Friday, February 7, 2014

Hayek on Market-Clearing Prices and Wages in his 1975 Talk to the American Enterprise Institute

On April 9, 1975, Hayek gave a talk to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, where he was introduced by Gottfried von Haberler (Hayek 1975: 1–2), and was asked to speak on the early stagflationary crisis then affecting Western economies.

In that talk, Hayek attacked the idea that employment is “a direct and simple function of what is called aggregate demand” (Hayek 1975: 4), even though he proceeded to concede two important instances where aggregate demand was the “dominating factor in determining the level of employment” (Hayek 1975: 4), as I mention in the previous post.

Hayek then returns to the pre-Keynesian explanation of unemployment as mainly a consequence of the supply and demand mismatches in and between individual labour markets and the deviation of prices and wages from their market clearing values.

But for Hayek you cannot statistically prove this:
“The alternative explanation of extensive unemployment—which, until the middle of the ’30s, was fairly widely accepted and which, I believe, is still the true and correct one—has the unfortunate property of not being verifiable by statistical methods. To an economist today, however, only that is true which can be proved statistically, and everything that cannot be demonstrated by statistics can be neglected; hence, the true theory has been disregarded.

You may be puzzled by the assertion that there should be a true theory which cannot be statistically confirmed. The explanation is somewhat complex and I can indicate it only very briefly. I have made the subject the main content of my Nobel Memorial lecture, which I delivered in Stockholm four months ago, but I will try to put it concisely. It is a very good illustration of a more general phenomenon, namely, that with modern scientistic prejudices about what is to be accepted a valid argument, it can happen that a false theory is regarded as true because there is some statistical evidence in its favor, and that the true theory is rejected because, by its very nature, it cannot be supported by statistical evidence—which is the only kind of observation which counts for that point of view.

That’s a point on which you probably have some doubt. Can there be a theory the conclusion of which cannot, by its nature, be statistically supported? I believe I can give you, in this case, an example which, to me, is fairly convincing.

What was the traditional pre-Keynesian view about the causes of extensive unemployment? Generally speaking, it was the assumption of a discrepancy between the distribution of demand among different industries and the distribution of labor and other resources among these industries. As the result of that discrepancy, there will be a lack of correspondence between demand and supply in many sectors, an insufficient demand in some of them and an excessive demand in others; and, as always happens in the case of a discrepancy between demand and supply, resources of all kinds will be idle.

These discrepancies of demand and supply in different industries, discrepancies between the distribution of demand and the allocation of the factors of production, are in the last analysis due to some distortion in the price system that has directed resources to false uses. It can be corrected only by making sure, first, that prices achieve what, somewhat misleadingly, we call an equilibrium structure, and second, that labor is reallocated according to these new prices.

Lacking such price readjustment and resource reallocation, the original unemployment may then spread by means of the mechanism I have discussed before, the “secondary contraction,” as I used to call it. In this way, unemployment may eventually become general.

The primary cause of the appearance of extensive unemployment, however, is a deviation of the actual structure of prices and wages from its equilibrium structure. Remember, please: that is the crucial concept. The point I want to make is that this equilibrium structure of prices is something which we cannot know beforehand because the only way to discover it is to give the market free play; by definition, therefore, the divergence of actual prices from the equilibrium structure is something that can never be statistically measured.

The theory which asserts that unemployment is an effect of a deviation of the actual price structure from the equilibrium structure is thus a theory that cannot be confirmed by statistics.
It’s the kind of theory which I believe you find in many other fields of economics. What we can confirm from daily observation are the elements from which a theory is built up, our knowledge of the behavior of individuals in various situations. But we cannot test statistically the resulting conclusions, which are derived from these empirical data about individual behavior.

In contrast, the modern fashion demands that a theoretical assertion which cannot be statistically tested must not be taken seriously and has to be discarded. As a result of this belief, a theory which, in my opinion, is the true explanation has been discarded as not adequately confirmed, and a false theory has been generally accepted merely because it happens to be the only one for which statistical evidence, even though very inadequate evidence, is available.” (Hayek 1975: 6–7).
This passage is one that is grossly misunderstood by vulgar Austrians, or, to be specific, one astonishingly ignorant one.

