Recently, I came across this outstanding interview with Eugene Fama published by The Market / NZZ. Besides the main subject discussed -the inability of central banks to control inflation-, the interview is intertwined with gripping assertions about the limits of knowledge, such as the following ones:
Bubbles are things people see in hindsight. They don’t identify them in advance. Sure, you can look at the behavior of prices, and you may be able to identify cases where they are too high. But if you only look back and say: «Oh, stocks went down a lot, so that was a bubble», then that’s 20/20 hindsight. At the time, there was no evidence that there was a bubble.
I don’t say markets are completely efficient, but they’re efficient for most questions that I address. Models are never a 100 % true. If they were, we would call them reality, not models. But for almost all purposes, market efficiency is a very good approximation.
The real question is: How do you pick Warren Buffett? The way you pick him is after the fact, since he has done very well. Now, suppose I take 100,000 investors and say: Let’s let them run for 30 years and pick out the winner. Because you roll the dice so many times, even if none of them is a good or bad investor, many investors will do well and many will do poorly purely by chance. Statistically there is also going to be a big winner, but solely due to chance. In other words: There will be extremely good outcomes and extremely bad outcomes, but you just can’t tell who is successful because of luck and who because of skill.
This quotations resemble the distinction made by Friedrich Hayek between relative and absolute limits to explanation (The Sensory Order, 1952):
8.67. Apart from these practical limits to explanation, which we may hope continuously to push further back, there also exists, however, an absolute limit to what the human brain can ever accomplish by way of explanation -a limit which is determined by the nature of the instrument of explanation itself, and which is particularly relevant to any attempt to explain particular mental processes.
8.68. If our account of the process of explanation is correct, it would appear that any apparatus or organism which is to perform such operations must possess certain properties determined by the properties of the events which it is to explain. If explanation involves that kind of joint classification of many elements which we have described as “model-building”, the relation between the explaining agent and the explained object must satisfy such formal relations as must exist between any apparatus of classification and the individual objects which it classifies (Cf. 5.77-5.91).
5.90. The model building by such an apparatus of classification simplifies the task and extends the scope of successful adaptation in two ways: it selects some elements from a complex environment as relevant for the prediction of events which are important for the persistence of the structure, and it treats them as instances of classes of events. But while in this way a model building apparatus (and particularly one that can be constantly improved by learning) is of much greater efficiency than could be any more mechanical apparatus which contained, as it were, a few fixed models of typical situations, there will clearly still exist definite limits to the extent to which such a microcosm can contain an adequate reproduction of the significant factors of the macrocosm.
8.69. The proposition which we shall attempt to establish is that any apparatus of classification must possess a structure of a higher degree of complexity than is possessed by the objects which it classifies; and that, therefore, the capacity of any explaining agent must be limited to objects with a structure possessing a degree of complexity lower than its own. […]
Being confronted with an absolute limit to explanation does not mean that chaos lies outside those limits. Indeed, what we have beyond the scope of our models is a complex order -in this case, efficient markets. A kind of order whose “[…] existence need not manifest itself to our senses but may be based on purely abstract relations which we can only mentally reconstruct” (F. A. Hayek, “Law, Legislation, and Liberty”, Chapter II; 1973), and because of that its explanation finds not practical limits but absolute ones. For example, in this field, “passive investing” would be homologous to a law-abiding behaviour or to the moral saying “being honest is the best policy”. Of course, for such systems -economic, legal or moral- to evolve there have to be some “prices”, i.e.: people who trade in the short term or who perform innovative behaviours which establish a new legal precedent or a new habit.
But for this innovation to happen it is indispensable for the agents to count on a framework of stable regularities -usually called abstract or spontaneous orders- upon which they could draw their own “maps”, create new expectations, and coordinate their plans with other agents. That indicates that we have already spent enough ink writing about the economic way of looking at the law, and perhaps it is time to start pondering markets as complex normative systems.
Academia is a hotbed of leftism and has been for centuries. At the same time, it’s also one of the most conservative institutions in the Western world. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Leftists are conservative.
The recent writings of Lucas, Mary, and Rick have highlighted well not only academia’s shortcomings but also some great alternatives, but what about stuff like this? The link is an in-depth story on how senior professors use their seniority to procure sexual favors from their junior colleagues. There is, apparently, not much universities can do about it either.
If a manager within a corporation tried any of the stuff listed in the report, he or she would be fired immediately. Sexual harassment is still an issue in the corporate world, but it is much, much easier to confront than it is in academia. The same goes for government work. The President of the United States couldn’t even get away with a blow job from a teenage intern without dire consequences in the 1990s.
What makes academia so different from corporate and government work? Is it tenure? Is it incentives? In the corporate world profits matter most. In government, “the public” matters most. In academia, it’s publish or perish. I don’t think this has always been the case. I think the publish-or-perish model has only been around since the end of World War II. Something is horribly wrong in academia.
In the mean time: corporations, churches, governments (it pains me to say this, but it’s true, especially when compared with academia), and all sorts of other organizations continue to experiment with social arrangements that attempt to make life better and better.
