On the basis of an extensive interpretation of the origins of social choice theory1 as well as of the different approaches to the subject matter since the French Revolution, Sen demonstrates why and how a pessimistic view on social choice theory gain wide acceptance among contemporary scholars – and why it may be wrong.
Declaring welfare economics as a core theme of social choice theory, the economist primarily focus on deliberations in that respective field.In a first step, Sen confronts social choice theory with utilitarianism – according to him one of the most influential schools of thoughts shaping the approaches to welfare economics. By doing so, the economist stresses the circumstance that utilitarianism similar to the vote-oriented social choice theory – as he puts it – has a deep interest in using a class of information in the form of comparison of utility gains and losses of different person.However, contrary to social choice theory, utilitarianism would declare the sum of total utility of a community – irrespective the distribution – as its main concern.
Subsequently Sen argues that in the wake of scholars such as Robbins who raised doubts about the scientific foundation interpersonal comparisons of utility, conceptions of “new welfare economics” such as the credo of “pareto-effiency” arose. This new approach to welfare economics was coined by a reduced informational base on which social choice could draw.The use of different persons’ utility rankings without any interpersonal comparison became the only valuable starting point of reflections on welfare. Pointing at the inadequacy of such approaches, leaving distributional issues out of consideration, scholars such as Bergson and Samuelson postulated that further criteria would be needed to make social welfare judgments and paved the way for Arrow’s conception of the “social welfare function” and of the related impossibility theorem – a fallacy in Sen’s eyes.
By emphasizing the feasibility of “interpersonal comparability” as well as its potential to make a major difference to the informational basis of reasoned social judgments, Sen refrains from this pessimistic view reflected in Arrow’s theorem – and postulates the possibility of social choice theory due to the process of informational broadening. In his efforts to prove such a possibility of reliable interpersonal comparisons Sen accentuates the complementary of formal methods and informal reasoning as well as the general relationship between possibility and impossibility results.The economist claims that the ubiquity of impossibility would not constitute the real issue, since it will always lie close to the axiomatic derivation of any specific social choice rule. The reach and reasonableness of the axioms used, however, is much more decisive.
In the view of this assumption, Sen proclaims that the elaboration of workable rules that satisfy reasonable requirements must go on.Discussing the nature of majority decisions, he concludes that the necessary and sufficient conditions for consistent majority decisions can be identified – although they were quite demanding and easily violated in many actual situations in reality. With this in mind, the economist argues that a domination of distributional issues in the context of a majority decision implies a strong tendency to inconsistency. However, in different situations, for example in case of an emergency -affecting all members of a society – majority decisions may lead to consistent results.
Merging this argumentation with the centrality of distributional issues in welfare-economic problems, Sen deduces – in line with Borda, Condorcet, and Arrow – that alternative systems to voting rule are required for effectively addressing distributional issues. However, the economist does not provide further information how such a system could look like. Nevertheless, contrary to Arrow who firmly excludes the use of interpersonal comparisons, Sen insists on the significance and the feasibility of such comparisons – albeit he desists from Arrow’s “all-or-none” approach and admits that already “partial comparability” serves its purpose.Taken together, Sen identifies two major flaws in the pessimistic approach leading to the misguided conclusion that social choice is not possible: According to Sen, scholars like Arrow would have confined their attention to a too narrow informational base, overlooking the different ways in which interpersonally comparative statements could sensibly be made and be used to enrich the analysis of welfare judgments and social choice.
Furthermore, an overconcentration on comparisons of mental states would have neglected a plenitude of information that could have inform about the real advantages and disadvantages of different persons, related to their substantive well-being, freedoms, or opportunities. In addition to that, Sen claims that Arrow focused on too much precision in such interpersonal comparisons, ignoring the fact that even partial comparisons can serve to enlighten the reasoned basis of welfare economics, social ethics and responsible politics.B. Evaluation By taking Arrow’s impossibility theorem as a starting point, Sen raises substantial questions relating to the substance of social public choice theory as well as the nature of social welfare economics.
