Editor’s Note: Discussion includes optimal and efficient production plans in Parecon, accounting of benefits and costs, enterprise incentives, worker control, and satisfying consumers.
Robin Hahnel is a professor of economics in the United States, and author of many books, but today I’m interviewing him as co-originator with Michael Albert of the post-capitalist model known as Participatory Economics (or Parecon).
Today’s conversation is in association with meta: the Centre for Post-capitalist Civilization. This is the third in a series of interviews with Professor Hahnel about participatory economics, and in particular his latest book Democratic Economic Planning published in 2021. If you haven’t watched the first two interviews check them out here.
It’s an advanced discussion of the model proposed in that book so I recommend that you familiarize yourself with participatory economics to understand what we’re talking about. You can do that by visiting participatoryeconomy.org. You can also read Of the People, By the People (2012) for a concise introduction to parecon. And Professor Hahnel has a new book coming out in a few months called A Participatory Economy (2022).
Robin Hahnel, thank you for joining me again.
[Robin Hahnel] Great to be with you again.
[ATO] Last time we were talking about production units and we’re going to continue talking about production units, as in worker councils, as in enterprises. And the first question is a follow-up to part of our discussion last time, and we were talking about social costs and social benefits, and the incentives of worker councils in parecon.
So let me frame the matter by presenting my understanding of our last interview. This is going to be a bit technical for viewers but we will break it down and it will be understandable. So I asked you, essentially, ‘wouldn’t we want worker councils to strive for a social benefit much greater than a social cost rather than merely the social cost equalling the social benefit – or having a social benefit to cost ratio of one? Because that means producing the greatest net social benefit. And, if so, what will make worker councils do that?’
And you replied, basically, ‘no, we want worker councils to produce up until the marginal social benefit is equal to the marginal social cost. Because if the social benefit is greater than the social cost then there is still some net social benefit to squeeze out by producing another unit (like producing another chair). And this terminates when the marginal social benefit is equal to the marginal social cost, which is when the social benefit the social cost ratio equals one (SB/SC = 1).’
That’s a mouthful. So, this is my understanding of what was said at the time. Please correct me if I misinterpreted what you said during that interview because it seems to me that maybe there was a miscommunication. Because it seems to me that if you keep producing chairs up until the marginal social benefit of that chair is equal to the marginal social cost, that’s the point at which social benefits minus social costs is the greatest. But that’s not going to be the same as the social benefits divided by the social cost equal to one, that there is parity between social costs and social benefits. So could you just clarify or respond to that please?
[RH] First of all, I want to thank you for asking the question and probing on this. Because it is a little complicated and it forced me to go back and rethink through. So let me just see if I can lay it out there on in a straightforward way. What I’m going to lay out there is standard and then I’m going to explain why the way we model something is different from standard. And that’s I believe where the sort of miscommunication comes in.
So you’re absolutely right that the general efficiency criterion is you want total social benefits minus total social costs to be as large as possible. You want to maximize, as you’re saying, the difference between total social benefits and total social costs. I mean this principle is we call it the ‘efficiency criterion’ and applies to anything. Anything you’re doing, you want to do it so as to maximize the benefits to any and all people over all time periods minus the cost to any and all people of overall time periods.
Now, mathematically what that is equivalent to is you want to keep doing something up to the point where the last little unit of whatever you did generated exactly the same amount of social benefits as it did increase social costs. So saying you want to maximize the difference between total social benefits and total social costs is the same as saying you want to keep doing something up to the point where the marginal social benefit of the last little bit of it you did is exactly as big as the marginal social cost of the last little bit you did. That’s just mathematics.
Here’s where things get a little complicated. When we’re talking about social benefits, then the context in which I’m always talking about it is I’m thinking of a particular worker council or a particular consumer council. Then you have to ask well the social benefits in the mathematical pure sense includes everybody, which means it includes the council that we’re considering. So social benefits are usually thought of as being social benefits for others, for everybody else other than the worker council; and social costs are usually thought of as being only the social cost to those who aren’t in the council.
