The Competition and Markets Authority has issued a thousand-page report about the ‘market’ in household energy – electricity and gas. It says that many people don’t regularly switch between ‘suppliers’, and therefore don’t pay the best possible (in this context, this means ‘cheapest’) price for their gas and electricity.

It is assumed that it is a good thing to have no loyalty to a supplier, but simply always to seek out the cheapest price. Why? Is there no value in stable relationships? Do all the ‘suppliers’ offer the same service, so that the only difference between them is price?

The fact that there is a ‘market’ in domestic energy is the result of political dogma. We used to have national, state-owned utilities. You bought your gas and electricity from the people who really supplied it – who had built power stations and explored for gas, that is, the state. But this was said to be ‘inefficient’ and the cost of investment was part of public borrowing, again said to be a ‘bad thing’. For Thatcherism, it is public-bad, private-good. This is not self-evidently true.

Leaving aside any analysis of this dogma – which analysis would begin with the fact that governments can borrow, and therefore invest, at lower cost than any private entity – the mischief that I want to highlight is the immorality of this elevation of ‘the market’ to being the only reason for behaving in a certain way: here, buying electricity and gas.

Why should one look only at whether something is the cheapest, in deciding whether to buy it? What about whether I have built up a good relationship with my existing supplier? This applies not just to utilities. Why do I buy spare parts for my coffee machine at a shop locally rather than direct from the manufacturer, more cheaply, over the Internet? The answer is that my local shop gives a good and reliable service, and I have a relationship with them. I feel that I am a valued customer. Why do I buy one make of car rather than another – and, more to the point, why do I usually buy the same make over and over again? It has to do with loyalty, relationships. Price has little to do with it.

This seems to me to be very important. If our behaviour is dictated to by ‘the market’, we are valuing that above more moral considerations based on our personal relationships. The quintessential statement of the importance and value of personal relationships is this: ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’

That, surely, is far more important than ‘the market’. But the way that people are ranking the market higher than any other reason for acting in a particular way, is an important factor in the breakdown of society. If all we care about is price, we will ignore people, good people, on our doorstep. They are our neighbours. The neighbour principle does not just apply to Good Samaritan-type activities. We have to care about people more than prices.

10th March 2016