Bryan Caplan has replied to my reply to his reply to my inequality post.
Others have weighed in as well; see David Heinrich, Jason Sorens, and Libérale et libertaire. I plan to address those too; but let me focus on Bryans latest reply for now.
In his first reply, Bryan had argued that if consumers/tenants/workers (lets say proles for short) were willing to pay a premium for equal treatment in the form of higher prices/rents or lower wages, then firms would have every reason to offer it; hence we should conclude that proles must prefer the existing double standard to the extra costs of equality. I had responded that this reply in effect focuses on the ways in which free markets would solve the problems, which is irrelevant since in our actual nonfree market housing and labour markets, for example, are skewed in oligopolistic and oligopsonistic directions respectively.
Bryan now responds that while he grants that markets arent free, he thinks that fact is irrelevant, since oligopolistic and oligopsonistic firms (lets call them oligo-firms for short as well, so I wont have to keep repeating the full cumbersome phrase) still respond to incentives: Even a government-created monopolist still has a clear incentive to cut prices when its costs fall, and raise prices when its costs go up.
I find Bryans response puzzling, since Id never denied the obvious microeconomic truth he thinks Ive neglected. But let me take a stab at guessing what he has in mind: my guess is that he thinks our disagreement is over whether oligo-firms would offer more egalitarian contracts if the proles were willing to pay more. But I dont necessarily disagree with Bryan about that. (I think matters are a bit more complicated than Bryan does, since I take inequality to be in many cases a consumers good for firm managers; but I dont assume that their demand for it is inelastic.) Lets assume that oligo-firms would indeed offer more egalitarian contracts if proles were willing (or able) to pay more; and let us further draw the inference that proles unwillingness (or inability) to pay more explains the inegalitarian character of existing contracts. How does that constitute an objection to my position?
After all, my whole point is that governmental privilege on behalf of the oligo-firms explains why the proles are faced with the unpalatable choice between inequality and monetary loss. If I would rather be punched in the face than pay you a million dollars not to punch me in the face, that may explain why Im getting punched in the face, but only relative to the background conditions that explain why these are my only options. Ignoring those background conditions makes Bryans position sound all too much like the next-best-alternative defense of sweatshops.
The same point applies to Bryans next remark:
Firms, landlords, and employers offer skewed contracts to make it harder for customers, tenants, and workers to screw them. And most customers, tenants, and workers happily accept these contracts because they sensibly prefer lower prices, lower rents, and higher wages to formal equality.
With the exception of the word happily, I have no dissent to express from this doctrine. But again it seems to miss the point. Oligo-firms have an interest in not being screwed by proles, and proles likewise have an interest in not being screwed by oligo-firms. How, then, given this mutual screwage-aversion, does it come about that the contracts are skewed to reflect one sides screwage-aversion to a far greater extent than the others. Its not clear to me what Bryans answer is to that question; my answer, of course, is that the range of alternatives for consumers, tenants, and workers has been artificially narrowed by government regulation.
This brings me to Bryans third point. In his original reply hed maintained that existing government policy tilts market outcomes in the direction that he [= Roderick] misguidedly favors. To this Id replied that while there are various regulations that purport to help the weaker party to the contract … those regulations in practice actually tend to help the stronger party instead. Bryans rejoinder: Tell me how tenant protection laws actually benefit the average landlord.
Here Bryan wins on a technicality; I cant answer his challenge as phrased. But let me say why.
What I wish to claim, more precisely, is that regulations that purport to help the weaker party generally fall into one of two categories: either a) they actually benefit the stronger party instead, or b) to the extent that they do benefit the weaker party they are outweighed in their effects by other regulations, so that the overall effect of regulation is to benefit the stronger party.
When it comes to regulations purporting to protect consumers and workers, I can think of lots of examples of both (a) and (b). When it comes to regulations purporting to protect tenants, I can think only of examples of (b); there may be examples of (a), but none comes to mind offhand. (Suggestions, comrades? Rent control is an example of a purportedly pro-tenant policy that actually hurts tenants, but it hurt landlords too as far as I can see.) So by asking for specifically (a)-type examples in the specific case of tenants, Bryan has posed a challenge I dont know how to answer. But I call this only a technical victory, because its easy enough to give (b)-type examples for tenants, and both (a)-type and (b)-type examples for consumers and workers.
