"When economics tried to put itself on a scientific basis by recasting utility in strictly ordinal terms, it threatened to perfect itself to uselessness. Summations of utility or surplus were rendered incoherent. The discipline’s new pretension to science did not lead to reconsideration of its (unscientific) conflation of voluntary choice with welfare improvement. So it remained possible for economists to recommend policies that would allow some people to be made better off (in the sense that they would choose their new circumstance over the old), so long as no one was made worse off (no one would actively prefer the status quo ante). “Pareto improvements” remained defensible as welfare-improving. But, very little of what economists had previously understood to be good policy could be justified under so strict a criterion. Even the crown jewel of classical liberal economics, the Ricardian case for free trade, cannot meet the test. As John Hicks memorably put it, the caution implied by the new “economic positivism might easily become an excuse for the shirking of live issues, very conducive to the euthanasia of our science.”
As one economist put it:
The only concrete form that has been proposed for [a social welfare function grounded in ordinal utilities] is the compensation principal developed by Hotelling. Suppose the current situation is to be compared with another possible situation. Each individual is asked how much he is willing to pay to change to the new situation; negative amounts mean that the individual demands compensation for the change. The possible situation is said to be better than the current one if the algebraic sum of all the amounts offered is positive. Unfortunately, as pointed out by T. de Scitovsky, it may well happen that situation B may be preferred to situation A when A is the current situation, while A may be preferred to B when B is the current situation.
Thus, the compensation principal does not provide a true ordering of social decisions. It is the purpose of this note to show that this phenomenon is very general.
That economist was Kenneth Arrow. “This note“, circulated at The Rand Corporation, was the first draft of what later become known as Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.
It is not, actually, an obscure result, this impossibility of separating “efficiency” from distribution. The only place you will not find it is in most introductory economics textbooks, which describe an “equity” / “efficiency” trade-off without pointing out that the size of the proverbial pie in fact depends upon how you slice it."
The welfare theorems are often taken as the justification for claims that distributional questions and market efficiency can be treated as “separate” concerns. After all, we can choose any distribution, and the market will do the right thing. Yes, but the welfare theorems also imply we must establish the desired distribution prior to permitting exchange, or else markets will do precisely the wrong thing, irreversibly and irredeemably. Choosing a distribution is prerequisite to good outcomes. Distribution and market efficiency are about as “separable” as mailing a letter is from writing an address. Sure, you can drop a letter in the mail without writing an address, or you can write an address on a letter you keep in a drawer, but in neither case will the letter find its recipient. The address must be written on the letter before the envelope is mailed. The fact that any address you like may be written on the letter wouldn’t normally provoke us to describe these two activities as “separable”.