Thursday, November 7, 2013

Undermining agency theory

The Rhetoric of the Economy and the Polity

Two statements from an excellent article by D. McCloskey:
A criticism on agency theory:
The Great Recession gave us all some perspective on how agency theory works. The deepest problem in agency theory in any of its forms (public choice, law-and-economics, finance, whatever) is the same as the problem in prudence-only political theory, subject to the Nussbaum Lemma. The theory declares that one has an “obligation” tomake profit (and further that the economic analyst has an obligation to articulate such a theory, always, and has an obligation not to talk about the ethics of  managerial or scientific obligation, since these are matters of value about which one has an obligation not to dispute). But where does the obligation come from? It comes in fact from the ethical responsibilities of a manager to her professionalism, her stewardship, her stakeholders’ interests, or her promotion of the common good. The agent is not a pure prudence-only, Max U creature after all, just as the Hobbesian selfish individual is not. In the very theory that
denies ethics to the agent, she is imagined to be driven by an ethic, albeit a tacit and abbreviated one. Kant fell into a similar self-contradiction when he claimed to base ethics on reason alone, yet gave no account of the reasons an agent would want to act on reason.

About the crisis:
If we have a crisis, it is one of ethics. Bad People (mainly Bad Men) did it. But the baddest men are the political theorists and business-school professors who recommend an approach to the politics of life that omits the virtues. Is that you, looking at yourself in the mirror?

My understanding is that we have emphasized agency teory beyond its initial purpose. The combination of agency and utilitarism forgets professionalism. I share the view of McCloskey.

PS. 30 years after Fama-Jensen famous article on separation ownership and control.

PS. Another article against agency theory.

PS. Nussbaum Lemma:  I think it implausible to suppose that one can extract justice from a starting point that does not include it in some form, and I believe that the purely prudential starting point is likely to lead in a direction that is simply different from the direction we would take if we focused on ethical norms from the start.
McCloskey interpretation: You have to put the rabbits into the hat if you are going to pull them out.

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