Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 21 August 2015

Equilibrium and Social Reality - The Concept of Economic Equilibrium from Apory to Antinomy

A concept is ‘aporetic’ (Gr., a-poros, “does not breathe”, without pores) when its meaning e-vokes (calls forth) other concepts or relations without which it would have no meaning whatsoever, without which it would remain meaning-less. Apory applies to abstract concepts taken in their abstraction or ‘ideal-ity’, that is, without reference to concrete reality. In its ‘un-related’ meaning, the concept “collapses into itself”, it im-plodes and loses all meaning it possessed originally before we began to strip it of its ‘re-lations’ or ‘attributes’. In its ‘isola-tion’, in its ‘singularity’ or in-dividuality or ‘noumenality’ (being a thing-in-itself), the concept loses all meaning and “cries out” for the ‘re-lations’ or ‘attributes’ that give it a ‘con-text’ and, with that, a “meaning”.

Once we seek “to ground” aporetic concepts, to ‘tie them up’ with other concepts with which, because of their aporetic character, they need ‘to re-late’, concepts that they ‘e-voke’ to acquire a meaning – once we seek to tie them up to ‘cor-responding’ concepts, then we start to describe a ‘con-text’, a ‘real-ity’ (a ‘material’ existence) that unfolds in space and in time, that is both material and historical, so that the concept, in these new re-lations (Fr.,‘rapports’) becomes ‘dia-chronic’ as opposed to ‘syn-chronic’. In other words, the concept acquires a spatio-temporal and historical “breadth” and “depth” – it acquires “materiality” thanks to its new ‘op-posite’ that it did not possess earlier.

But at that precise moment, when the concept ‘ex-its’ (‘goes out of’) its aporetic status and, in its ‘re-lation’ to the concepts it ‘e-vokes’, acquires “dia-chronicity” or “historicity” – at that precise instant, the concept becomes “anti-nomic”, that is to say it in-fringes (‘breaks’) or ‘contra-dicts’ its initial ‘meaning’ in that its ‘telos’ or ‘in-tention’ within that ‘history’ is to develop, to un-fold and grow or ‘e-volve’, into its very op-posite or “ob-ject” (Ger., ‘Gegen-stand’, “standing against”), an “ob-ject” that “stands against” or “op-poses” the concept because it is the very ‘ob-ject’ or “ob-jective”, the aim or ‘telos’, of the original concept.

Now, a con-cept that en-genders or im-plies conceptually its ‘op-posite’ as a practical-historical ‘ob-jective’ in its “dia-chronic” or historical moment becomes an “anti-nomy” because it contra-dicts or violates or an-hihilates its own original “meaning”, leading to the ‘op-posite’ out-come or result. Its “ob-jective” is to “tra-duce” (exchange and betray) and ob-literate its original meaning and end up (re-sult) as its ‘op-posite’.

‘In-dividuals’ (indivisibles) can be defined only by reference to an entity with respect to which they are ‘in-dividuals’. What de-fines/de-limits their ‘in-dividuality’ must be an entity or reality that stands op-posed to ‘(atomic) in-dividuality’. – Because an ‘in-dividual’ taken in its ‘a-tomicity’ or ‘isolation’ or ‘windowlessness’ or ‘monadism’ can bear no relation (by de-finition) to any other entity whatsoever. In that case, even the notions of “endowments” or “self-interest” or “competition” or “exchange” or “utility” can have any meaning whatsoever. This is the “apory” of the concept which, as soon as it is given any “content” or “meaning” whatsoever in relation to its “attributes” (self-interest, endowments, utility) will trans-mute the very concept of “in-dividual” into something else – namely a concept that con-tains those ‘relations’ and therefore is no longer an “in-dividual”!

And once the “in-dividual” comes to acquire those ‘relations’ (correspondences), it immediately stands in relation to “other in-dividuals” with their own attributes. But now we no longer have separate ‘in-dividuals’! What we have is a “group” of in-dividuals so that their “in-dividuality” must be defined in terms of “the group” – that is, their ‘separateness’ is com-prehensible only in relation to “the group”. If they are “in-dividuals” it is not only because of their “in-dividuality” or “a-tomicity” but rather because they wish to ‘relate’ to the other “in-dividuals” in a certain, definite, part-icular manner. And that manner is that they wish “to exchange” their “endowments” with those other “in-dividuals”, but only in a “self-interested” manner so that “the exchange” is “selfish” in that it is meant “to maximize” their “endowments” as much as possible from “the exchange”.

