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Dead Models vs. Living Economics

Sandy Ikeda

Since 2008, straw-man versions of free-market economics have popped up whenever someone needs an easy villain. Keynes roared back to prominence, and it looks like this reaction might be gaining steam. 

According to an article in The Guardian, students at a few British universities, prompted by “a leading academic,” are demanding that economics professors stop teaching what they refer to as “neoclassical free-market theories.”

Michael Joffe, an economics professor at Imperial College, said, “The aim should be to provide students with analysis based on the way the world works, not the way theories argue it ought to work.”

Joffe is right on that point. But his target is wrong: It’s not free-market economics that’s the problem, it’s the model of perfect competition that often gets conflated with free-market economics. A commenter on my recent columns addressing falsehoods about the free market (here and here) suggested I discuss this conflation. 

I was thinking of putting it into a third “falsehoods” column. But the Guardian story makes me think the issue deserves more attention. Here’s the key passage: 

The profession has been criticised for its adherence to models of a free market that claim to show demand and supply continually rebalancing over relatively short periods of time—in contrast to the decade-long mismatches that came ahead of the banking crash in key markets such as housing and exotic derivatives, where asset bubbles ballooned [emphasis added].

Why Do You Support the Free Market?

Some people support the free market purely because of ideology: They believe it’s consistent with individual rights to life, liberty, and property. For them it matters little if critics are right about the weakness of economic models or about the facts of the case. In other words, even if the free market were indeed responsible for the crash of 2008, that would not shake their belief in the value of the free market.

“Free-market economists,” on the other hand, typically have confidence in free markets owing to our understanding of economics, although we often (notoriously) disagree on exactly what the correct economics is. A number of free-market economists base their confidence on what is known as the model of “perfect competition.” Briefly, that model shows how in the long run the price of a good in a competitive market will equal the additional cost of producing a unit of that good (i.e., its marginal cost), and it shows that no one has the power to set prices on her own. How do you get those results? By making something like the following assumptions:


  1. Free entry: While buyers and sellers may incur costs to consume and to produce, there are no additional costs to enter or leave a market.
  2. Product homogeneity: From the point of view of any buyer in the market, the output of one seller is a perfect substitute for the output of any other seller.
  3. Many buyers and sellers: No single buyer or seller is large enough to independently raise or lower the market price.
  4. Perfect knowledge: All buyers and sellers have so much information that they will never regret any action they take.

From these assumptions you can derive not only marginal-cost pricing but also nice efficiency properties as well: There is no waste and costs are minimized. Which is why people like the model.

Moreover, for some important questions the analysis of supply and demand under perfect competition is quite useful. Push the legal minimum wage too high and you’ll generate unemployment; push the maximum rent-control rate too low and you’ll get housing shortages. Also, financial markets sometimes—though as we have seen, not always—conform to the predictions of perfect competition. It’s a robust theory in many ways, but if you base your support for the free market on the model of perfect competition, you’re on shaky ground. The evidence against it is pretty devastating.

Free Entry, Not Perfect Knowledge

In fact, it doesn’t even take the Panic of 2008 to shake up the model; any comparison of the model with everyday reality would do the job. Assumptions two and three about product homogeneity and many buyers and sellers are pretty unrealistic, but it’s the last assumption about perfect knowledge that’s the killer. (I’m aware of Milton Friedman’s “twist” (PDF), which argues that this is irrelevant and only predictions matter, but it’s a methodology I don’t agree with.) Markets are rarely if ever at or near equilibrium, and people with imperfect knowledge make disequilibrating mistakes, even without the kind of government intervention that caused the Panic of 2008.

When the institutions are right, however, people learn from the mistakes that they or others make, and there’s a theory of markets—certainly neither Keynesian nor Marxist—that fits the bill better than perfect competition. 

It’s Austrian theory. Its practitioners argue that competition is an entrepreneurial-competitive process (PDF). This theory not only says that competition exists in the presence of ignorance, error, and disequilibrium, it explains how profit-seeking entrepreneurs in a free market positively thrive in this environment. The principal assumption that the theory rests on, besides the existence of private property, is No. 1: free entry. 

As long as there are no legal barriers to entry, if Jack wants to sell an apple for $1 and Jill is asking $2 for that same quality apple—that is, there is a disequilibrium here in which either Jack or Jill (or both) is making an error—you can profit by buying low from Jack and selling high to Jill’s customer, Lucy. If another entrepreneur, Linus, spots what you’re doing, he can bid up the price you’re giving Jack and bid down the price at which you’re selling to Lucy. Bottom line: A process of entrepreneurial competition tends to remove errors. There is no need to assume perfect knowledge to get a competitive outcome; instead, competition itself improves the level of knowledge.

So Joffe and the critics are wrong about the theory. You don’t knock out the theoretical legs from under the free market by “debunking” the model of perfect competition. He is also wrong about the history. As I’ve referenced many times, economists Steve Horwitz and Pete Boettke have documented how a government-led, interventionist dynamic, and not the free market, led to the Panic of 2008. 

Joffe, the Imperial College professor, “called for economics courses to embrace the teachings of Marx and Keynes to undermine the dominance of neoclassical free-market theories.” He also complains that “there is a lot that is taught on [sic] economics courses that bears little relation to the way things work in the real world.” I agree. But that complaint would apply at least as much to the Keynesian and Marxian economics he hypes as to the static, equilibrium-based models of competition he slams.

You can read a Portuguese version of this article here.

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