in both the positive legal norms (deliberately created by the legislator) and the informal institutions that condition our conduct also depend for their enunciation of that abstract order of notions that it arises from pure experience.

These logical models -as they are abstract- that make up the consciousness and the cognitive apparatus of the subjects, are in permanent trial and error testing and, therefore, in continuous reformulation. It is a kind of negative feedback process in which the frustration of an expectation is corrected in the interpretative scheme of reality that the individual has, in a process of continuous readjustment. From the invariant reiteration of a certain series of events, a structure is formed that serves as a parameter to order other events of less frequency or more erratic behaviour.

To the extent that the subject continues its experimentation, the spontaneous classification system that makes up its consciousness becomes more complex, incorporating new ranges of events, adjusting its frequency and incorporating new structures. These are the relative limits of knowledge. They depend on the experimentation and the readjustment of the abstract patterns that allowed the subject to classify the events of reality.

However, knowledge can also grow in another direction: consciousness can focus not on the events that come from its perceptions but in the analysis of the classifications themselves. In this activity, the abstract classification schemes that had been shaped by habit do not apply to reality, but reflect on these classifications and extend and reformulate them, not in terms of their experience, but in virtue of their abstract speculation. This is the task of deliberately shaping the logical models to be applied to the interpretation of reality.

The elaboration of a legal theory -for example, about representation-, the description of a market structure -for example, monopolistic competition-, the outline of a sociological explanation -through the ideal types statement, to cite a case- , are situations in which the subject of knowledge does not experiment on events, but reformulates the classificatory systems that until then had arrived spontaneously. Knowledge in this case does not grow in specificity, but increases in levels of abstraction.

These are the cases in which the historian questions not only the interpretative frameworks he uses, but also the conditions that underlie these interpretative frameworks. The philosophy of science dabbled in the scientific paradigms (Thomas Kuhn), or in the research programs (Imre Lakatos), or in the great stories (Jean Francois Lyotard). The common denominator of these three concepts can be found in that they lack an “author,” they are inferences, true conjectures that we make about the framework in which a given scientific community develops tacitly.

Many interpret these currents of philosophy of science, although diverse, as relativistic, since they lend themselves to postulate that the statements of science are conditioned by the historical circumstances that serve as the frame of legitimation. There would not be a truth in itself, but a truth enunciated in a frame of reference. Another way to see it is to interpret these scientific communities structured around a set of practices, procedures, and validation rules whose origin is mainly spontaneous in a sort of “abstract discovery machines.”

In general, a series of physical devices conformed in a process of transforming inputs into exits is called a machine. But such physical devices are organized according to an abstract plane that assigns them functions for a certain process. This plane can be interpreted through mental operations without resorting to the construction of the physical machine, throwing said mental operations verifiable results; we are faced with an abstract machine. In recent times, the term “algorithm” has also been used to compare an information process that does not depend on the free will of the researchers, but consists in the follow-up of an automatic process.

In this line, Friedrich Hayek characterized competition as a process of discovery, that is, as an abstract machine that processes data and yields results that describe reality. In fact, the discovery would be the only function of a system of free competition that gives a differential over the rest of the systems. A monopoly, whose margins of profitability were controlled either by a maximum price or by a tax on profits, would be more efficient in terms of the production of a given good, than a set of small producers without market power and without scale. The scale of the monopolistic producer allows greater efficiency at a technological level than small producers competing with each other, being able to resolve economic inefficiency through regulatory or tax tools. However, in what a system of free competition is incomparably superior is in terms of the discovery process that drives its own dynamics. These are the benefits that innovation brings, as a consequence of an unanticipated system of free competition or competition, which far exceed all the supposed advantages of a regulated system.

It is this innovation that produces, most of the time involuntarily, an institutional system of free competition, called by Acemoglu & Robinson “inclusive economic institutions” – the one that allowed Hayek to characterize it as a process of discovery, in other words, as an abstract innovation machine.

This characterization of innovation processes through institutions that function as algorithms that produce new knowledge can also be extended to scientific communities and to the evolutionary process of legal norms.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 4 here, and the full essay can be read in its entirety here.]

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 3): Evolutionary drift

The affirmation that one should not judge the historical past with current values ​​forms a topic as widespread as the disobedience to it. However, a conscious exercise of the evaluative critique of the past allows us to identify continuities and disruptions in institutional patterns, i.e., in systems of incentives that are considered legitimate, whether by virtue of a question of social utility or principles.

Caste systems are obvious examples in which a differentiated attribution of rights, that is to say the legal protection of the interests of individuals assigned to a certain ethnic group, was interpreted as legitimate because it was a matter of principle.

While a caste is defined by an ethnic component, or at least with respect to its physiognomic marker, in the status system the ethnic differences lose preponderance, to transfer it to the different private orders or privileges that determine a function within the society. In both cases, both in the system of castes and status, it should be noted that they not only define privileges for its members but mainly establish obligations: war, worship or field work, for example. While the cult is reserved for a certain caste, in the status societies the cult is an institutionalized function, an order, whose members fulfilled certain procedures of admission and permanence.

