Economics is not the study of choice

Turns out I actually do have something to write about. A propos of Yglesias and Rodrik, I think people really need to stop thinking about Economics as some sort of study of choice, which is how it is traditionally conceived. Yglesias quotes Rodrik…

The Friedmanite perspective greatly underestimates the institutional prerequisites of markets. Let the government simply enforce property rights and contracts, and – presto! – markets can work their magic. In fact, the kind of markets that modern economies need are not self-creating, self-regulating, self-stabilizing, or self-legitimizing. Governments must invest in transport and communication networks; counteract asymmetric information, externalities, and unequal bargaining power; moderate financial panics and recessions; and respond to popular demands for safety nets and social insurance.

…and notes that non-interventionist environments don’t really exist. The market doesn’t appear ex nihilo and it isn’t really helpfully conceived of as a way of aggregating individual choices.

For a long time individual choice involved fighting and then using brute force and intimidation to get what you want. The key innovation of modern states wat to turn brute force and intimidation towards the realm of enforcement of contracts.

I think economics is much better thought of a study of contracts, expectations and choices last. The contractual elements of live take up most of your expenditure, housing, healthcare and saving for retirement and all of those things depend far more on your (and our collective) expectation of the future.

Choice comes into the picture only later on. Rational Choice theory is useful for estimating how people make certain choices, but it is the imposition of brute force strengthening contract enforcement and making the future more predictable that may be better routes for thinking about economics.

For example, Scott Sumner‘s proposal for central banks to adopt NGDP targeting, level targeting. This isn’t economics about choice, this is economics which is intended to make contracts easier to create ex ante and enforce ex post because it is about aligning expectations with what the future will actually be like in a stable way. Contracts and expectations form the core of economics, they are just very complicated in real world and difficult to model in the theoretical.

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One thought on “Economics is not the study of choice

  1. I find the micro choice-based approach to be useful from times to times; I look at it as a sort of a lab where you can test a couple of hypothesis and relations on a closed ceteris-paribus environment. However, if you want to study the economy in a broader sense you have to look at it as an open system which depends on unlimited variables (culture, history, endowments, gender relations, demography, solidarity, informal institutions, etc.). The modern legal approach to economics was born with Coase and its conception of transaction costs; more than contracts and expectations I think economics must start to interpret economics phenomenons as broader phenomenons and make the emphasis on institutions and take the approach way further and deeper than Coase and its followers as contracts themselves depend on other formal and informal institutions (namely all the above).

    Greetings from Portugal,

    jtascensao

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