David R. Henderson  

Lemieux: Let's Lose the "We"

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One can barely read a newspaper or listen to a politician's speech without hearing the standard "we as a society" or its derivatives. "You know, we're going to have to make some choices as a society," said President Barack Obama about NSA surveillance. Even some economists, who should know better, fall into this trap. Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist and an architect of Obamacare, declared: "We've decided as a society that we don't want people to have insurance plans that expose them to more than six thousand dollars in out-of-pocket expenses."

The same problem exists in expressions such as "from society's point of view" or "society as a whole," and in the personification of countries, as in "America thinks, or does, this or that." When an Afghan deputy minister for social affairs said that "Afghanistan is an Islamic country and we want our children to be raised in an Islamic way," he was making the same sort of blanket statement, just draped in a different flag.

The truth is that this collective "we" has no scientific meaning.


These are the opening paragraphs of October Feature Article "The Vacuity of the Political 'We'" by Canadian economist Pierre Lemieux.

Lemieux goes on to base his case against "we" on sound economic analysis done by mainstream economists in the last 75 years. I won't tell you who because I want you to read the article. It's not long, it's highly informative, and it could well work as a short reading in a course on Public Choice.

Ok, Ok, I'll give you a hint. Two of the economists whose work he cites to make his case were among the early U.S. winners of the Nobel Prize in economics.

And I'll quote Pierre's story about one of the other economists:

When Duncan Black independently rediscovered cycling in 1942, he was deeply troubled: "On finding that the arithmetic was correct and the intransitivity persisted," he later explained, "my stomach revolted in something akin to physical sickness."


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COMMENTS (24 to date)
Eduard writes:

I feel the same about newspapers and politicians using the word "must" when they mean "should": "Congress must act now to ensure that these steps are actually taken," etc.

B.B. writes:

We are not amused.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Eduard,
Good point. That might make a good article, or at least a good blog post.
@B.B.,
:-)

Finch writes:

Good grief, what a persnickety objection in that link!

I understand being annoyed when "we" implies consensus that doesn't exist, but when "we" just references our decision making processes for measuring our collective preferences, it seems "we" is pretty well defined. I don't mind the usage in the Obama quote or the Gruber quote. "We" [the citizens of the US] elected Obama and his policies, either by voting for him or failing to get out the vote for alternatives. I don't have to like Obama or prefer his healthcare or domestic surveillance policies to feel I share responsibility for the outcome.

Pajser writes:

Lemieux didn't defined criteria for existance of "we" he tried to falsify. So, we have to search for criteria implicitly stated in his article. One criteria is existence of "social indifference curve" independent from income distribution. If "we" exist, then such curve should exist as well. I don't see how this criteria is essential for existence of "we." I never believed that "social indifference curve" is independent from income distribution.

Other criteria is based on premise that individuals have complete, transitive and ordinal set of preferences between all possible political options. And that voting on the base of these preferences should result in transitive and complete set of preferences on the level of whole society. If it doesn't, "we" do not exist. Again, this criteria seems arbitrary; too much is required. And premise seems false.

Andrew_FL writes:

And what, Finch, of those of us who voted against him? Is each of us as responsible as those who voted for him or failed to vote against him, for those policies? Did we also elect him? I believe in that case you stretch the definition of the verb "to elect" beyond the breaking point.

Pajser writes:

"And what, Finch, of those of us who voted against him?"

I'm not Finch, but yes. Member of the criminal gang who voted against new, cruel leader, who was outvoted and decided to stay in gang and do what is told is co-responsible for all cruelties committed by the gang under new leader. Voting against or abstaining is not enough. If dissenter doesn't want to be responsible, he must leave the gang. Membership, not voting is what makes us responsible.

Andrew_FL writes:

Ah, the implied consent doctrine.

I thought I was a tenant, or serf, of the criminal gang, but apparently now I'm a member. Purely because I live in their territory. They don't just own me, the conscript me.

Or maybe I'm a member because when they shake me down a gun point for protection money, I don't refuse?

So residents of a gang controlled neighborhood are obligated, morally, to flee the neighborhood or be morally complicit with their activities.

Ben Kennedy writes:

The article seems to go though great lengths to pick on a rhetorical flourish. I'd say that "we believe X", "X is a social norm", "most people expect X" are essentially equivalent statements - and all perfectly valid things to say

vikingvista writes:

"he must leave the gang"

I know of relatively few people who ever even joined the gang. I know of even fewer people who had it within their power to make any difference in the gang's activities whatsoever.

And yet they all get included in "we". They all are declared responsible. They all have apparently chosen the status quo--even those most vocal and adamant and consistent in their opposition.

Misuse of "we" is for the intent of disregarding disagreement under the false cover of agreement. It is political subterfuge.

Tracy W writes:

Pajser is now comparing the US government to a criminal gang. A remarkably anarchist view.

Finch writes:

"And what, Finch, of those of us who voted against him? Is each of us as responsible as those who voted for him or failed to vote against him, for those policies? Did we also elect him?"