In any case, beyond the similarities and differences in the systems of castes and status, what matters in this case is to emphasize that such attributions of rights and obligations, that is, of legal protection of interests, collective or particular, do not respond to a question of social utility but of principles. In the first place, because in such societies the power is fragmented and therefore there is no central power that can perform a critical judgment on the social utility of a given system of incentives; at the most, if there is a king, he assumes a role of primus inter pares, an arbitrator between castes or statuses or protector of order.

The emergence of central governments demanded the emergence of stable bureaucracies supported by a tax system to be systematized in a public accounting, that is, a calculation of utility. On the other hand, the incorporation of abstract procedures from private law to the administration of the government, displacing the systems of sages, mandarins, humanists, etc., allowed a better centralization and control and rational administrative decisions. However, what is important to note here is that such institutional innovations did not necessarily depend on a disruptive change, such as a revolution, but that many cases occurred through an evolutionary process, in which more efficient institutions displaced obsolete ones.

The emergence of central governments replaced fragmented political and social systems, because centralization allows a calculation of utility in decision making, which yields better results -not always but most of the time- than a decision system based mainly on honour. Most of the time but not always, since there is the possibility that, in a situation of extreme complexity, the calculation of utility has a wide margin of error and, in contrast, in such situations, a pattern of decisions based on emotions, traditions, or moral principles work as a kind of heuristic better adapted to the circumstances. After all, for the calculation of utility to be viable, it must have tools such as an accounting system, a literate bureaucracy, an abstract procedural system, among others. If you do not have such means, hardly a decision based on utilitarian issues is far from whimsical and arbitrary. Faced with such cases, traditional structures could be more efficient.

Another issue to consider is not to be confused between the rationalization of political power in a central administration – public budgets and control of their execution, a neutral and efficient tax system, administrative decisions of a particular nature adopted according to abstract and general procedures – with the rationalization of each subsystem of society and even of the individual in particular.

It is true that, as indicated by Max Weber, the bureaucratization of political power leads to the gradual bureaucratization of the rest of society: the generalization of the same accounting system for all companies, in order to verify compliance with tax obligations, the public instruction of the whole population, to name a few examples. These processes of rationalization are extremely beneficial and generate a jump in productivity. This is what William Easterly, in his work The Quest for Economic Growth, highlights as a phenomenon in which knowledge leaks and spreads throughout society. In this way the relations of complementarity generated by the knowledge shared with the rest of the individuals that make up a given community are much more important than the substitution effect could give an advantage to a single possessor of such knowledge. For example, having knowledge of accounting represents an advantage over the competition, but that all companies are organized according to reasonable and homogeneous accounting principles allows a jump in productivity throughout the system that yields even greater individual profits. Likewise, not only the leaking of knowledge is beneficial for all members of society, but reached a point is inevitable.

However, this does not mean that a rationalization of the society as a whole and of the individuals that compose it is necessarily possible or desirable; much less that such process is directed from a central political power. A process of compulsive and totalizing rationalization is not always modernizing. Both in biological and cultural terms, the evolution occurs in the margins, it is the mutations of small isolated populations that allow them to adapt to changes in the environment.

Moreover, the totalizing political systems, which not only seek to define from a central power each one of the functions of the social subsystems in function of a supposed calculation of utility, also seek to build a notion of “citizenship” that stifles the sphere of autonomy that defines each individual with civic obligations. Such conceptions are the first to see the processes of innovation and creative destruction and any individual initiative as dangerous. Thus, by cutting off all possible adaptation to changes in circumstances, by mutilating all possible discoveries, it is not uncommon for such political systems to experience stagnation and be displaced by other systems more open to innovation – or at least be invaded by results of said competition, discovery and innovation processes.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 2; Here is the full essay.]

Watson my mind today

Apart from grading, reviewing, and my soon-to-be 5-yr-old’s birthday, that is…

–  A good question from Don Boudreaux. “Assuming (contrary to fact) that American trade deficits do necessarily cause Americans’ indebtedness to foreigners to rise, why do you bemoan these deficits? Why not instead cheer them? … Being indebted to foreigners means that we Americans must repay these debts, which in turn means that we Americans must in the future work to produce more goods and services for export. Isn’t this situation precisely what you and other protectionists want? Isn’t a rise in the demand for American exports – especially a rise not derived from, or offset by, a simultaneous rise in American imports – your very ideal?”

–  Speaking of protectionism, Tyler Cowen on Elizabeth Warren’s agriculture proposal: “a disappointment on two fronts: too wonky to be considered a purely political document, but not nearly wonky enough to be defensible in terms of substance.” It fails to understand inflation and food price data, calls for more protectionism, and doesn’t remove subsidies. He says he might be persuadable on a “right to repair” law, but worries about copyright infringement.

