Sunday, 31 December 2017

Homework For Owen Jones In 2018.....

The regularly confused Owen Jones had an article out over Christmas in which he laments what he perceives as the rise of individualism and the demise of solidarity in society (Jones' perception is based on the results of a survey by the European Commission, where apparently 52% of the people surveyed are hoping for more solidarity).

Owen Jones predictably blames all this on what he calls 'Thatcherism' or 'neoliberalism', which, according to him, has encouraged a maximisation of individualism that has sought to "bulldoze every last remnant of solidarity we felt".

This is, of course, utter hogwash, built on the fact that neither Jones nor the European Commission understands the concepts they are trying to evaluate. Humans do not look to maximise individualism, we look to maximise utility. In conjunction with this, economics is a proper empirical method for assessing what humans prefer given many combinations of goods, services and opportunities for mutually beneficial exchanges.

Therefore, what Owen Jones sees as selfish individualism is no such thing, because the pursuit of human utility for each individual is underpinned by solidarity in cooperation. Once you factor in the billions of combinations of goods and services and the billons of combinations of tastes and preferences, you see that suppliers only provide what consumers desire, and at a price people are willing to pay.

Consequently, economics is about human preferences and behaviour played out in the form of mathematics (utility). For example, indifference curves represent a series of combinations between two different economic goods, and they play out in geometrical terms when slopes of indifference curves on a graph reflect marginal value. This is the very basis on which utility operates - but fairly obviously this is based on cooperation between buyers and sellers, not on the kind of isolated individualism that Jones thinks has bulldozed this country.

What Jones also doesn't understand is that the process that drives the death of failing industries in the UK is part of the very same solidarity we were just talking about. Industries that fail do so for exactly the same reason that salt and vinegar flavoured crisps succeed at the expense of strawberry flavoured crisps - people are revealing their preferences and relying on each other to try to maximise their own utility.

So when small corner shops close because their customers switch to the nearby Tesco; and when a music store closes because people download their tunes straight from the Internet; and when businesses are made better off by importing Chinese steel than by supporting British steel, there is no bulldozing of solidarity - just cooperation with more efficient agents for the benefit of increasing utility.

The market's revealed preferences are simply instances of increasing utility spread thinly across society, whether that's by producing things cheaper, using fewer resources or being more efficient with time. These matters of individual utility are part of solidarity in cooperation; they are not at odds with solidarity as Jones thinks. Cooperation helps individuals to maximise net utility.