When I was a graduate student at UCSD in the midst of the anti-war movement, protesting the war in Vietnam, I went to the library and pondered what would make the world a better place, what could I do to contribute something that might make war less likely and peace time activity more likely. I concluded that more cooperation was needed. More ways to resolve conflicts big and small. For example, democratic voting systems resolve conflicts in such a way that solutions are found that are acceptable to all parties for the most part. I took it for granted that institutions that provided for more cooperation and less competition were more desirable. I thought that this was what the Enlightenment was all about. My heroes were the Enlightenment superstars: Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, John Locke.
As I sat there and went through the stacks, I discovered another field and another set of superstars. Social choice has a long history going back to the French Enlightenment philosophers, the Marquis de Condorcet and Jean-Charles de Borda, and even further back than that. One of the 19th century superstars in this field was none other than the Rev. C. L. Dodgson otherwise known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland. These guys came up with voting systems which are essential to democracy and are essential to the whole notion of cooperation and conflict resolution. The most recent work in this field was by Kenneth Arrow who published a book Social Choice and Individual Values in the 1950s which attempted to generalize conflict resolution in society in both the political and economic spheres. Arrow concluded that this was impossible and came up with his famous Impossibility Theorem which was a generalization using sophisticated mathematics of the paradox of voting that was known to Condorcet hundreds of years ago. Therefore, Arrow concluded democracy was impossible and any economic system other than capitalism was impossible too. Hmmm, I thought, this is obviously a cop-out because some political and economic systems are more desirable than others and Arrow has done nothing except to throw cold water on any framework that could consider these. I took it as my self-assigned task to prove that Arrow was wrong, that social choice is possible. My work can be found on the website Social Choice and Beyond.
My latest work is "Politonomics: A Meta-Theory Encompassing Political and Economic Decision Making." This is from the Abstract:
In “Social Choice and Individual Values,” Kenneth Arrow said , “In a capitalist democracy there are essentially two methods by which social choices can be made: voting, typically used to make ‘political’ decisions, and the market mechanism, typically used to make ‘economic’ decisions.” This paper resolves that dichotomy by developing a meta-theory from which can be derived methods for both political and economic decision making. This theory overcomes Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem in which he postulates that social choice is impossible and compensates for strategic voting, an undesirable aspect of decision making according to Gibbard and Satterthwaite. Thus the politonomics meta-theory spawns both political and economic systems which are indeed possible and which cannot be gamed. In a typical voting system the outcome of an election among several candidates results in one realized outcome – the winner of the election - which applies to all voters. In a typical economic system, a consumer may choose among a variety of possible baskets of consumer items and work programs with the result that multiple realized outcomes are possible with a unique or quasi-unique outcome for each worker/consumer. As the number of possible realized outcomes of a political-economic decision making process increases, the process becomes more economic and less political in nature and vice versa. We show that as the number of possible realized outcomes increases, voter/consumer/worker satisfaction or utility increases both individually and collectively.
I never considered, as I sat there pondering, that there would be people who would argue that what the world needed was not more cooperation but more competition, but, as I sit here today, I realize that the whole conservative right wing is in favor of just that. They want not more cooperation in either the political or economic realm but more competition believing that only winners should prevail and human progress is only possible when you give free reign to those among us who are the most talented, intelligent and ambitious. They believe that competition will result in the strongest among us winning just as Nietzsche believed that a good war hallows every cause. Their ethic is that the naturally gifted elite should prevail, and they are not concerned about what happens to the rest of us or of who is trampled in the process. This is also the philosophy of Ayn Rand as espoused in her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
The debate today about increasing inequality in the world has to do with the prevalent conservative belief that only the strong should survive and be promoted and that freedom should preclude equality as a value. The rich should get more tax breaks because they are the true instigators of human progress and should be catered to at every turn. Perhaps a few crumbs will trickle down to the rest of us. This kind of thinking is counter to the Enlightenment and is fast returning us to a neo-Dark Age. No more is human progress to be measured in reduction of poverty and extension of basic services like health care to everyone. It is to be measured in terms of the great advances to human civilization like iPads, iPods and iPhones. People who are capable of coming up with these advances should be cut every break and none of the billions of dollars they make should be transferred by government to the least of these among us like the homeless, the poverty-stricken and the destitute because, well, they are the least among us, not the best among us who should be given every break.