–  One of the issues Ludwig von Mises himself, I am told, never fully settled in his mind was over patents and copyright. It seems a necessary evil to encourage innovation, but granting someone a government-sanctioned monopoly just grates the wrong way. Now we’ve got “patent trolls” to add to the mix, who do not innovate themselves but buy up patents to collect licenses and sue or threaten to sue others. A paper finds that patent trolls encourage more upstream innovation while discouraging downstream innovation.

–  Why does Scott Sumner simultaneously support the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike last year and expect a cut this year? As a market monetarist, he would like the market to dictate Fed policy and “the fed funds futures market forecasts a rate cut. … Because markets continue to forecast slightly below 2% inflation, even as the economy slows, the market forecast of an interest rate cut should be taken as evidence that a rate cut is probably needed at some point this year.” I also enjoyed the picture that goes with the article – he is an owl, neither a hawk nor a dove.

–  There’s a dictionary, detailing how Africans speak about politics, including some fascinating idioms. “Three-piece suit voting” refers to supporting the same party for all elected positions. On the contrary, “skirt-and-blouse voting” means to vote for different parties for presidential and legislative elections.” Other enjoyable examples at the link.

–  538 has an interesting piece on the perceived fairness of kidney donation systems, and the real struggle that still exists trying to get people to accept slightly less-regulated systems (let alone actually compensating donors’ families).

–  David Henderson: Occupational Licensing is a Bad Idea. Still. Really.

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 3): Innovation means creative destruction

The concept of creative destruction was popularised by Joseph Schumpeter and assumes that the economy is in a equilibrium. The “entrepreneur,” therefore, is an unbalancing factor that, through innovation, displaces the winners of the prevailing situation until then, generating a new equilibrium. This notion was criticized by other economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Israel Kirzner, who saw that the entrepreneur, far from being a disequilibrating factor, obtained its benefits by identifying the points of disequilibrium of a system and arbitrating between them.

The concept of “creative destruction,” on the other hand, focuses on businesses that go to waste from the irruption of the entrepreneur. This emphasis allows us to understand why there will be those who see with fear or disgust the very idea of ​​innovation. In contrast, Hayek and Kirzner emphasize the benefits of the new equilibrium: greater efficiency in the allocation of resources and, consequently, a greater generation of wealth. The notion of Schumpeter allows us to explain why many oppose innovation, that of Hayek and Kirzner gives us reasons to move forward with it. Strictly speaking, in order for innovation not to cause damage at the aggregate level, it must satisfy the Kaldor-Hicks criterion, that is, the gains from innovation must be so high as to allow a hypothetical compensation to the ones who lost the new distribution of resources.

In short, the notion of creative destruction that both William Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson use, although it might differs from Schumpeter’s, meets the said Kaldor-Hicks criterion. In these cases, innovation does not represent a social disvalue, but on the contrary it generates a benefit for the whole. Therefore, it goes without saying that any brake on an innovation of this nature generates social loss. At this point, if innovation -also called “creative destruction”- is systematically curtailed, in order to seek to protect activities that would otherwise be displaced, society may encounter the following scenarios: a relative delay (regarding its potential) of its development, or a stagnation, or setback. In all three scenarios, inequality in wealth and income increases, or society sees its standard of living delayed or diminished in a homogenous way. In this last case, the protected sectors are also harmed by the brakes imposed on innovation.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 2; Here is the entire Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 2); Institutions: definition and subtypes

Implicitly, Douglass C. North, William Easterly, and Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson share the same notion of “institution.” In this respect, what must be taken into account is not a real definition of the former but its operative concept, that is, what characteristic features relate it to the rest of the concepts of each theoretical body. In this sense, we can affirm that for these authors an institution is a limiting factor for human interaction. More precisely, in terms of D.C. North, institutions can be defined as abstract constraints imposed on human social decisions that structure political, economic, and social interaction. The rational agent finds limited its action and its spectrum of choices by institutions, which can be derived as much from the law as from custom, his habits, or his moral constraints.

However, the particular limitations that a particular person experiences are not relevant, but those that are incorporated into the behavior of a large number of human beings that interact with each other, which allows them to recognize a structural pattern of human social action. In this way, although an institution limits human action, because it is widespread throughout the social fabric, building it, it allows each individual inserted in such a set of interactions to represent expectations about the behavior of their fellow human beings that have a high probability of being true (something similar to what Friedrich A. Hayek had previously enunciated in his concept of “spontaneous order”). These expectations allow each individual to make plans with a high degree of probability of accomplishment, or at least to identify those actions that could be ruinous. In this sense, an institution is not only a limitation of human action, but, correlatively, a motivator for it, i. e. an incentive. The structure of human interactions that institutions project in the political, economic, and social fields helps the rational agent to make more efficient decisions, since they have a lower margin of risk. Of course, not all the incentives generate the same economic performance.

It is true that any pattern of human interactions that constrains the scope of choices of the agent (i.e., institutions), however inefficient they might be, represent an advantage over the total absence of it, since it works as a hedge against the arbitrary power and violence from third parties. Thus, the main distinction to be drawn is between anomie and institutionalization.

