The Wetherspoon app is the pinnacle of human progress

Matthew Lesh

March 8, 2019

If you haven’t already, stop whatever you’re doing, download the app right now, and proceed to your nearest Spoons. You can then sit down at a table and – without the nuisance of lining up at the bar – order food and drinks for delivery to your table.

It’s all simple and convenient.

You can even use it to test your online popularity. Just tweet your location and table number on Twitter and wait till the prosecco starts arriving (OK, no guarantees on this front, you might just get a bowl of peas and a child-size glass of milk).

There’s nothing revolutionary about the Wetherspoon app per se. It uses existing technologies – smartphones, apps, online payments, credit cards, restaurant computers, beer taps, food deliveries. Each one of these is built on top of other ideas, complex global supply chains involving thousands of materials and literally millions of people and concepts that developed over hundreds of years. And all this to get me a G&T without having to stand up.

Advocates of the free market will often point to groundbreaking technologies: the iPhone, AI, driverless cars. Each of these is important. But the free market isn’t path-breaking revolutionary innovations. Just as, if not more, important are the slow evolutionary improvements on existing goods and services that provide the underlying understanding to produce these new products.

The iPhone was a new product, but it was not the first mobile music device or phone that could use the internet. It bought together existing notions with exceptional design flair. The free market system creates incentives for entrepreneurs to intermingle ideas, methods, and technologies in the name of creating something better. Profit is then the reward for providing a useful product to others.

There’s a lot of talk from Corbynistas these days about how the market is failing, how technology is ruining lives, and why the economy should be brought under “democratic” control through nationalisations.

What this misses is the democracy inherent in the free market system. In a directed economy only some can win: those with the most power and influence to decide how scarce resources are used. The 51 per cent decide what the other 49 per cent can do – and realistically a lot fewer than half will benefit from each decision.

The market system is democratic. You purchase products that fulfil your desires. Producers respond to our purchases by allocating their time and effort, and society’s scarce resources, to what we want. Prices reflect the relative value of resources. If a product is viable, if it provides enough consumers value that they are willing to choose it over other products, it will succeed.

Socialism doesn’t provide these benefits. No central planner would have thought to create a Wetherspoon app. There’s no way it could have been a priority, or even conceptualised by a bureaucratic committee.

It is practically cliché to argue that economic growth is an inadequate measure of human welfare – and despite recent economic growth and a billion people lifted out of poverty in the last thirty years, things are actually getting worse.

Earlier this year, New Zealand’s virtue-signalling prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, took the stage at Davos to declare her country would be targeting “wellbeing”, not just GDP. It has been trendy at Islington dinner parties for years to talk about Bhutan’s gross national happiness so-called “holistic approach towards notions of progress”.

But, if anything, GDP grossly underestimates the massive improvement in living standards over the past few hundred years.

Last year’s Nobel prize winner in economics was Paul Romer. His seminal 1996 paper investigated the extraordinary decline in the cost of light. It may sound simple, but imagine how little we could do if we could not walk around safely at night or read books after the sun sets.

Romer begins by calculating the cost of light from open fire and sesame lamps, and continues down the historic line down to the incandescent bulb and LED. Romer finds that the cost of light has reduced by an astonishing 99.97 per cent, while the hours of labour required to afford light has also plummeted. This decline in cost and the benefits to humanity are not captured by GDP growth. If anything, a declining price of a good reduces GDP (though productivity increases and spending money elsewhere would make up for that).

The contemporary equivalent of Romer’s story about light is the internet. How can we measure the entertainment value provided by Netflix, the social connections strengthened and created by Facebook, or the time saved by Google searches? How can we measure the benefit provided by the Wetherspoons app? There are thousands of free and low-cost services that are making our lives better.

So what’s the moral of the story? We need to occasionally step back and realise how much our lives have been changed and improved in just the past few decades – and let the innovators innovate.

As I’ll argue in an upcoming Adam Smith Institute report, Safeguarding Progress: the risks of Internet regulation, policymakers must resist entangling businesses with red tape and instead create a policy setting and culture of permissionless innovation: that is, let entrepreneurs experiment with new business models and technologies, and only intervene when there are clear, demonstrable harms to the public.

We must avoid the temptation to resist change, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Because, in the end, we get beauties like the Wetherspoon app.


Written by Matthew Lesh

Matthew Lesh is the Head of Public Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs


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