The standard economic model is a brilliant piece of mathematics, winning Nobel Prizes for its originators Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu. It proves how if we all set the right price on everything we value and trade them at these prices, we end up with an ‘equilibrium’. In this equilibrium nothing of value remains unused, so giving anything more to one person would mean taking it away from another.
This may seem a pretty weak idea of moral perfection, but the difficulty of measuring one person’s benefit against that of another makes it all that economists are usually willing to risk.
Of course it’s a really neat idea if you are already wealthy, because it says we shouldn’t do anything to interfere with what people want to do in the market. And how many rich people are going to willingly trade away their wealth?
But the idea is only mathematics, as all sensible economists know perfectly well. Outside of the model, we could only set the ‘right’ prices if we knew everything about all the things we could buy both now and into the infinite future. This would have to include things like how much pollution and hardship was involved in their making. To make it work we also have to know exactly how the choices we make affect the choices others make. Pretty obviously this is all impossible, so as a way of looking at the world it’s hopeless. But the things you can do with the maths are exciting and clever – so who cares?!
Well, you should, because you also know that while you can’t use numbers to compare one person’s state of comfort and happiness with another’s, we can all make a pretty good stab at it. And most of the time, if we talked about it, we’d pretty much agree. Imagine if we all refused to decide whether our child needs food more than we need a bottle of beer, or whether we need a new garden ornament more than our elderly parent needs their medicine? Yet that’s basically what the rich and powerful want us to think, because if we can’t decide – why should they have to?
In my next blog I will talk some more about how ‘equilibrium economics’ is used to justify ‘free market’ policies, and why you should recognise this as a major scam.
– Diarmid Weir