Lerner, Hayek, Lange and many others in the middle of the 20th century wrote exhaustively about the possibility for centralized systems like communism to perform better than decentralized systems like capitalism. The basic tradeoff is straightforward: in a centralized system, we can account for distributional concerns, negative externalities, etc., while a decentralized system can more effectively use local information. This type of abstract discussion about ideal worlds actually has great applications even to the noncommunist world: we often have to decide between centralization or decentralization within the firm, or within the set of regulators. I am continually amazed by how often the important Hayekian argument is misunderstood. The benefit of capitalism can’t have much to do with profit incentives per se, since (almost) every employee of a modern firm is a not an owner, and hence is incentivized to work hard only by her labor contract. A government agency could conceivably use precisely the same set of contracts and get precisely the same outcome as the private firm (the principle-agent problem is identical in the two cases). The big difference is thus not profit incentive but the use of dispersed information.
Mookherjee, in a recent JEL survey, considers decentralization from the perspective of mechanism design. What is interesting here is that, if the revelation principle applies, there is no reason to use any decentralized decisionmaking system over a centralized one where the boss tells everyone exactly what they should do. That is, any contract where I could subcontract to A who then subsubcontracts to B is weakly dominated by a contract where I get both A and B to truthfully reveal their types and then contract with each myself. The same logic applies, for example, to whether a firm should have middle management or not. This suggests that if we want to explain decentralization in firms, we have only two roads to go down: first, show conditions where decentralization is equally good to centralization, or second, investigate cases where the revelation principle does not apply. In the context of recent discussions on this site of what “good theory” is, I would suggest that this is a great example of a totally nonpredictive theorem (revelation) being quite useful (in narrowing down potential explanations of decentralization) to a specific set of users (applied economic theorists).
(I am assuming most readers of a site like this are familiar with the revelation principle, but if not, it is just a couple lines of math to prove. Assume agents have information or types a in a set A. If I write them a contract F, they will tell me their type is G(a)=a’ where G is just a function that, for all a in A, chooses a’ to maximize u(F(a’)), where u is the utility the agent gets from the contract F by reporting a’. The contract given to an agent of type a, then, leads to outcome F(G(a)). If this contract exists, then just let H be “the function concatenating F(G(.))”. H is now a “truthful” contract, since it is in each agent’s interest just to reveal their true type. That is, the revelation principle guarantees that any outcome from a mechanism, no matter how complicated or involving how many side payments or whatever, can be replicated by a contract where each agent just states what they know truthfully to the principal.)
First, when can we do just as well with decentralization and centralization even when the revelation principle applies? Consider choosing whether to (case 1) hire A who also subcontracts some work to B, or (case 2) just hiring both A and B directly. If A is the only one who knows B’s production costs, then A will need to get informational rents in case 1 unless A and B produce perfectly complementary goods: without such rents, A has an incentive to produce a larger share of production by reporting that B is a high cost producer. Indeed, A is essentially “extracting” information rents both from B and from the principal by virtue of holding information that the principal cannot access. A number of papers have shown that this problem can be eliminated if A is risk-neutral and has an absence of limited liability (so I can tax away ex-ante information rents), contracting is top-down (I contract with A before she learns B’s costs), and A’s production quantity is known (so I can optimally subsidize or tax this production).
More interesting is to consider when revelation fails. Mookherjee notes that the proof of the revelation principle requires 1) noncollusion among agents, 2) absence of communication costs, information processing costs, or contract complexity costs, and 3) no possibility of ex-post contract renegotiation by the principal. I note here that both the present paper, and the hierarchy literature in general, tends to shy away from ongoing relationships, but these are obviously relevant in many cases, and we know that in dynamic mechanism design, the revelation principle will not hold. The restricted message space literature is still rather limited, mainly because mechanism design theory at this point does not give any simple results like the revelation principle when the message space is restricted. It’s impossible to go over every result Mookherjee describes – this is a survey paper after all – but here is a brief summary. Limited message spaces are not a panacea since the restrictions required for limited message space to motivate decentralization, and particularly middle management, are quite strong. Collusion among agents does offer some promise, though. Imagine A and B are next to each other on an assembly line, and B can see A’s effort. The principal just sees whether the joint production is successful or not. For a large number of parameters, Baliga and Sjostrom (1998) proved that delegation is optimal: for example, pay B a wage conditional on output, and let him and A negotiate on the side how to divvy up that payment.
Much more work on the design of organizations is needed, that is for sure.
http://people.bu.edu/dilipm/publications/jeldecsurvrev.pdf (Final working paper – published in June 2006 JEL)