Tuesday, January 1, 2019

When can economists adopt a contractarian approach to provision of policy advice?

Cartoon by Peter Nicholson: from this site

Robert Sugden explains his use of the term ‘contractarian’ thus:

 “the most fundamental characteristic of this perspective is that a recommendation is addressed to a set of individuals, showing those individuals how they can coordinate their behaviour to achieve mutual benefit."

This post is prompted by my reading of his book, The Community of Advantage, reviewed on this blog a few weeks ago.  

Sugden’s adoption of a contractarian approach was inspired by the work of James Buchanan, in which social arrangements are assessed from the several viewpoints of individual members of society considered as potential parties to a social contract.

Contractarian reasoning implies a baseline of non-agreement from which benefit is measured. For agreement to occur, each party to a potential agreement must recognize that, for all the parties severally, agreement is more beneficial than the status quo.

Contractarian reasoning is readily applied in considering adoption of general rules. When individuals consider adoption of a general rule, a veil of uncertainty about future circumstances often makes it difficult for them to assess where their interests might lie. They become more likely to identify as an “average” citizen than a member of a narrow interest group.

Sugden contrasts the model of contractarian reasoning with two other approaches to normative economics, the model of the benevolent autocrat and the model of public reasoning. He suggests that each of these different approaches to provision of public policy advice, may be appropriate, depending on the circumstances.

When economists employ the benevolent autocrat model, they are providing executive decision-makers with their best judgements about what should be done. In stylized terms, Sugden suggests that they are implicitly saying: “If I were an impartially benevolent autocrat, this is what I would do”. In my experience, when economic advisors employed by governments are striving to be their best selves, they tailor their advice to the values and priorities of the governments they are serving. That doesn’t mean that bureaucrats should attempt to ‘second-guess’ political reactions in providing advice. As Roger Kerr pointed out, soon after leaving the New Zealand Treasury to become executive director of the New Zealand Business Roundtable, attempts to second-guess political reactions “can lead to a narrowing of policy options” and does less than justice to those politicians who are prepared “to tell the story like it is”. Roger explained:

“Economists of all people should be conscious that the performance of bureaucrats in trying to pick winners and losers in the policy-advice market is likely to be as unimpressive as in the industrial domain – and for much the same reasons, namely the lack of information and incentives. Perceived political constraints are not always immutable. They can be shifted by reasoned analysis and well-constructed strategies for policy change, developed by interaction between political managers and technical advisers” (Roger Kerr, ‘Ideas, interests, experience and the economic adviser’, World Economy, 10 (2) June 1987).

The model of public reasoning provides a stylized view of politics as an arena for debate about the public good, where the participants strive to deploy impartial and reasoned argument. By contrast, in the real world, many participants in public debate on economic policy strive to deploy arguments to advance their own interests. Members of the economics profession who participate in such debates have potential to play an important role in ensuring that the merits and demerits of the arguments advanced are subjected to appropriate public scrutiny. That role has been made part of the public policy advisory process in Australia by being embodied in the public inquiry system of the Productivity Commission and its predecessor organisations.

My mention of the ‘economics profession’ brings to mind some provocative comments of Ludwig von Mises, an eminent Austrian economist, about professional economists:

By virtue of their connection with definite parties and pressure groups, eager to acquire special privileges, they become one-sided. They shut their eyes to the remoter consequences of the policies they are advocating. With them nothing counts but the short-run concerns of the group they are serving. The ultimate aim of their efforts is to their clients prosper at the expense of other people. They are intent upon convincing themselves that the fate of mankind coincides with the short-run interests of their group. They try to sell this idea to the public …” (Human Action, fourth revised edition 1996, p 869).

I disagree with Mises description of such conduct as professional. It is unprofessional for economists to sell their souls to interest groups. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge of economics they might have, those who sell their souls are not behaving like members of an honourable profession.

Improving policy transparency

Some people with institutional expertise in public policy development have suggested that the advisory role of economists should be more akin to provision of information than normative advice. Bill Carmichael, a former chairman of the Industries Assistance Commission (a predecessor organisation to Australia’s Productivity Commission) argued for greater efforts to improve ‘policy transparency’ – to improve public understanding of the economic effects of policies that assist particular groups at the expense of the broader community. With reference to trade protection policies, he argued:

“Public availability of information about the effects, on national welfare, of responses which avert adjustment to economic change would improve domestic understanding and narrow the range of disagreement about what policy responses are appropriate. While it would not eliminate resistance to change by those who will be adversely affected, it would enable the grounds for such resistance to be weighed against the community-wide effects” (W B Carmichael, ‘National Interest and International Trade Negotiations’, The World Economy, 9 (4) December 1986).

Bill’s reference to ‘national welfare’ might raise tangential issues in the minds of some readers about the impossibility of aggregating, or averaging, the welfare of different individuals in a meaningful way, and the value judgements that are involved in using per capita GDP, or any other measure of income, as an indicator of welfare. In order to avoid getting bogged down in such issues, I interpret ‘national welfare’ as code for ‘the opportunities available, individually and collectively, to members of the community’.

When economists view their role as providing information publicly on the impact of policy change on opportunities available to various groups in a community, it seems to me that they are adopting something close to a contractarian approach to provision of policy advice. Such information enables the various groups affected to obtain a better understanding of how they are likely to be affected by policy change. Nevertheless, a public policy process of weighing the interests of those adversely affected by change against the interests of broader groups is likely to fall short of the ideal of a contractarian negotiation because the outcomes are unlikely to receive unanimous support. Unanimity is rarely possible since those adversely affected by change often have a strategic interest in withholding their support in the hope of obtaining a better outcome from the process. Perhaps the most that can be hoped for is that by the time policy decisions are made, the process will have persuaded those adversely affected by change that they are unlikely to benefit from lobbying to have the decisions reversed.


