Social Welfare and Unanimity

Like James Buchanan, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and many others before me, I invoke the “unanimity” condition whenever talking about social welfare (aka “the Greater Good”).  The reason for this is simple: only through unanimous agreement can something truly be said to be for the greater good; that it improves social welfare.

Welfare economists (and others) will call me crazy for such a claim.  “Of course that’s not true!” they say.  “Simply look at the benefits the beneficiaries get, the costs the payers pay, and if the benefit is higher than the cost, then it increases social welfare.”  This kind of cost-benefit analysis is important, I’ll grant that, but for the individual, not society as a whole.  Extrapolating to the societal, or collective, level gets messy.  The reason why is simple: valuation of costs and benefits are subjective.  For any given individual, the valuation of the benefit of Good X is likely to be different from the valuation of the cost of Good X.  Aggregating those valuations gets very very tricky and it ultimately leads to judgement calls by the analyst/policy maker.

If we want to make the claim that a collective action benefits the greater good, and we want to be able to say this positively and not normatively (that is, to eliminate judgement calls), then we need to apply the same standards as at the individual level, the most important of which being unanimity.  In an individual action, all parties agree to interact; if there is no unanimous agreement, the interaction does not take place.  If one disagrees, then we can conclude he does not stand to benefit from the interaction.  Extrapolating this to collective action (that is, more than two people interacting), then the only way to positively claim the action benefits the group as a whole is if it is chosen unanimously.

At this point, I provide only assertions and light reasoning.  An upcoming blog post will go much more in depth and I will attempt to prove my assertion, using the reasoning of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock.  However, this post is long enough as it is and I will bore the reader no further.

20 thoughts on “Social Welfare and Unanimity

  1. Jon,

    I can’t think of any role at all for government that gets unanimous support. I wouldn’t agree that you need unanimity for a collective action to serve the greater good but if you really do believe this then that logic should lead you to be an anarchist.

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    • I agree that there is not likely any role for government that can get unanimous support (well, maybe a few. Military, probably. Law enforcement, perhaps).

      But i don’t think you necessarily need unanimity for collective action. You just need it to make the claim that everyone is improved by said action.

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      • Jon,

        Well military won’t work as an example of unanimity because there will always be pacifists and there will always be people who object to how that military is used.

        And anarcho-capitalists don’t agree want vigilantes and paid private security to take over law enforcement from government.

        But we agree on the larger point. You don’t need unanimity to justify collective action. That is a formula for paralysis.

        But when you do take collective action over the objections of some in the collective you need to think very carefully about the rights of the objectors.

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        • Greg G.

          That is a formula for paralysis.

          You say that as if it was a bad thing.

          But when you do take collective action over the objections of some in the collective you need to think very carefully about the rights of the objectors.

          Do you mean the rights of the objectors not to be forced against their will?

          How about this. The collective action is taken by, and affects only those who agree. Obviously those who object don’t believe the action works for their benefit, and shouldn’t be subject to the collective decision.

          If individual members of a group have unanimously consented to be subject to the will of the majority, Then the majority may decide for them. Otherwise there needs to be an opt out clause, and the ability to rescind ones agreement to be bound by a majority decision. Anything else is tyranny of the majority.

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          • Ron,

            There is an opt out clause. You can emigrate. It’s not easy but people have done it throughout all of human history.

            Even in an an-cap society some people will object to the prevailing norms of the society. They will experience that as a tyranny of the majority. They may emigrate (it’s not easy) or stay and complain.

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          • Ron H, don’t forget to pay your expatriation tax or emigration tax before the US government let’s you emigrate. It is only fair after all. BTW, where are to emigrating to? Bon voyage!

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          • Libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and progressives oppose physical walls along the border to keep people out. SHouldn’t we also oppose expatriation tax or emigration taxes, which are non-physical walls designed to keep people in?

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          • Greg G.

            There is an opt out clause. You can emigrate. It’s not easy but people have done it throughout all of human history.

            At great cost and hardship to themselves. Emigration isn’t a viable option because there’s no longer any place on Earth a person can move to (except Antarctica) where there isn’t some form of government forcing people to act against their will. the “New World” is now fully populated and arbitrary and invisible lines now surround every available patch of dry land. The maximum cost of opting out should be the total loss of benefits provided by membership in the group.

            If benefiting individual members isn’t the purpose of the collective, then why the heck was it formed in the first place? You may believe that individuals exist to benefit the collective, but I believe it’s the other way around.

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      • Jon

        1.) “But i don’t think you necessarily need unanimity for collective action. You just need it to make the claim that everyone is improved by said action.

        Must I pay for that “improvement” whether or not I want it or whether I consider it an improvement?

        2.) “ … only through unanimous agreement can something truly be said to be for the greater good; that it improves social welfare.

        One and two seem like contradictory statements, Jon, and #1 seems like a really slippery slope. Who gets to decide, and what happened to subjective value? Can I decide for you? Can I and 51% of the group decide collectively, for example, that forcing everyone who is overweight to reduce their caloric intake is a legitimate action because it improves everyone? Assuming that reducing obesity is, in fact, an improvement.

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        • I don’t see the contradiction, Ron. They’re both saying the same thing: the only way one can claim something is for the greater good is if everyone agrees to it.

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          • Then I’m confused by the sentence “You don’t necessarily need unanimity for collective action.” Does the collective action affect people who haven’t agreed?

            Can the collective decide, as in my example, that overweight people would be better off eating less? If everyone affected agrees, then it’s a great idea for everyone to commit to eating less. But Ron is going to yell “Bullshit, I may be overweight but I love eating, so I plan to keep right on stuffing my face everyday.”

            Does the collective get to force me to eat less? Note that I haven’t agreed to be bound by a majority vote in general, or on particular issues.

            I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass, but my status as a member of the “collective” isn’t clear. Do others get to make decisions for me?

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    • BTW, as I’ll explain in my upcoming post, a lot of it will depend on who we’re including in said collective action and what we’re counting as real objections vs trivial objections

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  2. “only through unanimous agreement can something truly be said to be for the greater good; that it improves social welfare.”

    That is true. I look forward to reading your more in-depth blog on this issue.

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  3. Ron,

    >—-“At great cost and hardship to themselves. Emigration isn’t a viable option because…”

    Removing yourself from “society” or a modern market economy or an an-cap world also have costs that make that not viable.

    Such are the problems of being a member of a social species.

    You want to say that it’s not reasonable to expect opportunities that aren’t available in a free market economy. I want to say it’s even less reasonable to expect opportunities that aren’t available anywhere in the world.

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    • Greg G.

      Removing yourself from “society” or a modern market economy or an an-cap world also have costs that make that not viable.

      If those costs only include forgoing the benefits of membership, then they aren’t too high.

      You want to say that it’s not reasonable to expect opportunities that aren’t available in a free market economy. I want to say it’s even less reasonable to expect opportunities that aren’t available anywhere in the world.

      I didn’t understand that.

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  4. Apparently, we can’t have anarcho-capitalism because of “society.” And, we can’t have socialism because it does not work and corruption. It is too bad that no one has ever thought of a system of government that allows societies to be formed where government is limited and under control to allow people to prosper and enjoy their lives. I wonder how such a system might work.

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