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Utilitarianism, Voting And The Redistribution Of Income

Author

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  • Dan Usher

    (Department of Economics, Queen's University)

Abstract

Utilitarianism can be misplaced or ambiguous. As a prescription for individual behaviour, the injunction to seek the greatest good for the greatest number is misplaced because there remains a domain of life where, within the bounds of law and custom, one is free to act as selfishly or as altruistically as one pleases. As a criterion for responsible government, it is ambiguous because there is no universally-recognized perception of the greatest good; people have different perceptions which can only be reconciled by compromise or by voting. The greatest number must be of citizens alive today, but governments may be vicariously concerned about people in other countries or yet to be born, in so far as citizens today have such concerns and are prepared to sacrifice for the benefit of others. The greatest good for the greatest number has no rival as a criterion for government, but it is vague nonetheless. Utilitarian ambiguity is inherited in any attempt to combine the ordinary measure of economic growth with changes in the distribution of income on a common scale.

Suggested Citation

  • Dan Usher, 2017. "Utilitarianism, Voting And The Redistribution Of Income," Working Paper 1385, Economics Department, Queen's University.
  • Handle: RePEc:qed:wpaper:1385
    as

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    File URL: https://www.econ.queensu.ca/sites/econ.queensu.ca/files/qed_wp_1385.pdf
    File Function: First version 2017
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    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Blackorby,Charles & Bossert,Walter & Donaldson,David J., 2005. "Population Issues in Social Choice Theory, Welfare Economics, and Ethics," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521532587.
    2. Robert J. Gordon, 2016. "Perspectives on The Rise and Fall of American Growth," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 106(5), pages 72-76, May.
    3. Layard, R. & Mayraz, G. & Nickell, S., 2008. "The marginal utility of income," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 92(8-9), pages 1846-1857, August.
    4. John C. Harsanyi, 1953. "Cardinal Utility in Welfare Economics and in the Theory of Risk-taking," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 61, pages 434-434.
    5. John C. Harsanyi, 1955. "Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 63, pages 309-309.
    6. Kaplow, Louis & Shavell, Steven, 1994. "Why the Legal System Is Less Efficient Than the Income Tax in Redistributing Income," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 23(2), pages 667-681, June.
    7. Aaron Edlin & Andrew Gelman & Noah Kaplan, 2007. "Voting as a Rational Choice: Why and How People Vote to Improve the Well-Being of Others," NBER Working Papers 13562, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    More about this item

    Keywords

    utilitarianism; voting; redistribution;

    JEL classification:

    • E31 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Prices, Business Fluctuations, and Cycles - - - Price Level; Inflation; Deflation
    • O40 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity - - - General

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