Yes. I voted against him, but I could have pushed harder and I could have been more convincing. Perhaps I could have supported a more moderate candidate rather than one closer to my own preferences, but with a lower chance of winning the general election. You can complain about democracy with some justification, but the voting system is a reasonably fair way to measure what "we" want. I share the blame, and if you are a US citizen, so do you. To answer your question directly, yes, absolutely, you elected him. You participated in a reasonably fair process designed to measure preferences. You can't deny that now that you didn't get precisely what you wanted.

If this was an obviously corrupt or severely biased process, you'd have a point. But it isn't - legitimate complaints are peripheral and don't give reasonable people any doubt in the outcome. After Bush, "we" wanted a leftist in power. The average person did. The median person did. It wasn't very close.

Returning to the original post, if Obama had said "We all know the NSA's domestic spying program is essential," I'd be offended. We don't all know that. When he says we have to make hard choices, that's just a statement of fact.

Daublin writes:

Finch, I don't think any of the given examples represent anything like a consensus of the underlying populations. While I can imagine some uses of "we" that would make sense, any time a politician whips it out, it seems to be to instill a *false* sense of unanimity among a population.

Moreover, voting doesn't change it. These aren't issues that you should change your mind on just because you learn you are in a minority.

Many people who understand medical insurance are horrified by Obama's ideas about how to manage it. Six thousand dollars is not a large out-of-pocket expense for an infrequent event. Not for a typical American.

Many people who feel this way voted for Obama anyway. They voted for him because he's a Democrat, or they voted for him because he's black.

Andrew_FL writes:

I'd push back harder against you, Finch, but you at least you didn't accuse me of membership in a criminal gang.

I will say though that the way you are putting it now I would be less responsible if I had refused to vote.

Or perhaps the only way to not be considered culpable, is also in your view to renounce citizenship and flee the country.

Otherwise, apparently, the rest of you have the right to assimilate me into your Borg collective.

Finch writes:

"I don't think any of the given examples represent anything like a consensus of the underlying populations."

Why should they? I think you're reading way too much into the word "we."

There's essentially nothing "we" have consensus on, which is why that usage is wrong. But there are plenty of thing "we" make choices on, or act on. We elect people. We go to war. We bungle legislation. We buy the iPhone 6. No consensus is implied. That the act is collectively decided or is necessarily collective is implied, often through voting or markets or other ways of aggregating preferences, or because it's only possible for the aggregate to be in one state. If the method of aggregation is reasonable, it's okay to say "we."

My all means, go after implied consent. But when somebody says "we are at war," that's not what is said, meant, or understood. The pedanticism just makes you sound crazy.

Finch writes:

"Or perhaps the only way to not be considered culpable, is also in your view to renounce citizenship and flee the country."

I don't know if that's the only way, but yes, after some time I think that would make you not responsible.

As it is, we don't live in a dictatorship in any meaningful sense, and therefore US citizens have themselves to credit or blame for their own government. Use of the term "we" is appropriate when describing the actions of the government as the actions of the people. That does not mean everyone endorses every action.

I would agree that it might be inappropriate to use the term "we" to describe actions of the government that are very well-kept secrets and don't seem to have the consent of elected officials or the governed. The NSA spying probably doesn't count, but one could imagine things that might.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

this collective "we" has no scientific meaning.
Is it necessary for all meanings to be scientific?
Where would this leave the American Constitution?
It has WE too.

Tracy W writes:
... the voting system is a reasonably fair way to measure what "we" want.

Nope. It's a lousy way. I only get one vote, despite the vast number of things that I want, and the complex nature of trade-offs between them. My vote is a lousy measure even of what I want, and Lemieux notes how it gets even worse as each individual's votes get aggregated up.

I agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others humanity has tried. But that doesn't make it reasonably fair as a way of measuring what we, or even I, want.

We go to war. We bungle legislation. We buy the iPhone 6.

I know I didn't buy an iPhone 6.

I've worked for the NZ government. I felt personally responsible for avoiding bungling legislation in a way I don't feel now. Indeed, it strikes me that if we were all collectively responsible for legislation, no legislation would ever get written in the first place.

And experienced soldiers who've been in the fighting would laugh at your idea that "we go to war."

That the act is collectively decided or is necessarily collective is implied, often through voting or markets or other ways of aggregating preferences, or because it's only possible for the aggregate to be in one state.

Buying an iPhone isn't necessarily collective. The fact that I didn't buy an iPhone hasn't stopped millions of people from buying them. Indeed, a collective iPhone would be no good at all.

Nor is bungling legislation necessarily collective. For example, once a decimal point got missed off a NZ bill, producing a deficit of 10% of GDP, that was the fault of a few individuals.

Nor is electing people collective, it is very common for numerous people to have voted against whoever is elected.

There's nothing necessarily collectively decided about being at war, it's entirely possible for a dictator to declare their country at war. I understand that in Britain the Cabinet does not legally need to get the approval of parliament to go to war. And it's entirely possible to send off a bunch of soldiers while most of the population goes about their domestic life.

