Harold Demsetz: 1930-2019

The great Harold Demsetz passed away on January 4th. He was 88. Demsetz was a professor of economics at UCLA and University of Chicago who, along with his frequent co-author Armen Alchian, dramatically shaped how economists think about property rights, transaction costs, and the theory of the firm. His work laid the foundations of law & economics, environmental economics, industrial organization, and institutional economics. He was an excellent thinker and writer those of us who were his students, either directly or indirectly (like me, who benefits greatly from studying with those who studied closely with him like Walter Williams, David Henderson, and Larry White) will miss him.

For an excellent remembrance of him, here is Pete Boettke.

Jon Murphy
Revealed Preferences Matter

Below is an open letter to Spectator USA:

Editor:

The Spectator USA report “Identity is Just as Important as Wealth. Why Don’t Economists Get That?” contains a number of errors and strawmen versions of economic theory. However, the largest error is the premise of the article stated here:

But apart from the needless fear [nationalism] generates, it is also slightly dubious to suggest that it is the gilets jaunes or the Five Star Movement or the supporters of Brexit or even Donald Trump who are acting intemperately. It is perfectly possible to argue that these movements are a sensible, overdue reaction against governments that have imposed economic globalization on the world at a pace that is entirely inconsistent with the human lifespan and the speed at which we can adapt to change. The free movement of people, the euro, large-scale immigration, the dissolution of the nation state — for that matter the admission of China to the WTO… all were imposed on the world by ideologically motivated elites with little public consultation. Regardless of whether you think they are good or bad, there is a perfectly sensible secondary question to be asked about whether they were too much too soon. Remember, such decisions are usually made by economists, who do not really understand either time or scale.

Globalization, by definition, cannot be imposed. What freedom of trade and freedom of movement means is people, not elites, not economists, not governments, choose how people choose to deploy their resources. Liberalization of trade no more imposes on people than freedom of religion imposes on people. You, your readers, and all other people are free to choose to buy local or choose not to. When China joined the WTO, it did not impose on anyone to conduct business with them, nor did the WTO impose anyone to deal with China.

The fact of the matter is, however, people were free to deal or not deal with foreigners and they chose to deal with foreigners. Given this was an action freely taken, we can conclude that no, nationalism isn’t preferred to globalization. People choosing freely chose more than identity, and for whatever reason. The revealed preferences of Americans and Britons was to trade with foreigners. Indeed, trade liberalization indicates that national identity is not as strong a force as nationalists believe, which is why nationalism, not globalization, needs to be imposed.

Despite your claims otherwise, economists are not “obsessed with the gains arising from scale.” Rather, we study the interactions of people and the gains from trade freely made. Scale is just one side benefit of that; the real benefit is people improving on their current position. Any intro textbook will explain that (indeed, I highly recommend William Allen and Armen Alchian’s newly-released “Universal Economics”).

Signed,

Jon Murphy

George Mason University

Fairfax, VA

Ruminations on the Law of Demand

Two events today caused me to start thinking on the Law of Demand and its power as an explanatory tool.

The Law of Demand in Medical Care

When I lecture on the Law of Demand, which simply states that all else held equal as price rises quantity demanded falls, I inevitably get the objection: “What about necessities like food, water, health care?”

Even for these supposed necessities, the Law of Demand applies. Relatively high prices cause people to search for alternatives. One such example of this is in the Bob’s Burgers episode “Sexy Dance Healing” (Season 6, Episode 8). The titular character, Bob Belcher, goes out on a walk to try and gain inspiration for his Burgers of the Day (a running gag in the show. Each of the Burgers of the Day are usually pun-named, such as the “Never Been Feta Burger” (comes with feta cheese)). While walking past a message parlor storefront, Bob slips on oil poured on the sidewalk and tears his labrum. Bob goes to the doctor who informs him he’ll need surgery and his deductible is super-high: “like, $6,000 high.”

As per the Law of Demand, Bob begins to consider different options to pay for the surgery he wants but cannot afford outright. He considers suing the store that poured the oil on the sidewalk. He even goes so far as to have his lawyer serve notice, but the masseuse offers Bob a deal: the masseuse insists he can heal Bob without surgery. If Bob is not healed after 10 sessions, he will pay for Bob’s surgery.