(Incidentally, its an interesting question why the existence of (a)-type examples is so much more widely accepted among libertarians for the case of consumers than for the case of workers. Most Rothbardians, for example, accept Gabriel Kolkos case (summarised here) for the claim that regulations purporting to protect consumers from business interests have actually had the opposite effect and intention (even if such Rothbardians often havent fully assimilated the implications of this thesis); but the rather similar claim that regulations purporting to protect workers have likewise had the opposite effect and intention (as Kevin Carson describes in his latest C4SS study) is met with incredulity by most Rothbardians. Im not sure why that is.)
Under laissez-faire, Bryan insists, service providers, landlords, and employers would be free to adopt double standards more lopsided than current law allows. Certainly, if what Bryan means is that no law would forbid them from doing so. Likewise, no law forbids me from selling toothpicks for a thousand dollars each. (Actually, for all I know some law does forbid that! But certainly under laissez-faire thered be no such law.) Still, in another sense Im prevented from selling toothpicks for a thousand dollars each because no one will buy them at that price. Likewise, I claim, in a freed market firms might offer contracts as onerous as they liked, but theyd have a lot harder time finding takers.
(A final note: since some of my left-libertarian comrades seem to be convinced that Bryan is Satan, Id like to draw their attention to some pieces of Bryans that they will think more kindly of: here, here, and here.)
More to come ….
One point, which I’m a bit surprised you didn’t raise in this post, is that regulations may prop up the interests of actually-existing landlords, at the expense of tenants, in one of two ways: (1) by directly enabling landlords to screw tenants over; or (2) erecting regulatory barriers to entry that artificially suppress competition among landlords. (2) comes at the direct expense of the marginal would-be landlords who are shut out of the market, rather than at the expense of tenants. But of course it also indirectly harms the tenants, in that they are not able to form alternative exchanges that would have better met their needs than the actual exchange that they made under actually-existing rigged-market conditions.
Sure, but Bryan wasn’t just asking about regulations that harm tenants; he was asking specifically about cases of ostensibly pro-tenant regulations that harm tenants. I wasn’t sure whether the examples you give fit that category (it would depend what justifications are ordinarily offered for them).
Right; but my point was about the overlap of your type (a) and my type (2). If we have a regulation that does succeed in doing just what Bryan claims it will do — unilaterally drive up risk or fixed costs for the landlord, to the benefit of that individual tenant — then that regulation has an unseen effect, in addition to its seen effect: the ratcheted-up risks and fixed costs raise artificial barriers to entry against marginal competitors. In the nonce, the individual tenant who actively makes use of the regulation may be better off for it, but of course that doesn’t settle the question about whether tenants in general are better off for the existence of the regulation. That depends on (among other things) how accessible the “protections” really are for the average tenant, and how much the average tenant is harmed by an anticompetitive rental market. So even given a regulation that provides an ideal case for Bryan’s claim, the “pro-tenant” regulation’s effect on competition could perfectly well produce results much like putatively “pro-worker” minimum-wage or occupational-safety laws produce in the labor market, where the “benefit” to a limited subset of workers comes at the expense of (among other things) a harm to all other workers, who are shut out of opportunities by the increase in prices and reduction in employment.
Oh yes, of course. I must have been having a fuzzy brain moment.
I’m not sure that a monopolist would have a clear incentive to cut prices when costs fall. What am I missing there?
I think this would have made a good Cato@Liberty debate.
A monopolist’s clients can’t switch to a competitor when they’re dissatisfied, but they can (in many cases) just not use the service at all. (Leaving aside cases where you’re actually forced to buy the service.) If my monopoly cable company starts charging $1000 a month, I’ll quit watching tv. So a monopoly still has an incentive to lower prices to retain competitors. Of course the amount of cost-cutting needed to compete with no service is less than the amount needed to compete with a rival service.
