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More on Markets and Neoliberalism from Crooked Timber

Actual markets in the American economy are extremely rare and unusual beasts. An economics of markets ought to be regarded as generally useful as a biology of cephalopods, amid the living world of bones and shells. But, somehow the idealized, metaphoric market is substituted as an analytic mask, laid across a vast variety of economic relations and relationships, obscuring every important feature of what actually is. And, then we wonder why the “thinking” and policy debates that result are stupid and corrupt.
—  Bruce Wilder

Emphasis added.   This is in the context of a critique of neoloberalism, here described by Henry Farrell:

In fact, it is not free markets with vigorous competition among producers, but instead, a mixture of big firm oligopoly and cosy and frequently corrupt relationships between state officials, who have been told to subcontract out parts of government, and the businesses which supply these new services, in what is at best a murky approximation to a real marketplace. You can read this as a statement that classical liberalism has some good points as well as some bad ones. You can equally well read it as saying (and this is the more fundamental point), that regardless of whether or not classical realism had some good arguments, these don’t have anything much to do with actually-existing-neoliberalism which is a crony capitalist fantasy.

This lays bare the greed, dishonesty, corruption and manipulation inherent to neoliberalism, and simultaneously exposes the concept of “the market” as an absurd quirk of the typical economist’s imagination.

Each of these meaty comments is highly worthy of recognition.  The cephalopod reference made the first one utterly irresistible, and prompted this post.

The bad news is that there doesn’t seem to be any way out.


Here, John Quiggin provides a good functional definition of neolibealism – the first I’ve ever seen – and a very thoughtful critique of neoliberalism as a political cum economic ideology.

The core of the neoliberal program is
(i) to remove the state altogether from ‘non-core’ functions such as the provision of infrastructure services
(ii) to minimise the state role in core functions (health, education, income security) through contracting out, voucher schemes and so on
(iii) to reject redistribution of income except insofar as it is implied by the provision of a basic ‘safety net’.

Quiggin judges neoliberaism to be a failure, for different reasons in different places.  I’m going to quibble with his definition of failure, type iii, though: a failure to deliver the promised outcomes.  With a focus in the inherent dishonesty and corruption inherent to neoliberalism, I can only view it as highly successful in the U.S.  This is because there is a real hidden agenda lurking behind the false public agenda.
 
Wilder describes how it works in a follow-up comment: (Be sure to read the whole thing.)

Neoliberalism, it seems to me, uses the myth of the market, to rationalize rule-making, which serves the rentiers (is dynamically inefficient) and which promotes authoritarian, and therefore unfair, resolution of conflict.

Quiggin describes the type iii failure in the U.S:  “The basic problem is that, given high levels of inequality, very strong economic performance is required to match the levels of economic security and social services delivered under social democracy even with mediocre growth outcomes.”  Of course, no such strong economic performance is forthcoming.

However, the real agenda is not general economic security.  Quite to the contrary, it is to maximize and maintain a high level of inequality, such that the small, elite minority has absolute control over the impoverished majority, precisely because their economic security is severely limited.  I cite as evidence the extreme form of 21st Century Republican party neoliberalism, which even attacks the existence of a basic safety net.  Note also their ongoing attacks against labor unions, health care reform, and education at all levels.

The job is not yet complete, but I have to view the record of neoliberalism in the U.S., to date, as a smashing success.

I posted this on my blog in slightly different form as a Quote of the Day entry. But it makes such a fitting companion piece to Dan’s from earlier today that I decided to put it up here, as well.

 H/T to Unlearningecon

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Discussion at Crooked Timber on ‘what are markets’

Well, sort of on markets.
There is an interesting conversation going on at Crooked Timber our public debate in the econosphere and political rhetoric . Henry posts on the use of arguments over the term neo-liberalism and finishes with:

For what it’s worth, I think that the open information agenda, and the political inequality agenda have a lot more in common than most people think (I have been planning for some time to do more writing on this over the next year). I think it would be a lot more useful to frame the argument as one between different ways of restructuring markets so as to tackle problems of inequality at their source than as one between neo-liberalism and its critics

Lifted from comments,  Bruce Wilder offers this observation:

To a large extent, we are all intellectual victims of economists, dead and otherwise, who really do not know what they are talking about. The main problem with the standard analysis of the “market economy”, as well as many variants, is that we do not live in a “market economy”. Except for financial markets and a few related commodity markets, markets are rare beasts in the modern economy. The actual economy is dominated by formal, hierarchical, administrative organization and transactions are governed by incomplete contracts, explicit and implied. “Markets” are, at best, metaphors.

The elaborate theory of market price gives us an abstract ideal of allocative efficiency, in the absence of any firm or household behaving strategically (aka perfect competition). In real life, allocative efficiency is far less important than achieving technical efficiency, and, of course, everyone behaves strategically.
In a world of genuine uncertainty and limitations to knowledge, incentives in the distribution of income are tied directly to the distribution of risk. Economic rents are pervasive, but potentially beneficial, in that they provide a means of stable structure, around which investments can be made and production processes managed to achieve technical efficiency.
In the imaginary world of complete information of Econ 101, where markets are the dominant form of economic organizations, and allocative efficiency is the focus of attention, firms are able to maximize their profits, because they know what “maximum” means. They are unconstrained by anything.
In the actual, uncertain world, with limited information and knowledge, only constrained maximization is possible. All firms, instead of being profit-maximizers (not possible in a world of uncertainty), are rent-seekers, responding to instituted constraints: the institutional rules of the game, so to speak. Economic rents are what they have to lose in this game, and protecting those rents, orients their behavior within the institutional constraints. Those constraints are in the nature of a public good, and if that public good is well-provided, the behavior is socially beneficial and technically efficient.
It is within this context, that risk and innovation (aka, changing institutional structure) can pay off.
So, yes, licensing barbers can make perfect sense. It creates a small economic rent, and if that rent is tied effectively to barbers being scrupulous about safe and healthy technical practice, that’s a economic benefit. The gain is in technical efficiency, not allocative efficiency.

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