Firstly, I should say that I understand the reason why we change the clocks in autumn and spring. It is quite possible that people want to adjust their behaviour patterns in winter and summer. It may be more efficient to make that change by moving the time than for everybody to get involved in making individual decisions, with schools changing their starting times every six months, and so on. This is really rather like the arguments for floating exchange rates – in some situations the single relative price adjustment that is communicated by an exchange rate change is more efficient than the millions of relative price adjustments we would need workers and producers to make in the face of an economic shock that particularly affected one country (for example, an oil producer). From what I can work out, British summer time was brought in as a result of efforts by builder William Willett who, I think, was Arthur Seldon’s wife’s father or grandfather. His arguments for this were sound, quite unlike the arguments of those who want a permanent change to the numbers on the clock.
Those who want to permanently rename ”ten o’clock” “eleven o’clock” on the grounds that this would lead to fewer accidents etc seem to assume that long-term patterns of behaviour are simply arbitrary. It may come as a surprise to the Conservative promoters of changing the numbers on the clock face, but I get up at 7:30am and arrive at work at 9:10am and then work later into the night than most people because it is convenient for me: and it happens to be a pattern that makes good use of daylight. Other people get up at 5:30am, work from 7:00am and then get the 4:30pm trains back to where they live because they want to – or at least, if they do not want to, their employers are prepared to pay them enough to make it worth their while.
To a greater degree than ever before, different people have different work patterns, freely chosen to be convenient and remunerative. Surely those patterns are as much chosen because of the pattern of light and dark (as well as due to a whole host of other considerations unknown to politicians) as they are motivated by particular numbers on the clock face that hands are arbitrarily passing at any given time. What makes the promoters of changing the numbers on the clock face think that those who currently get up at 5:30am will carry on getting up at the hour the state decrees to be 5:30am (formerly called 4:30am)? If the state called “pm” “am” and “am” “pm” would we all become nocturnal?
The problem these people have is that they assume (to use Adam Smith’s phrase) that the citizenry are all like pieces on a chess board that have no motion of their own – we can just be moved about by the government. If 2pm is suddenly called 3pm by the government then we just carry doing things at the new 3pm as if nothing has happened.
Again, the exchange rate analogy is relevant here. Changing the numbers on the clock face permanently is like a devaluation caused by generalised domestic inflation – it has no long run effects because people will adjust their behaviour and all other relative prices adjust.