≡ Menu

Collective Decisions Differ Fundamentally From Private Decisions

In my latest column for AIER, I write about a fundamental – though too-often ignored – difference between collectively made choices and privately made choices. A slice:

When an individual chooses, he always does so under the constraints and amidst the enormous opportunities created by the choices of countless other people. For example, if I choose to dine out this evening, my choice depends on the myriad choices of other people – their choices to operate and work in restaurants, to grow and deliver food, to ensure that electricity and gas and insurance services are supplied to restaurants; the list of such choices that other people must make in order for me to dine out is practically endless. I get to satisfy my particular preference to dine out this evening only because, and only insofar as, many other people are choosing in ways that make it possible for me to satisfy this particular preference and to do so in a way that’s easy for me to predict.

As an individual, each of my choices is made within the setting of an astonishingly large number of choices made by other people. I simply take these other choices as given. In making choices for me and my family I don’t aim at any large-scale change of society. The healthy liberal tolerance of individual choices is a tolerance of individual, relatively small choices made in such a setting.

It’s therefore a grave error to leap from the proper respect and deference that we have for such individual choices to the conclusion that “the people” as voters – analogized to an individual – should be free to choose in whatever ways they, as a group, wish. Unlike my choosing to dine out this evening at a local restaurant, if a majority of the citizens of a country vote, say, to have the government supply health care, this ‘choice’ doesn’t have the advantage of being made in the context of lots of other people choosing in ways that make fulfillment of this desire very likely and in ways that I can easily envision when I make my choice.

Even the most sincere and intense desire of a majority of, or even all, voters for government-supplied health care is not sufficient to create the institutional details necessary to make such health-care provision a reality. Thus, the collective decision to create government-supplied health care requires a great many other collective decisions regarding the uncountable details of just how government will achieve this goal. Yet there’s no reason to suppose that a majority’s desire for some collective good, such as government-supplied health care, is also a desire for all the many changes that must be made in society in order to make this collective good a reality.

And so while we can and should respect the peaceful choices that individuals make for themselves (because every such choice is made with the confidence that countless other people are choosing in ways that make fulfillment of that choice very likely), it’s a mistake to suppose that we should accord similar respect to the collective choices made by voters. The institutional implications of individuals choosing within markets and other private spheres differ categorically from the institutional implications of individuals voting to make major changes to the economy or society.

Next post:

Previous post: