Sen’s Liberal Paradox

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    • 00:09

      KEITH DOWDING: Hi.I'm Keith Dowding, and I'm a professorof political science at the Australian National University.I'm going to talk briefly about the lessons and problemsof Amartya Sen's little theorem, also knownas the impossibility of the Paretian liberal.Amartya Sen's proof of the impossibility of the Paretian

    • 00:30

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: liberal is a key argument against consequentialismor welfarism.That is, that actions are justified solelyin terms of their consequences for the welfare of a societyoverall.We're not going to give a formal demonstration of Sen's proofas such.I'm only going to give an example,and then discuss what we make of that example

    • 00:52

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: in the light of Sen's proof.First, I'm going to briefly explainthe concept of Pareto efficiency,because that underlies welfarism and Sen'simpossibility argument.And then I'll produce an example where assigning rights does notlead to a Pareto efficient outcome.

    • 01:12

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: I well then suggest how Sen turns such examplesinto critique of welfarism as a moral doctrine.And I'll say why I don't think Sen's proof works in that way.Now Vilfredo Pareto wanted an uncontroversial wayof defining when one social outcome is better than another.Given that people have different views, combining their views

    • 01:34

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: would rarely reach results that are uncontroversiallybetter than other results.However, Pareto suggests that if you can make one person betteroff without harming anyone else, thenmaking that person better off is uncontroversiallyan improvement.And this is what we now call a Pareto improvement.

    • 01:56

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: So if everybody prefers situation X to situation Y,then we say that situation X is Pareto efficiency.When no more Pareto improvements are possible,then we say that that situation is Pareto optimal.And we can just note here that theremight be many different Pareto optimal points.

    • 02:16

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: Now we can illustrate this in a figure, where wehave two individuals, i and j.As we're moving along the vertical axis,we increase i's utility.Moving along the horizontal axis, we increase j's utility.The PPR represents the feasibility frontier,beyond which for some reason we can't move.Any move from point A to any point within the triangle ABC

    • 02:40

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: is a Pareto improvement.And any point on the BC arc, we calledPareto optimal from point A.Now these notions of Pareto efficiency and Paretooptimality are used a low in economics to showwhat are supposed to be uncontroversialjudgments about economic improvements.Sen suggests that sometimes Pareto improvements bump up

    • 03:02

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: against liberal rights.Let me give an example.Imagine in a given health district,there's a shortage of the MMR vaccine.The health authority knows that it cannot vaccinate allthe children who live there.So they decide to find out which parents wouldlike their children vaccinated.And to that end, they send out the following letter.

    • 03:24

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: Dear Resident, unfortunately we have limitedsupplies of the MMR vaccine.We will vaccinate those children whose parents wish it.If more parents want their children vaccinatedthan vaccine is available, we willuse other criteria, such as the likely effects on childrento decide how to ration the vaccine.

    • 03:45

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: No child will be vaccinated against their parents' wishes.Do you want your child vaccinated?Please circle one of the following, yes, no.So here the authorities decided to give parentsthe right to decide whether or not their child shouldbe vaccinated.OK.Now we simplify the story.

    • 04:07

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: Imagine in this health district, only two families live,the Greens and the Browns.They each have one child.There are two children, Martha Green and Jeremy Brown.Now Martha Green has a compromised immune system.But the Green family still recognize the importanceof vaccination.

    • 04:28

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: So whilst in one sense they don't want Martha vaccinated,they would sooner that she was vaccinatedthan no one is vaccinated.The Brown family believe it is wrong to grow the MMR vaccineby using chicken embryos.So they prefer that no one's vaccinated at all.However, the Brown family also recognize the problem

    • 04:48

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: of Martha's compromised immune system.So out of sympathy, believing that if someonewas to be vaccinated out of the two children,the would sooner it was Jeremy than Martha.Now we can represent the preferences of the familiesby saying that the Green family preferredJeremy to be vaccinated over Martha over neither.

    • 05:09

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: The Brown family prefer neither vaccinated,to Jeremy being vaccinated, to Martha being vaccinated.Given those responses, in the letterthe Green family will say yes to the vaccine for Martha,since they prefer Martha to be vaccinatedover no one being vaccinated.The Brown family say no to the vaccine

    • 05:29

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: for Jeremy, since they prefer no one to be vaccinatedover Jeremy being vaccinated.But we see that these two choices contradictwhat they both prefer, because theyboth prefer Jeremy to be vaccinatedthan Martha receiving the MMR.So by exercising their rights, they'vecompromised the Pareto efficient outcome.

    • 05:52

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: Now I take this example to be uncontroversial.Clearly, if you allow people to exercise their rights,then we might end up with outcomes that are inefficient.We can easily give lots of such examples.But Amartya Sen wants to go furtherthan this rather obvious claim.What he shows is there can be no social choice

    • 06:14

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: rule that guarantees rights and guarantees Pareto efficiency.Briefly, it shows the three conditions are incompatible.The first, condition U, unrestricted domain,says that every logically possible setof individual orderings is includedin the domain of the social choice rule.