So now we have two further assumptions: we have “ownership” of the “endowments” and we have “rules of exchange”. “Ownership” implies “private rights” and “endowments” also imply “inheritance or bestowal rights”. But these “rights” stand in relation to “exchange” so that “exchange” itself must be de-fined. But “exchange” can take place only once all the combined “utilities” of the other “individuals” are known, so that the “exchange” occurs “simultaneously” and “timelessly”, that is without any “active pursuit” from the ‘individuals’. There is a ‘semaphoric’ relation between them so that “the market” and “competition” do not denote any “space” or “activity” or “inter-action” be-tween the ‘in-dividuals’. The exchange is timeless and ‘semaphoric’ – it is a simple “equi-valence” that has no “content” or “meaning” in a “diachronic” sense.

The ‘apory’ of the equilibrium ‘entities’ and ‘id-entities’ means that we are in the classic Wittgensteinian “language game” with its “inexorable laws” – the laws of mathematical identities.

Of course, once these ‘aporetic’ concepts or “id-entities” are so much as “imagined” in relation with one another, those ‘relations’ become “anti-nomic” so that “endowment” leads to “inheritance/acquisition”, “acquisition” leads to “property rights”, “property rights” lead to “enforcement” and hence to “society”, “individual” to “society”, “pure competition” (apory) to “monopoly” (antinomy), “selfish freedom” (apory) becomes “right” (antinomy) becomes “coercion”, “exchange” (apory) to “commensurability” and therefore to “value” (antinomy) and  “communion”/expropriation/antagonism.

“Prices”, in particular, lose all meaning because a “price” is something over which a “purchaser” has a “choice” (to buy or not to buy). But no such choice exists in equilibrium analysis because the “price” is only a “relative, numeraire exchange ratio between endowments” that is fixed simultaneously with the exchange and over which, therefore “the purchaser” and “seller” have no choice! Consequently, there is no content or meaning to the concepts of “buyer” and “seller”. “Prices” and “markets” vanish in thin air. THAT IS ‘APORY’!

FORM AND SUBSTANCE – Theory vs. History – Equilibrium vs. Market Process

Indeed, Debreu says that “there is no intellectual life in equilibrium” (Loasby ‘E&E’).
Thus, equilibrium analysis, with its “sphere of exchange” and “simultaneous equi-valence” becomes a tautological “closed system” where the “axiomatic assumptions” contain the solution to the “mathematical relations between the entities postulated”.

Relation of “equilibrium” to “reality” – content of the presumed “theory”.

Perhaps the fallacy stems from Hayek’s mistaking capitalist (market) institutions as “objective”/reified practices of human groups from which “laws” or at least a “spontaneous order” (Boettke et al, “Context of Context”) can be “distilled”: -

This paper traces out the development of Hayek’s focus on the epistemic foundations of the complex co-ordination in an advanced market economy and shows that his critique of classical and market socialism led to a refined, subtle approach to understanding spontaneous order.  Furthermore, it is precisely Hayek’s focus on the role of institutions in creating the conditions for the utilization and transference of knowledge through the price system that continues to shape the progressive research programs in economic science and public policy analysis that is his legacy, (Abstract, my emphases).

The main “law” for Hayek of course is that “the price mechanism or system” is the only one consistent with “methodological individualism” which posits “metaphysical” notions such as “utility” and “market”, “competition” and “prices”, in such a fashion that they can be “ordered” into a “game” whose “rules” seem then to be “scientific” but in fact are only logical and self-referential – they constitute a “closed system” that is internally consistent but does not explain the reality that lies outside of its axiomatic (self-referential) assumptions! This is the fate of “human nature” theories that turn historical realities into eternal immutable (‘metaphysical’) “truths” (in fact, axiomatic identities or “tautologies”) devoid of all practical content – which is what reveals them as apories and antinomies.

[1] “Since equilibrium is a relationship between actions, and since the actions of one person must necessarily take place successively in time, it is obvious that the passage of time is essential to give the concept of equilibrium any meaning.  This deserves mention, since many economists appear to have been unable to find a place for time in equilibrium analysis and consequently have suggested that equilibrium must be conceived as timeless” (Hayek 1937).

[For Alchian &Demsetz in ‘PRParadigm’, the way out is the Hayek-Schump one,‘to processualise’ the central questions of economic theory, to make them “evolutionary”.]

