Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics

VI. Conclusion

In his brilliant survey of contemporary economics, Professor Bronfenbrenner described the present state of economic science in the gloomiest possible terms.80 “Wilderness” and “hash” were typical epithets, and Bronfenbrenner ended his article in despair by quoting the famous poem Ozymandias. Applied to currently fashionable theory, his attitude is justified. The 1930s was a period of eager activity and seemingly pathbreaking advances in economic thought. Yet one by one, reaction and attenuation have set in, and in the mid-1950s the high hopes of twenty years ago are either dying or fighting desperate rearguard action. None of the formerly new approaches any longer inspires fresh theoretical contributions. Bronfenbrenner specifically mentions in this connection the imperfect competition and the Keynesian theories, and justly so. He could also have mentioned utility and welfare theory. For the mid-1930s saw the development of the Hicks-Allen indifference curve analysis and the New Welfare Economics. Both of these theoretical revolutions have been enormously popular in the upper reaches of economic theory; and both are now crumbling.

The contention of this paper is that while the formerly revolutionary and later orthodox theories of utility and welfare deserve an even speedier burial than they have been receiving, they need not be followed by a theoretical vacuum. The tool of demonstrated preference, in which economics deals only with preference as demonstrated by real action, combined with a strict Unanimity Rule for assertions of social utility, can serve to effect a thoroughgoing reconstruction of utility and welfare economics. Utility theory can finally be established as a theory of ordinal marginal utility. And welfare economics can become a vital corpus again, even though its new personality might not attract its previous creators. It must not be thought that we have, in our discussion of welfare economics, been attempting to set any ethical or political program. On the contrary, the proposed welfare economics has been put forward without inserting ethical judgments. Economics by itself and standing alone cannot establish an ethical system, and we must grant this regardless of what philosophy of ethics we hold. The fact that the free market maximizes social utility, or that State action cannot be considered voluntary, or that the laissez-faire economists were better welfare analysts than they are given credit for, in itself implies no plea for laissez-faire or for any other social system. What welfare economics does is to present these conclusions to the framer of ethical judgments as part of the data for his ethical system. To the person who scorns social utility or admires coercion, our analysis might furnish powerful arguments for a policy of thoroughgoing Statism.

  • 80 Bronfenbrenner, “Contemporary Economics Resurveyed.”