David Cameron has recently claimed to know a thing or two about economics. So why is he surprised the privately owned ‘big six’ energy providers appear, as Ed Milliband put it, to be “ripping off” consumers? It’s not that they are particularly evil, unethical or exploitative, but that they are dominated by the same economic ideology which led the Thatcher government to privatise gas and electricity in the first place and which Cameron claims to understand. And that same ideology dictates that it is the legal duty of those private companies to maximise shareholder wealth. Such maximisation necessarily involves them in taking decisions which result in the disadvantage of parties other than shareholders, including, as far as they feel is judicious, their customers. So why is Cameron ‘disappointed’?
It is the ideology of Milton Friedman, simplistic populariser of the neoliberal belief. A cornerstone of the ideology is Friedman’s “empirical generalisation that it costs the state twice as much to do anything as it costs private enterprise, whatever it is.” The message was often stated. That particular quote is from a lecture Friedman gave to the Institute of Economic Affairs, free market think tank lobbyists, much loved by Margaret Thatcher, some 18 months after she had become leader of the Conservatives. The only supporting evidence offered by Friedman was that his son had pointed it out to him. If it turned out not to be true the basic justification for privatisation would be shown as quite spurious.
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