- The hunt for human nature Erika Milam, Aeon
- The negative capability of a good legislator Federico Sosa Valle, NOL
- Is feminism responsible for the persistence of monarchy? Arianne Chernock, Public Books
- Poor white boys in present-day England Kenan Malik, Guardian
- Ownership and productivity in a capitalist society Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- Provincial cosmopolitanism Nikki Usher, Cato Unbound
- China’s “bottom-up” cities (best essay on China this year) Bruno Maçães, City Journal
- The Democrats and their favorite mouthpiece Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
Institutions, whether formal or informal, consist of limitations on behaviour that allow structuring an order of human interaction (North, D.C., 1991). Such institutions endow decisions with their agents of transitivity and, consequently, with rationality and predictability. That is to say, an institution allows to conform expectations on a range of events dependent on individual decisions that will happen and, above all, on another range of events that will not happen or, if they do happen, they will generate an obligation to repair (either to a private individual through a pecuniary indemnity or to society through a criminal sanction).
For these reasons it is interesting to compare institutions with algorithms: a set of automatic procedures -and therefore devoid of arbitrariness on the part of any of the agents- that, according to the data provided by the environment, yield a range of possible results. In a modern political legal system (equality before the law, division of powers, political responsibility of high officials, principle of closure, etc.), such results show at the individual level a certain range of prohibited actions (the aforementioned principle of closure, everything that is not prohibited is allowed). At the individual level, an institution as an algorithm will allow us to predict what an individual will not do, but not what he will concretely do outside of that range of prohibited actions. At the governmental level, the opposite occurs: institutions allow us to anticipate what judicial decisions will be, which in turn will have to review laws and decrees that violate the rights and guarantees of individuals.
However, while institutions can function as algorithms, providing predictability to individual decisions and policies, they cannot function in a vacuum, but they need to be integrated into a legal and political system. This is so that it is impossible to enunciate them if it is not within the parameters configured by such systems. If institutions are algorithms, legal and political systems are abstract machines that select and integrate such institutions. It is the institutions integrated into a legal and political system that constitute a framework of incentives for human action.
Such institutions evolve following a natural selection pattern, when the legal-political system allows to act a negative feedback system mainly articulated by judicial decisions and precedents that readjust their meaning and content for the resolution of concrete controversies based on principles emanating from the legal system itself. Of course, each system represents the materialization of a set of values. Those of modernity, for example, are based, among others, on the dignity of the human person, which translates into the right to individual autonomy.
An ethic of political responsibility that defends such values can be carried forward by rescuing an abstract system of dispute resolution between individuals that refrains from designing society from a central command. In many cases, such an ethic of responsibility must face ideological political programs that are presented under the guise of an ethics of principles.
Such antagonism is asymmetric, since the central design of society presents its followers with a concrete model and the promise that everything works. Although, this only leads, in practice, to an increasing number of decisions based on expediency. Thus, the opposite of the predictability and absence of arbitrariness of a system of spontaneous coordination of individual plans.
François Furet, in the preliminary essay that serves as an introduction to The Past of an Illusion, entitled “The Equalitarian Passion,” highlights that in the Ancient Regime inequality was legally consecrated, while after the French Revolution, inequality persists surreptitiously, of contraband, thus cementing a feeling of vindication in the face of illegitimate inequality. Something similar happens in a system of regulations that, with the intention of serving the common good, re-establishes, de facto, a system of monopolies and oligopolies.
It is paradoxical that a political legal system made up mostly of general and abstract rules finds an unintended consequence of an increase in general well-being, while a regimented system based on a specific goal of social justice and growth finds itself as an involuntary stagnant consequence and with high rates of inequality. However, attentive given that no one can be judged morally for their involuntary results and instead for their intentions, it is commonly interpreted that the success of societies organized around abstract and general principles cannot be adjudicated to such principles, as it is also considered active policies that deliberately seek the common good cannot be reviewed by virtue of their poor results, but in any case what deserves to be discussed are the means to reach such objectives.
Once this point is reached, we discard any political program that does not have a purpose of reform or transformation based on a specific objective and in which the political discussion is about society models and the means to achieve in the practice of the realization of such models, the table is served for the ideologization of political discourse. Kenneth Minogue had rescued the original concept of “ideology” -before the Marxist who points to a set of values of the ruling class at the service of the perpetuation of his power-, which dealt with the set of claims with scientific pretension that, through a redemptorist program, he proposed a series of concrete transformations of society. This word and notion comes from the ideologues of the French Revolution, which mostly fulfilled a pedagogical function.
Since the ideology of politics is installed, any doctrine that arises from its discourse in terms of defending a system of coexistence articulated around abstract and general norms and lacking a specific purpose of designing the society according to a certain model. In the political arena, therefore, there are political programs that seek to impose a certain model of society, articulated around a series of assertions with alleged scientific validity. Whatever the model of society under discussion, by the mere fact of proposing such political programs the transformation of society in function of those, the legal norms expressed in abstract and general terms that make up both the individual guarantees and the private right run the serious risk of being considered as an obstacle and an irrational hindrance of the past that prevents the realization of such models of society. This is the process that Friedrich A. Hayek had described in The Road to Serfdom.
The paradox is that a legal – political system composed mostly of abstract (that is, lacking a concrete purpose) and general (that is, the same for all citizens regardless of their status) rules allows to coordinate in a more efficient way the resources of those that a society has, through a better coordination of individual plans, about whose content we know nothing and whose final configuration is impossible to predict, that is, a complex social order. On the other hand, the abolition or gradual weakening of such a system of coordination in the allocation of resources and its replacement by a system of planning or centralized control of the economy and society based on a specific model generates an economic breakdown that only serves of excuse to redouble centralization in the administration of resources. At one point, neither the model of society nor the need to have a central planning to reach it, nor even that there is such a model or such a central planning of society, is only discussed, but it is indeed discussed which are the most appropriate means to “improve” said model.
