There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy

The advocates of the sunk cost fallacy state that, since an agent ponders in his decisions marginal costs against marginal incomes, any consideration upon sunk costs would be irrational. Notwithstanding, as soon as we accept the arguments of the said sunk cost fallacy and try to put its recommendations into practice, we discover that we have just become an easy prey of a more severe kind of irrationality: the one that concerns with intransitive preferences.

Jon Elster exemplifies the sunk cost fallacy with the case of a huge snowfall that pours onto the city the very same day we were planning to attend a theatre play whose tickets we had bought the previous days and are not refundable. Elster points out that, since our attendance to the play will not bring the money we had paid for the tickets back, there is no reason to make the decision on whether or not to attend the play on the basis of the sunk costs of the tickets. The correct reasoning should take into account only the cost of enduring the heavy snowfall in order to reach to the theatre where the play would be performed. Nevertheless, the same Jon Elster makes the disclaimer that a zealous observance of avoiding the sunk cost fallacy could lead to make choices following non transitive preferences.

If we change our mind every day, discarding previous decisions and assuming a new direction just because a new opportunity has arisen, we risk to end up in the ruin. Transitive preferences tend to assure the agent of a certain profit and non transitive ones exposes him to losses. In evolutionary games simulations, agents who act according to transitive preferences outshine agents who do not. It seems, then, that the rational agents walks on the edge of the razor, between sunk cost fallacies and non transitive preferences.

That is why there is not such a thing as a sunk cost fallacy. The rational agent, to be such, must ponder a whole plan against an alternative plan in a whole as well, which in some cases, both of them last several periods of time. It is true that in the “very short term” all past costs are sunk and that it only matters the opportunity costs, but most decisions are made in the short term, which lasts more than just a moment. Otherwise, the very concept of transitive preferences would lack any meaning.

Of course certain costs are sunk: if the flux of earnings that a good of capital produces just covers the variable costs of putting it to work (for example, a truck whose earnings just pay for the gas and the salary of the driver), the more rational choice is to use it until it becomes full obsolete and do not replace it with a brand new unit.

But the sunk cost fallacy does not provide a criterion to distinguish sunk costs from just mere costs of a single plan. What a rational agent with transitive preferences discards in his considerations will be named sunk costs, and what he does not, will not. A pure tautology.

Even the snowfall case does not explain satisfactorily the said fallacy: when the agent bought the tickets, their cost were inferior to the income of watching the play, but a heavy snowfall adds not a marginal cost but increases the marginal cost of the plan composed by the cost of the tickets plus the cost of enduring the snowfall.

Notwithstanding, the sunk cost fallacy derives into a philosophical puzzle: what is the subject? How are relations between time and being and between being and becoming. It seems that our permanence as rational agents depends mostly upon not to put into practice the opportunistic approach of the sunk cost fallacy ad libidum.

Moreover, the matter has a political strand: constitutional constraints demand from the authorities to take into account the weight of certain principles in their decisions and those principles could be disregarded if the decisions are purely made on the basis of expediency. If it is the same authority the one who decides whether certain constitutional principle should be followed or not, then all the citizens would be left exposed to arbitrariness.

The considerations about the length of the period a plan should last, the responsibility upon the consequences of our past choices, and the weight of the constitutional principles on the legitimacy of political decisions, become rational if they are not pondered by an isolated agent but in the framework of the interplay among several agents.

This framework of human interaction upon which the agent’s choices take place had been characterised by Friedrich A.Hayek as a spontaneous, or abstract or extended order. He proposed to leave the term “economics” to the explanation of the choices made by an isolated agent and to establish the science of “catallaxy” as the study of the complex phenomena involved in the said structure of interactions. In the same line, James M.Buchanan labelled the interplay of individual agents as “symbiosis” and proposed to redefine the task of the political economy to its study.  More recently, in 2009, Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast, in Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, coined the term “open access orders” to analyse the same set of events. To this stream of thought, it also belongs Vernon L. Smith’s own account of the concept of ecological rationality.

Catallaxy, Symbiosis, Complex Phenomena, and Open Access Order or Ecological Rationality are some of the aspects of what Karl Popper once called “critical rationalism” and supersedes old problems such as those of the instrumental or subjective reason. An authentic “toolbox,” ready to be used.