The central concept above is the notion of a tendency towards a set of wages and prices that clears markets, despite what vulgar Austrians say. In such a price vector, flexible wages will clear the labour market too.

For Hayek, as for other Austrians, market agents will attempt to find such market clearing values that will equate demand and supply by a learning and trial-and-error process, and people cannot necessarily know what such equilibrium prices will be in advance, as described by Kirzner, Shapiro and Greaves:
“As Austrian economist F. A. Hayek emphasized, the market process we have been describing in entrepreneurial terms can also usefully be understood in terms of learning. The process through which the market tends to generate the ‘right’ quantity of a commodity, and the ‘right’ price for it, can be seen as a series of steps during which market participants gradually tend to discover the gaps or errors in the information on which they had previously been basing their erroneous production and/or buying decisions. Buyers who had overestimated the willingness of producers to produce and sell the commodity had been ‘incorrectly’ refusing to offer higher prices (that they would indeed have been prepared to pay); those who had underestimated that willingness were ‘incorrectly’ offering higher prices than were in fact needed to inspire sellers to produce. Sellers who had overestimated the willingness of buyers to buy were ‘incorrectly’ asking higher prices (and were producing more units of the commodity than it was ‘really worthwhile’ to produce), and so on. The market process is one in which, driven by the entrepreneurial sense for grasping at pure profit opportunities (and for avoiding entrepreneurial losses), market participants, learning more accurate assessments of the attitudes of other market participants, tend toward the market-clearing price-quantity combination.”
Kirzner, Israel M. 2000. “Entrepreneurial Discovery and the Law of Supply and Demand,” February 1, 2000

“Persons with goods or services they hope to sell must continually experiment to discover the ‘market price’ of any particular item. As the students will have learned from the classroom auctions, it is possible to determine, by continued bargaining, the price at which an item will ‘clear the market’ at any particular moment. At that price, determined by the relative eagerness and subjective values of owners or potential sellers and would-be buyers, the number of units of a good or service wanted and the number offered will be the same. But no one can know in advance what this price will be.” (Greaves 1984: 51).

“ … no real-world firm really has the ‘power’ to suspend the law of demand and supply—that is, to avoid ending up with a surplus for overpricing its product, or to avoid less-than-maximum profits by underpricing its product and realizing a shortage.

Sooner or later, after trial-and-error searching for the market-clearing price, every real-world firm finds itself eventually having to ‘take’ the market price that actually clears its supply. Thus real-world firms are ‘price-takers’ no less than firms in pure competition, the only difference being this: [perfect competition] firms ‘take’ their [price] from the market right from the start (they have perfect knowledge!), whereas real firms ‘take’ their [price] only after trial-and-error search in the market. Irony of ironies: real firms are, in an ultimate sense, pricetakers, too!” (Shapiro 1985: 365–366).
To sum up, both Austrians and Walrasian neoclassicals have similar ideas about the need for flexible wages and prices, but the Austrian view about the tendency to market clearing is different in the following ways:
(1) market agents cannot necessarily know the market clearing prices in advance;

(2) Austrians do not think market agents have perfect knowledge or “rational expectations”;

(3) most prices are not market-clearing prices nor equilibrium prices (in the sense of being equal to marginal cost) but disequilibrium prices, but there exists a tendency for prices and wages to move towards market clearing values by arbitrage, the action of alert entrepreneurs, and a learning and trial-and-error process;

(4) according to Hayek, the involuntary unemployment caused by the “deviation of the actual price structure from the equilibrium structure … cannot be confirmed by statistics.”
Greaves, Bettina B. 1984. Free Market Economics: A Syllabus. Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY.

Hayek, Friedrich A. von. 1975. A Discussion with Friedrich A. von Hayek. American Enterprise Institute, Washington.

Kirzner, Israel M. 2000. “Entrepreneurial Discovery and the Law of Supply and Demand,” February 1, 2000

Shapiro, Milton M. 1985. Foundations of the Market Price System. University Press of America, Inc. Lanham, MD and London.