Nevertheless, I remain in the camp of those who think that more cooperation in the political and economic spheres will do more for human progress than more competititon. I also have spent about 40 years in my spare time trying to prove that Arrow was wrong, that social choice is not impossible and that democracy in both the political and economic spheres is not only possible but desirable. This has a lot to do with voting systems, democratic institutions and constitutions but also with cooperative economic systems in which freedom is seen not as the freedom to make money at other people's expense (the losers in the competitive struggle) but the freedom to work as much or as little as one chooses and in accordance with one's preferences as much as possible. Freedom from work is for many people just as desirable a goal as the freedom to make billions of dollars, and wealthy people who don't have to work would be the first to tell you that. Economic democracy in my view is more desirable than cutthroat capitalism, and can be practiced not only at the national level, but at the enterprise level in the form of co-ops like the Mondragon Corporation.
Marx's famous definition of the "good society" was "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." This of course was perverted in defining communism as a society where all the wealth created by those who had a lot of talent and ability as well as a strong work ethic combined with those who had not so much in those categories would be thrown into a pot and then divided up in equal portions and handed out by the government. Such need not be the case in achieving the "good society." The "needs" part is pretty basic and could probably be accomplished with abouit 10% of the wealth that exists in the world today. Most people can provide for their own needs - no transfer necessary. There are some who cannot and to transfer a small part of the wealth of the wealthy to provide for their basic needs seems to me to be no more than humane. That still leaves the vast amount of wealth in the hands of the wealthy. In other words if you total up how much it would cost to provide for all the basic needs of everyone in the world and tote up how much wealth there exists in the world, it would take a fraction of all that wealth to provide the basic needs for everyone who cannot provide for their basic needs themselves who turn out to be mainly children, seniors and handicapped (whether physically or mentally) people.
A recent documentary by German TV station Deutsche Welle pointed out that half the world's production of food is wasted because super markets only want perfect vegetables and ones with slight blemishes are thrown out even though they are perfectly edible. Shelves need to be fully stocked with bread right up till closing hours even though any bread left over at the end of day will be thrown out as "day old." All the food that is thrown out by advanced nations is enough to feed all the world's hungry three times over although no governments or other institutions, much less the supermarkets themselves, seem to be interested in organizing that effort. This is what I mean by the fact that the basic needs of all the world's people could be satisfied without subtracting much if anything from the world's wealthy although a lot of them would admit they do not need incomes of millions of dollars a day like the Fortune 400 billionaires have.
Another documentary noted that Finnish school children have the highest test scores in the world despite the fact that they have one of the world's shortest school days with 15 minutes intermissions between classes during which time they are encouraged to go outdoors and play. All grades have large amounts of music, art and self-defined projects. They don't teach to the test. They are concerned with the development of each student as an overall human being not just as some super competitive cog in a nationally competitive machine. The Chinese on the other hand have the opposite approach demanding that children learn by rote methods and extra hours in school and at study. The Finnish schools are all public and everyone is accepted into every class. There are no advanced classes or tracking of students into lesser classes if they are not among the elite intellectually. Everyone is thrown in together; yet they have the best outcomes of any country in the world on standardized international tests. Egalitariansim seems to gain the best results.
An egalitarian ethic in which the concern is for the development of the whole human being rather than a promotion of just those who have superior abilities in accordance with a competitive ethic seems to me to be the most humanitarian way to treat both children and adults. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights already provides for most of the "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs" ethic. It calls for free health care which most advanced socierties, with the exception of the United States, already provide. It calls for free education and other public institutions and covers most basic human needs including food and shelter.
Here are Articles 25 and 26:
- (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
- (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
- (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
- (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
- (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
All the basic needs of everyone on the planet could be provided for without subtracting much of the wealth of the rich since most people can provide for at least their basic needs without any transfer of wealth whatsover being necessary. Interestingly, the US among other nations does provide food security for the poor through its food stamps program. And of course seniors are provided for through Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, programs which conservative free marketers are anxious to change or eliminate.
I am with the Enlightenment thinkers especially the English utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who thought about the happiness of society as a whole and concluded that everyone counted, not only the ones with exceptional talent, ability and other admirable qualities. A society should be judged by how it treats "the least of these my brethren" which is the core and essence of Jesus' teachings but, sad to say, not the core and essence of Christianity as it exists in the world today. Perhaps we should start thinking about an alternative constitution for the US which has the world's oldest constitution (236 years old!) while being the world's youngest advanced nation. Other societies including most European societies while being older than the US have newer constitutions. As far-sighted as the Founding Fathers were, a new and updated constitution incorporating not only political but also economic rights along the lines of the UN Declaration of Human Rights would do much to right the wrongs and shortcomings of present day America and the world.