How Supposed Free-Market Theorists Destroyed Free-Market Theory

Dan Geldon over at The Baseline Scenario examines the important role contract complexity played in the recent financial debacle, and still threatens our financial system:

In the years leading up to the crisis, the proliferation of fine print, complex products, and hidden costs and dangers – and the push against government regulations over them – exemplified the larger pattern. While touting complexity as a form of innovation and railing against every attempt at government interference, supposedly pro-market forces used that complexity to clog the gears of free market machinery and to reduce competition and maximize profit.

When consumer credit contracts are buried in so much legalese that even experts can’t understand all the terms –­ I heard one former CEO of a top financial company admit privately that his lawyers couldn’t explain various mortgage terms and conditions — how can anyone believe the mortgage contract represents meaningful free choice? What consumer is able to weigh the benefits and costs of individual financial product features buried in the fine print and decide what to take and what to leave?

The corporate assault on comprehensible contracts is important because contract law has been the bedrock of capitalism for a long as there has been capitalism. By enabling free choice, meaningful contracts maximize economic efficiency. The assumption behind von Hayek and other theorists is that robust contract law facilitates a vibrant economic system and minimizes the need for government intervention in the economy. But that went out the window when von Hayek’s theory itself was used to manipulate contracts. Now that products and fine print have become so perverted and incomprehensible, how can anyone expect contracts to steer the market in economically efficient ways?

We now know that the problem of complex contracts did not just harm consumers. Municipalities across the country were lured into buying toxic derivatives and institutional investors were routinely abused at the hands of complex products. Stories about Wall Street’s math wizards purposefully cramming dangerous and confusing products down the throats of the unsuspecting are commonplace and legendary.

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