Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics

I. Introduction

Individual valuation is the keystone of economic theory. For, fundamentally, economics does not deal with things or material objects. Economics analyzes the logical attributes and consequences of the existence of individual valuations. “Things” enter into the picture, of course, since there can be no valuation without things to be valued. But the essence and the driving force of human action, and therefore of the human market economy, are the valuations of individuals. Action is the result of choice among alternatives, and choice reflects values, that is, individual preferences among these alternatives.

Individual valuations are the direct subject matter of the theories of utility and of welfare. Utility theory analyzes the laws of the values and choices of an individual; welfare theory discusses the relationship between the values of many individuals, and the consequent possibilities of a scientific conclusion on the “social” desirability of various alternatives. Both theories have lately been foundering in stormy seas. Utility theory is galloping off in many different directions at once; welfare theory, after reaching the heights of popularity among economic theorists, threatens to sink, sterile and abandoned, into oblivion.

The thesis of this paper is that both related branches of economic theory can be salvaged and reconstructed, using as a guiding principle of both fields the concept of “demonstrated preference.”