Feb 26, JDN 2457811
Competitive markets are optimal at maximizing utility, as long as you value rich people more.
That is literally a theorem in neoclassical economics. I had previously thought that this was something most economists didn’t realize; I had delusions of grandeur that maybe I could finally convince them that this is the case. But no, it turns out this is actually a well-known finding; it’s just that somehow nobody seems to care. Or if they do care, they never talk about it. For all the thousands of papers and articles about the distortions created by minimum wage and capital gains tax, you’d think someone could spare the time to talk about the vastly larger fundamental distortions created by the structure of the market itself.
It’s not as if this is something completely hopeless we could never deal with. A basic income would go a long way toward correcting this distortion, especially if coupled with highly progressive taxes. By creating a hard floor and a soft ceiling on income, you can reduce the inequality that makes these distortions so large.
The basics of the theorem are quite straightforward, so I think it’s worth explaining them here. It’s extremely general; it applies anywhere that goods are allocated by market prices and different individuals have wildly different amounts of wealth.
Suppose that each person has a certain amount of wealth W to spend. Person 1 has W1, person 2 has W2, and so on. They all have some amount of happiness, defined by a utility function, which I’ll assume is only dependent on wealth; this is a massive oversimplification of course, but it wouldn’t substantially change my conclusions to include other factors—it would just make everything more complicated. (In fact, including altruistic motives would make the whole argument stronger, not weaker.) Thus I can write each person’s utility as a function U(W). The rate of change of this utility as wealth increases, the marginal utility of wealth, is denoted U'(W).
By the law of diminishing marginal utility, the marginal utility of wealth U'(W) is decreasing. That is, the more wealth you have, the less each new dollar is worth to you.
Now suppose people are buying goods. Each good C provides some amount of marginal utility U'(C) to the person who buys it. This can vary across individuals; some people like Pepsi, others Coke. This marginal utility is also decreasing; a house is worth a lot more to you if you are living in the street than if you already have a mansion. Ideally we would want the goods to go to the people who want them the most—but as you’ll see in a moment, markets systematically fail to do this.
If people are making their purchases rationally, each person’s willingness-to-pay P for a given good C will be equal to their marginal utility of that good, divided by their marginal utility of wealth:
P = U'(C)/U'(W)
Now consider this from the perspective of society as a whole. If you wanted to maximize utility, you’d equalize marginal utility across individuals (by the Extreme Value Theorem). The idea is that if marginal utility is higher for one person, you should give that person more, because the benefit of what you give them will be larger that way; and if marginal utility is lower for another person, you should give that person less, because the benefit of what you give them will be smaller. When everyone is equal, you are at the maximum.
But market prices don’t actually do this. Instead they equalize over willingness-to-pay. So if you’ve got two individuals 1 and 2, instead of having this:
U'(C1) = U'(C2)
you have this:
P1 = P2
which translates to:
U'(C1)/U'(W1) = U'(C2)/U'(W2)
If the marginal utilities were the same, U'(W1) = U'(W2), we’d be fine; these would give the same results. But that would only happen if W1 = W2, that is, if the two individuals had the same amount of wealth.
Now suppose we were instead maximizing weighted utility, where each person gets a weighting factor A based on how “important” they are or something. If your A is higher, your utility matters more. If we maximized this new weighted utility, we would end up like this:
A1*U'(C1) = A2*U'(C2)
Because person 1’s utility counts for more, their marginal utility also counts for more. This seems very strange; why are we valuing some people more than others? On what grounds?
Yet this is effectively what we’ve already done by using market prices.
A = 1/U'(W)
Since marginal utility of wealth is decreasing, 1/U'(W) is higher precisely when W is higher.
How much higher? Well, that depends on the utility function. The two utility functions I find most plausible are logarithmic and harmonic. (Actually I think both apply, one to other-directed spending and the other to self-directed spending.)
If utility is logarithmic:
U = ln(W)
Then marginal utility is inversely proportional:
U'(W) = 1/W
In that case, your value as a human being, as spoken by the One True Market, is precisely equal to your wealth:
A = 1/U'(W) = W
If utility is harmonic, matters are even more severe.
U(W) = 1-1/W
Marginal utility goes as the inverse square of wealth:
U'(W) = 1/W^2
And thus your value, according to the market, is equal to the square of your wealth:
A = 1/U'(W) = W^2
What are we really saying here? Hopefully no one actually believes that Bill Gates is really morally worth 400 trillion times as much as a starving child in Malawi, as the calculation from harmonic utility would imply. (Bill Gates himself certainly doesn’t!) Even the logarithmic utility estimate saying that he’s worth 20 million times as much is pretty hard to believe.
But implicitly, the market “believes” that, because when it decides how to allocate resources, something that is worth 1 microQALY to Bill Gates (about the value a nickel dropped on the floor to you or I) but worth 20 QALY (twenty years of life!) to the Malawian child, will in either case be priced at $8,000, and since the child doesn’t have $8,000, it will probably go to Mr. Gates. Perhaps a middle-class American could purchase it, provided it was worth some 0.3 QALY to them.
Now consider that this is happening in every transaction, for every good, in every market. Goods are not being sold to the people who get the most value out of them; they are being sold to the people who have the most money.
And suddenly, the entire edifice of “market efficiency” comes crashing down like a house of cards. A global market that quite efficiently maximizes willingness-to-pay is so thoroughly out of whack when it comes to actually maximizing utility that massive redistribution of wealth could enormously increase human welfare, even if it turned out to cut our total output in half—if utility is harmonic, even if it cut our total output to one-tenth its current value.
The only way to escape this is to argue that marginal utility of wealth is not decreasing, or at least decreasing very, very slowly. Suppose for instance that utility goes as the 0.9 power of wealth:
U(W) = W^0.9
Then marginal utility goes as the -0.1 power of wealth:
U'(W) = 0.9 W^(-0.1)
On this scale, Bill Gates is only worth about 5 times as much as the Malawian child, which in his particular case might actually be too small—if a trolley is about to kill either Bill Gates or 5 Malawian children, I think I save Bill Gates, because he’ll go on to save many more than 5 Malawian children. (Of course, substitute Donald Trump or Charles Koch and I’d let the trolley run over him without a second thought if even a single child is at stake, so it’s not actually a function of wealth.) In any case, a 5 to 1 range across the whole range of human wealth is really not that big a deal. It would introduce some distortions, but not enough to justify any redistribution that would meaningfully reduce overall output.
Of course, that commits you to saying that $1 to a Malawian child is only worth about $1.50 to you or I and $5 to Bill Gates. If you can truly believe this, then perhaps you can sleep at night accepting the outcomes of neoclassical economics. But can you, really, believe that? If you had the choice between an intervention that would give $100 to each of 10,000 children in Malawi, and another that would give $50,000 to each of 100 billionaires, would you really choose the billionaires? Do you really think that the world would be better off if you did?
We don’t have precise measurements of marginal utility of wealth, unfortunately. At the moment, I think logarithmic utility is the safest assumption; it’s about the slowest decrease that is consistent with the data we have and it is very intuitive and mathematically tractable. Perhaps I’m wrong and the decrease is even slower than that, say W^(-0.5) (then the market only values billionaires as worth thousands of times as much as starving children). But there’s no way you can go as far as it would take to justify our current distribution of wealth. W^(-0.1) is simply not a plausible value.
And this means that free markets, left to their own devices, will systematically fail to maximize human welfare. We need redistribution—a lot of redistribution. Don’t take my word for it; the math says so.