By Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer living in Dublin, Ireland
What if all the world’s inside of your head
Just creations of your own?
Your devils and your gods
All the living and the dead
And you’re really all alone?
You can live in this illusion
You can choose to believe
You keep looking but you can’t find the woods
While you’re hiding in the trees
– Nine Inch Nails, Right Where it Belongs
Modern economics purports to be scientific. It is this that lends its practitioners ears all over the world; from the media, from policymakers and from the general public. Yet, at its very heart we find concepts that, having been carried over almost directly from the Christian tradition, are inherently theological. And these concepts have, in a sense, become congealed into an unquestionable dogma.
We’ve all heard it before of course: isn’t neoclassical economics a religion of sorts? I’ve argued here in the past that neoclassical economics is indeed a sort of moral system. But what if there are theological motifs right at the heart of contemporary economic theory? What does this say about its validity and what might this mean in relation to the social status of its practitioners?
Let us turn first to one of the most unusual and oft-cited pieces of contemporary economic doctrine: rational expectations theory.
Rational Expectations: Irrationality and an Encounter with the Godhead
Rational expectations is indeed an obscure doctrine. It essentially holds that people operating within a market generally act in line with the expectations of neoclassical theory. This tautology – for it is a tautology – can be traced back to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ which we explore in more detail later on.
But this goes beyond simple tautology. The neoclassical assumptions are themselves especially stringent and seem to be wholly counterfactual to any observer of human behaviour. Rational expectations theory expects people to act, well, rationally. More specifically it assumes that people always act in order to ‘maximise their utility’ and that such actions result in optimal behaviours that ensure that prices are always perfectly in keeping with what they ‘should be’ – that is, an equilibrium price that perfectly balances supply and demand. Prices then become a pristine and perfect measurement; they translate consumer desire perfectly and are beyond question.
Utility maximisation is a strange doctrine that goes right to the heart of rational expectations theory. It assumes that a fixed value can be placed on the satisfaction people derive from the things they buy. It also assumes – implicitly – that people are in some sense aware of this value and that they undertake their actions rationally in accordance with their perception of it.
At a glance this seems outlandish. Take consumption as the most glaring example. Anyone who has ever encountered any sort of marketing knows well that people don’t act in a perfectly rational manner. People often consume in line with what they perceive to be group expectations. Marketers and corporations take advantage of this and use it as leverage to jack up prices on certain goods. For example, are my brand name jeans really worth that much more in tangible terms than a non-brand names pair of jeans? I would say not.
Economists might counter this by arguing that consumers are still acting rationally insofar as their responding to marketers and brand names helps them further their social esteem: it gives them ‘social capital’ and it is this that the marketer is selling. To argue this is to fundamentally misunderstand the psychology of the consumer. The consumer may indeed identify with the group through the consumption of the product, however this is a deeply emotive act – not one in which the consumer cynically calculates that the product might enhance his or her ‘social capital’. It is not a rational response to the ‘social mores’ that the marketer is selling but rather an irrational response triggered by certain stimuli.
Marketers have understood this for nearly a century. Consider the case of a Lynx ad run a few years ago during the World Cup (here is the ad) – note also that Lynx have been running similar ads for years (which presumably means that this campaign has proved so effective that they have no need to fundamentally change it).
There is a certain amount of group identification present in this ad certainly (doesn’t every guy want to be the Don Juan who ‘scores’ all the chicks?), but there is definitely a deeper strata operating here. I don’t think I need to even point this out. The ad says it quite explicitly: ‘Spray more, get more’. This means that not only will you ‘get more’ women if you use Lynx, but also that if you literally spray on more Lynx you will literally get more women – a fantastic assertion.
Look again at the ad. Note how the guy is using an awful lot of Lynx. Indeed, it almost appears as if more women appear as he sprays on more of the deodorant (if one were to be terribly cynical one might read his end reaction in the ad as a sexual climax induced by his extremely liberal use of the deodorant). Anyone who has stood at a bar in a nightclub next to a guy smelling extremely heavily of Lynx will not doubt that this campaign has been at least somewhat effective.
