Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The most important concept in economics is emergence

This is not based on the hubris of a condensed matter physicist, but rather the claim of three economists in an Econtalk podcast,  where Don Boudreaux, Michael Munger, and Russ Roberts discuss Emergent Order. For example, Boudreaux states
the notion of spontaneous order is indeed the most profound, single most profound insight of good economics. It remains the insight that is most elusive to the general public. Sadly, it remains an insight that is elusive to a lot of professional economists these days.
The discussion centres around Robert's poem, "Its a wonderful loaf", the website for which has an animation of the poem and a nice list of related resources. The key idea is that free markets lead to an emergent order of prices, division of labour, and matching of supply and demand. This order is Adam Smith's "invisible hand" that guides the economy. It is actually "bottom up", not top down. Many of the ideas discussed are those originating with F. A. Hayek, in the context of not just economics but also in social and political philosophy. A summary I found helpful of Hayek's ideas is in a recent paper by Paul Lewis.

There is some disagreement between the three participants about whether the relevant terminology is "spontaneous order", "emergent order", or "self-organising system", but I did not find that particularly  insightful.

One weakness of the discussion is that the three economists all have libertarian sympathies [i.e. they believe less regulation of markets the better] and there is an undercurrent in the discussion that this is justified by an emergent perspective. However, there are some really good comments on the podcast blog that eloquently argue against this and discuss the complexity of finding the right balance between free markets and government regulation. The comments are worth reading.

I thank my economist son for bringing the podcast to my attention and listening to it with me.

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