Wednesday, January 18, 2012

John Kay: A real market economy ensures that greed is good

Sixty years of division of the Korean peninsula has created two states with very different standards of living in one country. The Korean example is pathological. The division of Germany resulted in two states, both functional in economic terms, but one far richer. The less noticed comparison between the modern economic histories of Finland and Estonia had the same outcome.

There are few controlled experiments in economics, but these are as close as we get, and the results were clear. They were also unexpected. Hard though it is to believe today, in the 1960s many serious commentators on left and right believed that Russian economic progress threatened western hegemony. Those on the left were naively credulous and those on the right victims of paranoid fantasies.

A perhaps apocryphal story tells of a Russian visitor, impressed by the laden shelves in US supermarkets. He asked: “So who is in charge of the supply of bread to New York?” The market economy’s answer – that not only is no one in charge, but it is a criminal offence for anyone to seek that position – is surprising. In the words of the economists Kenneth Arrow and Frank Hahn, “the immediate common sense answer to the question ‘what will an economy motivated by individual greed and controlled by a very large number of different agents look like?’ is probably ‘there will be chaos’.” Our intuition is that a centrally planned allocation of resources will be more efficient than an uncoordinated one. In a market economy, that error constantly leads us to overestimate the economic advantages, and longevity, of large companies.