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«Contents Introduction Exclusion, Democracy and Justice Choice and Welfare Conclusion References CASEpaper 75 Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion ...»

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It is worth noting that those rather closer to the actual experience of social exclusion than most academics can share this view that exclusion has an externality effect. An in-depth study of the views of thirty residents of poor public housing estates found that these residents felt that any person experiencing exclusion (whether they have had a hand in it or not) also caused wider society a problem in terms of the threat such divisions pose to social solidarity. While the group distinguished between the voluntary withdrawal by better off individuals and the voluntary social exclusion of people facing disadvantage, such as through benefit fraud or criminal activity, they were critical of both types of divisive outcome (Richardson and Le Grand, 2002).

So there is a welfarist case for regarding even voluntary social exclusion as undesirable because of the externality effect. But there are also cases where voluntary acts may not necessarily increase the welfare of the individual making the choice him or herself. Barry himself deals with one case where we might observe an apparently voluntary act of self-exclusion but nonetheless regard it as neither furthering the individual’s own welfare nor, of more concern to his argument, social justice. This is when the opportunity or choice set is small or when the alternatives it contains are pretty meagre. If an individual only has two unpalatable choices (‘your money or your life’) then if he or she chooses one of them (such as giving up the money), it would be odd to judge the outcome as promoting individual welfare or even a just one simply because it was the product of a choice. Likewise, if a young black man from a public housing estate encounters hostility and discrimination whenever he ventures into white society, and decides to withdraw from that society and its institutions by, for instance, refusing an opportunity to go to university, it would be hard to describe this as welfare-enhancing or as socially just, simply on the grounds that he had chosen to do it. Rather it is in the limited size and quality of the choice set open to him that the problem lies. Social exclusion that is the result of decisions made over limited opportunities limits welfare and is also unjust – and therefore socially undesirable. In these situations, simply increasing the choice set of the individual concerned is likely to reduce social exclusion, increase individual welfare, promote social justice, and, through rendering the opportunities open to all society’s members more similar, likely to increase social solidarity.

Similar arguments apply when decisions are made with poor information. If the university that offered the young man a place was in fact a haven of nondiscrimination but he did not know this, then again it would be hard to describe his situation as welfare-promoting or just. Or, to take a broader case, if some individuals chose not to go to university because they did not know about the likely extra income that they could earn over their lifetimes if they went, then again it is hard to hold them responsible for their decisions. Acts of ‘voluntary’ social exclusion that result from choice sets that are either small or accompanied by poor information cannot be justified by reference either to social welfare or to social justice.

The public housing residents whose views on social exclusion were explored in the study mentioned above agreed with this view. For instance, those who chose

to join a youth gang:

‘may not be happy [really] they are bolstering each other – it’s mutual support for hardships’ Therefore such participation cannot be considered an equivalent alternative for participation in mainstream society (Richardson and Le Grand, 2002, p. 500).

More difficult cases arise when properly informed individuals with reasonably sized choice sets make voluntary decisions. Are there reasons for, in some circumstances, not accepting that the individual concerned is happier as a result of those decisions? Is it possible that, even if properly informed individuals judge themselves to be happier living outside the wider society, both they and society would actually be better off if they were brought inside?

Bill New (1999) has identified four possible cases where we might make such a judgement. The first is where there is a technical inability to complete the necessary mental tasks. This inability could arise because the quantity of information is simply too great, relative to mental capacity, or because the technological or causal connections are too difficult to make, again relative to capacity. This appears to be a special problem with respect to long-term decision-making. For this involves assessing the probabilities of benefit or harm from alternative courses of action. And experimental evidence suggests that individuals often find it difficult to make rational decisions where weighing up probabilities are concerned (Tversky and Kahneman 1982).

For a critique of New, see Calcott (2000). For further discussion of individual failure in different contexts, see Le Grand (2003), Chs. 5 and 6.

A second source of individual failure identified by New is weakness of the will.

This is where individuals know what they prefer in the long term but still make short-term decisions that are not in their long-term interest. Addiction, and more generally substance misuse, could be considered an example of this.

A third source of individual failure is emotional decision-making. Becoming attached to certain choices allows emotions to distort decisions. This might arise because of a strong attachment to a particular outcome even though one knows that it is very unlikely to occur; or the decision may be made in a period of stress, such as that following bereavement.

The fourth problem raised by New concerns the relationship between preferences and experience. Preferences over a set of decisions might be different if the individual had actual experience (as distinct from abstract knowledge or information) of the outcomes of the decision concerned from that if he or she had no such experience. But some experiences are largely or wholly impossible to repeat. Thus the decision whether to go to university or not might be different if it were possible for the individual concerned actually to have the experience of having been to university before the decision was taken; but this is not a feasible option. At first sight, this resembles the poor information concern discussed above. But it is not quite the same; for, unlike in the cases considered in that context, no system can supply the relevant information prior to the decision being taken.

