Three Essays on Economic Order and Intervention

Karras J. Lambert

Advisor: Christopher Coyne, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Peter J. Boettke, Rosolino Candela

Online Location, Online
April 21, 2023, 11:00 AM to 01:00 PM


This dissertation explores the nature of economics as a scientific discipline and the consequences of acting contrary to fundamental economic laws.

The first chapter, titled "Economic Calculation in Light of Advances in Big Data and Artificial Intelligence," re-articulates Ludwig von Mises' argument concerning the categorical inability for planners to engage in economic calculation absent the institutional prerequisites of private property and exchange in goods of all orders, including higher order "means of production" by way of a common medium of exchange, in light of much-touted recent advances in "big data" and artificial intelligence (AI) technology. The major purpose of this chapter is to describe the most fundamental barrier limiting the ability of planners to utilize resources in an economic manner while operating outside the orbit of economic calculation, namely that ordinal preference rankings of consumers do not automatically generate commensurate cardinal units with which to engage in capital accounting. A further purpose is to demonstrate that no advances in computing power can overcome the need for the market pricing process in which individuals in their roles as both consumers and producers bid for economic goods and by doing so generate a unified structure of money prices. While technological advances such as "big data" and AI may be serviceable for entrepreneurs acting within a market setting characterized by prices assigned to all goods, to imagine that one day the problem of economic calculation under socialism can be overcome by such advances in computer technology is to misconstrue Mises' argument entirely and to confuse the science of economics with the science of technology.

The second chapter, titled "Unintended Consequences: Theory and Applications", describes the economic approach to unintended consequences and synthesizes theoretical contributions on the topic by economists throughout the past three centuries. It then explores the empirical work on negative unintended consequences arising from government interventions in areas such as minimum wage laws, driver safety regulations, drug prohibition, intellectual property laws, and foreign military and humanitarian intervention. Although details vary across the cases, a uniting theme is that interventions often produce consequences at variance with their stated or assumed goals. However, due to the counterfactual nature of any theory dealing with causation, rebuttals might claim the situation would be even worse had the intervention not taken place. Therefore, it is vital to first establish correct a priori theoretical relations and then check if the relevant assumptions in theory correspond to the concrete conditions under empirical investigation.

The third chapter, titled "The Fatal Conceit of Foreign Intervention: Evidence from the Afghanistan Papers", examines "lessons learned" statements by U.S officials involved with the reconstruction effort following the U.S.-led war campaign in the early 2000s. The analysis is structured to reflect the fundamental epistemological problems facing foreign interveners at three distinct decision nodes. The first is the selection of a unified scale of ends to be pursued with respect to those for whose benefit the intervention is ostensibly occurring as well as within and across bureaucratic agencies. The second is the selection and implementation of the means by which the ends are to be pursued. The third concerns the realization of ends, whereby unacknowledged system effects generate outcomes unintended and possibly counterproductive from the point of view of the intervening party. Evidence from the Afghanistan Papers points to rampant corruption, the rise of warlordism, and a boom in narcotics production as the perhaps unintended but nevertheless real consequences of U.S. nation-building efforts in Afghanistan.

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