So, the lesson from this story: the relative price of Bob’s surgery was high. Even though Bob needed medical care, the high price caused him to search for alternatives (spoiler alert: the alternative Bob chose worked out well). The doctor’s price of surgery was too high. If he lowered the price, Bob would participate; in technical terms, if the price fell, Bob’s quantity demanded for labrum surgery would increase.

A high price of medical care causes people to seek alternatives. A diabetic may try to change their diet. A person suffering arthritis may seek holistic approaches. A person suffering from psoriasis may move to a more humid climate. Et cetera. That these people seek alternatives, thus implying that if the price was lower they’d consume more of the good in question, indicates that the Law of Demand holds even in the case of medical care.

The Law of Demand and Power over Consumers

The second example of the power of the Law of Demand comes from the realm of trade. Commenting on this Cafe Hayek post, Jorod Smith writes:

Voluntary exchanges are nice. Now what happens when one country becomes so dependent on imports from and exports to one other country? The other country actually controls the country that relies on it for imports and exports. This is exactly the problem we have with China. 

Mr. Smith’s fears are unwarranted. Imports and exports do not equate to “dependence” on another individual, regardless of how much they might make up your trade. Currently, 100% of my food comes from sources external to me, namely Wies Supermarket. I grow none of my own food. However, despite this, Wies holds exactly no sway over me. They cannot dictate to me in any way, shape, or form my behavior. If Wies were to try to jack up prices or exert some other kind of pressure on me, I could easily go to another competitor. But what if there is no other competitor? Then I would seek other alternatives: I could grow my own food or seek some other substitute (consume less food, switch to things that get me more calories per dollar, etc). In other words, they’d have no influence on my behavior as I could seek alternatives.

To bring this back to China, if the Chinese government were to try to impose some preferred policy on the US by threatening trade disruptions, it’d be as ineffective as the US blockade was in forcing the Castros out of power in Cuba or the Kims out of power in North Korea. Economic sanctions tend to be very ineffective. Why? Because of the Law of Demand. As relative prices rise, people start to seek alternatives. In the case of the Castros, it caused them to look toward the Soviet Union. In the case of the Koreans, it caused them to look toward the Chinese. If the Chinese were to try to threaten something, US consumers could seek other competitors. If none are available, they could turn inward. Indeed, this is why the attempt by the Chinese to jack up rare earth metals prices failed.

Conclusion

In his classic book, The Theory of Price, George Stigler writes of the Law of Demand:

How can we convince a skeptic that this “law of demand” is really true of all consumers, all times, all commodities?… Perhaps as persuasive a proof as is readily summarized is this: if an economist were to demonstrate its failure in a particular market at a particular time, he would be assured of immortality, professionally speaking, and rapid promotion while still alive. Since most economists would not dislike either reward, we may assume that the total absence of exceptions is not from lack of trying to find them. And this of course hints at the real proof: innumerable examples, ranging from the wife who cuts down on strawberries because they are out of season ( =more expensive) to elaborate statistical investigations, display this result.

Pgs. 22-23

The Law of Demand remains an extremely powerful tool. Indeed, one can build all of price theory off of it. My above two examples show its utility. A thorough understanding of the Law of Demand can get one very far.

On the Nature of Freedom

Occasionally, one will here in the argument against open borders: “How many immigrants will you let into your house?” or “Why don’t you have any immigrants living in your house?” or some variation thereof. These retorts miss the point of freedom.

Freedom means the right to do something. The flip side of that is the right to not do it. Freedom of movement, for example, means I have the right to move from Virginia to North Carolina. It likewise means I have the right to not do so. Freedom to purchase tobacco necessarily means the freedom to not purchase tobacco. To call for the freedom of migration between countries does not imply any form of contract to house or employ immigrants. What it does do is call for the freedom to contract with those individuals for all people. I may not want to hire person X for a job, but that does not mean no one should hire person X.

In a free market, everyone is allowed to buy what they with with whomever is willing to sell it to them (barring violations of the rules of justice, of course). Likewise, a person is free to not buy anything.

Advocates who use the above argument (other variations include “people who support gun rights should be shot first” or “people who want abortions should be forced to listen to the heartbeat”) fail to understand the dual nature of freedom.

Jon Murphyimmigration
On Justice

My friend and colleague at GMU, Nathan Goodman, writes the following on Facebook (link added):

"To remain neutral in situations of injustice is to be complicit in that injustice."-Desmond Tutu

Nine years ago today I thought this was correct. Today, I am not so sure. After all, people have limited knowledge and may in many cases be unable to choose an action that is effective at combatting injustice. The unintended consequences of their actions may generate new injustices. Neutrality may therefore often be the best available option in a complex world. See also Michael Huemer's paper "In Praise of Passivity."

