Society and Culture

Even socialists cannot change the number of hours of daylight

I am coming to the conclusion that the true test of whether somebody is a socialist or not should be whether they believe in permanently turning the clocks forward an hour so that we have British Summer Time in winter and double British Summer Time in summer. By this test, an alarming number of Conservative MPs are socialist.

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.

Academic and Research Director, IEA

Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also Director of the Vinson Centre and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.

8 thoughts on “Even socialists cannot change the number of hours of daylight”

  1. Posted 01/11/2010 at 13:27 | Permalink

    Since writing this, I have discovered that the promoter of the bill to permanently change the clocks said “Over three hundred sporting organisations…believe the extra hour of evening daylight will increase participation in sport and improve our health.” We have an MP who really believes that calling 9pm 10pm creates an extra hour of daylight! Perhaps she should bring in a bill to have 24 hours of daylight so powerful is our parliament. She also said “These arguments are not lost on other countries. The majority of mainland Europe is already on full daylight Saving Time.” Does she not know that the majority of mainland Europe is East of Britain – that does have a bearing on such matters.

  2. Posted 01/11/2010 at 13:46 | Permalink

    One of the depressing features of our times is how easily people seem to be fooled by the labels attached to things. Maybe this has always been the case.

    For example, nominal money amounts still mislead people, even after generations of inflation; people assume the NHS is ‘free’ even though they have to waste hours queuing up; employment ‘protection’ laws almost certainly reduce the number of jobs in the economy; etc. etc.

    Politicians are especially to blame, as ambiguity is their stock in trade.

  3. Posted 01/11/2010 at 14:19 | Permalink

    I am afraid I have (for once) gleaned nothing of the pros and cons of whether to move the clocks or not. I am one of the 5.30am risers, and would like to have an hour of daylight in the evening to get out & exercise in the fresh air, but even I understand it would not be year-round. My main beef is that I cannot remember how to change the clock on my motorcycle, so am now faced with several months of shocks as I sleepily look down at the clock and think I am an hour late for work…

  4. Posted 02/11/2010 at 15:18 | Permalink

    “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.”

    On the basis of Wikipedia’s account of Willett’s proposal I can’t see on what basis you say this – his arguments seem to precisely mirror those made by present advocates of the reverse change – perhaps you could enlighten us (excuse the pun)?

  5. Posted 02/11/2010 at 18:27 | Permalink

    Much as I have huge respect, and indeed fondness for Philip, I’m afraid I can’t help but disagree on this one. I think your analogies are actually very good ones, with the exchange rate – except for the fact that the framework itself of the day has shifted. People’s behaviour adapts perfectly so that the impact is discounted within a relatively short space of time – I accept, of course, this view. However, it adapts within a new time setting. Parliament doesn’t magic up new time or determine who does what with their time, but, through the usual Parliamentary channels (however flawed they may be), and the consensus that this implies, determines what time we should call what. What we do with it

  6. Posted 03/11/2010 at 07:49 | Permalink

    Damian, I would like to read the end of that sentence if you have time, please.

  7. Posted 03/11/2010 at 10:52 | Permalink

    John – his specific proposal was to move the clocks in the autumn and spring (you can download his original pamphlet – which I admit I have not read completely). Also, he talked about the wasted time for six months of the year. Now, of course, he could have suggested that people get up an hour earlier in the summer!

  8. Posted 03/11/2010 at 13:54 | Permalink

    Joss – “what we choose to do with it – just as we would have done, had the hour not changed. All that has changed is the “arena” of relative daylight that we expose ourselves to. Yes, this is geographically relevant, and will affect Scots more than the English. Worst case assessment of this aspect of the change can be resolved by a simple cost benefit exercise….” – see also for other interesting things (though not updated as often as liked!)

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