That said, it is worth making a terminological clarification: what Hayek called in The Road to Serfdom “socialism” and then in Law, Legislation and Liberty “constructivism,” can be assimilated to a large extent to what Kenneth Minogue called “ideology” (although in truth, it must be recognized that Minogue, at the time, accused Hayek of being an ideological author). But, as Hayek himself clarifies in his prologue to the 1974 edition of The Road to Serfdom, the socialism to which he alluded in 1944 was not income redistribution programs, but the centralized planning of the economy and society . Similarly, Hayek’s critique of the notion of social justice concerns precisely those programs of political reform that seek to establish, through centralized planning, a designed social order. Another issue is the positivization of values through abstract and general rules. A negative income tax – as proposed by Milton Friedman at the time – can be implemented through abstract and general norms, as well as patterns of redistribution inspired by John Rawls’ theory of justice. The problem is not redistribution, but the replacement of a spontaneous social organization system with a centralized planning system.
At the heart of the dispute between the prevalence of a spontaneous social order versus its replacement by a system of centralized planning of society is a divergence around the concept of the abstract. The supporters of the centralized planning of society are convinced that, through the measuring elements provided by science, the wealth of social events can be selected in aggregates that allow forming an abstract model of society, which In turn, it allows planning its reform according to the ideal model of society in whose transformation the political program that gives it reason to be to the politician’s own activity and that justifies his ethics of responsibility.
Of course, statistical tools, which are constantly developing (Hayek himself was a professor of statistics, and from The Road to Serfdom to today appeared the desktop computer and the science of Big Data, for example), allow a better allocation of public resources in the implementation of government programs. It is very useful for the rationalization of the government administration to know how much the population is going to vaccinate, the poverty and indigence statistics in order to determine, for example, subsidies to the demand, or the needs of schooling at its various levels. However, if there is consensus on the need for a vaccination program, or on the importance of subsidizing access to certain goods or the importance of schooling the population, it is because the members of that society already have a set of principles about what is considered good or bad, desirable or undesirable, necessary or superfluous. Such abstract notions do not arise from the abstraction of social events in statistical aggregates, but, on the contrary, these abstract concepts allow to form the groupings by virtue of which the social reality will have to be interpreted.
Such principles are born, develop and evolve according to the game of continuous human interaction. As described above, they consist of uses and customs that individuals incorporate in the course of exchanges and that prove with the passage of time to provide a better performance to the members of the community that follow them. Accounting standards, public behaviour guidelines, compliance with the word pledged, good faith, are examples of such practices that are extended throughout the population by incorporating such standards into the habits of its members. It was what Max Weber at the time conceptualized as the emergence of “rational capitalism.” These principles are not immutable, but on the contrary they adapt to the circumstances. However, they also enjoy certain permanence in time that allows them to serve as a structure or parameter for rational decision-making, since such a structure of values prohibits a certain range of decisions, which makes its transitivity possible.
This system of discovery and spontaneous evolution of the abstract values according to which reality is perceived and its respective organized elements can assume various configurations and has its own process of immanent criticism. The egalitarian guidelines that we can characterize as typical of modern society, in which every human being has the right to have equal consideration and respect, were extended over less efficient structures such as those of the caste and estates societies, in which the restrictions of competition and the unpredictable exercise of political authority generate stagnation (what Acemoglu and Robinson call “extractive economic and political institutions,” as opposed to “inclusive”). For its part, the peaceful resolution of disputes through the right of judges allows readjusting the set of expectations with which each member of society usually makes its decisions.
Such a system of discovery of abstract values with which each individual can count on to coordinate their respective life plans and their corresponding immanent criticism through the judicial system is also susceptible of receiving a critical analysis by a reasoned examination regarding it and as a result of this, a new political legal order or partial reform of the existing one may arise through the legislative promulgation or even of a constituent assembly. A spontaneous order may have as its origin the enactment ex nihilo of it by a legislator, but among its defining characteristics is the note that it should not necessarily be so. Another of its defining characteristics is that the consequences of a political legal order, still created by the will of a legislator or constituent, cannot be foreseen in its entirety. Moreover, the future evolution of this order cannot be foreseen in its totality and detail. Such degree of uncertainty does not come from the deficiency or insufficiency of the elements of measurement that have for object to know the reality, but in the levels of complexity to which such order can arrive in their more abstract planes.
However, these degrees of complexity decrease drastically in the daily experience of the subjects that interact with each other, seeking to coordinate or compete in their respective individual plans, since each one of them knows what expectations to have regarding the actions of the rest of the subjects (the more “inclusive” the institutions are, the lower the degree of uncertainty). For the case in which two spheres of autonomy collide, the controversy will be resolved by a court that will have to say the content of the law for the specific case submitted to its decision. From this result, they will have to configure a set of expectations with which agents will know that they can count or not.
In contrast to this, at the level of the legislator and the political authority, such levels of certainty leave room for increasing degrees of complexity. Although there are many administrative decisions that can be taken with a high degree of probability of being successful following the procedures of administrative law and the general principles of law – what Max Weber described as a process of rationalization in political decision-making , the certain thing is that it arrives at a point in which the legal reasoning arrives at a limit – what in his moment Carl Schmitt characterized like an instance in which the right dies and leaves its place to the policy. This is where the political authority is faced with the need to dispense with the rationalizing element of law and articulate its decision-making process based on another type of “anchoring”: a philosophical doctrine, a conception of life, a political doctrine, a reason of state or an ideology.
