“Even in the age of big data, markets exploit knowledge and adjust incentives in ways that no other social media mechanism does” Martin Wolf (2023, p. 225)
“There is no better way for harnessing the eight-billion-brain anthology intelligence of humanity to achieving the social goals we all want, other than to organize a well-functioning market system. That is a basic and serious truth.” Brad DeLong (Conversations with Tyler)
I remember hearing someone describe markets as “the first AI” and being impressed, but unconvinced by that declaration. Markets don’t approach or have the capacity to exceed human intelligence, they are even better than that – they are a virtual collective intelligence. This short course intends to convince you of this remarkable claim.
Part A: the foundational texts
In this part of the course you should become familiar with four key foundational texts that articulate the majestic properties of markets. Here is a PDF copy of the reading pack which should be read:
Here are short video explanations of the four key readings:
- I, Pencil, by Leonard Reed, 1958
- The Use of Knowledge in Society, by FA Hayek, 1945
- Seen vs Unseen, by Frederic Bastiat
- Origins of Money, by Carl Menger
Part B: the modern relevance
This isn’t strictly necessary for this course, but if you haven’t already seen this movie you probably should. Here is the trailer for Arrival (2016), which you should watch:
Read: Catching Crumbs from the Table, by Ted Chiang, 2000 (Nature, 405, 517)
- Chiang’s work of science fiction takes place in a world where AI have grown beyond human’s ability to comprehend them, and scientific endeavour is simply an attempt to interpret what “metahumans” are doing. In this world, these intellectually superior beings are benign (he pointedly comments that “unlike most previous low technology cultures confronted with a high technology one – humans are in no danger of assimilation of extinction) but have no interest in communicating effectively with people like us (and indeed when you consider our attempts to explain scientific progress to ants, why should they?). He considers a technology that might help individuals to upgrade their cognitive capabilities to bridge this divide, but recognises that people are quite cautious about exposing children to any gene therapy that might lead towards assimilation. His vision is a technologically optimistic one, but where humans are resigned to “catching crumbs from the table” – to feed off the scraps of our superior machines, where our attempt to merely interpret and make sense of their findings is our limit.
Read: Catching Crumbs from the Market, by Ben Southwood, 2022
- In his attempt to understand the financial market reaction to the UK government’s infamous mini-budget in September 2022, Ben Southwood (an Editor at Stripe Press, and a friend of mine) explains his affection for Chiang’s article. In doing so, he asks “Aren’t we already catching crumbs from the table?” Indeed, as the readings above demonstrate, the information content provided by market exchange is not always given to us in an entirely intelligible manner. We must interpret market data, and indeed speculate on what it means. Markets are arenas for such speculation to take place, and for contested claims to confront reality. Unlike an artificial intelligence, markets are a product of of human action, but they are not of human design. Markets help to assimilate dispersed and fragmented information into a single figure, which relates to an entire constellation of price signals. This communication system helps us to act and to plan, without having to understand where it has come from or what has happened to make it change. The implications are clear, but the interpretation is not. We struggle to make sense of what we see, despite the awe we should have for the system.
“The market” isn’t a god or a weapon. It is neither something to worship nor something to deploy. It is much more magnificent and mysterious: it is a virtual collective intelligence. One of the oldest in the world, and one of the most technologically sophisticated social tools that man has ever created, our steps into the digital future might be trodden along a familiar path. How we understand and utilise markets are a useful way to practise and anticipate our relationship with the coming AI revolution.
Part C: The current debate
Can we use AI to make socialism work?
I don’t think that AI can replace markets:
I'd never understood the Hayek knowledge critique as being about computational power.
It was rather that the basic knowledge necessary to start the computations cannot be brought into existence except through its emergence in market interaction.
— Eric Crampton (@EricCrampton) May 21, 2023
@mungowitz is right to argue that the key issue in the socialist calculation debate concerns the generation of knowledge (not just the processing of already-existing knowledge). One of Hayek’s clearest statements of this point can be seen below. https://t.co/McqhMQ4XU6 pic.twitter.com/LAh5GKdYui
— Paul Lewis (@PaulLew16394851) June 2, 2023
Markets, after all – when properly managed to preserve competition and correct for Pigouvian externalities – were extraordinarily effective at crowdsourcing solutions, and so using the brainpower of all humanity as an anthology intelligence. Brad De Long, 2022, ‘Slouching Towards Utopia’, p. 515)
- Markets are robust and powerful. So a really useful finding is that in many cases using markets to solve a problem will make a massive contribution to solve it.
- The brilliance of this insight is in the fact that most people’s intuitions about markets are wrong, so we have immense potential to change people’s view of the world and obtain a really important finding.
- It’s a viewquake!
Wolf, M., 2023, The crisis of democratic capitalism, Allen Lane