Ok, I see that point but there’s a difference between not raising prices and not cutting existing prices. If the cable company is charging $100 per month currently and reduces their internal costs by 10% I really don’t see them lowering the $100 subscription amount they charge you. I mean, lowering costs is what businesses constantly strive for, and I’ve never seen a cable bill go down over time.
I realize this wasn’t the overarching point of your post – I just don’t think it was a concession you needed to make.
If the cable company expects the price cut to be more than compensated by extra subscriptions, they will lower the price.
Gene Callahan uses the behavior of the British East India Company as a proxy for the behavior of private companies in a stateless society. Looks like someone needs to learn some left-libertarian class analysis.
Gene seems to have forgotten much that he once knew.
Somewhere during Callahan’s feud with LRC, he started channeling DeCoster. Even to the point of deciding that all the Reason and Cato folks he’d found LRC’s smears against so dishonest and unfair, were useless idiots after all.
(He’s produced some good work on Rothbard’s unfairness to other thinkers, but it’s just an unfortunate fact that almost all the influential or innovative thinkers in history have been ruthlessly unfair, to the point of blatant dishonesty, about pretty much everyone else – and this includes his beloved conservatives).
A new Victor Yarros?
But if Gene is Saruman, then who is the Gandalf he betrayed?
It might well be that there would be the kind of tradeoff Caplan describes in economies with a wide range of degrees of freedom. That’s beside the point. If you graph the range of possible tradeoffs under the different systems, you get a variety of different curves. The specific slope of the relationship between the two variables varies with the respective bargaining power of the parties. The more the state intervenes to tilt bargaining power toward the employer, the more of a wage premium the worker has to trade for a given amount of autonomy. And so on.
It’s similar to stating the basic direction of the correlation between taxation and revenue in the Laffer Curve, or between CO2 levels and temperature in the Greenhouse Effect. What matters is not just the direction of the curve, but the shape of it.
Just to note, I don’t think Caplan is “SATAN” nor do I doubt the sincerity of his adherence to libertarian justice principles. As I discussed in my post, the differences between Caplan and “left” libertarians are primarily methodological. Left-Libertarians, for example, would contend that “Rational Irrationality” does not supplant “Public Choice” as an explanatory model of the systemic biases one finds in political governance, particularly in the US Model of political governance.
Frankly, much of Caplan’s methodology strikes me as being more “progressive” than “libertarian,” although Caplan, of course, does not draw the same conclusions as progressives.
To “T Barrett”:
There was a Cato Unbound topic devoted to Caplan’s “Rational Irrationality” thesis back in 2006.
You weren’t one of the people I had in mind.
okay…my bad on the presumption
Cato unbound… that’s what I was thinking of. The @Liberty is their blog. I’ll have to look up that debate.
“Likewise, I claim, in a freed market firms might offer contracts as onerous as they liked, but they’d have a lot harder time finding takers.”
What Brian means, I assume, is that the various specific contract terms might be more onerous. But as long as prices can float freely, many consumers would indeed take such a contract. For example, imagine a rental contract with extremely “bad” contract terms for the tenant: 3 months rent as security deposit, landlord retains right to evict tenant immediately if rent is even 1 day late, etc. Such terms are more onerous than currently allowed by many laws. But a landlord could still easily get tenants if he rented an apartment for $1000/month under such terms in an area where similar apartments go for $3000/month.
I agree that if you make up arbitrary numbers without any reference to actual supply schedules and demand schedules that landlords in a competitive rental market would be facing, you can easily come up with situations in which hardass contract terms would sell at the arbitrarily discounted rate. But I hope that Bryan’s argument is based on more than the observation that there are logically possible worlds in which this might happen. Certainly, if it’s supposed to tell us something about “How Inequality Shapes Our [Actual] Lives,” and what freed-market alternatives might look like, there needs to be some consideration about whether it actually is particularly likely for a landlord to be able to save $24,000 per year per tenant in marginal costs just by adopting such hardassed terms. If the disparity in rental costs is substantially less, then the question is going to be how wide the difference actually is, and how price-elastic consumer demand is for better contractual terms. Bryan seems to think it’s obvious that the price difference is likely to be quite wide, and consumer demand for better terms is going to be very price-elastic. But as far as I can see, he doesn’t give an argument for why this should be granted to be so.