That said, I don't reject Tutu's statement here entirely. It is a useful rhetorical device to induce participation in social movements. This is important, given that the end of an injustice is non-excludable and therefore there is an incentive to free ride on the activism of others. Moreover, in some cases, Tutu's comments may be not just useful but true. There may be no option for neutral action. For instance, if the perpetrator of an injustice is a state you live under, then you are financing the injustice by paying your taxes. Absent other choices taken to combat the injustice, your impact on the injustice is not neutral.

I wish to expand on Nathan’s first point regarding the knowledge problem and justice.

Archbishop Tutu’s quote is Ciceroian in its origins. In De Officiis, Marcus Tullius Cicero writes:

But there are also two kinds of injustice: first, the injustice of those who inflict injury; second, those who, although able, do not repel injury from those upon whom it is being inflicted. For he who unjustly attacks another, whether he is incited either by anger or by some other perturbation, that person, as it were, seems to raise his hand against an ally. And he who, although able, neither defends against nor opposes the injury done to another, that person is as vicious as if he had abandoned his parents, friends, or country.

De Officiis 1.23, pg 31 (Newton Translation)

However, to Nathan’s point above, Cicero goes on to say:

[B]ecause we perceive and feel those things that turn out either well or adverse for ourselves more than those for others, we see the latter as if from a far distance, and judge them differently from our own. Consequently, such people advise well who forbid any action in which you may doubt whether it is equitable or inequitable. For equity is conspicuous in itself; doubt signifies the contemplation of injury.

1.30, pg 33

The intervention upon an injustice may, given our self-knowledge, be misguided. The prescription to intervene in the name of justice laid out by Cicero (and perhaps, consequently, by Tutu) is more nuanced and guided by our limited knowledge. Indeed, Cicero seems to urge caution in matters of justice.

Cicero distinguishes between two kinds of justice. While Cicero doesn’t name these two kinds of justice, preferring to simply call them “one kind” or “the other,” they are very similar to the kinds of justice Adam Smith lays out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: communitive justice (simply put, not messing with other people’s stuff) and distributive justice (simply put, making a becoming use of your resources) (see TMS, in particular pages 269-270.10). We cause injustice, according to the Cicero quote above, when we cause harm to another person (violation of communitive justice) or we fail to prevent an injustice from occurring if it is within our power. Cicero seems to treat the rules of this first kind of justice as “precise and accurate” like Smith does and the rules of this second kind as “loose, vague, and indeterminate”, again like Smith. To commit a violation of the first kind of justice is pretty straightforward: inflict injury (or cause “real harm” to use Smith’s phrasing). Violations of the second kind of justice are more vague and depend on one’s knowledge, one’s abilities, one’s personal circumstances, and the good of the community as a whole (see 1.27-33, pgs. 32-35). The Tutu quote that Nathan provides gives the impression that the second form of justice has precision in its rules, which is not necessarily the case (it’s possible, indeed even probable, that Tutu realized this subtlety and, in a greater context, acknowledges and discusses it).

Knowledge, temperance, and propriety do need to play a role in our actions. As with any virtue, it is possible to take it too far and become a vice. Justice burns hotly within the soul of every person; injustice inflames passions and makes us feel that extreme passion known as resentment. Resentment can be strong (how many people call for the head of a murderer?). And it’s all the more reason to intervene in the name of justice carefully. Our own perceptions and world views color our view and what may seem like an injustice may actually be not. Intervention in these grey cases may actually be the injustice.

Jon MurphyMoral Philosophy
Necessary But Not Sufficient

In my latest article for Libertarianism.org, I argue that the existence of a “market failure” is a necessary but not sufficient condition for government intervention in the economy.  A slice:

As with all economic questions, the answer is “compared to what?” Externalities, compared on an idealized hypothetical world where all information is known and transactions are costless, appear easy to solve via government regulation. However, when we compare a world of externalities to the real world, where costs and benefits are subjective and ultimately judgement calls must be made by analysts, we see that externalities are necessary but not sufficient justification for government intervention.

Jon MurphyLaw & Economics
Stay Tuned...

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Jon Murphy