On granting the Nobel to Kirzner

In a little over a week, the Nobel Prize in economics will be unveiled. A part of me wishes that Robert Barro wins or maybe Dale Jorgenson or even William Baumol. However, I would be thrilled if Israel Kirzner won. Back in 2014, he was mentioned for the prize and it was the year that Jean Tirole, deservedly, won the prize. Since then, I have been dreaming of it as it would cement into the mainstream the best that the Austrian school of economics can offer.

Unlike many of colleagues, I have always had sympathies for numerous points made by the Austrians. Throughout my training, the Austrian school of economics was largely derided as cranks. Initially, I jumped on the bandwagon and I believed the Austrians to be crazy. However, I became exposed to many of their key points and like Edmund Phelps, I felt that the “best of the Austrians” could not be rejected so easily. True, there is some wheat to sort from the chaff, but the same applies for every school of thought.  I realized that most of their inputs in macroeconomics were largely incorporated in models like Lucas’ Islands Model or in Prescott’s Time to Build. However, what most intrigued me was how they used general equilibrium as a teaching tool, but not as a research tool. General equilibrium is useful for understanding key axiomatic assertions, but when you have an “applied economics” question, it is a hard tool to use – especially for an economic historian like me.

Kirzner is the perfect representation of the best that the Austrian school has to offer. In a way, his entire work can be summarized as such: it is the process leading to (new) equilibrium(s) that is the most interesting aspect of economics.

It is when I understood that insight that I finally grasped the deeper meaning of Hayek’s claim that “competition is a discovery process”. Entrepreneurs are people who look for the $100 bill on the sidewalk by innovating, by exploiting arbitrage opportunities and by discovering what consumers really want. They are constantly heading towards an equilibrium point. But as they try to do so, they shift the ability to produce and consume to greater levels and, in doing so, they generate a new equilibrium. And the process continues as long as human beings are humans.

For someone who studies economic history like I do, this is the most fruitful way of looking at social interactions. After all, the industrial revolution is everything except an equilibrium and the industrial revolution is most momentous structural break in history. The search for equilibrium and the creation of new equilibriums are by far more useful tools for questions like the end of “Malthusian pressures” or the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, I am veering into excessive simplification of Kirzner’s contribution. But consider his book, Competition and Entrepreneurship. Alone, it has 7,362 citations (according to google scholar).  This is half the citations obtained by the most cited article in the American Economic Review (Armen Alchian and Harold Demsetz’s Production, Information Costs and Economic Organization). It’s close to 3,000 more citations that Deaton and Muellbauer’s “Almost Ideal Demand System” (4,775 citations). And Deaton won the Nobel last year!

By virtue of being affiliated with the Austrians, mainstream economists could have relegated him to obscurity. However, for such a citation count to be achieved, he must have been to showcase the best that the Austrian school has to offer. Just for that, maybe his contribution should be recognized.

Should there be a Nobel in Sociology?

A friend of mine recently shared a piece making the case for creating a Nobel prize for the social sciences that I found interesting: see here. Or, for those who wish to be technical, this hypothetical new Nobel would be ‘A Prize in Social Science in Memorial to Alfred Nobel‘.

The general argument is that economics is not a real science, in the same manner that physics and other natural sciences are ‘real’ sciences capable of prediction and measurement. The other social sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, on the other hand are undervalued and should have greater say in the policy realm.

If economics were a social science like sociology or anthropology, practitioners would set about interviewing those committee members, scrutinising the meetings’ minutes and trying to observe as many meetings as possible. That is how the kind of fieldwork-based, “qualitative” social sciences, which economists like to discard as “soft” and unscientific, operate. It is true that this approach, too, comes with serious methodological caveats, such as verifiability, selection bias or observer bias. The difference is that other social sciences are open about these limitations, arguing that, while human knowledge about humans is fundamentally different from human knowledge about the natural world, those imperfect observations are extremely important to make.

To make his case the author points out that modern economics shies away from doing qualitative research by going out and doing case studies of the economic actors they study. Instead economists sit in their offices and theorize how economic actors behave.

The author is correct to point out that ‘blackboard economics’ is a problem in the field but he goes a bit too far. The economics field has several practitioners who go out and get their hands dirty, granted they are a minority. Ronald Coase’s infamous lighthouse paper* was written after Coase went and did research on how lighthouses actually functioned. Hernando de Soto (the economist, not the Spanish explorer!) similarly has made a name for himself by looking at how developing economies work first hand.

The article is strongest when, instead of attacking economics, it praises the other social sciences.

Karen Ho did years of fieldwork at a Wall Street bank. Her book Liquidated emphasises the pivotal role of zero job security at Wall Street (the same system governs the City of London). The financial sociologist Vincent Lépinay’s Codes of Finance, a book about the division in a French bank for complex financial products, describes in convincing detail how institutional memory suffers when people switch jobs frequently and at short notice.

Should there be nobel prizes for the other social sciences? I am certainly in favor of such a proposal if it aids promote public appreciation for the other social sciences. There is no need however to attack one another. There is room enough in the world for economists, sociologist, psychologists, and the other social sciences.

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*For context, the lighthouse is an example widely used by economists as a public good that would not be produced in the market without state intervention. The benefit of a lighthouse is enjoyed by all, but is not excludable and therefore difficult to make revenue out of. The solution, as Coase points out, is that lighthouses are bundled with other goods such as port fees.