Finch writes:

Tracy W, I think your issue is that what you want is not well defined or may be impossible, not that voting doesn't do a decent job of measuring and weighting it. Your difficulty is with "I," not with "we."

"Nor is bungling legislation necessarily collective."

Here I was thinking of Obamacare and the stimulus. We elected a guy knowing this was what he wanted to do and that this was his leadership style. I agree you bear little responsibility for a typographical error, other than the part you played in constructing a system that is not robust to such things.

"There's nothing necessarily collectively decided about being at war, it's entirely possible for a dictator to declare their country at war."

I think I was pretty clear about this distinction. We don't live in a dictatorship in any meaningful sense. When we go to war it is darn well collectively decided. Obama is likely the farthest limit of pacifism that will ever get near the presidency in this country. We elect people having a pretty good idea of how they will make decisions on war regardless of the novel circumstances that arise during their tenure.

Tracy W writes:
I think your issue is that what you want is not well defined or may be impossible, not that voting doesn't do a decent job of measuring and weighting it.

So, you think that "garbage in" results in "order out"?
Unusual claim. I look forward to your reasoning behind such a counter-intuitive result.

(Note I agree that what I want is not well-defined, as it includes things like "a government that responds well to unexpected events", and I agree it may well be impossible.)

I agree you bear little responsibility for a typographical error, other than the part you played in constructing a system that is not robust to such things.

How am I responsible for that?

And I have no idea why you think that "we elect people having a pretty good idea of how they will make decisions on war regardless of the novel circumstances that arise during their tenure". Personally I don't know that. It always worries me when voting.

Lord Action writes:

> Unusual claim. I look forward to your reasoning
> behind such a counter-intuitive result.

I didn't mean to pick on you. I mean that to the extent you have an impossible desire, say you want the Green Party to take the presidency, any reasonable measure or aggregation of American views would disregard that. Or at least have it play a very small role in the outcome. "We" want a centrist, a little left or a little right depending on recent history. Any reasonable definition of "we" would tell you that.

"How am I responsible for that?"

I don't know. I don't know you. But it seems like an astoundingly fragile system, so I'm surprised something like this hadn't come up before.

"Personally I don't know [what to expect from Presidents with respect to war]"

Well, I can let you know. Expect them to zealously defend American citizen's interests, resorting to violence if there's a lot at stake. Expect them to value American citizens quite a bit more highly than other people. Expect a good bit of reluctance to get into a big war, but only some reluctance to get into a small war (say the recent Iraq war), and almost no restraint with respect to very minor use of force in which expected American casualties are low, zero, or secret (say Obama's drone and special forces work).

Are you saying you don't know what they're going to have to react to? Because that's completely reasonable. But if you don't know how they are going to react, you haven't been paying attention.

Tracy W writes:

Lord Acton: I didn't think it was a personal attack. I know my preferences are ill-defined, eg I want a government that can handle unexpected events (eg September 11, tsunamis) well, but I don't know what well means.

And it's quite possible that many of my wants are impossible to all achieve in practice. I've done enough engineering to know the difference between theory and practice.

However, as far as I know, this is true of everyone. So it's not just that unusual preferences of mine can be ignored, it's that every one has ill-defined preferences, and quite possibly every one of us has impossible wants. I don't see how voting can solve that general a problem.

But it seems like an astoundingly fragile system,

Parliament passed an amendment. Costly and embarrassing, but it did the trick.

And, I don't know how a system could get around that, except by vigilance on the part of the relevant officials. The numbers come from humans, at some point they must be inserted into something, and that's when the error can happen.

Expect them to zealously defend American citizen's interests, resorting to violence if there's a lot at stake.

May I refer you to Henderson and Gochenour's paper on US Presidents who didn't?

Expect a good bit of reluctance to get into a big war,

Maybe "expect" in the statistical sense. But not in the case of every President. I recall from history classes that FDR wanted to get into WWII despite the general attitude of the American population.

Because that's completely reasonable. But if you don't know how they are going to react, you haven't been paying attention.

Or you're massively over-confident in your historical knowledge.

Finch writes:

>> But if you don't know how they are going to react, you haven't been paying attention.

> Or you're massively over-confident in your historical knowledge.

Or maybe it's just not an important part of your preferences. (Was that meant to be a hypothesis or a dig? Obviously you can only know in a statistical sense, and you'll never have the same information the president has.)

This is getting somewhat far afield of the original point. I really didn't mean to pick on you. I'm going to drop the point now.

Tracy W writes:

Finch:
I take it therefore that you now agree with us that voting doesn't magically transform ill-defined preferences into something reasonable.

Was that meant to be a hypothesis or a dig?

Yes, and also a suggestion. You were over-confident in your assessment of your knowledge about US presidents, and that over-confidence led you into ignoring the possibility that I might actually know some things about US presidents that you didn't.

Generally, on the internet, it's wise to avoid saying things along the lines of "if you don't agree with me, you haven't been paying attention" before you've actually had some to-ing and fro-ing about the facts in question.

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