Allocative efficiency, CATO Institute, central planning, Don Boudreaux, F.A. Hayek, incentives, Industrial Policy, Invisible Hand, Jason Kuznicki, Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, Knowledge Problem, Libertarianism.org, Machine Learning, Michael Munger, Opportunity cost, Protectionism, Robert Lucas, Socialist Calculation Debate
Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are giving hope to advocates of central economic planning. Perhaps, they think, the so-called “knowledge problem” (KP) can be overcome, making society’s reliance on decentralized market forces “unnecessary”. The KP is the barrier faced by planners in collecting and using information to direct resources to their most valued uses. KP is at the heart of the so-called “socialist calculation debate”, but it applies also to the failures of right-wing industrial policies and protectionism.
Apart from raw political motives, run-of-the-mill government incompetence, and poor incentives, the KP is an insurmountable obstacle to successful state planning, as emphasized by Friedrich Hayek and many others. In contrast, market forces are capable of spontaneously harnessing all sources of information on preferences, incentives, resources, as well as existing and emergent technologies in allocating resources efficiently. In addition, the positive sum nature of mutually beneficial exchange makes the market by far the greatest force for voluntary social cooperation known to mankind.
Nevertheless, the hope kindled by AI is that planners would be on an equal footing with markets and allow them to intervene in ways that would be “optimal” for society. This technocratic dream has been astir for years along with advances in computer technology and machine learning. I guess it’s nice that at least a few students of central planning understood the dilemma all along, but as explained below, their hopes for AI are terribly misplaced. AI will never allow planners to allocate resources in ways that exceed or even approximate the efficiency of the market mechanism’s “invisible hand”.
Michael Munger recently described the basic misunderstanding about the information or “data” that markets use to solve the KP. Markets do not rely on a given set of prices, quantities, and production relationships. They do not take any of those as givens with respect to the evolution of transactions, consumption, production, investment, or search activity. Instead, markets generate this data based on unobservable and co-evolving factors such as the shape of preferences across goods, services, and time; perceptions of risk and its cost; the full breadth of technologies; shifting resource availabilities; expectations; locations; perceived transaction costs; and entrepreneurial energy. Most of these factors are “tacit knowledge” that no central database will ever contain.
At each moment, dispersed forces are applied by individual actions in the marketplace. The market essentially solves for the optimal set of transactions subject to all of those factors. These continuously derived solutions are embodied in data on prices, quantities, and production relationships. Opportunity costs and incentives are both an outcome of market processes as well as driving forces, so that they shape the transactional footprint. And then those trades are complete. Attempts to impose the same set of data upon new transactions in some repeated fashion, freezing the observable components of incentives and other requirements, would prevent the market from responding to changing conditions.
Thus, the KP facing planners isn’t really about “calculating” anything. Rather, it’s the impossibility of matching or replicating the market’s capacity to generate these data and solutions. There will never be an AI with sufficient power to match the efficiency of the market mechanism because it’s not a matter of mere “calculation”. The necessary inputs are never fully unobservable and, in any case, are unknown until transactions actually take place such that prices and quantities can be recorded.
In my 2020 post “Central Planning With AI Will Still Suck”, I reviewed a paper by Jesús Fernández-Villaverde (JFV), who was skeptical of AI’s powers to achieve better outcomes via planning than under market forces. His critique of the “planner position” anticipated the distinction highlighted by Munger between “market data” and the market’s continuous generation of transactions and their observable footprints.
JFV emphasized three reasons for the ultimate failure of AI-enabled planning: impossible data requirements; the endogeneity of expectations and behavior; and the knowledge problem. Again, the discovery and collection of “data” is a major obstacle to effective planning. If that were the only difficulty, then planners would have a mere “calculation” problem. This shouldn’t be conflated with the broader KP. That is, observable “data” is a narrow category relative the arrays of unobservables and the simultaneous generation of inputs and outcomes that takes place in markets. And these solutions are found by market processes subject to an array of largely unobservable constraints.
An interesting obstacle to AI planning cited by JFV is the endogeneity of expectations. It too can be considered part of the KP. From my 2020 post:
“Policy Change Often Makes the Past Irrelevant: Planning algorithms are subject to the so-called Lucas Critique, a well known principle in macroeconomics named after Nobel Prize winner Robert Lucas. The idea is that policy decisions based on observed behavior will change expectations, prompting responses that differ from the earlier observations under the former policy regime. … If [machine learning] is used to “plan” certain outcomes desired by some authority, based on past relationships and transactions, the Lucas Critique implies that things are unlikely to go as planned.”
Again, note that central planning and attempts at “calculation” are not solely in the province of socialist governance. They are also required by protectionist or industrial policies supported at times by either end of the political spectrum. Don Boudreaux offers this wisdom on the point:
“People on the political right typically assume that support for socialist interventions comes uniquely from people on the political left, but this assumption is mistaken. While conservative interventionists don’t call themselves “socialists,” many of their proposed interventions – for example, industrial policy – are indeed socialist interventions. These interventions are socialist because, in their attempts to improve the overall performance of the economy, proponents of these interventions advocate that market-directed allocations of resources be replaced with allocations carried out by government diktat.”
The hope that non-market planning can be made highly efficient via AI is a fantasy. In addition to substituting the arbitrary preferences of planners and politicians for those of private agents, the multiplicity of forces bearing on individual decisions will always be inaccessible to AIs. Many of these factors are deeply embedded within individual minds, and often in varying ways. That is why the knowledge problem emphasized by Hayek is much deeper than any sort of “calculation problem” fit for exploitation via computer power.
Note: The image at the top of this post is attributed by Bing to the CATO Institute-sponsored website Libertarianism.org and an article that appeared there in 2013, though that piece, by Jason Kuznicki, no longer seems to feature that image.