Introduction to Social Choice and Incarceration
Human beings are naturally social. We have to make decisions every day, which affects the people around us. If we don’t make these decisions, it becomes hard to live life as we are expected to, making it harder to continue with other things that make life meaningful. And there is a common concept in life, that choices have consequences, which is very true.
In economics, several theories attempt to explain why people make the decisions they make and what drives them to leave others. One such model is the consumer and firm theories of decision making. As individuals, we make decisions to consume or not to consume certain products depending on the environment. These consumption patterns follow what an individual sees as most important in their life, which may help them now and in the future.
The individual choice may not have a huge impact on the whole society unless the person has a lot of influence. But when people make decisions collectively, their effect spreads all the way across the roots of society. Hence, it becomes the decision on the whole society to take a stand. Individual choices are not the same as social choices, since they are based on what one person things. As stated in the beginning, human beings are social beings, and their interaction is very important to how they generally relate. In terms of economic growth and development, social choices may have a bigger influence on that individual. Also, the decision that firms make is not only their growth and development, but they affect society as well. When a company, for instance, decides to raise the price of their goods, they affect consumers, who may choose to seek more affordable alternatives. Everything they do is based on what makes them happier, leaving anything that causes more unhappiness.
In other words, markets develop because of the collective decisions of consumers and firms. Many economic theories hold that people are rational decision-makers, and they respond differently to incentives. Where a decision leads to positive results, the consumer or firm will be more willing to go for that choice. And where the risk on less or negative output is potential, the decision-maker will weigh all the alternatives before settling on one. This shows that the decision-making process is not an easy one, and may involve more things that one would have anticipated.
In the past, law was only used to handle certain items in the economy. It was not very serious since only a few issues relating to economy and law needed serious thought. At the beginning of 1960, however, things started taking a different turn as more scholas came up with thoughts on how law influenced economies.
Making decisions may not be the hardest part of the process, but how to make them. Considering that there are rewards and punishment, one must consider the decision-making process as well as the end results of that decision. Based on this, there are two theories: Deontology and Utilitarianism, which emphasize the importance of being good at all times. According to the former, people should always do good, despite the consequences, where the latter focuses on good results, even if the means are questionable.
When bad decisions are made, consequences often involve facing the law. And though sometimes good deeds are also punishable, they do not lead to severe results for the individual or a society.
Economics and law are a wide subject today, an important one for students of economics and students of law. The subject deals mainly with contracts, tort, and criminal laws applied when people make certain choices knowingly or unknowingly. The end results are always that there is a reward or a punishment where things go wrong. These subjects also deal with property rights and ownership. Under contract laws, parties are allowed to make their own contracts, especially in the private sector, but through courts, the judicial system comes in when there is a breach of contract to ensure that each part delivers their end. These laws lead to efficiency in economic processes, which is a necessity in ensuring proper growth and development of specific economies. Tort laws, these systems are crucial in protecting property rights, even though there is no real definition of these rights in certain judicial systems.
Criminal laws are there as incentives to discourage individuals from making certain mistakes. If the penalty for committing a crime is less than the reward of making a choice, it is easier for the decision-maker to do something different. Even so, sometimes the person who does something wrong can win, where they reward of what they did is greater. This is why it is stated that where four people are to be arrested for a crime, but only one of them is caught, the punishment has to four times the initial penalty of the crime. There are economic implications to these decisions since most of the people found guilty barely have enough to pay for the fines. This is where incarceration, as a form of punishment, comes in as the most probable course of action.
The Social Choice Theory
Social choice theory is defined as an economic thought that considers whether a society can be ordered in such a way that reflects individual preferences. Kenneth Arrow developed this theory through the publication of his work, “Social Choice and Individual Values,” in 1951. This became the foundation of understanding how choices made in societies affect individuals, and how those made by individuals also affect society. In the beginning, we said they human beings are naturally social, and every decision made spreads from an individual, all the way to other people, and to the community.
Nicolas de Condorcet, a Frenchman, established the initial foundation of social theory through his essay in 1785, which included the jury theorem. In this theorem, every member of a jury bears an equal and independent opportunity to make the right judgment on the defendant's status. Condorcet argued and proved that majority of jurors are most likely to be more correct that one juror. Hence, he made a strong case of collective decision-making. His paradox builds another theorem he had modeled earlier and makes a proposition that majority preferences can be irrational. In this case, Condorcet also shows that even though collective decision making it preferable to individual choices, it does not go without several associated problems.