Those who oppose the extension of political power over the autonomous institutions and processes of society maintain that such philosophies, reasons of state, or ideologies are mere masks of pure political will left to their free will. However, at least in principle, they can serve as limitations or at least elements of political responsibility of the ruler in a democracy. There are numerous cases in which a democratically elected governor receives criticism from public opinion regarding a supposed lack of consequence with his political doctrine, a double discourse, or the configuration of a consistent but mistaken ideology. Even so, except for the cases of impeachment and the impossibility of re-election, the tools to control the political reasons of the rulers and their consequences are rather scarce.
However, a distinction can be made between a simple political doctrine and an ideologized political doctrine – or, in Minogue’s terms, quite simply an ideology. A political doctrine can sustain a series of diffuse principles that do not exhaust a totalizing vision of reality. For example, German Christian Democracy can be defined equally by rejection of the extreme left, as the extreme right, a market freedom regulated by the State in order to preserve competition from the actions of monopolies (the “competitive order” of Ordo-Liberalism) and the moderate defence of certain values prevalent in society through the non-interference of the government in its autonomous processes, that is, a clear division between society and State. However, no one can define in detail an ideology of German Christian Democracy.
In many circumstances, this “de-ideologization” is interpreted as “pragmatism” or “opportunism.” However, there is also room for opportunism in the interpretation of a political ideology by the public power that invokes it as a reason of state. The great problem that “ideologies” or ideological visions of politics do present is that, by offering a totalizing and scientific version of reality, they can be used as tools to discredit the legal system.
It is true that a legal system could be replaced by another in its entirety through a legislative reform – in the case of private law, a new civil code, for example – or a constitutional reform. But once reformed or replaced by the new, unless a tyranny has been instituted, it becomes the new legal order that will limit the political power. The problem arises when there is a phenomenon that can be named as the “road to serfdom”: the continuous, permanent and incremental discrediting, erosion, violation and exception to the current legal order.
When such a process is presented, freedom understood as the absence of arbitrary coercion is in decline, since, by invoking a reason of state or a state of exception, the expectations with which individuals counted to form their plans of life are frustrated in a way impossible to foresee. As a result, the political legal order becomes perceived as arbitrary and its obligation to obey it put in doubt.
Another consequence of the phenomenon known as the “road to serfdom” is that the system of immanent criticism of positive law affected by the application of this by judges in the face of concrete controversies is eroded. As already mentioned, attentive to the open texture of legal language, the judicial system allows for marginal readjustments on the content of the law that represent a true process of evolution, in the sense of adaptation to changes in the environment. In turn, this readjustment introduces new expectations in the agents, which generates a change in reality and opens the way for a new interpretation change through the open texture of the letter of the law, in a real feedback process negative that gives stability and predictability to the system.
On the contrary, the state of emergency and emergency legislation, as well as legislative and judicial activism, which seek to modify the content of the law not to solve the internal contradictions generated by its open texture, but to transform it according to concepts alien to the law. Right, they erode such a negative feedback system of expectations and, far from achieving the modernization of the law, what they obtain is their obsolescence, their discredit, and their disobedience. See that in countries with a greater authoritarian tradition, the adherence to standards by the population is significantly lower than in countries where emergency legislation and the state of emergency was limited to cases of war.
Following my Mr. Darcy piece that outlined the use and convenience of British government debt instruments in the eighteenth (and predominantly the nineteenth) century, I thought to extend the discussion to two particular financial instruments. In addition to the Consols (homogenous, tradeable perpetual government debt) that formed the center of public finance – and whose active secondary market that made them so popular as savings devices – the Bill of Exchange was the prime instrument used by merchants for financing trade and settling debts.
The complementarity of the Consol and the Bill in international finance, roughly from the South Sea Bubble (1720) to the end of Napoleon (1815), was the “secret of success for international finance” (Neal 2015: 101) and arose without an overarching plan, i.e. rather spontaneously. As the Consol is more easily understood for a modern reader, and the Bill is both more ancient and less well understood, I’ll focus the bulk of my attention on the latter.
According to Anderson (1970: 90), the Bill constituted “a decisive turning-point in the development of the English credit system,” but is much older than that. In practice, it was a paper indicating debt and a time for repayment, allowing financing of current trade. Cameron (1967:19) writes that the Bill
was far more ancient than either the banknote or the demand deposit; it had been developed in the Middle Ages. At first the bill was used as a device for avoiding the cost and risks of shipping coin or bullion over great distances, then as a credit instrument which circumvented the Church’s prohibition of usury. When it first came to be used as a means of current payment is a moot question that may never be answered, but that it was so used in eighteenth-century England is beyond doubt.
The Bill was predominantly used in coastal cities in the Mediterranean and around the North-Sea, becoming frequent perhaps in the 1700s. One observer even dates an early instance of its use to 1161, and it was of standard use among traveling traders, merchants and brokers throughout the Middle Ages (Cassis & Cottrell 2015: 12). Occasionally – warranting a discussion of its own – Bills in England became “so widespread that they drove out even banknotes” (Cameron 1967: 19).
