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Beware All Who Invoke ‘the Will of the People’

In my latest column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I question the notion of the “will of the people.” A slice:

Suppose that you prefer to have 1,000 fewer of your tax dollars spent on health care in order to have 1,000 more spent on national defense, while I have the opposite preference. What’s the correct policy? What’s the “will” of the two of us collectively? There is no obviously correct answer.

Now add your cousin to our small group. Suppose that he prefers to have 10 fewer of his dollars spent on health care and 10 more spent on defense. Suppose also that we three vote on the matter. It seems that there will at least be a majority preference to decrease health care spending and to increase defense spending. But maybe not. You want defense spending to rise by $1,000 while your cousin wants it to rise by only $10. If on the ballot is a proposal to transfer $500 in spending from health care to defense, you might think this amount to be too small, or your cousin might think it to be too big. Thus, one or both of you might vote against the measure.

So I ask again: What’s the will of this group?

The answer is that such a will doesn’t exist. Each of these three unique individuals has a will, but the group does not. And if a group of only three people has no collective will, surely a group of 325 million people has no such will.

Wisdom therefore counsels us to beware of calls to replace individual decision-making with group decision-making.


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