Forum for Social Economics

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 33–48 | Cite as

The Arrow-Debreu model: How math can hide a fatal conceptual error

  • David Ellerman
Symposium On Mathematics in Economics


I argue that math, like love, can cover a multitude of sins, and I use the neoclassical object of adoration, the Arrow-Debreu model, as the case in point. It is commonplace that the Arrow-Debreu (AD) model of general equilibrium does not describe the real world, but it is equally commonplace to accept it as representing the pure logic of the competitive capitalist economy in an idealized world free of transactions costs. I show that the AD model fails even as an idealized model; it actually mistakes the logic of pure capitalism. Unlike McKenzie’s model of idealized general equilibrium under constant returns to scale, Arrow and Debreu claim to have shown the existence of competitive equilibrium under decreasing returns to scale and positive pure profits. The AD model (again unlike the McKinzie model) needs to assign the profits to individuals and this is done using the notion of “ownership of the production set.” But this notion suffers from a fatal ambiguity. If Arrow and Debreu interpret it to mean “ownership of a corporation” then a simple argument in the form “labor can hire capital or capital can hire labor” defeats the alleged necessity of assigning residual claimancy to the corporation. A given corporation may or may not end up exploiting a set of production opportunities (represented by a production set) depending on whether it hires in labor and undertakes production or hires out its capital to others (all by assumption at the parametrically given prices). In the latter case, residual claimancy is elsewhere. There is no such property right as “ownership of a production set” in a private property market economy. The legal party which purchases or already owns all the inputs used up in production has the defensible legal claim on the outputs: there is no need to also “purchase the production set.” At any set of prices that allow positive pure profits, anyone in the idealized AD model could bid up the price of the inputs and thus try to reap a smaller but still positive profit. Therefore,pace Arrow and Debreu, there could be no equilibrium with positive pure profits. In the Appendix, the property rights fallacy that afflicts the AD model is shown to also afflict orthodox capital theory and corporate finance theory.


Capital Good Social Economic Competitive Equilibrium Capital Asset Asset Owner 
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  • David Ellerman

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