Technically, there is no Nobel Prize in economics. What it is, instead, is the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, which members of the Nobel family and a previous winner (Friedrich von Hayek) have criticized.
So, where did the prize come from? As Avner Offer explains,
The Nobel prize came out of a longstanding social conflict. On one side, central banks and the better-off striving to keep property intact and prices stable; on the other, everyone else’s quest for economic security. The Swedish social democratic government clipped the wings of the central bank – Sveriges Riksbank – in pursuit of more housing and jobs. In compensation, the government allowed the central bank to keep some funds, which the bank used in 1968 to endow the Nobel prize in economics as a vanity project to mark its tercentenary.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Neoclassical Economics (as I dubbed it 5 years ago) was awarded jointly to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom. Officially, the 2016 prize recognized “their contributions to contract theory.” Unofficially, as I understand their work, it was all about attempting to solve a longstanding problem in neoclassical economic theory: the theory of the firm.
Historically, neoclassical economists (and, for that matter, not a few heterodox economists) simply assumed capitalist firms maximize profits. But, in the context of a market system, there’s no particular reason a non-market institution like “the firm” should exist (instead of, for example, everyone—workers, managers, suppliers, buyers, and so on—entering into market exchanges in parking lots or coffee shops each morning).* And yet corporations, many of them employing hundreds of thousands of workers and making record profits, have become central to the way capitalist economies are currently organized. Moreover, once you look inside that “black box,” a great deal more is going on. Workers are hired to perform necessary and surplus labor in the course of producing commodities by managers, who run the enterprise on a daily basis and receive a cut of the surplus from the board of directors, who themselves need to be elected by shareholders (who, together with money-lenders, merchants, government officials, and many others, inside and outside the enterprise, receive their own portions of the surplus). Corporations, as it turns out, are pretty complicated—political, cultural, and economic—institutions.
But when neoclassical economists like Hart and Holmstrom look inside the firm what they see is a single issue—a relationship between a “principal” and “agents.” Principals (e.g., capitalists) are presumed to enter into agreements—voluntary contracts—with agents (e.g., workers) to advance a goal (e.g., of maximizing profits). As they see it, contracts are risky because, first, principals and agents often have conflicting interests (e.g., principals want maximum effort while agents are presumed to engage in risk-averse, shirking behavior) and, second, measuring fulfillment of the goal is imperfect (that is, not all the actions of the agents can be perfectly observed). The whole point of contract theory, then, is to devise a relationship such that—through a combination of incentives and monitoring—agents can be made to work hard to fulfill the goal set by the principal.
In one of his most famous and influential papers, “Moral Hazard in Teams” (pdf, a link to the working-paper version), Holmstrom’s starting point is the idea that there’s a problem of “inducing agents to supply proper amounts of productive inputs when their actions cannot be observed and contracted upon directly” (in other words, moral hazard), especially when they work in teams. He then sets up a model in which he demonstrates that “separating ownership from production”—which also provides the incentive for limited monitoring by the owners (i.e., stockholders)—solves the problem of moral hazard and restores efficiency.**
In other words, the Nobel Prize-winning approach to contract theory is used to demonstrate what neoclassical economists had long presumed: that capitalist firms (and not, e.g., worker-owned enterprises) represent the most efficient way to organize production.
That’s why, from a neoclassical perspective, it is only natural that capital hires labor.
*In fact, Paul Samuelson (in 1957, in “Wages and Interest: A Modern Dissection of Marxian Economic Models,”American Economic Review) once argued that “In a perfectly competitive market, it really doesn’t matter who hires whom: so have labor hire ‘capital’.”
**Hart, for his part (in a paper with John Moore [pdf]), looked at the issue of property rights in relation to firms by distinguishing between owning a firm and contracting for services from another firm. Their model shows, once again in true neoclassical fashion, that the owner of an enterprise—who exercises “control,” not only over assets, but also over the workers tied to those assets—will have more control, leading to higher efficiency, if they directly employ the workers than if they have an arm’s-length contract with another employer of the workers. That’s because, under single ownership, the employer can “selectively fire the workers of the firm” if they dislike the workers’ performance, whereas under contracted services they can “fire” only the entire firm.