Markets Work, Incentives Matter
The two broadest generalizations one arrives at from a study of economics are that markets work and that incentives matter. People respond to incentives because that is at the core of what it means to be rational. To the extent that humans are rational, their behavior is predictably in the direction that existing incentives point to. Trade between humans is rational because both parties in any voluntary trade benefit. The abstract mechanism which enables trade is called the market. Markets work in the sense that they maximize the gains from trade among an arbitrary number of entities. There are other methods of enforcing trade among people, such as the command and control mechanism often employed by communist governments. But they are at a distinct disadvantage relative to the market because the latter is based on the premise that rational actors respond to incentives.
Pranab Bardhan, a professor of mine at UC Berkeley, whom we have met before here (see Crouching Tiger, Lumbering Elephant, and Pranab Bardhan on the Indian Economy, for instance) has an excellent article in the Boston Review titled “What Makes a Miracle: Some myths about the Rise of China and India.” (Hat tip: Yuvaraj Galada.)
He states the standard view explaining the rapid growth of the two countries:
What explains this strikingly rapid growth? The answer that continues to dominate public discussion in the United States runs along the following lines: decades of socialist controls and regulations stifled enterprise in India and China and led them to a dead end. A mix of market reforms and global integration finally unleashed their entrepreneurial energies. As these giants shook off their “socialist slumber,” they entered the “flattened” playing field of global capitalism. The result has been high economic growth in both countries and correspondingly large declines in poverty.
One of my gurus at UC Berkeley was Pranab Bardhan, professor of economics. “He has done theoretical and field studies research on rural institutions in poor countries, on political economy of development policies, and on international trade. A part of his work is in the interdisciplinary area of economics, political science, and social anthropology. He was Chief Editor of the Journal of Development Economics for 1985-2003. He was the co-chair of the MacArthur Foundation-funded Network on the Effects of Inequality on Economic Performance. for 1996-2007.”
Everything I know about international trade, I learnt from his lectures. He is matchless in his ability in making difficult concept accessible. It is always a pleasure to listen to him and learn. I spent some time in conversation with him last month in Berkeley. The transcript of the entire conversation I will post later. For now, here is a brief write up.