This latter opinion is expressly stated in Why Nations Fail: the extractive institutions -the ones that establish rules that favor a group at the expense of the whole-, both politically and economically, although they are harmful, are less so than civil war, polarization, factions, or anarchy. Acemoglu & Robinson argue that a country that does not have “inclusive” institutions, but at least have extractive institutions, might experience a rapid development obtained from the importation of discoveries from better organized countries – the phenomenon of “catch up.” However, after reaching a certain maturity, if the country in question does not advance towards political and economic opening, stagnation and subsequent implosion will be difficult to avoid.

Here is where the book of Acemoglu & Robinson finds its point of greatest affinity with the work of William Easterly: to continue on a path of growth and development, countries and their ruling classes must be willing to admit that progress only comes through innovation and that all innovation is accompanied by a process of “creative destruction.”

[Editor’s note: You can find Part 1 here. You can find the entire Longform Essay here.]

Nightcap

  1. Mariana Mazzucato Arnold Kling, askblog
  2. The Incomplete Counterfactual Fallacy Rick Weber, NOL
  3. Innovation and the Failure of the Great Man Theory Joakim Book, NOL
  4. Let’s not emphasize behavioral economics Scott Sumner, EconLog

No Country for Creative Destruction

Imagine a country whose inhabitants reject every unpleasant byproduct of innovation and competition.

This country would be Frédéric Bastiat’s worst nightmare: in order to avoid the slightest maladies expected to emerge from creative destruction, all their advantages would remain unseen forever.

Nevertheless, that impossibility to acknowledge the unintended favourable consequences of competition is not conditioned by any type of censure, but by a sort of self-imposed moral blindness: the metaphysical belief that “being” is good and “becoming” is bad. A whole people inspired by W. B. Yeats, they want to be gathered into the artifice of eternity.

In this imaginary country, which would deserve a place in “The Universal History of Infamy” by J.L. Borges, people cultivate a curious strain of meritocracy, an Orwellian one: they praise stagnation for its stability and derogate growth because of the stubborn and incorruptible conviction that life in society is a zero-sum game.

Since growth is an unintended consequence of creative destruction, they reason additionally, then there must be no moral merit to be recognised in such dumb luck. On the other hand, stagnation is the unequivocal signal of the good deeds to the unlucky, who otherwise could suffer the obvious lost coming from every innovation.

In this fantastic country, Friedrich Nietzsche and his successors are well read: everybody knows that, in the Eternal Return, the whole chance is played at each throw of the dice. So, they conclude, “if John Rawls asked us to choose between growth or stagnation, we would shout at him: Stagnation!!!”

But the majority of the inhabitants of “Stagnantland” are not the only to blame for their devotion to quietness. The few and exceptional proponents of creative destruction who live in Stagnantland are mostly keen on the second term of the concept. That is why some love to say, from time to time, “we all are stagnationist” – the few contrarians are just Kalki’s devotees.

These imaginary people love to spend their vacations abroad, particularly in a legendary island named “Revolution”. Paradoxically, in Revolution Island the Revolutionary government found a way to avoid any kind of counter-revolutionary innovation. It is not necessary to mention that Revolution Island is, by far, Stagnantlanders’ favourite holiday destination.

They show their photos from their last vacation in Revolution Island and proudly stress: “Look: they left the buildings as they were back in 1950!!! Awesome!!!” If you dare to point out that the picture resembles a city in war, that the 1950 buildings lack of any maintenance or refurbishment, they will not get irritated. They will simply smile at you and reply smugly: “but they are happy!”

Actually, for Stagnantlanders, as for many others, ignorance is bliss, but their governments do not need to resort to such rudimentary devices as censure and spying to prevent people from being informed about the innovations and discoveries occurring in other countries, as Revolutionary Island rulers sadly do. Stagnantlanders simply reject any innovation as an article of faith!

Notwithstanding, they allow to themselves some guilty pleasures: they love to use smartphones brought by ant-smuggling and to watch contemporary foreign films which, despite being realistic, show a dystopian future to them.

As everything is deteriorated, progress is always a going back to an ancient and glorious time. In Stagnantland, things are not created, but restored. As with Parmenides, they do not believe in movement, but if there has to be an arrow of time, you had better point it to the past.

Moreover, Stagnantland is an imaginary country because it does not only lack of duration, but of territory as well. As the matter of fact, no man inhabits Stagnantland, but it is indeed stagnation that inhabits the hearts of Stagnantlanders. That is how, from dusk to dawn, any territory could be fully conquered by the said sympathy for the stagnation.

Nevertheless, if we scrutinise the question with due diligence, we will discover that the stagnation is not an ineluctable future, but our common past. Human beings appeared very much earlier than civilisation. So, all those generations must have been doing something before agriculture, commerce, and institutions.

Before the concept of creative destruction had been formulated by Joseph Schumpeter, it was needed a former conception about how people are conditioned by institutions: Bernard Mandeville pointed out how private vices might turn into public benefits, if politicians arranged the correct set of incentives. The main issue, thus, should be the process of discovery of such institutions.

