Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

32. Moral Conditions of Economic Efficiency, Part 3

Note: This post is the thirty-second in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

Chapter 4 of 'The Moral Conditions of Economic Efficiency', by Walter Schultz, takes on the notion that even though strict rational eogists may not be able to achieve economic efficiency immediately, their behaviour will settle into an efficient pattern as they (strictly rationally) adopt rules that prevent their selfishness from keeping them from achieving efficient outcomes.

For example, back here, I quoted a Washington Post article which read,
"[Alan] Greenspan had an unusual take on market fraud, Born recounted: "He explained there wasn't a need for a law against fraud because if a floor broker was committing fraud, the customer would figure it out and stop doing business with him."

Schultz first argues that, although coordination type situations (e.g. choosing which side of the road to drive on) enable strict rational egoists to form rules that are to everyone's benefit, exchange is not a coordination type situation. The reason is that a coordination situation allows everyone to achieve an optimal result, whereas in exchange, each person's best option is to get what the other person is offering without parting with anything themselves, by way of force or fraud if necessary. But it's not possible for both parties to come out ahead on exchange by cheating each other, so this makes exchange a collective action or Prisoner's Dilemma type problem.

Next, Schultz argues that 'the shadow of the future', i.e. concerns about what might happen in the future, will not cause strict rational egoists to refrain from force and fraud. I'm not sure I quite follow Schult'z argument on this point, so I'll quote him,
"we have already shown that strict rational egoists will always choose the best feasible means to achieve their most highly valued social state, so when similar situations emerge [in the future] inefficient outcomes result."

As best I can tell, Schultz is arguing that strict rational egoists are not capable of prudence in the sense of weighing the benefits of theft/fraud now against the benefits of cooperation over the long run. Schultz could make the case that this sort of prudence is itself a moral rule that does not belong in our sketch of the strict rational egoist but he doesn't make this argument explicitly.

The question of whether (strict) self-interest leads to cooperative behavior in collective action problems that are repeated is one that has been much studied and I will likely come back to it later on in the series. For now, I'll simply note that despite morals against force and fraud, and the presence of a government that will punish you if you are caught in such activities, we are far from eliminating these behaviours entirely, so the 'shadow of the future' (as game theorist refer to the effect where concerns about future results influence present decisions) may help some, but it seems incapable of playing the role Greenspan imagined it playing, where no rules against fraud are necessary.

In chapter 5, Schultz discusses externalities. He defines externalities as follows: "An externality is an uncompensated cost or benefit that may be intentional, accidental or incidental."

...and clarifies that...

"Acts of theft and fraud directly affect the well-being of consumers and exemplify intentional externalities. Harm resulting from negligence or from an accident exemplifies an accidental externality. Externalities also include incidental effects of the acts of production and consumption."

He goes on to comment that, "To assume that all externalities are absent and that every agent behaves competitively is to set aside the role of morality. The system of moral constraints presented in Chapter 6 secures competitive behaviour and eliminates intentional externalities but makes no provision for the internalization of accidental and incidental externalities."

Schultz then claims that:

1) A system of moral normative constraints precludes externalities due to intentional consequences of nonmarket action.

2) A system of moral normative constraints and conventions rectifies accidental and incidental externalities.

3) Moral normative constraints and conventions coordinate expectations and thereby reduce transaction costs

4) Moral normative constraints are the logical limits of the commodification of desire.

Schultz explains the first 3 points: "We have established the first claim. Claims (2) and (3) are based on the general goals of tort law, property law and contract law, respectively, and have been established."

To be honest, it wasn't clear to me how claims 2 and 3 have been established, but never mind.

Schultz says no more on the first 3 points and devotes the rest of the chapter to an explanation of point 4, arguing that the desires of people that we recognize in calculating the effects of externalities are limited by the rights that people need to have in order to secure economic efficiency. In other words, my desire to have you a slave is not recognized as a valid preference since if you don't have autonomy to make your own decisions we won't achieve the same efficiency that we might have (because you can't pursue your preferences properly, if you are my slave).


In chapter 6, Schultz sets out what he sees as the moral conditions of economic efficiency. Note that where I might say, for example, that people need to follow a moral rule to 'be honest', Schultz instead says, using the same example, that people have a 'right to true information' and that people also have a moral incentive to respect that right. It amount to the same thing, as far as I can tell.

The Moral Conditions of Economic Efficiency per Schultz:

1) Property Rights - meaning that people can't mess with your stuff and you can do what you want with your stuff.

2) Right to True Information (that is relevant to a potential exchange) - meaning that you shouldn't tell your car insurance company that your car is just for personal use, when really you drive to work and back every day.

3) A right to welfare - Schultz recognizes that given a choice between stealing or starving, people will and should choose the latter because the right to life takes precedence over the efficiency based rights. Plus Schultz makes an insurance argument (that seems a bit out of place) that it is more efficient for basic welfare to be assured centrally than for everyone to self-insure against deprivation.

4) A right to autonomy - without autonomy, people can't make exchanges that match their preferences, so autonomy is a precondition for trade as we understand it even being possible.

Schultz also notes that we need some mechanism by which people are held accountable for their behaviour in recognizing these rights as well as a set of conventions for setting prices and conventions and normative constraints for commodifying desire and for rectifying the results of accidental and intentional externalities.


I realize that this post doesn't really show all that clearly how Schultz gets to his final requirements, but that's likely because it wasn't all that clear to me reading the book.

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