Philosophy

The bell curve of individual choice

What is the relationship between individual choice and collective choice? What should be the domain over which a democracy chooses? Prevailing answers to these questions are an important factor affecting the size of government. One argument why imperfect foresight should favor limited government, or no government at all, involves the difference between how individual and collective choices shape a social state of affairs. As the political philosopher Anthony de Jasay writes in his essay “Is Limited Government Possible? (reprinted in the book Against Politics):

When a social state of affairs, instead of being collectively decided, is left to emerge from a large number of individual decisions, the effects of the latter tend to be normally distributed: a few prove disastrous, a few are superbly good, and most are middling. The likelihood of the resulting state of affairs being totally disastrous or wholly superb is negligible. When, however, one collective choice is responsible for a state of affairs, no normal distribution can be relied upon. A single wrong decision that “seemed a good idea at the time” suffices to cause disaster. (…) This is an argument for limiting the capacity of government to produce change; an argument which, if it does not appeal to everyone, should at least appeal to the mistrustful, the cautious, and the worldly-wise.”

A related and positive argument for allowing individual choice to prevail over collective choice is that the complex interplay of individual choice in a competitive environment will produce individual and “collective” outcomes that could not have been imagined by public policy makers. It is hard not to note the parallels of such a perspective and biological evolution.

De Jasay’s argument raises an important question. How do we evaluate whether a certain public policy  has produced a state of affairs that is a total disaster? One option is to compare it to what theoretically might have been possible. But a more realistic and popular answer is to compare it to the state of affairs in societies where such public policies were absent.

But this raises a troubling scenario for advocates of individual choice and competition. How can we properly evaluate the outcome of a policy when there is no society left that has not adopted it? As recent responses to real or imagined crises have shown, the dominant response to a failure of collective choice is not to curtail public choice, but to increase it and encourage “co-operation” and “coordination” between governments.

If the logic of collective choice puts us on the high road to one government, one policy, one currency, one central bank etc., how will we ever know by means of empirical observation that our policies are a disaster ? Would we trust a  biochemist who persistently claims to have produced a superior form of life after obliterating all competition between evolved and competing lifeforms?

Why do we support collective choice? Perhaps one reason is that we overestimate the effect of collective choice on our lives, are addicted to discussions about it, and underestimate the effect of individual choice. For most problems, “unilateral” individual choice is a more effective means to produce “change” than engaging in politics.  Problems that are not of this nature often involve the desire to make a person do something that he would not have done without compulsion.