That is why the said aversion to competition and innovation is hardly a problem of a misguided sense of justice, but mostly a matter of what we could coin as “bounded imagination”: the difficultly of reason to deal with complex phenomena. Don’t you think so, Horatio?

Innovation and the Failure of the Great Man Theory

We tend to think about innovation as inventions and particularly about the inventors associated with them: Newton, Edison, Jobs, Archimedes, Watt, Arkwright.  This Great Man Theory of incredible technical innovation is mostly implicitly held by quite a few of us, celebrating these great men and their deeds.

Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist and The Evolution of Everything among other credentials, has spent a lot of time and effort in recent years arguing against this theory. In his recent Hayek Lecture to the British Institute of Economic Affairs he convincingly outlines his case: so many independent innovations take place roughly at the same time by different people. The Great Man Theory leads us to believe that  hadn’t it been for Edison, we’ll all be in the dark and humanity deprived ofall the benefits that came with the innovation.

Not so. There were a great number of contemporary inventors who came upon versions of the lightbulb (Ridley cites 21 or 23 or them, depending on whom you include) around the same time as Edison. The story can be repeated for most other great inventions we know of: laws of thermodynamics, calculus, most metals, typewriting machines, jet engines, the ATM, Oxygen. Indeed, the phenomenon is so common that it has its own term: simultaneous invention.

It seems, in complete contrast to the Great Man Theory, that history provided a certain problem, a sufficient number of people working on solving it at a certain time, and eventually similar inventions taking place around the same time. The process is, Ridley concludes, “gradual, incremental, collective yet inescapable inevitable […] it was bound to happen when it did”.

Interestingly enough for those of us schooled and fascinated by spontaneous orders and bottom-up social and economic phenomena, the Great Man Theory is remarkably similar to other beliefs about the world. It is a symptom of the same reasoned short-comings that makes us humans susceptible to believing in zero-sum thinking, top-down organizing and “design-implies-a-designer”. Instead of grasping the deep insights of gains from trade, spontaneous order or evolution, we are tempted by the militaristically directed organizations that we believe we understand rather than the emergent order of many independently acting individuals’ trials and errors.

Precisely this bias makes us susceptible to the mistake Mariana Mazzucato has become famous for wholeheartedly embracing: the idea that, whatever the innovation, government probably did it. That government innovation is productive – or at least more productive than is commonly presumed – and indeed societies can greatly benefit from ramping up government R&D spending. Nevermind incentives, track records or statistical robustness.

Indeed, what Ridley points to is precisely that valuable and life-changing innovation cannot be directed. Admittedly, some innovation does occur in labs, but only a vanishingly small part. Mazzucato and other top-downers could have benefited greatly from listening to Ridley (or reading his book The Rational Optimist; or reading Demsetz’ devastating 1969 article ‘Information and Efficiency’).

Coming full circle and espousing the Hayekian insights, Ridley notes that the price is everything. Specifically the reduction in prices is what matters for innovations to be spread and adopted rather than the ideas themselves. Very little happens in terms of adoption and transmission until prices start to fall dramatically (hint, hint, Bitcoin… or nuclear energy, or renewable energy…). Like the printing press and the steam engine, interesting things start to happen when prices fall – not because an innovation is particularly cool in some subsection of society.

Innovation is a deeply decentralized yet deeply collective process. We face similar challenges that occassionally come to similar conclusions – and history would in all likelihood have progress exactly the same had we not had a Newton or Edison or Jobs.

The Incomplete Counterfactual Fallacy

Mariana Mazzucato has some interesting ideas, but her basic thesis (which I’m guessing based only on her recent Freakonomics interview) forgets a simple fact: had the government not made GPS, not only would we not have GPS, resources would have been allocated somewhere else.

In other words, she’s right that without government involvement we’d miss all sorts of valuable things like the basic research it turns out government has financed, physical infrastructure (no matter how neglected), GPS, the specific form the Internet we got, etc., etc.

But that’s only half the story. What happens if DARPA closes shop just before starting on GPS? Those engineers end up somewhere else, the money for the project goes somewhere else, the steel and titanium for the satellites they would have built end up in some other shop.

If we could know that nothing else would have happened at that point, then GPS is a free lunch–some bold committee scooped up a handful of clay, handed it to brilliant engineers, and created something from nothing.

More likely some of those engineers would have made dozens of other projects a little bit better, and one or two of them might even have, through some series of unpredictable events, ended up creating some totally different innovation that would have put us on to an entirely different path.

Which is the better path? There’s no way to know. The people on that other path exist in a completely different paradigm from our own. It’s comparing meta-apples with meta-oranges. We are where we are and we ought to appreciate all the costs and benefits of the system we’ve inherited. I think Mazzucato is right that many of us have underrated the government. (Certainly 23-year-old-Rick was guilty of the over-complete counterfactual fallacy.)