The same sentiments are endorsed by Coase in his review of “the New Institutional Economics”:

“This disregard for what happens concretely in the real world is strengthened by the way economists think of their subject. In my youth, a very popular definition of economics was that provided by Lionel Robbins ( 1935 p. 15 ) in his book An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science: "Economics is the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means that have alternative uses." It is the study of human behavior as a relationship. These days economists are more likely to refer to their subject as "the science of human choice" or they talk about "an economic approach." This is not a recent development. John Maynard Keynes said that the "Theory of Economics ... is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique of thinking, which helps the possessor to draw correct conclusions" (introduction in H. D. Henderson, 1922 p. v). Joan Robinson (1933 p. 1 ) says in the introduction to her book The Economics of Imperfect Competition that it "is presented to the analytical economist as a box of tools." What this comes down to is that economists think of themselves as having a box of tools but no subject matter. It reminds me of two lines from a modern poet (I forget the poem and the poet but the lines are indeed memorable): I see the bridle and the bit all right. But where's the bloody horse? I have expressed the same thought by saying that we study the circulation of the blood without a body.” (my emphases)

The reference to “the circulation of the blood without a body” is a clear endorsement of Schumpeter’s Kreislauf/Entwicklung distinction in the ‘Theory’. And yet, for reasons we will outline later, the theoretical analysis of “the NIE” is closer to Hayek’s than to Schumpeter’s because it does not challenge the validity of equilibrium analysis at all, it simply shifts the analysis of price co-ordination from the “simultaneous/synchronic equations” of Walrasian equilibrium analysis to the “spontaneous order” of Hayek’s long-run equilibrium. By contrast, Schump’s ‘Theory’ certainly did challenge equilibrium analysis, despite his avowals of faith in its “heuristic” value, not just for Hayek’s reasons and for its a-historical ‘Statik’ approach, and not only for its “metaphysical” belief in “utility” (and its presumed  “maximization”) as the “substance” of exchange and market prices.

Because above all, the most original feature that sets Schumpeter apart from all other economic thinkers of the century is his notion of the “dis-continuity” or “dis-equivalence” (not to be confused with ‘dis-equilibrium’!) that clearly brings back into play prepotently the power relationships and antagonism intrinsic to the capitalist economy and therewith its necessarily critical instability and cyclicality. This aspect – entirely neglected by the “institutional epigones” - will be explored and developed in the chapter on Schumpeter. Similarly, the Nietzschean premises of Schumpeter’s and Weber’s theories have been totally and culpably ignored by the myrmidons of the NIE for reasons that coincide, as we shall see, with the most pressing political-hegemonic needs of social capital, whether intentionally or no. Schumpeter’s formidable intuition of the fundamental ir-reconcilability of the concept of “equilibrium” as belonging to “the sphere of exchange and equi-valence”, his vision of the Krisis (the rupture, the antagonism intrinsic to capitalist social relations of production) has been ‘flattened’ into the notion of ‘dis-equilibrium’ that still exists within the uni-verse of “exchange” and therefore of “equilibrium” and is interpreted by the ‘institutionalist evolutionary epigones’ as “the continuous adaptation and development and innovation” of the capitalist economy.

In other words, according to the epigones, the capitalist economy is never in “equilibrium” because it is intrinsically “developing” and “innovative” and therefore “growing” and “evolving” – hence, the “body” that Coase was looking for! Ecce homo! But this inter-pretation of Schumpeter grossly mis-construes his meaning because by ‘Entwicklung’ and ‘Innovation’ he meant something much more radical and fundamental than “growth” or “development” or “evolution”: he meant to encompass the profoundly “political” and “antagonistic” and “conflictual” essence of capitalism, - one that is in a different dimension from and ir-reducible to the sphere of exchange and neoclassical equilibrium.

Coase’s animadversions echo those of the German Historical School which, not by chance, has been invoked by Williamson as among the ‘precursors’ of “the New Institutional Economics”. Indeed, we may describe the NIE as a go-between, tempering the extremes of the “historical-institutional” approach to political economy of the GHS and the American Institutional School, on one side, and the formalistic-mathematical ambitions of the neoclassical tradition (equilibrium analysis and Austrian School) on the other. [Note “economic sociology” efforts from Hodgson and Swedberg.]

