[OPE-L:7123] [OPE-L:625] Authority and pseudo-authority

Alan Freeman (a.freeman@greenwich.ac.uk)
Mon, 08 Mar 1999 09:04:10 +0000

Gil writes:
> Alan's objections here sound suspiciously like he's trying to have his
> authoritative cake and eat it, too. He repeatedly appeals to outside
> sources to buttress the credibility of his argument, and then when I appeal
> to the same sources for the same purpose, suddenly I'm erecting walls of
> "pseudo-authority."

Alan writes

An extract from my own post, which Gil cites, explains precisely what my view
of authority is. I wrote, referring to the idea that equilibrium can be
violated: "It ain't just me that says it". I do not conclude from this that
either Lionel McKenzie or myself are necessarily right. Lionel MacKenzie is
not cited as proof of anything except that I am not alone. I did this
specifically because neoclassical definitions are being employed to
demonstrate I'm wrong; moreover such definitions are used to say that nothing
else 'makes sense', that is, nothing else is permitted in discussion. I don't
accept neoclassical definitions anyhow but if they are being used as a source
of authority, I reserve the right to cite alternative neoclassical
authorities. The same with mathematics. I don't agree with the entire approach
that seeks to turn mathematics into an arbiter of truth. That isn't its
function. But if you try and use it this way, I reserve my right to cite
alternative mathematical authorities.

All I seek to achieve by these means, is to demonstrate that there is *no*
uniform authority. Therefore, the entire attempt to appeal to authority,
should cease.

The attempt to establish a pseudo-authority does not predate my intervention;
it precedes it. Gil writes:[OPE-L 472]

>Second, the "law of one price" is a condition which only makes sense in the
>context of market equilibrium, and not just any old equilibrium, but as
>indicated above, a special animal known as *perfectly (or purely)
>competitive equilibrium*. Absent the market conditions necessary to
>achieve this form of equilibrium, there is no basis whatsoever for thinking
>that the "law of one price" obtains. Thus I find this a very strange
>interpretation for Alan to insist on, given that he is putatively arguing
>that markets are fundamentally in disequilibrium!

Exactly whose pet is this 'special animal' which has suddenly acquired the
capacity to tell me what 'makes sense' and what doesn't? I think the name of
this animal is not just 'perfectly competitive equilibrium' but 'the
neoclassical concept of perfectly competitive equilibrium'; the way it is
presented is as if it were an unchallengeable and absolute category. This is
what I mean by pseudo-authority; erecting a concept, which is the fruit of a
debate that hasn't been resolved, as an arbiter of truth essentially on the
basis of nothing but the pedigree of the concept. What was missing for me, was
whether this particular animal can actually exist, regardless of its pedigree.
I chose two routes to challenge its use; first, I challenged its applicability
to reality, and then, I challenged its pedigree. If it appears that I set out
to establish a superior animal with a superior pedigree then my intentions
have been mistaken, and I haven't communicated them well enough, for which I

Personally, I've never seen the market conditions necessary to achieve it. But
I'm told that there is 'no basis whatsoever' for thinking that the law of one
price holds without it. Pretty categorical stuff. Where does it come
from? What entitles one to speak of 'perfectly competitive equilibrium' as an
animal that can tell us what makes sense and what doesn't? It sounds to me
like an animal with some authority behind it: the authority of the combined
wit and wisdom of neoclassical microeconomic theory.

I don't particularly like the terminology of the 'law of one price'; I was
challenged on this ground so I responded on this ground. I showed it did not
demand equilibrium. I offered my own proof, completely independent of any
source of authority, namely I showed that exchange at uniform relative prices
is perfectly possible when supply does not equal demand, that is, as Brendan
notes, at arbitrary market prices.

But Gil doesn't accept this argument. He throws me, like a Christian to the
lions, into the ring with a special animal called perfectly competitive
equilibrium, and tells me that his law makes no sense unless I agree to meet
this animal. I'm an obliging kind of guy. I'll jump through as many hoops as I
have to jump through, to make my point. I love mythical animals, they don't
bite. So, I met his animal. I found a writer who also met his animal. And I
showed that even such a writer says the law of one price holds when his animal
isn't there. And I cited this writer. This isn't because *I* accept McKenzie's
authority or because in general, I acknowledge authority as a source of truth.
It's because Gil won't permit me anything else.

Gil writes:

This misses my point, which is that, contrary to Alan's suggestion, the axiom
as presented *does not* "say [that] we can decompose two baskets...". It says
that *if* two baskets are decomposable into exchangeable subsets, then the
unions of those subsets are also exchangeable. This is "composability", not
"decomposability", given the "if" clause. Second, the issue is not necessarily
whether the left glove can exchange *at all* given the exchangeability of the
pair of gloves, but rather whether one glove will exchange for b if the pair
of gloves exchanges for 2b (for example). I'm not questioning the axiom, only
how Alan represents its meaning.

Alan writes

I haven't missed the point and I thought carefully before I formulated my
axiom, because I think it is possible to define an axiom of composition in
such a way that the corresponding thesis concerning decomposition is a
deduction from the axiom of composition. I prefer that way round because I
think it's more elegant. That's why in various places I wrote of the axiom of
'de/composition'. I could have slipped up on this, but I'm not unaware of the

Gil's response confirms my judgement. He writes '*if* two baskets are
decomposable into exchangeable subsets, then the unions of these subsets are
also exchangeable'. But, excuse me, how can a basket be broken down into
things that don't exchange? That's what a basket is; it's a combination of
separately exchangeable commodities. Each element in it is separately a
commodity. Otherwise it isn't a basket, but something distinct formed through
a process of amalgamation other than basket formation. This would change the
nature of the objects of which the basket is composed: eg water or a jam
sandwich. A jam sandwich, a pair of gloves, are not baskets but distinct

To refute my axiomatisation Gil must demonstrate that a basket can be composed
in such a way that it cannot subsequently be decomposed by reversing the
composition. But if he demonstrated this, he would merely show that the
process of composition was not a process of basket formation.

The more I read the processes of reasoning that Gil engages in, the more I
feel that Gil wishes to use logic in a way that logic cannot be used. An axiom
does not have meaning independent of the universe that we seek to represent
with it. You just can't reason backwards from an axiomatisation to the world
it speaks of, as if it provided definitions to which the world must conform.
The world comes first, and the axiomatisation represents this world
(inadequately, inevitably) in thought. To put the axiom first and then demand
that the world conform to the concept implicit in it, is a profoundly idealist
manner of reasoning. I feel very uncomfortable with it. My method is to begin
with the things we find in the world, and the way people speak of them, and
ask how we can apply the rather inadequate categories of logic to help
understand the way they speak, in the hope that in the process, we might
better understand the world.