Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Neoclassical theories Do Not Explain How Modern Economies Function

Crisis papers: editorials and other articles’ posts (16 Dec) on Democratic (HERE):

Theory vs reality: why market absolutism fails

The Perfect Market"

”Neo-classical economists, and their political acolytes, are convinced that “free markets,” completely undisturbed by government interference, yield optimum social and economic results. For example:

“In the free market, the individual would have to produce a good that the other person desired in order to receive a good in return. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the market guides all participants in society to promote the best wishes of everyone else by pursuing his own wants and desires.” (Jacob Halbrooks)

To sum up: “Economic man” and “perfect markets” are abstract constructs which, due to their clarity and simplicity, allow theoretical economists to devise complex mathematical models. However, they have no counterparts in the real world, which compromises the application of these concepts in public policy

Overall, most of the criticism of neoclassical economics contents in the article I have written myself in Lost Legacy. However, there are caveats that I would make in case this is taken as my agreeing that criticism of neoclassical economic theory amounts also to criticism of markets in the real world. It most certainly does not; neoclassical economics is not the same as real world markets.

Markets are real; modern economics is a theory, and theory in social sciences should be judged by how it reflects the real world. The theory that the earth was ‘fixed’ and ‘unmoving’ at the centre of the solar system was ‘elegant’, increasingly complex (72 separate vortices to make things ‘fit’ badly), and also utterly wrong. Observations eventually corrected the foundational error. But the constituent elements making up the solar system were predictable and hardly changing, unlike the constituent elements making up an economy.

With markets, observations of how they ‘worked’ led to theories about them closely related to what was observed, and a ‘foundational’ theory about them, as in Adam Smith’s 'Wealth Of Nations’, appeared before mathematical theories about markets from the 1870s were applied, refined, and given a ‘life’ of their own in the 20th century.

Scores of the brightest economists from mid-20th century onwards detached from observing how markets were evolving from those that Adam Smith had written about and how they were changing. The theorists wrote increasingly complex models of how their models worked, not how markets worked. In time, the scores became thousands and they trained tens of thousands of students about the ‘beauties’ of the models of markets. Precious few of whom observed what was going on around them (they ceased to look outside their windows).

Long detached from the real world inhabited by real humans, economists refined their assumptions about 'Homo economicus', ‘rational behaviour’, ‘perfect markets’, ‘growth theory’ and ‘general equilibrium’, until they came to believe that their ‘as if’ models were true factually as well as ‘proven’ mathematically. Those who had the attention of legislators and those who influenced them, turned their abstractions into policy absolutes and have few claims to ‘making a positive difference’ in how the world performed – and in developing countries their performance record is not good.

That ‘perfect free markets’ as an abstraction had never applied as a reality, (Smith, for example, never used the words ‘laissez-faire’) was ignored; they became a principle assumption of policy, even though the active presence of ‘big government’ falsified assumptions about ‘perfectly free markets’. Worse, the manifest competitive failings of corporate giants, which needed attention on grounds of competitive justice, were vocally protected on the authority of prominent economists on grounds that any corrective intervention was an ‘abuse’ of ‘free markets’!

Even policies that were perfectly compatible with Adam Smith’s advice on how to deal with legislative abuses by some ‘merchants and manufacturers’ were resisted, aided and abetted by lobbyists of legislators and those who influenced them from interest groups funded by the same abusers. These real and powerful active forces in ‘free’ markets' do not appear in the equations of general equilibrium.

Worse, the theorists of modern economics, from the very top of the profession right through to the keenest, brightest, and most convincing of graduates of the top schools, truly believed (yes, with almost religious conviction) the metaphysical assertion of Jacob Halbrooks, as quoted above, namely, that ‘Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the market guides all participants in society to promote the best wishes of everyone else by pursuing his own wants and desires’.

And they believe this nonsense despite the contrary evidence of exactly what Adam Smith said in Wealth of Nations (WN IV.ii.9: p456); they neither “look outside their windows”, nor read the books that they misquote from.

So, in the abstract world of neoclassical markets, they introduced into them a mystical, abstract, and wholly imaginary force that is their sole claim to the relevance of their abstractions for the real world, namely that “an invisible hand”, disembodied, ubiquitous and multi-talented, ‘leads’ each and every player to do exactly what they are required to do by a mysterious force (some actually credit it to God!) that guides their every transaction, of which there must be trillions taking place each working hour, irrespective of the outcomes, into a utopian perfect harmony. Not only is this wishful thinking; it is contrary to ordinary facts.

It’s nonsense, but unlike the harmless fun of the myth of Santa Clause visiting each child with presents once a year, the myth of an invisible hand is pernicious when economists, who should know better, come to believe that it exists as the guiding principle of markets.

I have sometimes felt, when addressing my peers with the gist of my paper on the invisible hand myth (downloadable from the Lost Legacy home page), that I am spoiling their party by pointing out that, like Santa Clause, it is a myth.

First of all, Adam Smith did not relate his use of the metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ to market transactions; this was an invention of neoclassical theorists, aided by propagandists (some paid, others out of their misguided, convictions) for the activities of large corporations, which corner markets and act non-competitively, and in some cases destructively.

Added to the waste and destructiveness of big government, the combined effect of monopolistic corporations and bad government is an indictment of the economics profession’s inability to realize their shortcomings as the subject is presently constituted. Economists who understand how markets work in the presence of big government would have something worthwhile to contribute, but economists, who onlyunderstand how their models work in the abstract, fall far short of what is needed to guide policy makers.

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Blogger Adam Gurri said...

Professor Kennedy, I would very much like to get in touch with you but unfortunately the e-mail I tried to send you bounced.

If you're interested, my e-mail is adam.gurri[at]gmail[dot]com.

6:44 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Apologies. My contact post is gavin AT negweb [dot] com

Please tell the address you tried to use and I shall have it investigated.


10:42 pm  
Blogger Adam Gurri said...

gavin at adamsmithslostlegacy dot com

Got it off the main website.

Thanks for the correction :) will resend that e-mail

10:45 pm  

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