There is an unfitting competition among financial historians as to who can produce the most persuasive, informative or complicated schedule for how Bills worked (I know of at least four similar, yet uncredited, renditions). Here’s Anthony Hotson’s (2017: 92) attempt from last year:
- We start, counter-intuitively, in the top-right corner. Andrew, an English exporter of Apples, draws up a Bill on Bas, a Amsterdam maker of Bankets – a Dutch pastry. Bas, having no coin/gold available to pay Andrew – either because he won’t have the funds until after he has sold his apple-flavored(!) Bankets, or because the risk of loss or cost of transportation is too great – accepts the Bill and returns it to Andrew.
- Having returned it to Andrew, we now have a debt and a financial instrument; Bas has promised to pay Andrew £x for the apples in 90 days, a common duration for a Bill of exchange.
- But like most merchants, Andrew cannot wait 90 days for payment; he has sold and shipped his Apples, but needs funds for himself (feeding his family, or investing in new Apple-harvesting equipment etc). In the heyday of British financial markets, Andrew could simply visit a bank, Bill-broker or the London financial markets himself, and offer to sell the Bill there. Of course, Andrew won’t be able to sell the Bill for £x, since his buyer is effectively providing him with a loan for 90 days. The bank, bill-broker or financial market trader will discount the Bill with the going interest rate (say 6%, for one-quarter of a year, so ~1.5%), paying at most £0.985x for the Bill. Besides, there is a risk-of-default element involved, so the buyer applies a risk premium as well, perhaps buying the Bill at £0.95x.
- In the schedule above Hotson uses the Bill trade to show how merchants trading Bills could net out their respective debts and minimize the need to send payment across the British channel. For (3) and (4), then, we replace the banker with an English importer – Dave – of Dutch goods (perhaps tin-glazed pottery) looking for a way to pay his Amsterdam pottery supplier, Cremer. Instead of shipping gold to Amsterdam, Dave may purchase Andrew’s Bill, and settle his account with Cremer by sending along the Bill drawn on Bas. Once the 90 days are up, Cremer can simply wander over to Bas’ pastry shop and present him with the Bill to receive payment for the goods Cremer already shipped to England.
This venture can – and usually was – made infinitely more complicated; we can add brokers and discounting banks in every transaction between Andrew, Bas, Dave and Cremer, as well as a number of endorsers and re-discounters. In his popular book Exorbitant Privilege, Barry Eichengreen recounts a 12-step, several-pages long account for how a U.S. importer of coffee and his Brazilian supplier both get credit and signed papers from their local (New York + Brazil) banks, how both banks send their endorsed bills to their London correspondent banks, and some investor in the London money markets purchase (and perhaps re-sell) the Bill that eventually settles the transaction between the American coffee importer and the Brazilian farmer.
Although it might sound excessive, complicated and impossible to overlook, the entire process simplified business for everyone involved – and allowed business that otherwise couldn’t have been done. In econo-speak, the Bill of Exchange set within a globalizing financial system, extended the market for merchants and farmers and customers alike, lowered transaction costs and solved information asymmetries so that trade could take place.
Turning to the opposite end of the maturity spectrum, the Consol as a perpetual debt by the government was never intended to be repaid. Having a large secondary market of identical instruments, allowed investors or financial traders everywhere to pass Gorton’s No-Questions-Asked criteria for trade. A larger market for government debt, such as after Britain’s wars in the late-1700s and early 1800s, allowed dealers in financial markets to a) be reasonably certain that they could instantly re-sell the instrument when in need of cash, and b) quickly and effortlessly identify it. These aspects contributed to traders applying a smaller risk premium to the instrument and to be much more willing to hold it.
While the Bills were the opposite of Consols in terms of homogeniety (they all consisted of different originators, traders, and commodities), there developed specialized dealers known as Discount Houses whose task it was to assess, buy, and sell Bills available (Battilosso 2016: 223). Essentially, they became the credit rating institutions of the early modern age.
Together these two instruments, the Bills of Exchange and the Consols, laid the foundations for the modern financial capitalism that develops out of the Amsterdam-London nexus of international finance.
Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson acknowledge that the weakest point of their theory consists of recommendations to “break the mold.” How to change the historical matrix that leaves the nations stagnant in extractive political and economic institutions, or that move them back from having inclusive economic institutions with extractive political institutions to being trapped in exclusively extractive institutions with the risk of falling into a failed state. This brings us to Douglass C. North and his theory of institutional change.
Although he published works before and after Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, this book can be taken as the archetypal expression of neo-institutionalism. In the United States, institutionalism, whose main speaker was the Swedish immigrant Thorstein Veblen, was the local expression of what in Europe was known as “historicism”: a romantic current, inspired by Hegelian idealism, which denied the universal validity of institutional rules and claimed the particularism of the historical experience of each nation. American historicism was called institutionalism, because it concentrated the sciences of the spirit in the empirical study of the institutions given in the United States.
On the contrary, North’s school is called “neo-institutionalist” because it does exactly the opposite: it studies the phenomenon of institutions from a behavioral point of view and, therefore, universal. As already noted here, for North institutions are limiting the choice of the rational agent in his context of political, economic and social interaction. These limitations are abstract; that is, they are not physical, like the law of gravity, nor do they depend on a specific and specific order of authority. Examples of these abstract limitations can be found in social customs and uses, in moral rules, in legal norms insofar as they are enunciated in general and abstract terms.
