Many academics like the concept of Pareto optimality because it is the easiest moral criteria to agree that it is a good thing and that we should avoid any situation that isn’t Pareto optimal. Pareto optimality is similar to the doctors’ creed, ‘first do no harm’ because a Pareto optimal situation is one in which any possible change that anyone could want would make someone else worse off. Another way to say it is that a situation is Pareto optimal when there is no change that would make someone better off and would harm nobody.
If we are thinking about how to divide a pie up among three people and if all three people would enjoy eating all of it, then any division of the pie that doesn’t waste any pie is Pareto optimal. If one person gets none and the other two get 1/2 pie each, that is Pareto optimal or if each person gets and equal share of the pie, that is also Pareto optimal. The only division of the pie that is not Pareto optimal is if some of the pie is wasted such as if each person only gets 1/4 of the pie which leaves 1/4 of the pie uneaten.
There are infinite ways to divide the pie between people without wasting any, and since everyone will agree that it is dumb to waste pie, it is unlikely that you would ever see any possible division of the pie that would not be Pareto “optimal”. But if almost every situation we see is “optimal” it seems silly to always call everything “optimal”. “Optimal” implies that there is a best solution, but the Pareto criterion is a very weak standard for judging any outcome because nearly every possible social situation that we see in the real world is Pareto “optimal”! People naturally select Pareto “optimal” outcomes because if there had been a potential improvement that everyone could agree upon, they would have already done it. If a group of people is only minimally rational, then every status quo is already Pareto “optimal”.
The Wingnut Theorem
One problem with Pareto “optimality” as a moral criteria is what I call the wingnut theorem. The wingnut theorem is the idea that as the number of people increases, the probability of finding a wingnut approaches certainty. A wingnut is a nutty contrarian with extreme political views, and when there is a wingnut in a group, he will object to just about anything. Even if all the rest of the group is unanimous, a wingnut will disagree by definition. The increasing likelihood of wingnuts with bigger population means that the probability of finding a Pareto improvement (a change everyone agrees with) approaches zero as group size increases. Wingnuts explain why Pareto efficiency is a useless criteria for evaluating situations for large groups.
This is because if we merely adopt the Pareto criterion for judging whether a situation is efficient, that means that anyone can veto any possible change. If a situation is not Pareto optimal, then there will be unanimous agreement that a change should happen. That makes the Pareto criterion the most universally acceptable moral rule (which academics like) but that is also why it is useless in large groups.
Because the Pareto criterion is useless for large groups, we need to use some other principle for making decisions. The three simplest ways to describe how societies make social decisions include:
- dictatorship (One person has ultimate power and can make any change at any time.)
- democracy (Dictatorship of the majority. Changes only happen if more than 50% agree.)
- consensus (Universal agreement is required to make a change, so it is hard to make changes.)
These three different kinds of decision making represent three points on a spectrum of infinite different possibilities from different everyone having equal political power (consensus) to extreme inequality of power at the top (dictatorship) and democracy right in the middle between the two extremes. Of these three methods, democracy is the least objectionable for large groups because consensus sufferers from problems due to the wingnut theorem. Under consensus, every single person can be a dictator that has the power to block the will of the rest of the group from making changes.
Suppose a meteor is hurtling towards earth. Everyone (except one wingnut) agrees that the meteor will destroy life on earth and that we should use our rockets to try to knock it off course and save the planet. But under consensus, it only takes one wingnut who believes that the world is flat and meteors don’t exist to veto the will of the other 9 billion people on earth. Consensus is bad because it gives every single person the power to be a dictator that can veto the will of the majority. Consensus makes it very hard to make a change and increases the chance that group will decide to do nothing.
Consensus can work great in a small group where everyone cares for each other, but in larger groups it becomes more likely you will get a wingnut who is a misanthrope that hates people and wants to see everyone die. That would make consensus terrible. Large groups like nation-states cannot operate under consensus due to the wingnut problem, but some democratic governments require super-majorities which puts them on the spectrum closer to consensus and creates political gridlock. Super-majority democracies are vulnerable to collapse if they cannot make decisions in the face of crisis. The US government is the notable exception. The US government has more veto points and super-majority requirements than any other democracy that has survived long term and the reasons for this is a matter of ongoing research in political science.
Government must be created using some arrangement creates rights and limits violence. In fact, one universal definition for government is the institution that has a monopoly on the legitimate regulation and use of force in society. Once a government has created rights, then there are other ways to make group decisions such as:
- markets (Decision-making power is allocated by wealth. This requires governments protect property rights in order to work.)
- legal system (where officials interpret and enforce the rules.)
Types of wingnuts
People’s characteristics often have a somewhat bell-shaped distribution (with potentially many dimensions) that have thin tails on the extremes. Wingnuts are the people on the far tails of each distribution of characteristics. There are different types of characteristics that cause wingnuttery.
1. Sociopathic wingnuts. These are selfish people who do not care about the wellbeing of others or who take pleasure in the suffering of others. This is the most dangerous type of wingnut and political systems must have mechanisms to prevent them from gaining power.
2. Heterodox wingnuts. The heterodox have an alternate model of reality from the vast majority which leads them to conclusions that the majority thinks is bizarre. If there is any wisdom of the crowds, then the heterodox will usually tend to be wrong, but there is no guarantee that the crowd isn’t wrong and one of the heterodox ideas will eventually become the new conventional wisdom. But because there is a broad distribution of ideas about reality, and they cannot all be right, so most heterodox ideas probably tend to be wrong even in cases where the conventional wisdom is also wrong. Flat earth conspiracy theorists are heterodox wingnuts who oppose spending money on NASA because they think it is a scam.
3. Preference wingnuts. These are people who care about others (not sociopathic, #1) and agree with others about the nature of reality (not heterodox, #2), but just have odd preferences compared with the majority. For example, ornithophobics fear birds and some of them would probably like to see policies that would help push more bird species into extinction.
Pareto maximal gridlock
A Pareto “optimal” situation is never a unique optimal for a large group of people, but the Pareto criterion does maximize something, and that is gridlock. There is no other form of democracy (defined as giving every person equal decision-making power) that produces more gridlock than the Pareto criterion because it is a universal veto power. A Pareto improvement would require a universal super-majority because any individual can veto any change. It is impossible to create more gridlock than that. If you really like the status quo, then the Pareto criterion is the best democratic rule for preventing decisions that might bring change.