Nightcap

  1. And?
  2. Should he?
  3. Can globalization be reversed? (II) John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
  4. Buchanan and de Jasay David Gordon, Modern Age

Nightcap

  1. James Buchanan calling the kettle black David Glasner, Uneasy Money
  2. The war that never ended Patrick Hagopian, History Today
  3. ‘The Mind of Pope Francis’ J Matthew Ashley, Commonweal
  4. Mueller’s done. What now? Samuelsohn & Gerstein, Politico

The promise and peril of blockchain distributed governance

neoliberalthoughtcollective

I was very fortunate to learn that my essay ‘Markets for rules‘ has won the Mont Pelerin Society’s 2018 Hayek essay competition for young scholars (one of the perks of academia is being defined as young well until your 30s). I am now looking forward to presenting at MPS’s famous conference, originally organised by F.A. Hayek to build the post-war intellectual case for liberalism.

The essay is an attempt to explain the governance possibilities of blockchain technology through the lens of new institutional economics and more specifically private governance. Blockchains allow people to develop rules that can then be enforced autonomously by the participants that use them without further central direction. This could allow communities to rely more on common rules and less on formal coercive authorities to achieve widespread social cooperation. I am cautiously optimistic about the technology (it could also turn into a dystopian nightmare) though not any particular currently existing blockchain.

Here is the abstract: Classical liberals seek the paradoxical: government powerful enough to protect individuals from preying off each other, but limited enough to prevent it becoming a fierce predator itself. The emergence of blockchain technology heralds a potential revolution in our collective capacity to implement limited government. Blockchains offer a more secure and transparent way of implementing rules while permitting individual choice between rulesets that can co-exist at the same time and place. What this could ultimately mean is that a great deal of what we have traditionally conceived to be governance might be disintermediated from the territorially defined monopolistic coercive authorities that classically define states.

Make neo-Nazis flop off Broadway: public choice and Tina Fey’s sheetcaking

tumblr_n2evlqgunn1sbf1mqo4_500

A week ago a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville protesting the taking down of Confederate Memorial statues turned fatally violent. Other protests were due to take place this weekend in multiple U.S. cities, including New York (now postponed). How should citizens and public authorities deal with this upsurge in violent neo-Nazi protest? I am with Tina Fey on this one: don’t show up, have some cake, and encourage the NYPD to prevent violence.

Some on the left have tried opportunistically and mistakenly to associate Virginian school public choice scholarship with the far-right. This is a sadly missed opportunity because James Buchanan’s theory of club goods helps explain how far-right street protests emerge and suggest how authorities might best subdue them. I draw on John Meadowcroft’s and Elizabeth Morrow’s analysis of the far-right English Defence League (EDL).

Continue reading

Public choice and market failure: Jeffrey Friedman on Nancy MacLean

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 23.25.50

Jeffrey Friedman has a well-argued piece on interpreting public choice in the wake of Nancy MacLean’s conspiratorial critique of one of its founding theorists, James Buchanan. While agreeing that MacLean is implausibly uncharitable in her interpretation of Buchanan, Friedman suggests that many of Buchanan’s defenders are themselves in an untenable position. This is because public choice allows theorists to make uncharitable assumptions about political actors that they have never met or observed. In this sense, MacLean is simply imputing her preferred own set of bad motives onto her political opponents. What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander.

I think Friedman’s arguments are a valid critique of the way that public choice is sometimes deployed in popular discourse. A lot of libertarian commentary assumes that those seeking political power are uniquely bad people, always having self-interest and self-aggrandisement as their true aim. Given that this anti-politics message is associated with getting worse political leaders who are becoming progressively less friendly to individual liberty, this approach to characterising politicians seems counterproductive. However, I don’t think Friedman’s position is such a good fit for Buchanan himself or most of those working in the scholarly public choice tradition.