I mean one thing that’s always a little bit delicate or complicating is these social costs that we’re thinking of cost a society something that a worker council does. That includes the opportunity cost – traditionally, as everybody does it – of using scarce labour in that worker council. If you have you have a certain amount of engineers and carpenters in an economy, any time one worker council uses them they can’t be used in another worker council. And that we traditionally call an ‘opportunity cost’. So standard treatments will include the opportunity cost of using engineers or carpenters in any workplace, in any worker council. It doesn’t usually include something that mainstream economists call the ‘disutility of labour’. So there’s a scarcity cost to using labour but in addition – for labour, unlike other inputs – there’s also not just an opportunity cost, performing the activity might be more or less pleasurable, or more or less unpleasurable.
Usually, traditionally, when we’re talking about social costs for a workplace we include the opportunity costs of using these different categories of labour but we don’t really include the disutility. Or at least it’s possible not to include that part. Now, for two particular reasons, that I’m going to come to in a minute, we chose to model worker council and consumer councils in a particular way.
For consumer councils it’s very straightforward and easy to understand. A consumer council should maximize what economists call their utility, their well-being, their satisfaction from the activities they engage in. And for a consumer council we usually think of the activities of people are engaging in as what are called consumption activities. So the whole idea is you want your consumer council to maximize the well-being they get out of their consumption activities. Oh, but it’s subject to a constraint. And I’m going to use this phrase to describe the constraint: broadly speaking I would say as long as what they’re consuming is socially responsible. And in the case of a consumer council what social responsibility amounts to is well it would be irresponsible if the social cost to society of their consumption activity was larger than what we consider to be their fair income. So for a consumer council we basically have this set up where what we want them to do is to maximize their well-being as long as they’re being socially responsible. As long as the social cost of society of their consumption activity is what I would call justified or warranted by the income that they fairly have. And for us that income for some of them it’s their income from work, and for some of them it’s their social security payment or their childcare allowance or whatever it is.
We wanted to model worker councils exactly in the same way. We wanted to say, hey, these are people, these are humans engaged in a human activity. It happens to be an activity we think of as work or production rather than consumption. But the worker council is a bunch of people engaged in an activity and we want them to maximize the satisfaction or utility they get from engaging in their activity as long as their activity is socially responsible. So, we modelled worker councils as maximizing … Now, in their case it may be maximizing the satisfaction you get from the work process that you engage in. What it may amount to is minimizing the disutility of your labour. But still, it’s the same sort of … I mean where we had reasons, basically underlying methodological reasons, for wanting to view the entire thing in this way, sort of very symmetrical to what it is that consumers are doing.
So for a worker council what we said is we’re going to assume that what they’re going to try to do is to maximize their utility subject to the social responsibility constraint. Now, for us the social responsibility constraint is: nobody should object to them doing what they want to do as long as what they’re doing is not making anybody else worse off. So we model their social responsibility constraint as: worker council do whatever you want, as long as the social benefits – and now these would be the social benefits to any and all other people – are at least as great as the social cost to any and all other people. And that’s the way we set up our procedure. That’s the way we set up our model.
And when we say that the annual participatory planning procedure will achieve an efficient outcome, or in economist language a Pareto optimal outcome under certain assumptions, what we mean is if worker councils do this and if consumer councils do this, we can prove that the outcome will be socially efficient. It will be a Pareto optimum. Now you might ask well why did we want to model things this way? And this is where I thank you for forcing me to think back why decades ago we did this.
It was for two reasons. We actually believe in self-management. I think there’s long been a divide between anti-capitalists, between the anarchists and the socialists, or on the question of socialism how libertarian a socialist are you. And I think we’re firmly in the camp of feeling that there is a very important, great, value put on doing things in a way that provides workers and consumers with self-management. So if you’re thinking in terms of self-management, then the idea that we want people, we want workers and consumers to be doing whatever they want as long, as they’re behaving in socially responsible ways is in our mind the right way to look at it.