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  • Max Stearns

My Tribute to Kenneth Arrow

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel Prize winning Economist who just passed away February 21, 2017, had a remarkable influence on my career: Early in my career, I became fascinated with a problem known as "cycling." Although we generally assume that individuals hold rational, or transitive, preferences (A preferred to B preferred to C implies A preferred to C), it turns out that we cannot extend this assumption to groups of three or more persons. Under specified conditions, groups can "prefer" A to B and B to C yet C to A. This insight dates at least back to late 18th century French philosophers, the Marquis de Condorcet and Jean-Charles de Borda. in the early 1950s, Kenneth Arrow was a young economist at Stanford, and he set out to identify a set of conditions that would satisfy basic norms of fairness and rationality within a collective governance system. He ended up proving that his goal was mathematically impossible to accomplish, a result now known as the Arrow Impossibility Theorem and for which he became the youngest person awarded Nobel prize in economics. Although this might sound obscure, it turns out to have profound implications for how group decisions are made, including collective decisions on the Supreme Court.

Among my earliest scholarly projects was using Professor Arrow's framework to assess a set of Supreme Court decision making rules: standing, stare decisis, outcome voting, and the narrowest grounds rule. After publishing some law review articles, I contracted to publish a book titled: "Constitutional Process: A Social Choice Analysis of Supreme Court Decision Making," with the University of Michigan Press. I had sent some earlier publications to Professor Arrow, who I did not know, and who kindly wrote back to me, complimenting my work. I asked if he would consider writing a blurb for my forthcoming book, and he agreed. When I told the publisher, my editor initially discouraged me, saying it was far too unlikely that he would come through, and that he didn't want to hold up the process. I insisted.

Professor Arrow wrote the following, which appears on the back of my book: "Social choice theory, originally intended as part of normative analysis, has turned out to be useful in analyzing political processes. The cycles which are possible in theory can be observed to occur. Stearns has brilliantly analyzed the implications for Supreme Court decisions, particularly those with constitutional implications. His analysis is marked by rich and specific detail, combined with broad theoretical understanding."

Soon thereafter, I attended the Public Choice Society meeting at which Professor Arrow gave the keynote address. He and I had breakfast. He was wonderful, charming, humble, and brilliant. In his keynote, he spent several minutes talking about my book. I was stunned. Much of my work is a modest extension of Arrow's central insight, and Professor Arrow was remarkably generous in supporting me as a young scholar. I am ever thankful, and I will never forget this wonderful man.

Here is the NYT obituary:

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