Wednesday, March 19, 2008

ECONOMICS AND THE RULE OF LAW

Last week, The Economist posted an article (link) describing the relationship between economics and the rule of law. Until recently, the rule of law has been regarded as a matter of political and moral philosophy while neoclassical economists paid little or no attention to the rule of law in the course of economic analysis. Thanks to the contributors of Austrian school of economic thought and institutional economists, the rule of law was shown as an influential motherhood in economic development. Douglass C. North, a distinguished recipient of the Nobel prize in economics back in 1993, demonstrated the significance of the rule of law in his book "Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance" where he wrote that the inability of societies to develop low-cost effective institutions being able to reduce transaction costs is the very reason of economic stagnation in both, historical and current perspective.

Seriously, is there a thing such as market failure?

In the course of economic thought, the rule of law emerged as an issue together with the collapse of the socialist economies of the Eastern block. After the fall of the Soviet empire, Eastern Europe had become a laboratory of testing economic macro and micro theories. Nevertheless, many curious conclusions were made. Among them, the rule of law and the ability of institutional flexibility were recognized as a driving vehicle in the process of economic growth and development. The essence of the rule of law could hardly be defined from a utilitarian perspective. In fact, former communist countries grew tremendously after the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir I. Lenin were put into practice. The industrial production and overall output grew several-fold but in the end, the economic growth in the socialist world failed because market incentives to work, save and invest were a deadlight line and the economies from the former socialistic empire were likely to be a balloon, virtually inflated by illusion waiting to explode.

Learning from Hayek and Locke

In economics, the idea of the rule of law was initiated by two distinguished economists. In his book, The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich August von Hayek wrote that the aim of the rule of law is to set a basic framework of general rules perceived without coercive action. Simply, the more specific the law becomes, higher the magnitude of coercion. In 1690, enlightenment philosopher John Locke captured the essence of the rule in a brilliant sentence: "Wherever law ends, tyranny begins."

Current economic issues confirm that Hayek and Locke were right. When Asian crisis (1997-1998) deflated the expectations of the right policies, the essence of the rule of became obvious. Without a low-cost institutional setting of policymaking based on the rules rather than discretionary action, no macroeconomic reasoning (whether it is intuitive or analytical) may give desirable results.

Effort in the short run, 300 percent dividend in the long run

The first lesson I met when I opened my first economics textbook was that resources are scarce and therefore the optimal allocation of resources together with a given budget constraint is the precise mechanism that solves the basic economic problem displaying the limits of allocation for particular desires. However, it seems that modern postulates of political reasoning seem to neglect the first and very basic principle of economics. Thus, without a high-quality governance and the rule of law, the great divide between different countries is about to start. Economists Daniel Kaufmann and Aart Kray published a challenging working paper called "Growth without Governance" (link). What they showed is a 300 percent dividend, meaning that in the long run, country's income per head rises by about 300 percent, if its governance is improved by one standard deviation point.

Discretion returns discretion

The indices of the unruly law are the object of discretion settled deeply into the institutional framework. By itself, executing discretion among economic agents is more fatal than obviously perceived. In a more technical economic terminology, discretion leads to suboptimal allocation of scarce resources and into a more rigid institutional framework. Thus, discretion is the first step to the point where the law ends. There has been a lot of discussion about discretion (link) but honestly what discretion really means. Three economists, Vishny, Schleifer and Murphy (link) showed how rent-seeking negatively affects economic growth. The outcome of the institutional chaos when private agents seek anticipated benefits via public means. For example, using Nash Equilibrium, the outcome of the bargaining between two agents depends on the type of strategies. A dominant strategy undertaken by one agent is based on the setting of infinite utility given the information, status and unique preferences derived from the lack of the rule of law.

Rent-seeking and infinite demand for private wants by public means


In a rent-seeking model, the demand for public goods in mostly infinite while the supply is limited as shown by a fixed supply curve in a given space and time. The infinite demand is derived from incentives and preferences of the interest groups targeting the maximization of benefits at any price, given the monopoly status that enables the control and access to information needed to bargain a desirable slice. The comparative difference between market outcome and bargaining outcome is the rent, and the interest groups hindering the quality of the rule tend to change their behavioral responses to maximize the differential between market rate and bargaining outcome.

The long run consequences of the lack of the rule of law, meaning rigid and unchangeable institutions, are lower economic growth and structural defects such as corruption and rent-seeking incentives to abuse the rule of law and attain the outcome unavailable in the market with an unchanged productivity performance.

There is no such thing as growth without economic freedom

The question is why economic growth soared in places without changeable institutions and quality governance. The answer can partly be explained by the fundamental laws of macroeconomics such as the law of diminishing return or/and catch-up effects. A country Y with low per capita GDP attains higher growth rate than a country X with higher GDP per capita. In the long run, growth differential gradually disappears. The quality of governance and institutions cannot be neglected. The answer to the question why Ireland is richer than Mozambique is that institutional change and non-discretionary rule of law in Ireland enabled an economic performance that resulted in a decade of stunning growth and an unparalleled prosperity.

Paying the price of the status-quo

As the first former communist economy which recently adopted Euro as a single currency, Slovenia is often praised for its achievements. One side of the coin is certainly true but the other side of the coin shows a completely different picture. In 1990, the GDP per capita of Slovenia and Ireland was merely the same, measured in USD and adjusted for inflation. Today, Ireland's GDP per capita is 1,77 times (PPP) and 2,66 times (in current USD) higher than Slovenia's GDP per capita. Today, it would take between 50 and 60 years for Slovenia to "catch-up" Ireland's GDP per capita, adjusting it for inflation. Surely, Irish economy enjoyed the benefits of stable and non-discretionary institutions that helped sustained an incredible economic performance. On the other side, Slovenia's envious economic performance is mostly a continuous leap with little change in innovation and productivity performance. In fact, according to Eurostat, Slovenia is among those transition economies that have sustained a slow-motion productivity growth compared to Baltic tigers. Gimmick and backbone perspectives and shadows wavering over Slovenia's economy will sooner or later deliver a menu of price - a price of the absence of the rule of law and the price of the status quo. Period.

Rok SPRUK is an economist.

Copyright 2008 by Rok SPRUK

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