Nick Rowe offers a summary of the Cambridge Capital Controversies that, though it is tongue in cheek and should not be taken too seriously, substantively leaves a lot to be desired. He states that the debate started because “some economists in Cambridge UK wanted to explain prices without talking about preferences.” This is false – the debate started because Joan Robinson and Piero Sraffa took issue with a production function that used an aggregate capital stock k, measured in £, with a marginal productivity. However, despite the faulty summary of the controversies, and to Rowe’s credit, some good discussion followed in the comments.
Sraffa built up an entire model just to critique neoclassical theory. It followed neoclassical logic, but replaced the popular measure of capital with a more consistent one: summing up the labour required to produce it, and the profit made from it. His model of capitalism started with simplistic assumptions, but increased in complexity. Within the confines of his own model, he showed several things: the distribution between wages and profits must be known before prices can be calculated; demand and supply are not an adequate explanation of prices, and the rate of interest can have non-linear effects on the nature of production. I cover this in more detail here.
Rowe’s primary criticism of Sraffa is that his model did not use preferences, which is a criticism also made by others. But eliminating preferences is a neglibility assumption: we ignore some element of the system we are studying, in the hope that we can either add it later, or it is empirically negligible. As Matias Vernengo notes in the comments, Sraffa was deliberately trying to escape the subjective utility base of neoclassical economics in favour of the classical tradition of social and institutional norms, so he assumed preferences were given. This is just a ceteris paribus assumption, which economists usually love! In any case it turns out that preferences can be added to a Sraffian model, with many of the key insights still remaining. Indeed Vienneau’s model (and, apparently, the work of Ian Steedman, with whom I am unfamiliar) invoke utility maximisation and come to many of the same Sraffian conclusions about demand-supply being unjustified.
Rowe also criticises Sraffa’s approach because it puts production first, over the consumer sovereignty upon which neoclassical economics is built. Should preferences provide an explanation of decisions? It appears Rowe does not take seriously the ‘chicken and egg’ problem with neoclassical models – surely, production must occur first, yet models such as Arrow-Debreu take prices as a given for firms, before anything is made.
In a modern capitalist economy, it seems illogical to say that the demand for a particular good comes first, then the supply follows as firms passively try to accommodate it. If it were true, advertising wouldn’t exist, or would be incredibly limited. It is fair to say that, independently, people have a ‘preference’ (though I’d say instinct) for food, shelter, clothing, security and other creature comforts. However, demand for most goods and services beyond this is certainly generated by advertising, marketing and other exogenous factors - advertising and marketing are one of the two primary expansion constraints experienced by real world firms (the other is financing, which, incidentally, neoclassical models often assume away too, but I digress).
An alternative way to model human behaviour would be an institutional/social norm perspective: while people instinctively want to subsist, what exactly they choose to subsist on is in large part dependent on their surroundings. There is the example of tea consumption in Britain, which started as a luxury and took decades to filter down to the lower classes. Similarly, if I had been born in India, I would probably have more of a taste for spicy foods. It’s hard to deny these things are largely dependent on social surroundings, rather than individualistic consumer preferences. Similarly, Rowe’s focus on the time-preference explanation of the interest rate seems to ignore that this will be largely dependent on institutional factors such as the state of the economy.
From an individual perspective, perhaps Maslow’s Hierarachy is a useful way of understanding purchasing decisions: after people have obtained basic needs such as food and security, things they buy are to do with identity and emotion. Don’t believe me? These concepts are exactly what firms use to try to expand their market base (for a longer treatment, see Adam Curtis’ documentary). If people don’t buy products because firms associate them with ‘self actualisation,’ then firms are systemically irrational.
Overall, I don’t think there are there any cases in which we can evaluate individual’s preferences outside a social and institutional context. Sraffa considers the economy as a whole, and leaves subsequent questions about consumers to be answered later – which they have been. Conversely, putting preferences first and having firms passively accommodate their demand runs into several logical problems, and does not corroborate with what we know about both firms and people in the real world.