Of course, he could point to the allegedly pro-tenant skew of existing housing regulations — perhaps claiming that this is like a subsidy, and hence (ceteris paribus) you’d expect to see less of what it subsidizes in a freed market. But if Bryan thinks that these regulations actually do succeed in protecting tenants from sharp dealing by landlords (even by themselves — let alone when considered in the context of the larger regulatory structure and oligopolistic political economy of which they are a part), without any other significant unintended side-effects that might overwhelm their supposedly protective functions, then I just think Bryan has a more optimistic view of the efficacy of government regulation than most left-libertarians do.
“Bryan seems to think it’s obvious that the price difference is likely to be quite wide, and consumer demand for better terms is going to be very price-elastic. But as far as I can see, he doesn’t give an argument for why this should be granted to be so.”
Well, I can’t prove that this would be the case, but I have some evidence as to why it might be so. Look at air travel. Consumers seem willing to accept practically anything to fly as cheap as possible. Have you seen the new saddle seats? I have no doubt that but for government regulations, many airlines would have no seats at all, cramming 400 passengers into a 737 like a Tokyo subway train. And their planes would have no toilets, no emergency exits, and only one pilot. And some passengers would gladly choose such flights if they were 10% cheaper than the competition.
Likewise, it seems likely to me that without freedom-infringing government regulation, many tenants would choose rental contracts with more disfavorable terms in exchange for paying less rent. Of course, many more would not, just as not everyone rents the cheapest possible apartment. But there seems to be enough people willing to do anything to save a buck that such onerous contracts would not have any difficulties finding takers.
Well, what am I supposed to find out by looking at air travel? It’s certainly true that people will put up with a lot of temporary physical discomfort for up to a few hours at a time, in order to fly more cheaply. It’s also true that the longer they have to put up with it, the more price-inelastic their demand for comfort becomes. (E.G., as far as I know there is no regulatory reason why airlines couldn’t charge for meals on a trans-Atlantic flight, just as they charge for meals on domestic flights. But generally they don’t.) This may tell you something about what people are willing to put up with in a place where they expect to be living for the next several months at least; in any case, the issue of physical comfort or discomfort is also different from the issue of how likely you are to be dicked over by the terms of the contract. (Lots of people buy “non-refundable” tickets in order to save money; but as it happens most airlines are relatively willing to extend a fair amount of latitude even on such tickets if you end up having to change your travel plans. They could be a lot more hardassed about this than they actually are, but presumably what they’d save by doing so doesn’t compensate for the business they’d expect to lose. And there’d be pressure to be even more forgiving if the air travel market were more competitive than regulatory cartelization has made it.)
Nathan Benedict: But there seems to be enough people willing to do anything to save a buck that such onerous contracts would not have any difficulties finding takers.
Maybe, but again, what makes you think that the price savings to landlords would be great enough to make a significant difference when compared when the countervailing force of increased small-scale competition within the rental market? Just pointing to the existence of demand is not enough to show that something is actually going to be economically viable; you do need to show that the marginal costs faced by the supplier are such that there would actually be profit in it. In any case, the likely effect of increased competition in the market — in particular, increased competition from small-scale or informal-sector players — and the reduction of regulatory fixed costs for landlords, would tend to be lower rental prices, even at the same or better quality of service, no? Hence reducing the amount of advantage that a slumlord could extract by lowering prices below the already-lower rates.
Most passengers’ real income is artificially lower than it would be in a free market. Competition among airlines is a lot more restricted than it would be in a free market. In that context, it’s not surprising that airlines are able to get passengers to put up with a lot in exchange for a lower price.