Economics; tastes; George Orwell

cigarette temporary opera tour and taxis 916.JPG(Interval of opera, Tour and Taxis, Brussels, 2016)

A few years ago I was in a meeting about waste policy. An economist said to an environmentalist, You are assuming that the optimum amount of waste is zero. You have not demonstrated that.

In economics, people have “tastes”. Tastes are the quantified values (which can be positive or negative, and are assumed to be additive) that people place on different outcomes. The optimal outcome for society is the one in which the sum of the value of the outcome for each individual is the highest. “Utility is maximised.”

Mainstream economics assumes that people know what they want. People are expert in their own tastes. It follows that if an outside influence persuades someone to change what they want, to want something different, that influence has reduced that person’s utility – has caused them harm.

(Goodbye religion, philosophy, everyday ethics and behavioural economics, by the way. Goodbye politics.)

If someone is a smoker and we persuade them to stop, we have caused that person harm.

If someone is a smoker and normally throws away their cigarette ends on the street, and we persuade them to hold onto them until they find a bin, we have caused that person harm. We may, in fact, have wrongly assumed that the optimum amount of waste is zero.

All this to introduce this quote from George Orwell in an article by Alan Johnson in Prospect last January:

His self-declared intention was “to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive for”. He certainly succeeded so far as I was concerned. 

Recently, people campaigning about plastics have altered my idea of the kind of society I should strive for. Last summer this man showed me a day’s worth of rubbish he’d collected from the beach at Santa Cruz, in California.

man with a day's worth of rubbish from beach Santa Cruz 818 2.JPG

I do not feel harmed by the plastics campaigners.

 

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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