Social Choice and Social Welfare

CAMBRIDGE – Human beings have always lived in groups, and their individual lives have invariably depended on group decisions. But the challenges of group choice can be daunting, particularly given the divergent interests and concerns of the group’s members. So, how should collective decision-making be carried out?

A dictator who wants to control every aspect of people’s lives will seek to ignore the preferences of everyone else. But that level of power is hard to achieve. More important, dictatorship of any kind can readily be seen to be a terrible way to govern a society.

So, for both ethical and practical reasons, social scientists have long investigated how the concerns of a society’s members can be reflected in one way or another in its collective decisions, even if the society is not fully democratic. For example, in the fourth century BC, Aristotle in Greece and Kautilya in India explored various possibilities of social choice in their classic books, Politics and Economics, respectively (the Sanskrit title of Kautilya’s book, Arthashastra, translates literally as “the discipline of material wellbeing”).

The study of social choice as a formal discipline first came into its own in the late eighteenth century, when the subject was pioneered by French mathematicians, particularly J. C. Borda and Marquis de Condorcet. The intellectual climate of the time was greatly influenced by the European Enlightenment, with its interest in reasoned construction of a social order, and its commitment to the creation of a society responsive to people’s preferences.