She makes a compelling argument that Solyndra doesn’t look like such a boondoggle when you take the wider view we would expect of the smallest venture capital investor. But if it’s true that pointing at government failures is invalid, then so is pointing at government success.

What’s important is improving the future performance of our current institutional mess. To do that, I think we’re better off backing away from her broad claims and focusing on her more sensible (and jarring) arguments about how the current system encourages destructive rent seeking through intellectual property protection of basic research that might be better left in the public domain.

Nightcap

  1. Examining the state of German identity Sebastian Hammelehle, Der Spiegel
  2. Tadao’s war memory manga Ryan Holmberg, NY Review of Books
  3. The Buddhist monk who became an apostle for sexual freedom Donald Lopez, Aeon
  4. Denmark’s most innovative city Simon Willis, 1843

Nightcap

  1. Europe’s new counter-revolution Jan Zielonka, OUPblog
  2. Neutrality Loathsome Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  3. German Digitalisierung versus American innovation Andreas Kluth, Handelsblatt
  4. Land Value Tax: An Idea Whose Time Has Come Philip Bess, American Affairs

The best economic history papers of 2017

As we are now solidly into 2018, I thought that it would be a good idea to underline the best articles in economic history that I read in 2017. Obviously, the “best” is subjective to my preferences. Nevertheless, it is a worthy exercise in order to expose some important pieces of research to a wider audience.  I limited myself to five articles (I will do my top three books in a few weeks). However, if there is an interest in the present post I will publish a follow-up with another five articles.

O’Grady, Trevor, and Claudio Tagliapietra. “Biological welfare and the commons: A natural experiment in the Alps, 1765–1845.” Economics & Human Biology 27 (2017): 137-153.

This one is by far my favorite article of 2017. I stumbled upon it quite by accident. Had this article been published six or eight months earlier, I would never have been able to fully appreciate its contribution. Basically, the authors use the shocks induced by the wars of the late 18th century and early 19th century to study a shift from “self-governance” to “centralized governance” of common pool resources. When they speak of “commons” problems, they really mean “commons” as the communities they study were largely pastoral communities with area in commons.  Using a difference-in-difference where the treatment is when a region became “centrally governed” (i.e. when organic local institutions were swept aside), they test the impact of these top-down changes to institutions on biological welfare (as proxied by infant mortality rates). They find that these replacements worsened outcomes.

Now, this paper is fascinating for two reasons. First, the authors offer a clear exposition of its methodology and approach. They give just the perfect amount of institutional details to assuage doubts.  Second, this is a strong illustration of the points made by Elinor Ostrom and Vernon Smith. These two economists emphasize different aspects of the same thing. Smith highlights that “rationality” is “ecological” in the sense that it is an iterative process of information discovery to improve outcomes.  This includes the generation of “rules of the game” which are meant to sustain exchanges. These rules need not be formal edifices. They can be norms, customs, mores and habits (generally supported by the discipline of continuous dealings and/or investments in social-distance mechanisms). On her part, Ostrom emphasized that the tragedy of the commons can be resolved through multiple mechanisms (what she calls polycentric governance) in ways that do not necessarily require a centralized approach (or even market-based approaches).

In the logic of these two authors, attempts at “imposing” a more “rational” order (from the perspective of the planner of this order) may backfire. This is why Smith often emphasizes the organic nature of things like property rights. It also shows that behind seemingly “dumb” peasants, there is often the weight of long periods of experimentation in order to adapt rules and norms in order to fit the constraints faced by the community.  In this article, we can see those two things – the backfiring and, by logical implication, the strengths of the organic institutions that were swept away.

Fielding, David, and Shef Rogers. “Monopoly power in the eighteenth-century British book trade.” European Review of Economic History 21, no. 4 (2017): 393-413.

In this article, the authors use a legal change caused by the end of the legal privileges of the Stationers’ Company (which amounted to an easing of copyright laws).  The market for books may appear to be “non-interesting” for mainstream economics. However, this would be a dramatic error. The “abundance” of books is really a recent development. Bear in mind that the most erudite monk of the late middle ages had less than fifty books from which to draw knowledge (this fact is a vague recollection of mine from Kenneth Clark’s art history documentary from the late 1960s which was aired by the BBC). Thus, the emergence of a wide market for books – which is dated within the period studied by the authors of this article – should not be ignored. It should be considered as one of the most important development in western history. This is best put by the authors when they say that “the reform of copyright law has been regarded as one of the driving forces behind the rise in book production during the Enlightenment, and therefore a key factor in the dissemination of the innovations that underpinned Britain’s Industrial Revolution”.

However, while they agree that the rising popularity of books in the 18th century is an important historical event, they contest the idea that liberalization had any effect. They find that the opening up of the market to competition had little effects on prices and book production. They also find that mark-ups fell but that this could not be attributed to liberalization. At first,  I found these results surprising.

However, when I took the time to think about it I realized that there was no reason to be surprised. First, many changes have been heralded as crucial moments in history. More often than not, the importance of these changes has been overstated. A good example of an overstated change has been the abolition of the Corn Laws in England in the 1840s. The reduction in tariffs, it is argued, ushered Britain into an age of free trade and falling food prices.

