iPhones and ringtones: a parable of markets.

"Markets in everything!"

An iPhone.
Markets in everything, even ringtones. Credit: Getty

There is a problem in the New Statesman office. Like so many companies, we have a growing abundance of iPhones. At least half of the 40 million they've sold are here somewhere, by my count. But all these people having the same phone leads to a downside: the distinctive Apple message alert goes off, and everyone checks their screens thinking that they are the ones with a new text.

There is an easy, socially optimal solution to this problem, of course: everyone changes their text tone to something new, we all grow to recognise our individual tones, and confusion need never reign again.

Unfortunately, what is socially optimal is not individually optimal. I don't want to change my ring tone, because I've already learnt to respond to it. If everyone else changed theirs, then I could keep mine the same. But those incentives are the same for everyone else; no-one wants to be the first mover, and everyone hopes to be a free-rider.

Why? Well, an economist might say its because there are no markets in action. If everyone could bid to be the person who gets to keep their old ringtone, then people would have an incentive – in the form of cold, hard cash – to switch, while the person who most wants to keep their phone sounding the way it used to forks out the money equivalent to how much they care. If we truly have an efficient market, then this cannot fail to make everyone better off. And if the highest someone is prepared to pay is lower than the lowest it would take to make everyone switch, then we are already at the optimal solution.

The alternative to markets, of course, is government intervention. We don't have a government, but we do have an editor, who could very easily impose a rule mandating that employees use custom ringtones. That would work almost as well, although it wouldn't be the optimal solution. And with that, there's always the risk of corruption. What happens when our he gets an iPhone?