  1. Have you seen this?
    How the New Classicals drank the Austrians' milkshake

    1. Yes, that is a very interesting post, but I think he's not entirely convincing.

      E.g., Mises's action axiom does not entail or really anticipate the New Classical "rational expectations" thesis, and Mises actually did have a role for fundamental uncertainty.

  2. Out of context as always. As I said long ago:

    Economic calculation refers to prices providing information. Keynesian policies interfere with the creation of unadulterated prices. LK should already know that. Distorted prices caused by FRB and fiat money loans lead to the ABCT (factor 1). Price distortions caused by government spending, deficit spending, central bank fiat money creation, price controls, subsidies, income policies impair the pricing process. (factor 2) Cantillon effects are the result of new money entering society at different points in time and space. New money creation artificially distorts the pricing process thereby impairing economic calculation. (factor 3) All of these concepts are purposefully ignored by MMT because they render MMT preposterous.

    Hayek's quote does not concern "impediments to a price vector that will clear all markets". A MARKET MAY VERY WELL CLEAR DURING THE BOOM STAGE WITH DISTORTED PRICES [emphasis added]. Because prices are distorted, investments have been made into lines of production that only appear profitable in the long term due to the new money and credit. Those investments will ultimately be exposed as unsustainable because they were not based upon a true pricing representing true supply and demand. In Hayek's quote, the "equilibrium structure" is merely the structure that would have obtained without the artificial injection of new money and credit. Since it never existed, it cannot be measured. Read the top of page 7 of the Hayek interview.

    This isn't that complicated, you lying bastard. .

    November 1, 2012 at 9:13 PM

  3. (1) "Hayek's quote does not concern "impediments to a price vector that will clear all markets"

    Yes, it does.

    Hayek thinks that unemployment can be reduced by bringing wages closer and closer to the equilibrium (market clearing) wage in each labour market.


    Clear in what sense? Austrians refer to market clearing by means of price adjustments,

    Hayek's theory is that flexible wages will tend to clear markets by bringing wages to their equilibrium levels so that labour supply and demand will be equated, just as
    Robert Murphy rejects minimum wage laws here in this post by postulating that minimum wages cause wage levels to rise above market clearing levels.

    Yet according to you Austrians do not have any role for flexible prices and wages clearing markets?? lol.

    In short, you are the king of all vulgar internet Austrians, Bob Roddis.

    You are grossly ignorant of the very theory you say nobody else understands.


      LK, you lying bastard.

    2. In your comment:

      "Prices (or the lack of sales) will inform people about what they should be making for whom in what amounts and in what styles at what prices. "

      So what?

      Is this supposed to be an admission that flexible wages and prices that agents move towards market clearing levels is a fundamental element in Austrian economics?

      Yes or no?

      (1) If yes, then Hayek is obviously using that very concept above:

      "The primary cause of the appearance of extensive unemployment, however, is a deviation of the actual structure of prices and wages from its equilibrium structure."

      equilibrium structure = set of market clearing prices and wages.

      (2) if no, your comment is irrelevant.

  4. Occam's Razor, pictured, suggests Roddis does not know what a "price vector" is.

    1. Nor does he know what a "market clearing" price or wage is.

      Or what supply and demand equilibrium via flexible prices means.

      And I strongly suspect that we have only scratched the surface of what Bob Roddis does not know about Austrian economics.

  5. A complaint LK. You have this annoying check to filter out robotic postings. Yet there Roddis is. If it doesn't work just remove it.

  6. Here's an example from physics. We cannot solve the n body problem, but we know the system will follow the path of least action. Add a constraint and it will follow a path of higher action that it would have. Yet we cannot know what that lower action would have been.

    I should post this at Murphy's and watch MF tell me about action!!

  7. "Irony of ironies: real firms are, in an ultimate sense, pricetakers, too!"

    Or not so ironic-it suggests that the alleged Austrian denial of perfect competition is more skin-deep than real.