In reality, as John Nye discusses, protectionist barriers did not fall as fast as many argued and there were reductions prior to the 1846 reform as Deirdre McCloskey pointed out. It also seems that the Corn Laws did not have substantial effects on consumption or the economy as a whole (see here and here).  While their abolition probably helped increase living standards, it seems that the significance of the moment is overstated. The same thing is probably at play with the book market.

The changes discussed by Fielding and Rogers did not address the underlying roots of the level of market power enjoyed by industry players. In other words, it could be that the reform was too modest to have an effect. This is suggested by the work of Petra Moser. The reform studied by Fielding and and Rogers appears to have been short-lived as evidenced by changes to copyright laws in the early 19th century (see here and here). Moser’s results point to effects much larger (and positive for consumers) than those of Fielding and Rogers.  Given the importance of the book market to stories of innovation in the industrial revolution, I really hope that this sparks a debate between Moser and Fielding and Rogers.

Johnson, Noel D., and Mark Koyama. “States and economic growth: Capacity and constraints.” Explorations in Economic History 64 (2017): 1-20.

I am biased as I am fond of most of the work of these two authors. Nevertheless, I think that their contribution to the state capacity debate is a much needed one. I am very skeptical of the theoretical value of the concept of state capacity.  The question always lurking in my mind is the “capacity to do what?”.

A ruler who can develop and use a bureaucracy to provide the services of a “productive state” (as James Buchanan would put it) is also capable of acting like a predator.  I actually emphasize this point in my work (revise and resubmit at Health Policy & Planning) on Cuban healthcare: the Cuban government has the capacity to allocate large quantities of resources to healthcare in amounts well above what is observed for other countries in the same income range. Why? Largely because they use health care for a) international reputation and b) actually supervising the local population. As such, members of the regime are able to sustain their role even if the high level of “capacity” comes at the expense of living standards in dimensions other than health (e.g. low incomes). Capacity is not the issue, its capacity interacting with constraints that is interesting.

And that is exactly what Koyama and Johnson say (not in the same words). They summarize a wide body of literature in a cogent manner that clarifies the concept of state capacity and its limitations. In doing so, they ended up proposing that the “deep roots” question that should interest economic historians is how “constraints” came to be efficient at generating “strong but limited” states.

In that regard, the one thing that surprised me from their article was the absence of Elinor Ostrom’s work. When I read about “polycentric governance” (Ostrom’s core concept), I imagine the overlap of different institutional structures that reinforce each other (note: these structures need not be formal ones). They are governance providers. If these “governance providers” have residual claimants (i.e. people with skin in the game), they have incentives to provide governance in ways that increased the returns to the realms they governed. Attempts to supersede these institutions (e.g. like the erection of a modern nation state) requires dealing with these providers. They are the main demanders of constraints which are necessary to protect their assets (what my friend Alex Salter calls “rights to the realm“). As Europe pre-1500 was a mosaic of such governance providers, there would have been great forces pushing for constraints (i.e. bargaining over constraints).

I think that this is where the literature on state capacity should orient itself. It is in that direction that it is the most likely to bear fruits. In fact, there have been some steps taken in that direction For example, my colleagues Andrew Young and Alex Salter have applied this “polycentric” narrative to explain the emergence of “strong but limited states” by focusing on late medieval institutions (see here and here).  Their approach seems promising. Yet, the work of Koyama and Johnson have actually created the room for such contributions by efficiently summarizing a complex (and sometimes contradictory) literature.

Bodenhorn, Howard, Timothy W. Guinnane, and Thomas A. Mroz. “Sample-selection biases and the industrialization puzzle.” The Journal of Economic History 77, no. 1 (2017): 171-207.

Elsewhere, I have peripherally engaged discussants in the “antebellum puzzle” (see my article here in Economics & Human Biology on the heights of French-Canadians born between 1780 and 1830). The antebellum puzzle refers to the possibility that the biological standard of living (e.g. falling heights, worsening nutrition, increased mortality risks) fell while the material standard of living increased (e.g. higher wages, higher incomes, access to more services, access to a wider array of goods) during the decades leading to the American Civil War.

I am inclined to accept the idea of short-term paradoxes in living standards. The early 19th century witnessed a reversal in rural-urban concentration in the United States. The country had been “deurbanizing” since the colonial era (i.e. cities represented an increasingly smaller share of the population). As such, the reversal implied a shock in cities whose institutions were geared to deal with slowly increasing populations.

The influx of people in cities created problems of public health while the higher level of population density favored the propagation of infectious diseases at a time where our understanding of germ theory was nill. One good example of the problems posed by this rapid change has been provided by Gergely Baics in his work on the public markets of New York and their regulation (see his book here – a must read).  In that situation, I am not surprised that there was a deterioration in the biological standard of living. What I see is that people chose to trade-off shorter wealthier lives against longer poorer lives. A pretty legitimate (albeit depressing) choice if you ask me.