How do these potential ‘individual failures’ (so-called so as to distinguish them from market or other types of system failure) affect the voluntary decision to self-exclude? This will clearly depend upon the situation and the individuals concerned. However, there is an important generalisation that can be made. This is that these ‘failures’ are more likely to apply to be a problem when major decisions with long-term implications are concerned, than when more minor decisions that only have short-term consequences are involved. In part this is simply a matter of scale: the potential damage done by a mistake in making a big decision that affects one’s whole future (such as whether or not to go to university) is obviously greater than that from a mistake involving a smaller short-term decision (such as whether to go to an isolated retreat for a week). But also some of the individual failures above are more likely to involve long-term The phenomenon of addiction obviously presents problems for any analysis of the status of individual choice. Again the public housing residents have interesting views on this: they argued that initially the people concerned could be said to be excluding themselves partly out of choice, but after they become addicted, the exclusion/problems they face are more beyond their control (Richardson and Le Grand, 2002, p.502).

decision-making. So, for instance, technical incapacity is more problematic when long-term decision-making involving the weighing up of probabilities is concerned; and weakness of the will frequently manifests itself as a way of prioritising of short-term interests over long-term ones.

Failures in major long-term decision-making may result from another problem:

that of myopia. Individuals may make wrong decisions about self-exclusion, because they are too short-sighted to take proper account of the future. Myopia is a common phenomenon. Individuals’ time horizons are limited. They do not always consider the long-term; they plan only on the basis of current events, or on their predictions of the very immediate future. In a word, they are myopic.

Now, although this sounds like another form of individual failure, it is actually somewhat different. Here some of the arguments of Derek Parfit (1984) concerning the nature of personal identity have relevance. Parfit’s arguments about identity run something like this. We normally invoke the concept of personal identity to link a person in one time period with the ‘same’ person in another, later period. But what does the concept of personal identity actually mean? It presumably does not mean what a possible literal interpretation of the words in the phrase personal identity would mean: that is, the person in the first time period is identical in every respect to the person in the second. The person will have aged physically; external factors (such as income or family status) may have changed; tastes may have changed; aspects of personality may have changed. The extent and magnitude of these changes may be small if the distance between the time periods is small, but they are likely to increase with that distance: compare the physique, income, personal relations, and personality of an eight year-old with that of the ‘same’ person eighty years later.

So if it does not mean actual identity, what does personal identity mean? Parfit’s answer is a reductionist one: that is, the ‘fact’ of personal identity can be reduced to some other facts that can be described without using the concept of personal identity. These facts, according to Parfit, are links of a psychological kind, principally those of intention and memory. For instance, a twenty year old will have memories of her nineteen year old self; and certain features of her current existence will depend on the intentions and actions of that nineteen year old. These links are, according to Parfit, what makes the twenty and nineteen year old the ‘same’ person. Similar phenomena would link the eight and eightyeight year old mentioned above; but here the phenomena (and therefore the links) would be much attenuated. Hence any argument that was based on the continuity of the self would be much weaker for the eighty year gap than for the one year gap.

What are the implications of this for the myopia argument? Simply that a certain degree of myopia may not be an ‘individual failure’. If people are related to their future selves by links that become progressively attenuated the more distant the future, then it seems quite rational to give those future selves less weight than their present selves. There is no individual failure in the sense of irrational decision-making.

But this in turn means that there is a justification for treating long-term decision-making as a social problem. For there is a group of people who have no say in such decisions but who are affected by those who make them: there is an externality. An individual’s future self is a person who is directly affected by that individual’s current decisions in the market place. A 65 year old may be poor because of myopic decisions taken by her 25 year old self. Hence the 25 year old is imposing costs on the 65 year old through her decisions; but the 65 year has no say in those decisions. There is an externality.

An individual’s future self is, of course, someone with whom her current self is linked. But the link is not as strong as that to her present self. Hence, in taking those current decisions she will not give appropriate weight to the interests of her future self, in a similar fashion as if her future self was actually a different person. More specifically, because she is not giving her future self the same weight as that future self would if the latter were present at the point of decision, she will undertake actions relating to the balance of interests between present and future self that are not ‘optimal’ from the point of view of aggregate welfare.


What are the implications of all of this for voluntary social exclusion and the extent to which this is a social problem? It suggests two things. First, voluntary social exclusion may be a problem if we believe there to be a significant degree of externality and/or of individual failure in making the relevant decisions.

Second, the problem is more likely to occur with respect to decisions involving voluntary social exclusion that have implications for the long-term future of the individual concerned. For it is here that both individual failure and the myopia externality are more likely.

Of course, one cannot deduce from this directly that government intervention is necessarily required to correct this problem. For there is no guarantee that such intervention will make things better. So, for instance, governments elected by myopic individuals may behave just as myopically as the individuals themselves. As so often in public policy, we are searching for the least worst alternative; and finding that alternative requires empirical as well as philosophical investigation. That will have to be the subject of another paper.


Arneson, R. (1989) ‘Equality and equality of opportunity for welfare’, Philosophical Studies, 56 (1): 77-93.

Barry, B. (2002) ‘Social exclusion, social isolation and the distribution of income’, Ch.2 in Hills, Le Grand and Piachaud (2002).

Burchardt, T., Le Grand, J. and Piachaud, D. (1999) ‘Social exclusion in Britain 1991-1995’ Social Policy and Administration, 33 (3): 227-244.

Burchardt, T., Le Grand, J. and Piachaud, D. (2002) ‘Degrees of exclusion:

developing a dynamic, multi-dimensional measure’, Ch.3 in Hills, Le Grand and Piachaud (2002).

Calcott, P, (2000) ‘New on paternalism’, Economics and Philosophy, 16: 315Cohen, G. (1989) ‘On the currency of egalitarian justice’, Ethics, 99, 906-944.

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