Do Capitalists Manipulate, Deceive, and Cheat?

Michael Makovi

Real-world markets, according to Nobel laureate economist Robert Shiller, are all about manipulation and deception.

So he argues in a New York Times article summarizing his new book, coauthored with fellow Nobel laureate economist George Akerlof: Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. According to Shiller, merchants and vendors regularly “phish for” ignorant consumers who they can mislead into acting less in their own interests and more in those of the phishermen.

The question is not whether the market fails, but whether the government is more likely than the market itself to correct those failures. 

Shiller claims that the theoretical defense of the free market depends on consumers being rational and well informed — a condition that doesn’t hold true in the real world. Drawing on behavioral economics, he argues that consumers are often possessed with cognitive biases that allow them to be systematically deceived by unsavory merchants. For this reason, Shiller argues, consumers need government regulation to protect their interests. The internal forces of the market are not sufficient.

Deux ex Nirvana

But government regulation is not an infallible deus ex machina. The question is not whether the market fails, but whether the government is more likely than the market itself to correct those failures. Economist Harold Demsetz coined the term “nirvana fallacy” to make this point: it is not enough to find flaws in the real world; one must prove that some feasible alternative is likely to be less flawed. James Buchanan, one of the fathers of public choice economics, compared advocates of government regulation to the judges of a singing contest who, after hearing an imperfect performance from the first contestant, immediately award the second contestant, reasoning that he must be better.

No, the market is not perfect, and consumers are often ignorant and manipulable. But the real question is this: Will government do any better?

Just because the first singer offered a less-than-perfect performance is no proof that the second singer will be any better. Ironically, Nudge author and former member of the Obama administration Cass Sunstein, no friend of economic freedom, accidentally makes this very point in his positive review of Shiller and Akerlof’s book.

According to Sunstein,

Bad government is itself a product of phishing and phoolishness, for “we are prone to vote for the person who makes us the most comfortable,” even when that person’s decisions are effectively bought by special interests.

So yes, people behave irrationally in their capacities as market participants, but they are no more rational in how they cast their votes than in how they spend their dollars.

Buying What You Don’t Want

The difference is that in a market, there are feedback signals, however attenuated. If a vendor cheats his customer by holding back information about his product, at least the customer will learn about the product’s faults after he purchases it, and he will buy from someone else next time. He will likely warn others, too. The consumer may have cognitive biases, but he has the opportunity to learn from his mistakes, prevent others from making them, and correct them in the future. The deceptive merchant will develop a bad reputation, and paying customers are motivated to learn about merchants’ reputations — especially as 21st-century technology develops ever-more-robust reputation markets, accessible through anyone’s smartphone.

By contrast, there are fewer feedback signals in politics and even fewer opportunities to act on that feedback. One vote barely counts, and each voter must vote not for specific policies, but for politicians with a range of policies. Electoral politics doesn’t really offer a choice so much as it imposes a bundle. A vote for a particular candidate implies endorsement of all the policies in that bundle, when the truth is more likely that the voter has selected the least bad option. In the market, customers can easily split their “dollar votes” to purchase only the specific products they want.

In Freedom and the Law, Bruno Leoni notes that we are all doubly unrepresented by politics: we vote for A, but B defeats A in the election. Then, when B is sitting in the legislature, he is outvoted on a bill by C. So in the end, a person is governed by politician C who beat B, who in turn beat the voter’s preferred choice, A.

When Phoolishness Is Rational

In such a situation, it makes sense for voters to be rationally ignorant of the effects of government policies they are helpless to affect. Politicians are free to peddle shoddy products when they know voters have few opportunities to learn from their mistakes — and even fewer opportunities to correct them.

Meanwhile, markets tend to concentrate benefits and costs on the consumers who use a specific product. This internalization of costs and benefits promotes learning and feedback. In a market, a person must bear the consequences of his or her own actions.

In politics, benefits are concentrated on those whom the politician wishes to favor — such as financial donors and special interests whose attention is narrowly focused — while costs are dispersed among those whose attention is elsewhere, including many who focus on producing wealth instead of transferring it.

The combination of rationally ignorant voters and informed and motivated special interests encourages rent seeking. Private benefit and social cost diverge as the political process encourages the creation of new externalities. While markets tend to internalize the costs, politics encourages externalities.

So yes, consumers are often “irrational” and deceived and make mistakes. But, as Sunstein himself tells us, this is true in both politics and markets. The question is, Which institutional environment is more likely to promote learning from mistakes? And which institution — the market or politics — maximizes a person’s ability to correct those mistakes? Shiller and Akerlof have failed to prove that government regulation will detect or correct mistakes better than the market itself can.

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