The main point of concern in the social theorem is whether there is a possibility of finding a rule that aggregates individual preference, judgments, votes, and decisions in a satisfactory manner to minimal criteria for what should be considered a good rule. Even though the theory is more applicable in political choices, it has proved very useful in many other types of individual choices. It all comes down to how people behave, and what pushes them to make certain decisions, some of which may have critical consequences to society. But making decisions and following choices essential in human existence. If there is anything that and individual misses to consider in their decision, they have to live with the consequences since there must result in everything they do.
A society to order in a manner that reflects these varied preferences is not easy to achieve. Arrow continues to share five conditions to be met by society’s choices if it must reflect its individuals' choices, which include: Universality, Responsiveness, Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives, Non-imposition, and Non-dictatorship. He comes up with the Impossibility Theorem, stating that it’s impossible to order society in a way that goes per the wishes of an individual without going against at least one of these five conditions.
Jean Charles de Bourda, is another very notable contributor to the social choice theory. He is a contemporary of Condorcet, who developed and an alternative voting system called Borda Count. His influence on this subject has been widely acknowledged and appreciated by many people across the globe. Apart from these, there are other contributors to the theory, too, including Charles Dodgson and Indian economist Amartya Sen.
A good example of social choice theory is found in politics, specifically under a dictatorship. Under normal circumstances, people are free to make their one choice and lead the society where they want it to go. They can vote in the leaders that want when they want. But in a dictatorship, decisions on social choices and ordering of society are agreed up by a small group of individuals. In this case, unlike democratic societies, individuals do not have much say in how society should be ordered.
Incarceration as a form of punishment
Since 2010, it has been observed that there are 27 crimes in the USA every year. For instance, figures from 2013 show that there were 6 million reports of violent crimes, which include 3 million burglaries, 650,000 motor vehicle thefts, and close to 13 million other small crimes. These numbers also show that criminal behavior affects society largely, with millions of people victimized. They challenge the safety of our communities and personal quality life. The criminal justice system in the US sentence to jail anyone found guilty of committing serious crimes. This could be the same situation in many other parts of the world.
The process of incarceration happens with remarkable frequency. There are currently more than 2.2 million people in the US prisons and local jails, which represents one for every 110 people in the country, as reported by Glaze & Kaeble, 2014. The prisons hold more people than anywhere else in the world and can even be likened to some cities' population. The judicial system also incarcerates citizens according to the crimes, mostly homicide and robbery than any other part of the world, except Russia. Schlosser (1998) notes that most USA prisoners are non-violent offenders who would otherwise receive community service and parole in many other parts of the world.
Like the USA, the high rate of incarceration can have enormous costs, to society, and the general economy. Each person is jailed for an average of 2.45 years, as reported by Boncza, 2011. This comes to a cost of $28,000 per person, per year, totaling to about $37 billion in services, prison construction, and employee costs as per the report of Kyckelhahn, 2012. There are also financial burdens on placing people in prisons, which leaves their families to suffer, especially if they were the breadwinners. Their families may fail to pay for housing and other expenses, leading to more hardships and the possibility of more crimes.
Incarceration is termed as punishment in legal terminologies, although it carries two meanings. One is societal retribution, where those who have made a mistake are made to suffer and pay for it in the interest of fairness. It also implies rehabilitation or lessening the probability that the person will engage in future criminal activities. In its uses as operant punishment, we can establish that it is a consequence that reduces the probability of an occurrence.
We have already seen from the beginning that people make rational decisions, and they respond to incentives. Incarceration is used as an example of a result of an incentive for bad choices. When an individual thinks about what they went through in prison, and perhaps it was not worth the trouble that got them there, they may not repeat the same mistake. In this case, prison sentencing becomes a good thing that should be encouraged to reduce crime. However, we have also noted that incarceration has a lot of negative consequences on the economy as well as individuals sent in jail. In this case, it becomes very hard to determine whether it is good to send wrong-doors to prison.
The choices that we make, either as individuals or society, have big rewards, both negative and positive, to society. Several theories and approaches have been used to try and explain why people make these choices, and it all comes down to the human nature of free-will. Studying social choice and punishment can be one great way of understanding such behaviors with their consequences, and determining the best solution for cohesive existence in societies.
Author: James Hamilton