    • 06:34

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: That just means we're not going to excludeany sets of preferences.And in those contexts, such a rule is pretty uncontroversial.The second condition is condition P, the Paretoprincipal.This is the one we've already met.It says if everyone prefers X to Y,then society must prefer X to Y.Finally, we have condition L, minimal liberalism.

    • 06:57

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: This states that there at least two individuals suchthat for each of them, there is at leastone pair of alternatives over which she or he is decisive.That is, there is a pair such that if she or he professed Xto Y, then society should prefer X to Y. Nowthat it is Sen's social choice characterizationof a necessary condition for someone to hold a right.

    • 07:20

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: Now I want to suggest that it's the final condition whichis the suspicious one.I want us to ask whether or not it reallycharacterizes a right.We can add in our example that it'sthe manner in which the Brown and Green families exercisetheir rights that leads to the Pareto sub-optimal solution.The two families could get together.And given they both agree it would be better overall

    • 07:42

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: for Jeremy to have the MMR jab than Martha,they could agree to respond to the letters appropriately,thereby guaranteeing Pareto efficiency.In doing so, they would still be exercising their rights.After all, their rights are to sign the letter how they wish.And if they've agree to sign them suchthat Jeremy gets the jab, well then they've

    • 08:05

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: signed them as they wish.However, such an agreement between the two familiesmight be impossible to enforce.The Browns can promise to sign off on Jeremy having the jab,but then renege on the deal, ensuring no one gets the jab.And to some extent, that is the public policy pointof the arguments against welfarism.

    • 08:26

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: Forcing a community to do what is in everyone's interestsdoes not respect rights, since rights include controllinga decision over a choice over some outcome,even that choice is against one's own best interests.But Sen wants to make a stronger claim.He wants to claim that liberalismis anti-welfarist at an ontological not simply

    • 08:49

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: a pragmatic level.That's is, what is right is a right, and not the outcomethat everyone prefers.What is right is the exercising of rights,not getting what we all prefer.This conclusion is used to privilege individual rights,even when we can see that people exercising rightsmakes everyone worse off.

    • 09:11

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: According to Sen, the rights are privilegedbecause liberalism things rights are better or more importantthan it thinks welfare is.But has he shown that?His contradiction trades upon social choice language.In his condition L, he defines a necessary conditionof a right such that if a person prefers X to Y, then society

    • 09:35

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: should prefer X to Y. But why should society prefer X to Y?Rights normally mean that if someone has a rightto a choice between two alternatives, X and Y,and if that person prefers X to Y,then society will allow that personto choose X. Society doesn't haveto prefer the choices made.

    • 09:57

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: What we can say is that if society prefers that societyrecognizes rights, what they preferis for the person to have the right to choose,not that we have to like the choice that's made.If we cannot enforce a contract that will lead to an outcomethat everyone prefers to the outcome we get withoutenforcement, then society is worse off.

    • 10:18

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: Now society might be better off having rights then havingsuch enforcement procedures.But having rights does not mean that wehave to prefer the outcomes that exercising rights brings about.Now the point of my way of characterizing the problemrather than Sen's is that it does notstate in advance of any example that rightsshould trump outcomes, because rights overall are better.

    • 10:40

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: Rather it suggests the where there are such conflicts,we need to look at each case to seewhether the costs of enforcement are too great in that case.Sometimes outcomes should trump rights.And sometimes rights should trump outcomes.This does mean as Sen suggests that we cannot have a simplesocial choice rule that determines the result for all

    • 11:03

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: cases.So Sen's impossibility theorem isimportant for bringing to our attentionthe fact of potential conflicts between social welfareand individual rights.However, as many liberals have argued against Sen,liberal societies can respect rights whilstexamining case by case when it mightbe best overall to trump rights with the consideration

    • 11:26

      KEITH DOWDING [continued]: of overall social welfare.Sen has not shown at an ontological levelthat rights have moral precedence over welfare.He has many demonstrated in the starkest possible manner,that sometimes trading rights for welfareis a problematic decision for society,and one that they need to take care over.

Sen’s Liberal Paradox

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Abstract

Professor Keith Dowding explains Sen's liberal paradox, which challenges the concept of Pareto efficiency. Dowding, in turn, challenges Sen by asking if the exercise of one individual's rights can outweigh other parties exercising their own rights at the same time.

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Sen’s Liberal Paradox

Professor Keith Dowding explains Sen's liberal paradox, which challenges the concept of Pareto efficiency. Dowding, in turn, challenges Sen by asking if the exercise of one individual's rights can outweigh other parties exercising their own rights at the same time.

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