The economist advances his ideas in a well-structured manner, underpinned by a broad review of literature. In doing so, Sen demonstrates courage to challenge Arrow’s well-established theoretical thinking and readopt the early utilitarian’s posit of the possibility of interpersonal comparisons.However, differently than the utilitarians (as accused by Sen), Sen’s concern is not only in maximizing the total utility but as well in the distribution of that total. By emphasizing the verdict that an impossibility of social choice would imply the impossibility of an orderly and systematic framework for normatively assessing inequality, for evaluating poverty, or for identifying intolerable tyranny and violations of liberty, Sen highlights correctly the great relevance of a possibility of social choices.
However, Sen fails in his attempt to present a persuasive falsification of Arrow’s theorem. Although, Sen may correctly stresses the centrality of informational broadening for resolving the impossibility in social choice, he does not succeed in locating any objective measure of deprivation or welfare which would allow a solid comparison between individuals – the key element in his suggested approach. Even though the economist puts in great efforts to elucidate the significance of interpersonal comparability – in the end he is incapable to proof its feasibility in a plausible way.As one may consider the complexity of the chosen language as a yardstick for the clarity of Sen’s arguments, it becomes apparent that Sen choses a set of rather vague formulations in his synthesis and abstains from taking an unequivocal stand to the subject matter.
Instead, the professor tends to lose himself in minor matters, leaving some key aspects of his claim unaddressed. Moreover, by outlining the centerpiece of his approach – the possibility of interpersonal comparability – Sen is prone to questionable personal assessments, concealing the fragility of his scant evidence.This finding is also reflected in the accumulation of cases in which the economist supports his assertions by taking reference to self-led studies. The following Sen’s statements and assumptions might be exemplarily for these findings: At a certain point, Sen advocates judging individual advantages in terms of the respective capabilities, which a person has, to live the way he or she has reason to value.
The economist argues that such an approach would focus on the substantive freedoms that people have, rather than only on the particular outcomes with which they end up.However, Sen keeps the reader guessing about concrete determinants of such “a way he or she has reason to value”. The same applies to meaning of the term “substantive freedoms”. At another point, Sen claims that in the recent literature in applied welfare economics, various ways of making sensible interpersonal comparisons of well-being would have been emerged.
Subsequently he complements this statement with the proposition, that the possibilities of practical welfare economics and social choice would have been immensely widened through these innovative, empirical works.However, Sen neither gives any further information about these empirical works, nor he explains in which way the possibilities would have been widened. The economist confines itself to the large assumption that there could be little doubt about the welfare-economic interest in the far-reaching uses of empirical information that have emerged from these works. In view of these findings one may justifiably argues that Sen’s presented lecture lacks substance and it only scratches the surface of the complex ongoing discussion about the nature of social choice theory.
However, to come to Sen’s defend; the actual reason for this lecture – namely the Nobel Prize giving ceremony – should be considered, too. It is arguable that a Nobel Prize Lecture might be the wrong occasion for an extensive and conclusive analysis of a subject-matter. However, regardless of the veracity or otherwise of that objection, it serves as a bad excuse for Sen not to focus on the main findings of his work – including the disclosure of conclusive evidence when available. C.
RecommendationIt would certainly be the wrong approach to assess the scientific value of Sen’s work by only looking at any basic findings in the present lecture. Given the complexity of the treated subject matter as well as the actual occasion of the lecture, such judgments would be misplaced. Sen may fails in producing the required evidence to refute Arrow’s impossibility theorem, however, the economist approaches profound questions of welfare economics – a central matter in our understanding of the interaction between the government, the economy, and the society.With this end in view, Sen addresses himself to anyone concerned about social welfare in a strict sense and the well-being of humankind in a wider sense.
With that said, Sen’s reflections are of great relevance for a wide audience, including (first and foremost) other economists anxious to prove the feasibility of objective interpersonal comparisons, present or future policy-makers engaged in resolving social choice problems, economic leaders taking far-reaching decisions, but also common citizens standing up for a fair distribution of goods.In this context, Sen’s lecture should be seen as an unspectacular but solid starting point, defining the scope for further reflections. No doubt, given the significance of social choice theory, we would do well to put more efforts in detecting ways to resolve Arrow’s uncomfortable, but persistent theorem.