Photograph courtesy of Mark Buchanan
Photograph courtesy of Mark Buchanan

Economists rave about the power of the market to deploy productive resources better than any central planner possibly could. A mysterious process, which Adam Smith called the “invisible hand,” guides countless individuals with conflicting aims to somehow coordinate into a remarkably effective economic organization. Usually.

But as the British economist John Maynard Keynes famously argued, markets can also fall into dysfunction. A crisis can set off a downward spiral: Spending declines, companies fail, people lose jobs, spending declines further. Much of the wonderful coordination disappears, as if the invisible hand were injured.

None of this is controversial. But if you ask how best to cure an afflicted economy, you get vicious and sometimes hysterical argument, typically polarized along political lines. Should markets be left alone, because the invisible hand is self-healing and intervention can only make matters worse? Or does an economy, like a real living thing, sometimes need direct medical (or governmental) intervention?

Resolving the debate is difficult, largely because we know surprisingly little about how the invisible hand actually achieves such precise economic coordination. Even more surprising, few economists over the past 30 years have been focusing on this area of ignorance.

Perfect Rationality

If that sounds hard to believe, consider the “state-of-the-art” mathematical models currently used by economists. They ditch all the complexity of the real economy in favor of a peculiar scheme in which one ideal household and one ideal firm meet and optimize their behavior with perfect rationality. Adam Smith would be mystified -- I think even horrified. Such “rational expectations” models can be tweaked to back up just about any story you like, so it is little wonder that the vicious arguments over policy persist.

Happily, there is hope. A few economists have been trying to go deeper by exploring the actual coordinating mechanisms of the invisible hand, how they emerge and also how they can break down.

One notable example is a line of research initiated about a decade ago by Robert Clower and Peter Howitt. They noted that useful economic coordination comes about over time as people interact, discovering where to find the goods they like as well as the companies they trust and find useful. Businesses get started after people learn about one another’s needs and wants. In other words, there’s a necessary and usually messy growth history behind the familiar structures -- firms, shops, and other intermediaries -- that provide the coordination for a functioning economy.

To get a sense of how the process works, Clower and Howitt set up a computer simulation. They let lots of virtual people interact with one another, following fairly simple rules to trade among themselves while seeking their desired goods. People finding many potential trading partners for certain goods could choose to set up a specialist firm trading that good, profiting while also making it easier for others to find that good. Over time, a vast web of useful firms covering all goods emerged, without any central planning, to solve the coordination problem of getting goods to the people who wanted them. Something else happened, too: One of the goods in the economy came to be valued universally by all as a convenient medium of exchange. The market discovered money all on its own.

Unlike traditional economic models, Clower and Howitt’s way of looking at an economy respects Adam Smith’s core heroic insight: that coordination emerges in a wholly natural way, from the interactions of ordinary people (For more on this fascinating research, see my blog). It can also offer insight into practical policy matters, including those that so interested Keynes.

Valuable Infrastructure

In recent work with Quamrul Ashraf and Boris Gershman, for example, Howitt finds an important effect of financial crises that rational-expectations models miss: the hard-to-reverse failure of firms. The disappearance of firms destroys valuable coordinating infrastructure, making economic life more challenging for others. As other firms lose key sources of income, supplies and customers, they might also go bankrupt, furthering the destruction.

Afterward, the recovery of an economy won’t be only a matter of restoring confidence, letting prices and wages adjust, or keeping interest rates low. Recovery requires the time-consuming rebirth of entire networks of firms. Although the research doesn’t model that process explicitly, it’s pretty clear that government action could easily help, by providing individuals with unemployment benefits until they find a new job, or by intervening to keep crucial firms alive (remember the U.S. automaker bailouts of 2009).

The work of Howitt and colleagues is only a beginning, but a huge step in the right direction. The unfortunate reality is that most economic theory today still rests on analyses of extremely intelligent people acting in unrealistic situations. We need to explore the way people of ordinary intelligence manage in the face of an incredibly complex world. Until we can really understand the coordination mechanisms that help us do it, policy making will remain a dark art.

(Mark Buchanan, a theoretical physicist and the author of “The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Mark Buchanan at buchanan.mark@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net