The problem of choice | Lifestyle News, The Indian Express
Collective choice and social protection: increased edition
There are many books that qualify as good, but it is a rare book that can be described as transformative. Straddling economics, philosophy and logic, collective choice and social well-being, Amartya Sen is widely recognized as a transformative and foundational work that has shaped the modern welfare economy.
I still have my dog-eared, read and reread copy of the original 1970 edition, and I have long thought it deserves a new edition because, although it is not intended for mass readership, it has collector’s item status. In addition, the book is organized in an unusual way, alternating between chapters written in ordinary English and intended for all, and technical chapters using mathematical logic and algebra.
The publication of this classic after so many years, in an expanded edition, is an occasion to rejoice. And I’m glad it was decided not to touch the original text but instead to add a new introduction (41 pages) and 11 new chapters at the end (204 pages). The new chapters cover topics and research in which Sen has been engaged since 1970, such as the idea of justice, notions of rights and the relationship between democracy, public discourse and debate.
The central problem of social choice theory is also the central concern of democracy. Given that individuals in any society will have varying preferences, for example in classifying policies differently, how should society as a whole classify these policies? Since people may have different preferences as to who they want as a political leader, how should society aggregate these various preferences and select a leader? While the investigation of these questions dates back over two centuries and has engaged colorful figures like the Marquis de Condorcet, the late 18th century French philosopher and mathematician, and Lewis Carroll – yes, the author of ‘Alice in Wonderland – the big breakthrough came in 1950, when Kenneth Arrow, a graduate student, proved an amazing theorem which is now called Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem (Arrow died on February 21 , a few days after writing this essay). He wrote some simple axioms that any process of aggregating individual preferences into societal preferences should satisfy, and proved that there is no way to satisfy all of these few basic axioms.
This is one of the most amazing theorems because it is, in principle, so simple. Its proof does not require special mathematics or previous theorems. All you need is the ability to reason, but reasoning is so long and sustained that most people find it difficult. I still wonder how Arrow discovered this theorem in what was then practically barren ground.
One of the fascinating stories we learn from Sen’s book is his discovery of Arrow’s theorem. The year of publication of Arrow’s book, 1951, was also the year in which Sen joined the Presidency College, Kolkata, as an undergraduate student. His voracious reader classmate Sukhamoy Chakravarty “borrowed Arrow’s newly arrived book from a local bookstore with an indulgent owner,” and told Sen about the book and this puzzling theorem. This fueled Sen’s emerging interest in democracy and justice, and social choice became an enduring interest.
There was no going back once he started teaching at the Delhi School of Economics in 1963, after completing his doctorate at Cambridge. Sen has published a series of articles in top journals and has become the leading authority on the interface between moral philosophy and economics.
The Delhi school of the late 1960s described in the book was an amazing place. There were a number of economists doing cutting edge research. Sen talks about his “pupil of Orissa, Prasanta Pattanaik”, and how he “took my breath away as he showed his ability to solve new analytical problems, even if they were difficult”. Delhi has become the preeminent center in the world for research on social choices. I remember in the early 1970s, shortly after joining the London School of Economics as a graduate student, famous Japanese economist Michio Morishima met me in the hallway and asked me if I was planning to do my doctorate in social choice theory, adding: “the subject of India.
The late 1960s was also a time when the Delhi School’s economics department counted Jagdish Bhagwati, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, KN Raj and Manmohan Singh among its teachers. Outside of the United States and Great Britain, it’s hard to think of too many places compared to Delhi at this time. It’s something to celebrate.
Because of this, the hateful trolling Sen has been receiving lately, especially after his interview with CNN-IBN where, ahead of the last general election, he said: “As an Indian citizen, I don’t want Modi to be my Prime Minister “, is particularly sad. It should make Indians proud that their country is a democracy where people can freely express their preferences and disagreements with any leader, be it Narendra Modi or Manmohan Singh. Discussing and challenging Sen’s ideas would be welcome – I had some disagreements myself. In fact, a vibrant culture is one where people feel free to challenge any person or any book. But the hate mail and the effort to silence it, even though it is known to come from a very small number of people posing as a lot, is regrettable.
On the other hand, Sen has also received immense appreciation for his contributions to economics and philosophy. I was told that since 1998, when Sen won the Nobel Prize, a disproportionate number of babies in India have been named Amartya. Thanks to Google’s exceptional search engines, whose power is well illustrated in the recent movie Lion, it is possible to verify this claim. So I went to see the frequency of the name Amartya among the young crop of India. And indeed, it is true. Not only do we have the Amartya Chatterjees and the Amartya Ghoshes, there are also the Amartya Singhs and the Amartya Patels, and even – and I know I risk making two enemies now – Amartya Modi.