Review: “A Rational Life”

A recent retiree, Leon Felkins, has devoted the rest of his life to “ponder some of the social and philosophical issues that have always been of great interest to [him].” Those ponderings are made public via this website. Since I am doing more or less the same thing, this website is of great interest to me. In fact the idea of “one man, one website” on which is shared important ideas and not just fluff is a noble one. Therefore, almost a priori I am intrigued and inclined to be approving.

And since part of the subject matter (social choice, the voter's paradox) is similar to mine, I am led to believe that the builder of this site and I have a lot in common. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Mr. Felkins has an entirely different definition of “Voter's Paradox” than the one used in social choice theory which he acknowledges. His definition has to do with the fact that one vote makes very little difference to the outcome of an election so why bother to vote? “Voter's Paradox” in Social Choice has to do with choosing a winner when the voters' preference rankings are a certain way. For instance, if there are 3 voters (1, 2 and 3) and 3 candidates (A, B and C), and voter 1 votes ABC, voter 2 votes BCA and voter 3 votes CAB, what is society's ordering? 2 voters prefer A to B. 2 prefer B to C so we have A is preferred to B is preferred to C. But wait a minute. 2 voters prefer C to A so we have A is preferred to B is preferred to C is preferred to A. A logical inconsistency. This is the voter's paradox I'm familiar with.

Mr. Felkins Voter's Paradox is only one example of the larger problem of the individual's free loading on the group because the individual seeks his own self interest and not the group's and so has much to gain by behavior that is not conducive to the welfare of the group. Felkins suggests several ways that this kind of behavior can be thwarted such as using religion to convince people to do the right thing and not the thing that is only in their self-interest. I would suggest that this is why society has developed institutions and laws. Outlawing certain behaviors doesn't guarantee that people won't do them. It just guarantees that there will be negative consequences if they get caught.

Mr. Felkins seems intrigued with the diabolical properties of the universe of which he gives many examples such as the Prisoner's Dilemma, the Tragedy of the Commons etc. One could also make the same case for the Law of Supply and Demand. The person who needs the transaction more will pay more than the person who needs it less no matter what the transaction is. (See my blog topic “Supply and Demand.” Ultimately, I have a more hopeful outlook since I believe that while these diabolical properties exist, it is up to mankind and society to fashion institutions whether political or economic or cultural which serve the good of all people rather than to set up games in which the winner takes all or people can profit from behavior that imposes great harm on others. It is society's responsibility to set up positive sum games not zero sum or negative sum games which is what Mr. Felkin's “diabolical aspects” essentially are.

I have read Mr. Felkin's essay on Poverty and the Welfare State and find little to disagree with. Obviously, poverty is a complex problem, and there is not a “one size fits all” solution. There are a variety of different circumstances and human dilemmas. There are people who will never be able to take care of themselves, and there are people who need only temporary help to get back on their feet. There are also people who will seek to take advantage of whatever system is in place. No matter how just a society mankind develops, there will always be some people who won't be able to cope. Some are mentally ill. Some have physical handicaps. Some have just made a series of disastrous personal decisions. My own solution, which I humbly submit since I'm not a social scientist, is to provide “in kind” basic needs such as minimal food and shelter for free. Anything beyond that people would have to work for unless they are certifiably physically or mentally handicapped.

While I can't pretend that I have read every word of Mr. Felkins prodigious, exhaustive and very impressive website, I have read various portions thereof. His thinking and linking are quite impressive. I found very few broken links (one was where he promised a definition of the social choice voters' paradox.) My final thought on his subject matter (the diabolical universe and various social dilemmas) is that, left unchecked, diabolical behavior can occur and develop, but we have a choice as to what game and under what conditions, we ultimately want to play. We are the players, and we choose the game. It is up to us, mankind, to mitigate the diabolical qualities of the universe by developing institutions and incentives that support and encourage the kind of world we want to live in. I might add that so far we haven't gotten very far along this path.

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