Attentive to such diversity, Douglass C. North groups institutions in formal and informal. Within the formal institutions we find, unquestionably, the positive law, in which its rules of formation and transformation of the statements that articulate them can be identified very clearly. In a modern democracy, laws are sanctioned by the legislative body of the State. Meanwhile, the rules of formation and transformation of statements concerning morality are more diffuse – previously, Carlos Alchourrón and Eugenio Buligyn, in Normative Systems, had used this distinction to support the application of deontic logic to law, since deontic statements of law are much more easily identifiable than those of morality.
On the other hand, North distinguishes two types of institutional change: the disruptive and the incremental. An example of disruptive institutional change can be a revolution, but it can also be a legislative reform. The sanction of a new Civil Code, entirely new, can mean a disruptive change, while partial reforms, which incorporate judicial interpretative criteria or praetorian creations, can be examples of incremental changes.
Institutional changes do not necessarily have to come from their source of creation or validity. Scientific discoveries, advances in transport and telecommunications, information technologies, are some of the innovations that can make certain institutions obsolete or generate a new role or interpretation for it, depending on the open texture of the language.
Therefore, following the tradition of Bernard Mandeville and Adam Ferguson, neo-institutionalism admits that there are unintended consequences in the field of institutional change. Not only the incremental change of institutions, be they formal or informal, depends largely on changes in the cultural and physical environment in which institutions are deployed. Also the disruptive and deliberate change of a formal institution can generate unforeseen consequences, since it is articulated on a background of more abstract informal institutions.
Both Acemoglu & Robinson and North acknowledge that there is no universal law of history that determines institutional change -i.e., they deny historicism, as Karl R. Popper had defined it at the time-; what we have, on the other hand, is an “evolutionary drift,” a blind transformation of institutions. In this transformation, political will and environmental conditions interact. The latter not only limit the range of options for the exercise of “institutional engineering,” but also introduce an element of uncertainty in the outcome of such institutional policies, the aforementioned unintended consequences.
Much more complex is to identify which components are included in that black box that is called “environment” (environment). In principle, there could reappear the creatures that both William Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson had banished from their explanations: the geography, culture and education of the ruling elites; more sophisticated elements such as the one referred to in the previous paragraph could also be incorporated: technological change. However, the discoveries of science would have no impact if the institutional framework pursued “creative destruction”, seeking to protect already installed activities from competition, or a lifestyle threatened by technological innovation.
We arrive here at a seemingly paradoxical situation: the institutions’ environment is the institutions. Using the Douglass North classifications system, one could try as a solution to this paradox the assertion that formal institutions operate on the background of informal institutions, which escape political will, and that disruptive institutional changes occur in a context of other institutions that are transformed in an incremental way. From this solution to reintroduce culture as a factor of ultimate explanation of institutional change, only one step remains.
At the other extreme, following the typologies used by Acemoglu & Robinson, the institutions can be political or economic and these in turn can be extractive or inclusive, jointly or alternatively. Inclusive economic institutions within a framework of extractive political institutions can result in a limitation of creative destruction and, consequently, produce a regression to extractive economic institutions. In the institutional dynamics of Acemoglu & Robinson, history can both progress and regress: from economic institutions and extractive policies it can be involuted even to situations of failed state and civil war. To reach the end of history, with inclusive institutions, seems to depend on the conjugation of a series of favorable variables, among which is the political will; while to fall back into chaos and civil war it is enough to let go. Without looking for it, the conceptual background of Why Nations Fail rehabilitates the thesis of Carl Schmitt insofar as it presupposes that in the background of human interaction there is no cooperation but conflict.
For his part, William Easterly in The Elusive Quest for Growth does not ask these questions, but simply works under a hypothesis that already has it answered: whenever there is human interaction, there will be a framework of incentives and such a framework of incentives will have certain universal characteristics. Douglass C. North’s central concern in Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, as well as that of Acemoglu & Robinson in Why Nations Fail, was to establish patterns of events and conditions that made some nations be prosperous while others could not emerge from stagnation. That is, they are works that must necessarily be about the differences between one country and another and, therefore, emphasize the different conditions. Notwithstanding that both North and Acemoglu & Robinson expressly shun culturalist explanations, but instead postulate abstract models and typologies of institutions and institutional change to be applied universally, when the moment of exemplification arrives, they must necessarily resort to the differences between countries and regions. While it is true that both books resort to the description of the problems of the southern United States when illustrating how certain institutions generate results similar to those of third world countries, the culturalist explanation is always available.
In contrast, William Easterly in his The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics focuses almost exclusively on countries with low economic performance and only tangentially refers to cases of high performance. Therefore, in his work, the empirical analytical tools used to dissect it are well separated. To do this, Easterly will not only use a utility-maximizing rational agent model, but will also enunciate abstract models of universally valid human interaction.
In the first part of the work, Easterly describes the failed panaceas of growth: direct aid, investment, education, population control, loans to make adjustments and subsequent debt forgiveness. Affirms that such policies invariably failed because they did not take into account the basic principle of the economy that indicates that people respond to incentives (people respond to incentives, a statement that is repeated as a mantra throughout the book). While acknowledging that in some cases of extreme poverty and bad luck it is necessary for governments to take direct action to help people escape from poverty traps, the author proposes as the main means for people to take a path of prosperity: work to establish the right incentives. It clarifies, however, that this should not be a new panacea but a principle to be implemented little by little, displacing the layers of vested interests impregnated with the wrong incentives and allowing the entrance of the right incentives.
These incentives, right or wrong, do not depend on the culture, nor on the education of the elites, nor on geography. On the contrary, they consist of abstract models of human interaction, which can materialize at any time or latitude. Since the main interest of The Elusive Quest for Growth is, precisely, growth, such models concern this matter, but nothing prevents future research from identifying other abstract patterns of behavior that allow us to infer incentives to address other issues, such as crime, equity, violence, etc.
Some incentive structures that Easterly describes in relation to the problem of growth are the following: conditions for increasing returns – instead of decreasing ones – that come from technological innovation, which in turn depend on phenomena identified as “leakage of technological knowledge” (leaks of technological knowledge), “combination of skills” (matches of skills) and traps (traps) of poverty -although there are also wealth traps.
Technological knowledge has the capacity to filter into a population because it is mainly abstract. It can be exemplified in an accounting system, the practice of carrying inventories, literacy, techniques and procedures for the production, distribution and sale of products, etc. If the technological knowledge consisted exclusively of physical machinery, then yes it would be to a point where yields would become decreasing. On the contrary, understanding technological knowledge as consisting of “abstract machines”, it acquires the characteristics of a public good: it is not consumed with its use nor can it be exclusive. This is how technological knowledge can be extended in a society, multiplying the productivity of its members without entering into diminishing returns.
Also, following the ideas of the recent Nobel Prize in Economics Paul Romer, Easterly highlights that technological change can generate increasing returns thanks to the work of an endogenous agent of the economy, the entrepreneur. Being the labor force a fixed factor of production with respect to machinery, it is expected that, at a certain point, capital will generate diminishing returns, thus conditioning the growth rate of an economy (the main concern of The Elusive Quest for Growth). For its part, the entrepreneur is not only that agent of the economy who discovers new business, he also discovers new uses for existing capital goods. Easterly does not mention it, but this is also the main conclusion reached by Ludwig Lachmann in his work Capital and Its Structure. This work of the entrepreneurs, to find a new utility for a set of capital goods that had come to generate diminishing returns, making them continue to generate increasing returns is what frees the rate of growth of the economy from the limits of technological change and, in turn, makes it depend on the endogenous factor of the economy: the incentives for entrepreneurs to develop their activity -which some call creative destruction.
When Friedrich A. Hayek referred to the coordination problems among rational agents as a consequence of the dispersion of information in the economic system -and that made him worthy of the Nobel Prize in Economics- he did not refer to an information problem that could be solved with better statistical tools. This is also a problem of the economics of information and what Hayek himself called “limit relative to knowledge,” since the frontiers of science could be continuously extended, generating more and more information. The limit that Hayek qualified as absolute for knowledge came from the increasing degrees of abstraction and complexity characteristic of any “extended society.” This to the point of calling such phenomena spontaneous orders, or abstract or extended. Such orders allowed the prediction of the general configuration of the system, but they made impossible the concrete prediction regarding the relative position of each particular element of the system. If one looks for an example of such an institutional arrangement, Hayek himself would point as such to the legal systems that structured the mercantile communities, not because they lacked legislation or a state that monopolized its enactment, but because it provided the members of such a mercantile community of a dispute resolution system whose complexity acted as a guarantee of impartiality.
There is much talk of the virtues of institutions as guarantors of predictability, or legal security, or political stability and clear rules of the game. All of them are positive qualities that express the favorable consequences of a negative quality -negative not in the sense of pernicious, but of absence of a particular characteristic- that can be defined as “absence of arbitrariness.” In general, the concept of freedom is related to that of “free will,” which is very desirable for those who exercise it, but it could become a hell for those who suffer the free will of a third party. The institutions are, as it was pointed out, abstract limitations to the social human action that are structuring of the political, economic, and social interaction; in other words, they limit the arbitrariness of the decisions of own and third parties.
In a certain sense, institutions limit individual freedom, whether we define it in a positive way -as the faculty to exercise its own free will in a legitimate way- or negative -like the absence of coercion to exercise one’s free will. However, for the definition of freedom as absence of domination or absence of arbitrary coercion (similar to that coined by Quentin Skinner), institutions cease to be limiting of individual freedom to be functioning as the abstract devices that make it possible.
An institution is made up of a set of rules that not only limits the action of the rational agent and the action of a third party, but also limits, fundamentally, the actions of the political authority. The said procedural due process, for example, belong to the category of institutions that limit governmental action: no one can be punished except by a judgment based on a law prior to the fact of the process and dictated by its natural judges. The due process is not exhausted in this formulation, but this already constitutes in itself a strong restriction to the power of the government over the citizens. These limits make foreseeable the actions of the government that can interfere in the free will of the individuals and, therefore, define their spheres of autonomy.
Of course, although an institution by itself provides stability and predictability to the system and this generates dividends in terms of the coordination of expectations and individual plans, not all institutions are equally efficient if the mentioned predictability is taken as an evaluation parameter. A system of multiple castes, for example, depends on numerous but ambiguous indicators for the identification of each individual, necessary for the purpose of determining what rights and obligations that person owns. In contrast, a modern system, at the other end of the arch, which equates, with the exception of certain political rights, citizens with inhabitants, and agrees equal rights and obligations for anyone who proves distinctive features of humanity, drastically reduces the “transaction costs” of a system of social control structured around abstract institutions.
The summum of arbitrariness can be identified in despotic systems, in which the free will of the ruler or the group of rulers finds no abstract limit in the law -only concrete limits of other more powerful ones. In these systems, the rules are mere orders to the subjects that have a changing and unpredictable content. In any case, if there are positive laws, we are not facing the rule of law, but government through law. When a case of such extreme arbitrariness is exercised from one man to another, we call it slavery or, in the best of cases, servitude.
At the other pole of the arch we have, as has been pointed out, the modern system, which recognizes in each individual the inalienable right to exercise his free will within a sphere of autonomy that is equal for all. Thus, in a system of isonomy, knowing the limits of the sphere of autonomy itself, the limits of the spheres of autonomy of the third parties are known and, consequently, each individual can form expectations regarding a range of expected behavior of his fellows. They will have a high degree of certainty, as will their respective plans.
In the middle of the two poles of these two ideal types of legal-political systems we have the range of possible and specifically given societies, in which freedom as absence of arbitrary coercion (in the meanings given by both Skinner and Hayek) verify to a greater or lesser extent. What Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson do in this regard, is to open two axes of institutional analysis: the political and the economic, and in turn introduce the distinction between extractive and inclusive institutions. Extractive institutions would be halfway between despotism and isonomy: there are limiting rules of free will, but they are not equal for all, fundamentally restricting the right to access certain prerogatives: limitations on access to food, of political decisions or legal monopolies, to cite examples.
It is worth remembering that the birth of individual rights took place, primitively, as prerogatives that the powerful took from the despot. Such is the case of the Magna Carta of 1215. That is why it is said that rights do not pre-exist the individual but that they are conquered. These prerogatives that were pulling the sovereigns one by one and that is why there is no talk of “liberty” in the singular, but of “liberties”: of trade, of industry, of speech, of transit, etc. These prerogatives or liberties were initially torn from the ruler by militarily or financially powerful men and then extended to the rest of the inhabitants, to the point of recognizing their ownership every human being. Correlatively, by virtue of this process of institutionalization, in which each new prerogative was taken from the ruler, this implied a new limit to governmental power, so that the political system was evolving from tyranny to a constitutional system.
Following the course of this evolution, Acemoglu & Robinson work with the ideal substitute types of “failed state” and “modern state,” the complementary ideal types of “political institutions” and “economic institutions” and again with ideal substitute types of “extractive institutions” and “inclusive institutions.” Political democracy, with a plurality of voices and the extension of political rights, as to elect and be elected to public office, means the realization of inclusive political institutions. An economy that enjoys of sound money, a balanced public budget, openness to international trade, free access to markets, absence of legal monopolies and regulation of natural monopolies is the example of what inclusive economic institutions mean. For all this, we need a degree of political centralization crystallized in the modern state, which enforces the law, whose prescriptions must establish a public sphere whose administration the rulers must be accountable of.
Obviously, the analytical instruments of Acemoglu & Robinson are useful both in political and economic liberalism and, although they do not make a total use of almost three centuries of doctrinal and philosophical elaborations, their classification system is susceptible of being deepened by the incorporation of such concepts. For example, on the end of Why Nations Fail, the authors are at the crossroads of answering the question that serves as the title for the work. For this, they allude to the fact that certain critical situations cause a country to take one or another path: the development of inclusive political and economic institutions or the fate of stagnation, but that there is no such thing as a general law of history that determines that one or the other path will be taken forcibly at some specific historical moment.
This is how the authors invoke, timidly and tangentially, the current of cultural evolutionism, according to which the social customs and habits are evolving following the changes in environmental conditions, but without having a predetermined course, following an evolutionary drift. In the same way, they could have explained the institutionalization that the emerging state implies a modern state through the names and procedural principles that are previously in the uses and customs that make up private law. This is how Max Weber explained it and such studies can be used to delve into the historical analyzes formulated by Acemoglu & Robinson when answering why countries fail.
Notwithstanding this, these economists do establish certain patterns of institutional evolution that are apt to be applied when designing public policies or, plain and simple, a government program. In this sense, they allude to cases such as those of Argentina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which had a resounding success at the moment of formal institutionalization through the enactment of a written constitution and the establishment of a central government of a federal nature. As explained by Acemoglu & Robinson, Argentina incorporated inclusive economic institutions, while it was slower to leave behind extractive political institutions. Initially, Argentina was strongly benefited by the “catch up” regarding the degree of progress of its economic partners, mainly England.
However, following these evolutionary patterns, sooner or later a crucial point is reached in which, in order for the economy to continue to progress, higher levels of competition must be developed that make it necessary to tolerate the impact of the so-called “creative destruction.” When the political system is extractive, it is much easier to resist innovation in the economic sphere when it threatens their economic rents. Arriving at that stage, there are the conditions given for the economic and political progress of a country to be reverted to extractive economic institutions.
That is to say, with inclusive institutions, both politically and economically, it becomes more difficult to find shortcuts to the sectors threatened by the creative destruction of all innovation that progress brings, in order to neutralize it. Once the regulatory, interventionist and protectionist apparatus that characterizes the extractive economic institutions is assembled, the contest moves to the political level: whoever has the springs of political power will distribute the benefits of the economic system. If we add to this a polarized society, it is not difficult to explain why the alternation of popular governments emerged from popular democracies and military civic coups. Specifically, in the case of Argentina, Acemoglu & Robinson add the factor of justice: for a country to be involved in such a spiral of institutional involution, it was necessary for justice to lose its independence from political power.
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.”
- What cafés did for liberalism Adam Gopnik, New Yorker
- How the Catholic Church created our liberal world Tanner Greer, American Conservative
- How meritocracy and populism reinforce each other’s fault Ross Douthat, New York Times
- Extraterrestrial preservation of terrestrial heritage Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex