It’s been interesting to follow the progress of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson over the last few years, from what I suspect (but don’t know – happy to be corrected) was a right-leaning centrism to a set of vigorous arguments about the pernicious consequences of inequality. This is perhaps comparable to Keynes, who was never a full-on lefty, but instead a liberal interested in saving capitalism from itself. Now, via JW Mason on Twitter, I see they have a new paper arguing that economists need what some of us would call a theory of politics, and that if they developed one, they’d see why unions were often well worth any deadweight cost.

In this essay, we argue not only that economic advice will ignore politics at its peril but also that there are systematic forces that sometimes turn good economics into bad politics, with the latter unfortunately often trumping the economic good. Of course, we are not claiming that economic advice should shy away from identifying market failures and creative solutions to them, nor are we suggesting a blanket bias away from good economic policy. Rather, our argument is that economic analysis needs to identify, theoretically and empirically, conditions under which politics and economics run into conflict, and then evaluate policy proposals taking this conflict and the potential backlashes it creates into account.

Our basic argument is simple: the extant political equilibrium may not be independent of the market failure; indeed it may critically rest upon it. Faced with a trade union exercising monopoly power and raising the wages of its members, most economists would advocate removing or limiting the union’s ability to exercise this monopoly power, and this is certainly the right policy in some circumstances. But unions do not just influence the way the labor market functions; they also have important implications for the political system. Historically, unions have played a key role in the creation of democracy in many parts of the world, particularly in Western Europe; they have founded, funded and supported political parties, such as the Labour Party in Britain or the Social Democratic parties of Scandinavia, which have had large impacts on public policy and on the extent of taxation and income redistribution, often balancing the political power of established business interests and political elites.

Because the higher wages that unions generate for their members are one of the main reasons why people join unions, reducing their market power is likely to foster de-unionization. But this may, by further strengthening groups and interests that were already dominant in society, also change the political equilibrium in a direction involving greater efficiency losses. This case illustrates a more general conclusion, which is the heart of our argument: even when it is possible, removing a market failure need not improve the allocation of resources because of its impact on future political equilibria. To understand whether it is likely to do so, one must look at the political consequences of a policy: it is not sufficient to just focus on the economic costs and benefits.

It would be nice to see more economists starting to think about the world in this way. It would be even nicer to see this paper having some influence on the numerous technocratic pundits who have unconsciously absorbed economists’ way of thinking about policy problems.

[Originally posted at Crooked Timber]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.