Classical Amartya Sen and a Baroque World
But if this is true, then a curious conundrum emerges: What is Amartya Sen – the author of some of the most influential ideas in contemporary social thought – doing in a theoretical world that does not seem concerned with the “real” world? we have to recognize the baroque facade of social choice like this – a facade! What appears to be mathematical magic can shed light on some of the most basic problems facing a society.
There is no better evidence to support this claim than collective choice and social protection. This book has been recognized as a classic since its first publication in 1970. Amartya Sen mixes logic, economy and philosophy to establish a few propositions. These propositions are the foundations from which Sen proceeded to articulate the influential ideas that we associate with him. In addition, these proposals transformed the disciplines of welfare economics, development economics, political philosophy and ethics. Now, almost 50 years after its first appearance, this classic has been reissued in a new edition. This new edition has kept the original text. But it completes the 1970 edition with a new introduction and 11 new chapters.
The first thing the reader will notice is the unusual structure of the book. Each chapter is divided into starred and unstarred parts. In the unstarred part, a discussion takes place in ordinary language. But in the starry part, the plain language discussion turns beautifully, if I may, from an aesthetic remark, into a line of reasoning using precise definitions, axioms, and evidence. This stylistic experience anticipates a characteristic that characterizes Amartya Sen’s work: the beautiful and accessible exhibition of essentially abstract ideas.
But what is the problem addressed in these chapters?
The problem of social choice is due to a work of genius that manifested itself in the form of a devastating exercise in logic – the “General Theorem of Possibility”, wrongly, due to Kenneth Arrow. Are we going from many different rankings of one option set to a single ranking of that option set? This movement is called an aggregation and is at the heart of social choice theory.
An aggregation looks like a quixotic math exercise, but once you recognize it, these are ubiquitous activities in a society. To illustrate their ubiquity: the result of an election requires aggregating the votes of different individuals, a Supreme Court ruling requires aggregating the verdict of the individual judges who constitute a bench, the measure of poverty or inequality in a society requires aggregating different well-being. levels of individuals in this society, among others. Arrow’s theorem is devastating because it established that an aggregation is “impossible” to obtain. Impossible, anyway, without violating some very weak conditions of rationality. Another way to put it is to say: Rational aggregation is impossible.
The 1970 edition of this book took Arrow’s problem as a starting point and expanded it in various directions. Two of them are, for me, the brightest. First, Sen delved into Arrow’s aggregation problem. Second, he discussed possible ways to solve this problem.
How to go deeper into a problem described as devastating? Arrow has established the impossibility of “rational” aggregation. By rational, we mean certain normative consistency requirements. Sen established the impossibility of a Pareto liberal. Although it was published as an independent journal in 1970, it appears here in Chapter Six (“The Liberal Paradox”). This result argues: it is impossible to get an aggregation, say an allocation of resources, which is both “efficient” (in a weakly utilitarian way) and which respects individual freedom (in a very minimal form). I note, however, what this result has achieved. satisfaction of normative requirements falling within the domain of rationality, the normative requirements that Sen wanted an aggregation to satisfy fall within the domain of ethics. , it is useful to point out. In particular, it is useful to see a characteristic which characterizes the work of Amartya Sen: the importance of ethics, non-utilitarian ethics in particular, to the concerns of the economy, even those who i are unfamiliar with social choice will associate him with being typically Sen.
Is there a way out of Arrow’s devastating exercise in logic? The brightest chapters of the 1970 edition address this question. In Arrow’s system, the information contained in the different rankings to be aggregated is unfairly restrictive. Two hypotheses about ranking contribute to what Sen calls the “information scarcity”. First, the ranking is ordinal or cannot be represented numerically. Second, the different rankings are not comparable or there is no interpersonal comparability. To illustrate this, suppose I rank caviar over fries, and a vegan ranks an apple above an orange. Then, by these two assumptions, we cannot say that I prefer caviar more than a vegan prefers an apple. We also can’t say that going from fries to caviar increases my well-being more than going from an orange to an apple increases the well-being of a vegan. Sen relaxed the two assumptions into a series of logical steps. This allowed more information to be part of the aggregation exercise. I won’t go into the details of these steps, but will leave you with the result. If we allow digital representation without interpersonal comparability, then the impossibility does not go away. However, if we allow interpersonal comparability, then there is a way out of the impossibility, and we can do so with or without digital representation. A remarkable feature of this exercise was that Sen did not treat the concept of interpersonal comparability in a binary way – either we have comparability or we have incomparability. Instead, Sen established a series of results that allow for a continuum of comparisons between these two purposes. Sen called this continuum “partial comparability”.
Now, all of this, I concede, even without the mathematical detail, has a baroque appearance. But to see how this illuminates the world around us, consider the following: A rational aggregation rule that is “possible” if we allow interpersonal comparability is a version of John Rawls’ principle of difference. In social choice jargon, this rule is called the maximin; an extension of it is leximin, which Rawls himself approved. Another example is that unsophisticated measure of poverty that is sadly popular in Indian political circles – the workforce measure. Sen’s well-known critique of both Rawls and the Workforce measurement may be familiar to people, and that both critics use the idea of partial comparability may not be so familiar.
As this shows, the techniques of social choice are the basis of activities as diverse and important as the measurement of poverty and the specification of the principles of distributive justice. There is more to the brightness of social choice, however, especially when applied by a master like Sen. Let me illustrate with one final example. On an abstract level, exploring what aggregation we can achieve by allowing interpersonal comparability is a mathematical exercise – how do we characterize meaningful comparisons? But if we change the terrain of this question from epistemology to ethics, then the question becomes: “Comparisons of what information are justified?” The answer to this is Sen’s most famous formulation – abilities! Sen would continue to develop this further entirely in Commodities And Capabilities, which remains the best book on the subject.
Indeed, the ideas we associate with the more classic Amartya Sen – the value of freedom and action, John Rawls’ deep critique, a human vision of development and progress, the advancement of human rights , the importance of public reasoning, and most The Capability Approach, among others, is based on an overview from this book. This, alas, is not very well understood. It is this misunderstanding that the new edition attempts to correct. While the new chapters in the Expanded Edition respond to criticism, present shorter evidence, generalize some older findings, and provide a systematic overview of how the literature has developed since Arrow’s devastating exercise. It’s mainly about showing how the supposedly baroque world of social choice inspired the ideas we associate with the more classical Sen.
However, the relevance of this book to the concerns of the world does not mean that it can be read on the beach. The arguments presented here are abstract even when judged by conventional standards of academic work. In addition, in advancing these arguments, Sen responds to interlocutors from various academic disciplines and draws on sources from around the world. All of this can make engaging with this book a daunting prospect. Nonetheless, it is these intimidating features of the book that make reading it one of the most intellectually rewarding experiences you will encounter. It’s like attending a masterclass, where one of the great thinkers of our time orchestrates the instruments of logic, normative reasoning, economic analysis and history, to answer some of the deepest questions. that living together in a group or in society raises. For this reason, I hope this book will be banned, so that everyone can read it.
Akshath Jitendranath is a PhD candidate and lecturer at John Stuart Mill College and the Department of Philosophy, VU Amsterdam.
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