Real-world markets, according to Nobel laureate economist Robert Shiller, are all about manipulation and deception.
So he argues in a New York Times article summarizing his new book, coauthored with fellow Nobel laureate economist George Akerlof: Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. According to Shiller, merchants and vendors regularly “phish for” ignorant consumers who they can mislead into acting less in their own interests and more in those of the phishermen.
The question is not whether the market fails, but whether the government is more likely than the market itself to correct those failures.
Shiller claims that the theoretical defense of the free market depends on consumers being rational and well informed — a condition that doesn’t hold true in the real world. Drawing on behavioral economics, he argues that consumers are often possessed with cognitive biases that allow them to be systematically deceived by unsavory merchants. For this reason, Shiller argues, consumers need government regulation to protect their interests. The internal forces of the market are not sufficient.
Deux ex Nirvana
But government regulation is not an infallible deus ex machina. The question is not whether the market fails, but whether the government is more likely than the market itself to correct those failures. Economist Harold Demsetz coined the term “nirvana fallacy” to make this point: it is not enough to find flaws in t…