Continue reading

Against Guilt by Historical Association: A Note on MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains”

It’s this summer’s hottest pastime for libertarian-leaning academics: finding examples of bad scholarship in Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains. For those out of the loop, MacLean, a history professor at Duke University, argues in her book that Nobel-prize winning public choice economist James Buchanan is part of some Koch-funded vast right-libertarian conspiracy to destroy democracy as inspired by southern racist agrarians and confederates like John Calhoun. This glowing review from NPR should give you a taste of her argument, which often has the air of a bizarre conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, to make these arguments she’s had to cut some huge corners in her federally-funded research. Here’s a round-up of her dishonesty:

  • David Bernstein points out how MacLean’s own sources contradict her claims that libertarian Frank Chodorov disagreed with the ruling in Brown v. Board.
  • Russ Roberts reveals how out-of-context Tyler Cowen was taken by MacLean, misquoting him to attribute to Cowen a view which he was arguing against.
  • David Henderson finds that she did the same thing to Buchanan.
  • Steve Horwitz points out how wildly out-of-context MacLean took a quote from Buchanan on public education.
  • Phil Magness reveals how much MacLean needed to wildly reach to tie Buchanan to southern agrarians with his use of the word “Leviathan.”
  • Phil Magness, again, reveals MacLean needed to do the same thing to tie Buchanan to Calhoun.
  • David Bernstein finds several factual errors about MacLean’s telling of the history of George Mason’s University.

I’m sure there is more to come. But, poor scholarship and complete dishonesty in source citation aside, an important question needs to be asked about all this: even if MacLean didn’t need to reach so far to paint Buchanan in such a negative light, why should we care?

I admittedly haven’t read her book yet (so could be wrong), but from the way even positive reviewers paint it and the way she talks about it herself in interviews (see around 15:30 of that episode), one can infer that she is in no way interested in a nuanced analytical critique of Buchanan’s public choice models or his arguments in favor of constitutional restrictions on democratic majorities. Her argument, if you can call it that, seems to be something like this:

  1. Democracy and majority rule are inherently good.
  2. James Buchanan wants stricter restrictions on democratic majority rule, and so did some Southern racists.
  3. Therefore, James Buchanan is a racist, evil corporate shill.

Even if she didn’t need to establish premise 2, why should we care? Every ideology has elements of it that can be tied to some seedy elements of the past, it doesn’t make the arguments that justify those ideologies wrong. For example, the pro-choice and women’s health movement has its roots in attempts to market birth control to race-based eugenicists (though these links, like MacLean’s attempts, aren’t as insidious as some on the modern right make them out to be), that does not mean modern women’s health advocates are racial eugenicists. Early advocates of the minimum wage argued for wage floors for racist and sexist reasons, yet nobody really thinks (or, at least, should think) modern progressives have dubious racist motives for wanting to raise the minimum wage. The American Economic Association was founded by racist eugenicists in the American Institutionalist school, yet nobody thinks modern economists are racist or that anyone influenced by the institutionalists today is a eugenicist. The Democratic Party used to be the party of the KKK, yet nobody (except the most obnoxious of Republican partisans) thinks that’s at all relevant to the DNC’s modern platform. Heidegger was heavily linked to Nazism and anti-Semitism, but it’s impossible to write off and ignore his philosophical contributions and remain intellectually honest.

Similarly, even if Buchanan did read Calhoun and it got him thinking about constitutional reform, that does not at all mean he agreed with Calhoun on slavery or that modern libertarian-leaning public choice theorists are neo-confederates, and it has even less to do with the merits of Buchanan’s analytical critiques of how real-world democracies function. In fact, as Vincent Geloso has pointed out here at NOL, Buchanan has given modern scholars the analytical tools to critique racism.

Intellectual history is messy and complicated, and can often lead to links we might—with the benefit of historical hindsight—view as situated in an unsavory context. However, as long as those historical lineages have little to no bearing on people’s motivations for making similar arguments or being intellectual inheritors of similar ideological traditions today (which isn’t always the case), there is no relevance to modern discourse other than perhaps idle historical curiosity. These types of attempts to cast guilt upon one’s intellectual opponents through historical association are, at best, another intellectually lazy version of the genetic fallacy (which MacLean also loves to commit when she starts conspiratorially complaining about Koch Brothers funding).

Just tell me if this sounds like a good argument to you:

  1. Historical figure X makes a similar argument Y to what you’re making.
  2. X was a racist and was influenced by some racists.
  3. Therefore, Y is wrong.

If it doesn’t, you’re right, 3 doesn’t follow from 2 (and in MacLean’s case 1 is a stretch).

Please, if you want to criticize someone’s arguments, actually criticize their arguments; don’t rely on a tabloid version of intellectual history to dismiss them, especially when that intellectual history is a bunch of dishonest misquotations and hand-waving associations.