Robert Sugden suggests that contractarian advisors have a better chance of achieving unanimous support for policy change if they give attention to compensation. When a policy proposal imposes significant harms on a group of individuals, the addition of compensation payments may have potential to make it mutually beneficial.  Unfortunately, Sugden doesn’t discuss the potential for those opposed to change to negotiate strategically in a context where policy outcomes are likely to be strongly influenced by the political muscle of narrow interest groups. When governments seek to negotiate compensation packages with powerful interest groups, they risk putting the rest of the community in a position somewhat akin to seeking to negotiate a settlement with an extortionist. The above cartoon relating to negotiations for deregulation of the Australian sugar industry illustrates the problem. After receiving substantial adjustment assistance to gain acceptance for deregulation about a decade ago, the industry has since been re-regulated.

Nevertheless, it is possible to cite instances where compensation payments do seem to have enabled better policy outcomes to be achieved in contractarian policy negotiations. In an article published a couple of years ago, reviewing literature on agricultural adjustment in Australia, Geoff Edwards, and I expressed the view that “economists advocating adjustment assistance during the 1970s helped shift the focus of agricultural policy in Australia away from price support and input subsidies, leading to greater acceptance of policies to facilitate adjustment rather than to impede it”.  We concluded that “adjustment assistance can sometimes enable less efficient and less equitable forms of assistance to be avoided” (Geoff Edwards and Winton Bates, ‘Antipodean agricultural and resource economics at 60: agricultural adjustment’, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 60, pp 573-589).


So, when can economists adopt a contractarian approach to provision of public policy advice? My experience leads me to think that a contractarian approach has been used effectively in considering changes in the ‘rules of the game’ relating to economic policy in some countries. During the 1980s and 90’s, some economists in Australia and New Zealand adopted important elements of a contractarian approach in successfully proposing trade liberalisation, privatisation of public enterprises, regulatory reforms and government spending restraint. The focus of analysis was the potential for changes in the ‘rules of the game’ to improve the opportunities generally available to community members. Reports were published with a view to obtaining broad community support for changes in the rules. Many influential opinion leaders were receptive to the view that the rules of the game needed to be changed in order to avert looming economic disaster.

For reasons expressed elsewhere on this blog (for example here and here) I think the democratic political processes of western countries have been corrupted so much over the last few decades that in the event of a future economic crisis it is unlikely to be possible to implement reforms to prevent emergence of widespread economic misery. I doubt whether use of a contractarian approach to policy advice will help much in this context, but such an approach is still more likely to be successful than the alternatives available. The best contractarian advice I can offer to individuals is to reduce your dependence on government as far as possible, and to seek out opportunities for mutually beneficial interactions that do not involve governments.

Over the next few decades, I expect that economists adopting a contractarian approach will play an increasingly important role in helping people to use new technology to negotiate mutually beneficial agreements to obtain what they want without government involvement. I will write more about that later.


Noric Dilanchian said...

Winton: On a separate though related topic in that it involves discussion of economic policy, I've been for some months reading Martin Wolf's 2014 book, The Shifts and the Shock: What We've Learned - and Have Still to Learn - from the Financial Crisis. Lacking deep economics knowledge I find it a tough read. However, some of the finest books for me are tough to read. Often I gain recognition of that in the downhill run of a book.

I had that appreciation of Wolf's thinking today reading pages 182 to 184.

Wolf there described three transformations or underlying drivers for the shift that took place from say the early 1970s to 2014, and I don't think it has changed that much to January 2019. These are three shifts he frames succinctly.

(1) ECONOMIC LIBERALISATION SHIFT, not just in capitalist economies (with privatisation pushed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) but also in India, China after it embraced change from 1978 with Deng Xiaoping, and countries of the former Soviet Union. After the shift trade in services was liberalised to a degree that had not been the case before. Finance crossed borders more freely. The Maastricht Treaty was ratified in 1993 moving towards abolition of exchange controls and the EU currency union launched in 1999. The World Trade Organisation was formed and China joined in 2001.

(2) TECHNOLOGY SHIFT, less so in transport (eg with improved container ships) but especially in information and communications technologies, contributing to greater and faster know-how transfers, eg the transfer of manufacturing processes and technologies to developing economies.

(3) AGING SHIFT, with aging populations, especially in developed economies such as Germany and Japan, resulting in new economic imbalances. Very interestingly Wolf links the "chronically weak demand" that resulted from aging populations to "prolonged fiscal deficites (as in Japan) or by large current-account surpluses (as in Germany, the Netherlands and other northern European countries).

Regarding these three shifts Wolf goes onto state: "These forces in turn help explain the low real rates of interest before 2007 and the still lower real rates after the crisis, which was caused in large part by the policy responses to pre-crisis recessionary forces."

Thank you for your post, it inspired the above note taking, pulling together thinking on what may come next and what policy responses are needed by individuals, organisations, nation-states and global organisations.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your comment Noric.
I haven’t read that book by Martin Wolf. It sounds interesting. I have read quite a lot of his stuff in the FT over the years, and have been most impressed.

I actually met Martin in London in the early 1980s when he was associated with an organisation called the Trade Policy Research Centre. I recall that we had a pleasant chat about the strong links between business people in Britain and Europe.