The Flaws in Sen’s Case Against Paretian Libertarianism

Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 211)


Every society is characterized by a system of social institutions. We regard some of these systems as superior to others. But no one who thinks very long about social institutions believes that any currently existing system is optimal. When we try to explain why existing systems are deficient, we usually appeal to normative principles that formulate conditions which we think any fully adequate social system should satisfy. There are, of course, differences of opinion over these principles. Some social and political philosophers advocate adequacy conditions that others dispute. However, such disagreements usually take place in the context of a shared assumption that it is possible (at least in principle) for some system of social institutions to meet all of the adequacy conditions that need to be imposed on such systems.


Social Choice Social Institution Choice Function Institutional System Social Choice Function 
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  1. 1.
    See Sen, “The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal”, Journal of Political Economy, 78 (January/February 1970), 152–7; Collective Choice and Social Welfare. San Francisco: Holden Day, 1970, clips. 6 &: 6*; “Liberty, Unanimity, and Rights”, in Sen, Choice, Welfare and Measurement. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1982, pp. 291–326; “Liberty and Social Choice”, Journal of Philosophy, 80 (1983), 5–28.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Thomas Schwartz, The Logic of Collective Choice. Columbia: New York, 1985.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Sen uses this example in “The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal” and in Collective Choice and Social Welfare. To clarify certain matters that Sen’s original presentation leaves obscure, I shall offer a slightly modified version of the example. These changes do not have any substantive importance.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    The basic arguments in the following two sections bear a resemblance to reasoning that has recently been presented by Robert Sugden. (See “Why Be Consistent? A Critical Analysis of Consistency Requirements in Choice Theory”, Economica, 52 (May 1985), 167–83.) However, Sugden and I arrived at our arguments independently.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Raveendra N. Batra & Prasanta K. Pattanaik, “On Some Suggestions for Having Non-Binary Social Choice Functions”, Theory and Decision, 3 (1972), 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Sugden, op. cit.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    A system of social institutions satisfies α if, and only if, for every social choice function C in its range, C judges an alternative x to be one of the best alternatives in a set S only if it also judges x to be one of the best alternatives in every subset of S to which x belongs. Other names for α are “the Chernoff Condition” and “the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives”. Sen staunchly defends α in Collective Choice and Social Welfare, calling it “a most appealing condition” (p. 81) and “a very basic requirement of rational choice” (p. 17). The relation between BICH and or is discussed at length in Sen, “Social Choice Theory: A Re-examination”, Econometrica, 45 (January 1977), 53–89. See also Blair, “Impossibility Theorems without Collective Rationality”, Journal of Economic Theory, 13 (1976), 361–379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Batra & Pattanaik, On Some Suggestions for Having Non-Binary Social Choice Functions, Theory and Decision, 3 (1972), 1–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Sen, “Liberty, Unanimity and Rights”, p. 311.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    This theorem is discussed in Collective Choice and Social Welfare, pp. 81–2, and in “Liberty, Unanimity and Rights”, p. 311.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Collective Choice and Social Welfare, p. 82.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyCarnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA

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