Last year, we had a professor at the University of Wisconsin named Daniel Bromley give a lecture on institutionalism. Bromley, out of the old institutionalist style of Commons and Veblen, was very critical of Douglass North’s work, and the reason for that, he said, is that North is seeking to endogenously explain institutions. If he is successful at doing so, argued Bromley, he will have effectively turned the world into a deterministic system. My goal is to critique this theory and consider it lacking in light of the nature of a spotaneous order.
To begin with, let’s discuss institutions. An institution, simply put, is a rule, be it formal or informal. Shotgun is a very informal rule, whereas the American constitution is made up primarily of formal rules. According to North, these institutions develop over time, and one of the things that he has attempted to do is find a way to show that the institutions which prevail in a particular society were created because of previous institutions. Thus, the United States has the rules that it does because of its history, and the only way to have the same set of institutions as the United States would be to have the same history. This would cause somebody like North to have grave doubts concerning the efficacy of attempting to import institutions and have them stick (such as the example of Latin American countries copying the American constituiton—yeah, they have the same words, but the institutions, particularly of the informal variety, are different). But more improtantly, if there is an entirely endogenous explanation for the rise of particular institutions, you should be able to predict what will occur over time, given this complete theory, the present institutions, and any additional circumstances which need to be factored in to the system. According to Bromley, this would create a deterministic system, and this would be intensely boring, as you know exactly what would happen. But I’m not so sure that this is actually true.
Let us assume that my description of Bromley’s description of North’s theory is completely accurate as far as reality is concerned: there is a fully endogenous explanation of institutions, and furthermore, we have all of the information available to plug things in to our model of institutional “general equilibrium”* (which is a stretch of the imagination, but that’s another issue that I could discuss later). So we know exactly which institutions will exist at any point in time, and as far as Bromley is concerned, that’s the end of things.
But for me, that’s not the end of things. We’ve described the order of rules, but we have left out the order of actions. Let us hearken back to Hayek’s notion of the spontaneous order, using an example from nature. We have a good idea of the rules of physics, and know, for example, how to form crystals. A crystal is an example of a spontaneous order, as there is no force which willfully acts to create the order of molecules in the crystal, and yet this result occurs. Furthermore, it is not a haphazard result—every time you provide the same circumstances, you will get a crystal to form. The difference, however, is in the placement of individual molecules. Even though we have determined that a crystal will form, and perhaps we even have an idea of its shape, there is no way to determine exactly which molecules will be in which positions using the rules of physics. On the level of actions—what individual molecules end up doing—there is a level of randomness even though the order of rules is fully determined.
To bring this metaphor up to the level of individuals interacting in a society, even if all of the rules are fully determined, it still has little to say about what any individual in a society will do. The set of formal and informal rules in place influence greatly the scope of human action and even assist in forming preferences, but when you are talking about the realm of human action, even a highly-ordered society must leave a large amount of scope for human action given the complexity of everyday life. For example, even if Douglass North or Daniel Bromley could tell me the exact nature of institutions as they will exist in fifteen years in the United States, neither could tell me what I will be doing in fifteen years, and neither would have much luck determining the particulars of my behavior. They might circumscribe boundaries to my behavior, but these would necessarily be vague and general, as the institutions which exist do not allow for any more. So just like how a chemist could give some rough information about the location of a molecule as it goes from existing freely to becoming a part of a crystal, an institutional economist could give some rough information about how individuals behave in a society. But given a set of rules, you cannot determine the actions which will result from the rules in a non-trivial, complex order.
So on the level of the chemist/economist, he may see the order as fully determined on an abstract level, but on the level of the molecule/individual, there is still a great deal of randomness involved. And even at the level of the chemist/economist, “fully determined” means less than you think: it is a full determination of the rules, but certainly not of the actions. Because of this, I would suggest to Professor Bromley that he should not lose any sleep over such an idea, for even if institutions were entirely determined, it would not really make life boring.
Incidentally, I doubt that North or anybody following him will come up with such a deterministic theory, as there are too many exogenous factors involved (such as weather, migration patterns, wars, natural disasters, unforeseen technological developments, and so on—in other words, Kirznerian discovery plays a role here, too). To the extent that we might have endogenous theories of institutional development, they will be very vague and will not actually be able to be used for legitimate prediction of future institutions. In fact, they would be similar to theories regarding the development of spontaneous orders: predicative only on the highest levels, but highly undetermined at the lower levels and almost entirely undetermined on the level of individual actions. But that, too, is something that I could save for another post, another day…
* – Please excuse the term, but it’s the first thing that came to mind…