One can barely read a newspaper or listen to a politician’s speech without hearing the standard “we as a society” or its derivatives. “You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society,” said President Barack Obama about NSA surveillance. Even some economists, who should know better, fall into this trap. Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist and an architect of Obamacare, declared: “We’ve decided as a society that we don’t want people to have insurance plans that expose them to more than six thousand dollars in out-of-pocket expenses.”

The same problem exists in expressions such as “from society’s point of view” or “society as a whole,” and in the personification of countries, as in “America thinks, or does, this or that.” When an Afghan deputy minister for social affairs said that “Afghanistan is an Islamic country and we want our children to be raised in an Islamic way,” he was making the same sort of blanket statement, just draped in a different flag.

The truth is that this collective “we” has no scientific meaning.

These are the opening paragraphs of October Feature Article “The Vacuity of the Political ‘We'” by Canadian economist Pierre Lemieux.

Lemieux goes on to base his case against “we” on sound economic analysis done by mainstream economists in the last 75 years. I won’t tell you who because I want you to read the article. It’s not long, it’s highly informative, and it could well work as a short reading in a course on Public Choice.

Ok, Ok, I’ll give you a hint. Two of the economists whose work he cites to make his case were among the early U.S. winners of the Nobel Prize in economics.

And I’ll quote Pierre’s story about one of the other economists:

When Duncan Black independently rediscovered cycling in 1942, he was deeply troubled: “On finding that the arithmetic was correct and the intransitivity persisted,” he later explained, “my stomach revolted in something akin to physical sickness.”