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The Assignment Problem

  • Horst Siebert 3  

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The assignment problem can be understood as the issue how decision rights are allocated to the agents and organizational subunits of a society. In this wide interpretation, the assignment problem refers to three different, albeit related phenomena: i) the allocation of property rights to individuals, i.e. households, and to firms, ii) the allocation of decisions rights to the government (including its subunits) relative to the private sector, and, within the sphere of government, iii) the attribution of policy instruments to economic policy agents. Economic policy agents are the different layers of government, the central bank, and trade unions to name the most important ones. 1 Assigning decisions rights is not only a national problem but refers to international decision rules as well.

We can think of the assignment problem as an optimizing problem in which decision rights are allocated in such a way that a goal function is maximized. In this fundamental issue of institutional economics, the goal function is complex, including values such as individual freedom and equity as well as the economic criterion of efficiency. Phrasing the assignment problem in these terms, I am putting the problem as if we were to reinvent mankind’s institutional arrangements from scratch. This is, of course, only an abstract and a rather theoretical approach. In the real world, the allocation of property rights to agents is given, and the given allocation changes only marginally except for major upheavals as in the shift from communist central planning to the market economy. In the following we look for some principles for the allocation of decision rights.

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President of the Kiel Institute of World Economics, Chair of Theoretical Economics at the University of Kiel, Member of the German Council of Economic Advisers, Germany

Horst Siebert

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Siebert, H. (2001). The Assignment Problem. In: Berninghaus, S.K., Braulke, M. (eds) Beiträge zur Mikro- und zur Makroökonomik. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

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Module 1: Economic Thinking

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