Boettke et al agree (‘Context’) with regard to Hayek:

As Hayek’s technical work in economics evolved, he became increasingly aware of both the power of, and the limitations of equilibrium theorizing.  At first it was the absence of time within the equilibrium construct that caused problems for Hayek’s theorizing on intertemporal co-ordination of plans within a capital structure.[1]  In studying the derivation in value of the various inputs with relation to the value of the output produced, Hayek became aware of the dangers equilibrium theorizing poses by distorting the essential economic problem that the equilibrium propositions were supposed to enlighten. Hayek was acutely aware, on the other hand, of how the heterodox traditions, of the German historical school and the American institutional school, led to an atheoretical orientation of fact collection.  Somewhere between arid formalism and descriptive fact collection was the appropriate domain of theoretical social science.” (pp8-9) 

Boettke clearly fails to see that there is no “somewhere between” because both approaches suffer from incurable ‘reifications’ that also make them irreconcilable: the ‘theory’ and the ‘fact collection’ move in qualitatively different dimensions because the ‘theory’ reifies the ‘facts’ and the ‘fact collection’ can be ‘theorised’ only to the degree that its ‘facts’ are reified or “reduced/traduced” to formal categories. (See our discussion of Long’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” whereby he confuses the content of “language games” [such as the regular behaviour of market exchange] with the abstract logico-mathematical rules of the game. In seeking to reconcile “the Pure Logic of Choice” with its real referential content, Mises and Long forget the “inexorability” of the rules [!], which obliterates the “choice” that is the essence of the “action axiom”! Mises “reads” ex post the validity of his a priori theory into behaviour consistent with it. And see also our similar critique of Lawson’s ‘theoretical/ontic/ distinction in sections 4 and 5 below.)

Hayek instead seeks to validate the theory empirically ex ante by attributing “regularities” to the behaviour of human market ‘agents’ [homines agentes] that have an “observable tendency to equilibrium” [or co-ordination]. But in his case also, the reaching of “equilibrium” introduces the “equi-valent exchange” that eliminates the rationale for exchange! Once “equilibrium co-ordination” is achieved, the economy simply stagnates and lapses into Misesian “non-action”.

This is the irreconcilable conflict that only a “histoire raisonnee” in the manner of Marx and as described by Schumpeter (initially opposed to it as “unscientific”, in the ‘Theorie’ and in ‘HEA’, but finally more condescending in ‘BC’ and ‘CD&S’) can seek to overcome.

It is Hayek’s ambiguity and the subsequent mis-conceptions that it engendered that is carried over into the NIE and gives rise to Williamson’s “fallacy of composition”, whereby he pretends “to distil” economic theoretical relations from historical “institutional” analysis through a “compositive” or “descriptive”, block-by-block method. [Quote Williamson, ‘The NIE’.] We know that this was the bane of the GHS – because no amount of “descriptive” studies, no matter how ‘detailed’, will ever amount to a theory of economic activity/reality. In this regard, of course, critique of the GHS by the Austrian School (from Menger to Bohm-Bawerk and Mises) was entirely right. A proper economic theory must not fall into the “mathematical formalism” of general equilibrium or the “logical formalism” of ‘praxeology’, but must avoid also the ‘descriptive’, ‘pictorial’, ‘data-collecting’ empiricism of historiography or, indeed, management and business studies. No amount of “historical, factual or ‘institutional’” evidence will ever yield a ‘theory’ – which is an abstract rule that connects the evidence in a causal relation. (This point is argued superbly by Karl Popper in Conjectures and Refutations.)

This “irreconcilability” (“never the twain shall meet”) of ‘theory’ and ‘history’ is a recurrent problem, an Ariadne’s thread, in our entire critique of equilibrium analysis that will lead us out of the labyrinth of bourgeois reification. Because “the sphere of exchange” is a “sphere of equi-valence”, “a final state of rest” or of “non-action” (Mises) or of “Kreislauf” and “Statik” (Schumpeter), not only does it defeat every attempt to introduce “time” in it [cf. Boettke et al.’s futile attempt to postulate an ‘ex ante’ and ‘ex post’ equilibrium], but a fortiori it is also impermeable to any effort to locate “causality” in the notion of “equilibrium” and “co-ordination”.

1 comment:

  1. I had always wondered whether there was any difference between an aporia and an antinomy. This is an especially interesting post after having just read Lukacs’s “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.”

    The diachronic-synchronic distinction reminds me of Saussure and how he identified a similar problem in linguistics. A comparison between linguistics and economics on this point could be useful. I’m also reminded of an interesting book by Sandye Gloria-Palermo called “The Evolution of Austrian Economics,” in which she elucidates a conflict in Austrian theory between causalist and functionalist approaches.

    It is still a bit unclear to me what the other options are. Can there be concepts that are not aporetic or antinomic? If I understand Hegel, his criticism of Kant is that Kant didn’t see all concepts as antinomies. What is the relation of the dialectic to these concepts? Is it just the way antinomies develop, or is it an alternative approach? I’m curious to know what your solution is to these problems, if you are endorsing Marx’s historical reason, and if such a solution is similar to Lukacs’s.