The idea – a classic in marketing – is that not only to tie the consumer to the brand through group identification and the promise of sexual fulfilment, but to actually influence how the consumer uses the product itself. This ensures that the consumer will purchase more of the product because they will consume it faster. To claim that this behaviour is somehow rational is to pervert the English language itself. This behaviour is strongly irrational and those that attempt to manipulate it know this better than perhaps anyone else.
While we won’t go too far into the argument here, these observations can safely be transferred to most of the decisions that people make in all of the spheres dealt with by rational expectations theory. From direct investment to the purchase of stock to so-called inflation expectations, all have a strongly irrational aspect that is often manipulated by institutions for political and economic ends (the amount of institutions attempting to manipulate inflation expectations at the moment is quite incredible).
One example might be that of housing. During the boom years people invested money in housing not just because they might see a profitable return, but also because it became fashionable to own property – while the following clip is from a comedy show, the social observation is a sound one as far as Irish society during the property bubble is concerned. The boom rested not simply on the fact that it became ‘cool’ to own a house (this would be the social identification element as identified in the above clip), but also because being a homeowner has certain emotive overtones (having a family, being free from one’s parents etc.). These social expectations and emotive responses are key components not only in all speculative bubbles, but in all so-called market activity.
The fundamental point here is that people – be they consumers or producers, investors or forecasters – often act in an almost wholly irrational manner; one that is quite open to manipulation. And once we allow for this the very premise upon which rational expectations theory rests upon falls to pieces.
This is all very interesting, but it has nothing to do with theology, surely. Well, it is in the next key tenet of rational expectations theory that we truly encounter the Godhead.
Rational expectations theory assumes that people always operate on a complete amount of information. Economists call this ‘forecasting’ – although they might call it ‘crystal-ball gazing’. They do not assume that all consumers forecast perfectly at all time. However, they do assume that when any forecasting errors are made they are simply anomalies. This paper sums it up quite nicely:
The hypothesis of rational expectations means that economic agents forecast in such a way as to minimize forecast errors, subject to the information and decision—making constraints that confront them. It does not mean they make no forecast errors; it simply means that such errors have no serial correlation, no systematic component.
The idea here is that all economic actors have access to almost perfect knowledge of economic variables over time (prices, inflation etc.). True the above author qualifies that such forecasting is ‘subject to information and decision’** – which is more than many other economists allow – but this is a smokescreen. If we assume that market actors do not make mistakes in a given market then they must, by default, have access to almost perfect knowledge of that market; otherwise, to say that they don’t make mistakes is silly. If they were to have incomplete information then they would have to act, at least to some extent, on their gut instinct and so would, by definition, not be acting wholly rationally.
In rational expectations theory when market actors get market variables incorrect or act in an ‘incorrect’ manner on these variables this error is not taken to be indicative of some underlying uncertainty in their action, but simply an anomaly; an exception to the rule. Economic actors are assumed to have access to near perfect information, not just about the present but about the past and future as well.
Scratch a little deeper and you’ll find that this is an even more incredible assertion than it first appears. Rational expectations theory essentially assumes that consumers are omniscient beings – or at least, when they are acting ‘normally’ they are omniscient. This is where we encounter truly theological motifs in the edifice of neoclassical economics.
In many theologies, God is assumed to have perfect knowledge. And in order to gain access to this knowledge one needs only to try to build one’s relationship to God onto a higher plateau. In rational expectations it is assumed that individuals can indeed make mistakes – in theological terms: they can Sin – but these mistakes are never systemic – in theological terms: individuals are always on the way toward Salvation. As long as the individual keeps with the ‘tenets’ of the theory (which is presupposed), Sin is minimised and the individuals acts in line with the being possessing perfect knowledge.
The being of perfect knowledge is here not thought of as ‘God’ per se, but instead is given the name ‘The Market’. On a purely intellectual level the ideas seem almost identical. Both are overarching principles governing our lives, both are generally ‘followed’ unless perverse deviations (Sinners) crop up and both are perfect information processors.
We will return to this when we pick up Smith’s theory of the ‘invisible hand’ – a theory from which this all stems. For now let us turn to the true neoclassical Godhead: the efficient markets hypothesis.
The Efficient Markets Hypothesis: The Godhead Embodied
As we shall see shortly, ‘the Market’ is and always was a strongly theological idea. However, it is in the efficient markets hypothesis where the Godhead is truly to be located today.
Whereas the rational expectations model of the economic actor assumes that he or she is always in some sort of relationship with a being of perfect knowledge, the efficient markets hypothesis points the way to this divine being itself.
To really boil it down, the efficient markets hypothesis essentially states that all information is always already built into markets and hence they operate perfectly in line with how neoclassical theory would expect them to operate (i.e. with supply and demand in perfect equilibrium and prices reflecting this perfectly). In a way, the efficient markets hypothesis assumes that markets are made up of the actors we previously encountered in the rational expectations model. Since, as we have already seen, these actors always act in a predictable way, a conglomeration of them will process information perfectly.
The question to be asked is of the ‘chicken and egg’ variety: do these theories begin with the rational actor and then build upon this to form the efficient markets theory OR do these theories begin with the assumption of an overarching arena of rationality which is called ‘the market’ and then assume peoples’ actions based on this abstraction?
I would argue that the latter is the case. As we shall later see, if we trace these ideas right back to their roots we find that the theory of markets is far more primal than the theory of the rational individual – the latter is, in many ways, derived from the former.
So what status does this give the being that we call ‘the Market’? Well, if it is a being that is presupposed to exist while only being seen through its effects and is given the power to direct the behaviour of individuals, then it is surely of the theological variety. It is the Godhead embodied.
Many commentators – including this blog’s editor Yves Smith in her book ECONNED – have pointed out that the efficient markets hypothesis was used by policymakers to justify their cutting back on regulations and allowing ‘the Market’ to operate without constraint. These commentators have pointed out that it was this policy prescription that led to the current financial crisis.
It is also to be pointed out that these prescriptions were always undertaken with a kind of faith. Past experiences had cast into doubt that financial markets operated in line with the efficient markets hypothesis and yet those who pushed for deregulation were true believers in the hypothesis; they acted as if they were in a sort of irrational reverie, a suspension of historical remembrance wholly driven by their beliefs. It should not be surprising then that we find this idea to be a very close approximation of certain religious ideas and ideals.
The idea that there might be some overarching being – whether called ‘God’ or ‘the Market’ – that is directing all our activity and through whom we can be sure our actions are just and righteous, is a very attractive one. Like the religious ideas of yore it can both justify our actions when they are ethically questionable – we can assure people that such actions are in keeping with the Market’s Divine Will – and can assure us that the actions we undertake are reflected in and through some higher ideal – in this case a perfectly rational being we call ‘the Market’.
These ideals can also justify our actions after the fact when the God, so to speak, has failed. When this occurs – as has certainly happened today – devotees can assure the general public and their colleagues that it was simply a glitch, perhaps a testing of our faith and that we should never question the Market’s Will. Some of the more extreme devotees might even suggest that we have Sinned too greatly and that we have not followed the Market’s Will adequately enough. More deregulation is needed otherwise we might incur further punishment from the Divine Wrath.
Lying behind rational expectations theory and the efficient markets hypothesis is Adam Smith’s old notion of the ‘invisible hand’ and it is to this we now turn.
The Invisible Hand and Predestination
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them – Ephesians 2:8-10
It was on this passage of the bible that the famous Protestant theologian Martin Luther based his idea that human beings had no free will. They were always subjects of God, bound up with Him and merely danced to whatever tune he played. This is the essence of the Protestant idea of Predestination. God has a plan for each and every one of us and we are just cogs in his great harmonious machine. It is His invisible hand that controls our actions and our destinies.
The importance of the invisible hand in the work of the first modern economist Adam Smith is hotly debated, since he used the metaphor only three times in his whole work and even then he used it only loosely. However, it is thought by many – and rightly, I think – as distilling the main thrust of his work in a single, useful phrase.
For Smith, the Market should be free to largely act autonomously. It ironed out its own inconsistencies and operated effectively and harmoniously. But what place did this leave for the individual?
Many today claim that Smith was the great prophet of human freedom. Yet if his theories are read as being wholly deterministic this surely cannot be the case. If the Market acts autonomously, unconsciously dictating all our actions then is there really space for liberty in classical or neoclassical economic theory? I would argue not.
The invisible hand permeates all aspects of neoclassicism. In a seminal paper entitled ‘Situational Determinism in Economics’ the philosopher of science Spiro Latsis shows that the whole neoclassical research program relies on an overarching determinism which he refers to as ‘situational determinism’. What he means by this is that, given a certain situation that a particular individual might find him or herself in, they will always necessarily choose one path – their behaviour will always follows a certain given direction.
This is, of course, the invisible hand at work. The person is directed or guided by an invisible force that leads them to undertake one action and avoid another. This should also be recognised as one of the fundamental aspects of rational expectations theory as outlined above: the individual is assumed to always act in a specific way and any other actions are thought to be ‘deviations’.
The invisible hand is truly the hidden thread tying together all sorts of neoclassical theories – from rational expectations to the efficient markets hypothesis. And in this it is simply a reiteration, in quote-unquote ‘secular’ form, of an age old Protestant theological assertion. What we get is a view of a world governed and controlled by a mystical and invisible force that sorts everything out for us. Everything operates without human governance, the world adheres to a set of laws handed down by an invisible agency; everything in its right place. This is Predestination pure and simple.
(It should be noticed that Austrian School ideologue Ludwig von Mises recognised that the invisible hand in Smith was in fact an image of God. He held, however, that secular reasoning led in this direction and did not see a problem with this. One can only assert that von Mises was more self-aware than other believers. See: note 3 on page 147 of Mises’ ‘Human Action’ – an ironic title given the thrust of our present discussion).
In modern neoclassical theory we find this structure operating mainly through the two theoretical postulates discussed in the first and second parts of this piece.
The efficient markets hypothesis postulates that there is an overarching and invisible force that cannot err. This is an image of a God controlling the world and ensuring that order emerges automatically out of chaos. All of us individuals are then conceptualised as living inside of this holy sphere. This leads to the assumptions of rational expectations theory.
In rational expectations theory, individuals are taken to act in the way assumed by neoclassical economics: that is, they rationally seek to maximise their gain in a particular way etc. The theory allows that they sometimes make mistakes, but these are thought of as ‘deviations’ and are never allowed be the norm. The Market, being infallible, omnipotent and unable to err, effectively ensures that individuals are not allowed to make mistakes in any systematic way. To cast this in theological language: God, being infallible, omnipotent and unable to err ensures that individuals are not able to Sin in any systematic way. While Sinning does take place, the overall thrust is for Man to follow the path that God has laid out for him.
The neoclassical paradigm offers its adherents a very attractive theology. It allows them to look at the world through a remarkably powerful set of rose-tinted glasses. It assures them that everything is okay – provided regulators and Sinners don’t get into positions of power – and that order and harmony will be established by an over-arching, quasi-external power. It gives its adherents a being that they can, in a very real sense, worship. It gives them a moral code that they can follow and that they can use to justify their actions, even when these appear to an external observer as being disgusting, idiotic and objectionable.
Dogmatism and Its Dangers
Perhaps this last point is the key one. The most dangerous personality trait of dogmatic religious devotees is their ability to insist that their extreme views are pure truth and that any action they undertake, no matter how destructive and stupid, are always already sanctioned by a higher power.
In his modernist classic ‘Ulysses’, there is a beautiful sentence in which James Joyce sums up the hypocrisy of religious dogmatists who use their fixed beliefs to justify actions that they might not be able to otherwise undertake in good conscience. Speaking of Oliver Cromwell’s brutal military campaign in Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century Joyce writes:
What about sanctimonious Cromwell and his ironsides that put the women and children of Drogheda to the sword with the bible text ‘God is love’ pasted round the mouth of his cannon?
What about him indeed? Such is the epitaph we might one day see on the tombstone of that strange secular religion that is neoclassical economics – although rather than the text ‘God is love’ pasted round the mouth of its collective cannon, there are instead written the words ‘the Market is always right’.
** As we will soon see, the meaning of the word ‘decision’ here is very shaky. How can a deterministic theory which claims to know how people will act allow them to have the power to make a decision? If they have the power to make a decision then, by default, this decision will be uncertain and no overarching theory will be able to capture it. By making reasonable qualifications to accompany an unreasonable theory the above author unwittingly destroys the theory itself.