In an article in last June’s Freeman, I applied some ideas from the socialist-calculation debate to the private corporation and examined the extent to which it is an island of calculational chaos in the market economy. I’d like to expand that line of analysis now and apply some common free-market insights on knowledge and incentives to the operation of the corporate hierarchy.
F. A. Hayek, in “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” used distributed, or idiosyncratic, knowledge—the unique situational knowledge possessed by each individual—as an argument against state central planning.
Milton Friedman’s dictum about “other people’s money” is well known. People are more careful and efficient in spending their own than other people’s money, and likewise in spending money on themselves more so than in spending money on other people.
A third insight is that people act most efficiently when they completely internalize the positive and negative results of their actions.
The corporate hierarchy violates all of these principles in a manner quite similar to the bureaucracy of a socialist state. Those at the top make decisions concerning a production process about which they likely know as little as did, say, the chief of an old Soviet industrial ministry.
The problem is not hierarchy in itself, but government policies that make it artificially prevalent. No doubt some large-scale production would exist in a free market, and likewise some wage employment and absentee ownership. But in a free market the predominant scale of production would likely be far smaller, and self-employment and cooperative ownership more widespread, than at present. Entrepreneurial profit would replace permanent rents from artificial property and other forms of privilege. Had the industrial revolution taken place in a genuine free market rather than a society characterized by state-backed robbery and privilege, our economy today would probably be far closer to the vision of Lewis Mumford than that of Joseph Schumpeter and Alfred Chandler.