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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Passengers on a Small Boat

Monday, August 9, 2010

Passengers on a Small Boat

From Paul Seabright, via Peter Gordon via Greg Mankiw:

Politicians are in charge of the modern economy in much the same way as a sailor is in charge of a small boat in a storm. The consequences of their losing control completely may be catastrophic (as civil war and hyperinflation in parts of the former Soviet empire have recently reminded us), but even while they keep afloat, their influence over the course of events is tiny in comparison with that of the storm around them. We who are their passengers may focus our hopes and fears upon them, and express profound gratitude toward them if we reach harbor safely, but that is chiefly because it seems pointless to thank the storm. (p. 25)

Greg Mankiw calls this a wise passage.  I like it as well but differ with some aspects of the analogy with a few qualifications.  I have not read Seabright's book, "The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life (Revised Edition)," from which the passage comes so I might be taking his meaning out of context.  When examined too closely, all analogies breakdown and I may be pushing this analogy further than Seabright intended; I could not come up with something better.

Politicians are not in charge of the modern economy and we are not merely passengers.  They, like the rest of us, have functions on the small boat.  Our role is to provide spontaneous order, that is order "of human action but not the execution of any human design" (Adam Ferguson), and theirs, directed order.  The passage also ignores the symbiotic relationship between the economy and both the spontaneous and directed order.  Because most of our economic actions are spontaneous and because spontaneous organizations evolve over long periods, we sometimes forget that the economy is largely the result of our spontaneous actions combined with our coordinated actions through our polity.  Economic storms can develop because of an exogenous shock (a tsunami), bad spontaneous decisions (irrational exuberance), or bad politically ordered institutions (Smoot--Hawley Tariff Act).  Once the storm is upon us, no economic agent, including the sailor in charge of the small boat, has much control of the course of events.  I agree with Seabright that we tend to "focus our hopes and fears upon" politicians but I wonder why.  It seems to be as pointless as thanking the storm. 

The passage also ignores periods of calm between the storms and the bounty the sea provides for us.  As during the storm, we seem to focus our hopes and fears upon politicians.  I again wonder why.

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