However, Bodenhorn et al. (2017) will have none of it. In a convincing article that has shaken my priors, they argue that there is a selection bias in the heights data – the main measurement used in the antebellum puzzle debate.  Most of the data on heights comes either from prisoners or enrolled volunteer soldiers (note: conscripts would not generate the problem they describe). The argument they make is that as incomes grow, the opportunity cost of committing a crime or of joining the army grows.  This creates the selection bias whereby the sample is going to be increasingly composed of those with the lowest opportunity costs. In other words, we are speaking of the poorest in society who also tended to be shorter. Simultaneously, fewer tall individuals (i.e. rich individuals) committed crimes or joined the army because incomes grew. This logic is simple and elegant. In fact, this is the kind of data problem that every economist should care about when they design their tests.

Once they control for this problem (through a meta-analysis), the puzzle disappears. I am not convinced by the latter part of the claim. Nevertheless, it is very likely that the puzzle is much smaller than initially gleaned. In yet to be published work, Ariell Zimran (see here and here) argues that the antebellum puzzle is robust to the problem of selection bias but that it is indeed diminished. This concedes a large share of the argument to Bodenhorn et al. While there is much to resolve, this article should be read as it constitutes one of the most serious contributions to the field of economic history published in 2017.

Ridolfi, Leonardo. “The French economy in the longue durée: a study on real wages, working days and economic performance from Louis IX to the Revolution (1250–1789).” European Review of Economic History 21, no. 4 (2017): 437-438.

I discussed Leonardo’s work elsewhere on this blog before. However, I must do it again. The article mentioned here is the dissertation summary that resulted from Leonardo being a finalist to the best dissertation award granted by the EHES (full dissertation here). As such, it is not exactly the “best article” published in 2017. Nevertheless,  it makes the list because of the possibilities that Leonardo’s work have unlocked.

When we discuss the origins of the British Industrial Revolution, the implicit question lurking not far away is “Why Did It Not Happen in France?”. The problem with that question is that the data available for France (see notably my forthcoming work in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History) is in no way comparable with what exists for Britain (which does not mean that the British data is of great quality as Judy Stephenson and Jane Humphries would point out).  Most estimates of the French economy pre-1790 were either conjectural or required a wide array of theoretical considerations to arrive at a deductive portrait of the situation (see notably the excellent work of Phil Hoffman).  As such, comparisons in order to tease out improvements to our understanding of the industrial revolution are hard to accomplish.

For me, the absence of rich data for France was particularly infuriating. One of my main argument is that the key to explaining divergence within the Americas (from the colonial period onwards) resides not in the British or Spanish Empires but in the variation that the French Empire and its colonies provide. After all, the French colony of Quebec had a lot in common geographically with New England but the institutional differences were nearly as wide as those between New England and the Spanish colonies in Latin America. As such, as I spent years assembling data for Canada to document living standards in order to eventually lay down the grounds to test the role of institutions, I was infuriated that I could do so little to compare with France. Little did I know that while I was doing my own work, Leonardo was plugging this massive hole in our knowledge.

Leonardo shows that while living standards in France increased from 1550 onward, the level was far below the ones found in other European countries. He also showed that real wages stagnated in France which means that the only reason behind increased incomes was a longer work year. This work has also unlocked numerous other possibilities. For example, it will be possible to extend to France the work of Nicolini and Crafts and Mills regarding the existence of Malthusian pressures. This is probably one of the greatest contribution of the decade to the field of economic history because it simply went through the dirty work of assembling data to plug what I think is the biggest hole in the field of economic history.

Planned obsolescence (in parts)

In response to my post on planned obsolescence, some have pointed out that a good is composed of many different inputs. If there are differences in the quality of the different parts of a good, then it might be rational to reduce its lifespan.

That is a important possibility which I should have considered. Imagine that good 1 is composed of parts A, B and C whose lifespan are 1, 2 and 3 years. The manufacturer of good 1 will converge one the lifespan which, in relative terms, will maximize his profits. If it costs more to bring part A to the lifespan of part C than it is to bring part C to the lifespan of part A, then a lower total lifespan would be appreciable.  That decision reduces the lifespan and the marginal cost which means that a greater quantity of goods can be consumed than if we “over-engineer” by bringing A to the level of C. This point was brought to my attention by Michael Makovi, a graduate student at Texas Tech University’s department of agricultural economics. In his words:

The corporate executive types told the engineers: If one part of the product can last X years but the other part of the machine can last Y years, then under-engineer the longer-lasting parts so that the whole product uniformly lasts the lowest-common-denominator of time, so that when the product fails, the customer didn’t waste money on over-engineering other parts of the product to last longer (…) engineers balked because it seemed immoral, but the executives assured them that it was in the customer’s own best interest. For example (…) if one part of your refrigerator lasts 10 years but another part lasts 20 years, and if the 10 year part cannot be replaced, so you have to replace the whole refrigerator at once, then over-engineering the other part to last 20 years is a waste of money.