I don’t know if empathy is listed on the stock market, as Minister Teresa Ribera told the electricity companies on Monday this week, or warned them about the scandalous increase in the price of electricity. The only thing I know for sure is that, in the five days that have elapsed since the head of the Ecological Transition pronounced the anthological phrase, the price of electricity has remained at all-time highs and the value of Endesa and Iberdrola shares has risen . Naturgy shares have fallen, but very slightly, less than those of, say, Banco Santander, Telefónica or Mapfre.
It is not clear to me what kind of empathy the electricity minister expects, because there are at least three classes: affective, which is the ability to experience the emotional state of the other; the cognitive, which consists of knowing the mental state of others and understanding the motivations of their thinking, and the somatic, which leads to reproducing the physical manifestations of others in one’s own body: for example, smiling when someone smiles at us. As there is no evidence that the companies have a soul, it can be presumed that the petition is addressed to their administrators and shareholders. And, to be frank, I cannot imagine the president of an Ibex company or the CEO of an investment fund putting himself in the user’s emotional shoes and, much less, somatising his expression (frown, clenched jaw, clenched hands ) upon receipt of the electricity bill.
Citizens do not need acts of generosity from electricity companies. What they need is a good quality of service, careful attention and reasonable prices. If they are not satisfied, they will change companies, which is what the market is for: so that consumers can freely decide their supplier, because the customer, you know, is king. And let the companies tighten the tables, because if they don’t satisfy their customers, they send them to fry asparagus and their shares sink. That is, at least, what the theory says. In the practical case that concerns us, users do not have really attractive options to choose from, because the companies that provide the service do not exceed a handful, they have cross interests in the different phases of production and are governed by a pricing system that turns them into a manual oligopoly.
In these circumstances, asking for empathy, as Minister Ribera does, sounds like please, have a gesture of charity, for God’s sake. The truth is that I do not dare to deny categorically that the miracle can take place: that the gyrfalcons of the electric companies, with their faces disconcerted by the somatization of the users’ expressions of despair, repent of their sins and agree to a substantial price reduction. If Trump became president of the United States, anything is possible in this world. However, what common sense dictates, and even the norms of capitalism itself, is that the State must prevent the formation of monopolies or oligopolies, because they harm the development of the free market. Claiming empathy never hurts, but the appropriate thing would be for the Government to intervene once and for all to better regulate a market as essential as electricity and, more urgently, to contain the unbridled price of electricity.
Adam Smith, considered the father of capitalism, spoke already in the 18th century of empathy, although without using that word. His work The theory of moral sentiments He begins with the following sentence: “No matter how selfish man may want to suppose himself, obviously there are some elements in his nature that make him take an interest in the fate of others in such a way that their happiness is necessary for him, even though he obtains nothing from it. , unless the pleasure of witnessing it. ” And a few lines later he states: “As we do not have immediate experience of what other men feel, it is only possible for us to take charge of the way in which they are affected by conceiving what we would feel in a similar situation.” Based on this book by Smith, a contributor to The Wall Street Journal dedicated a dithyramb, in an article titled Time for empathetic capitalismto Henry Ford as the quintessential empathy for bringing happiness to human beings with his Model T automobile, thanks to the introduction of a new chain production system that allowed for lower final prices.
As you can see, this empathy thing is like a rubber band that can be stretched in any direction you want. The theory of moral sentiments It is undoubtedly an interesting book, especially in the pages that it dedicates to arguing that the usefulness of an action is not enough for it to be worthy of social gratitude (apparently the WSJ writer did not reach this chapter). But it is not the one that elevated its author for posterity. Like it or not, Smith’s work that has influenced the course of history is The Wealth of Nations, where it affirms that the human being generally behaves in a selfish way, for the satisfaction of his particular interest, and that this behavior, by acting as an economic engine, ends up redounding in the collective well-being. This is the essence of life-long capitalism. So, of empathy, little or nothing. It is selfishness that moves the economy and, when it gets out of control, as has happened in the electricity sector, what corresponds to the State is to put it on the sidelines. That is what is expected of the Government of Pedro Sánchez, beyond inviting the Ibex companies to empathic exercises.