In an odd post today, Prof. Volokh muses on the purported futility of certain comparisons, like the old standby of apples to oranges. He then mentions the futility of trying to compare certain things like apples and democracy. I don’t see why he considers this a necessarily difficult task.

Any sort of comparison is easy if you start with a few simple principles. First off, why are you comparing the items? Usually, it’s to rank order the items in some kind of preference to facilitate decision making. So, in my counter-example of comparing apples and democracy, what’s our ultimate goal? Do we want a tasty, nutritious snack or preferred system of government? Let’s try tasty snack first.

Now we need a few criteria to use for the comparison. Let’s go with taste, nutrition, and portability. Next up, we’ll rank our items on each criterion on a simple 5 point scale, with 5 being the best and 1 being the worst. How do they stack up?

Apple – 3. Truthfully, I prefer citrus fruits and bananas. Apples aren’t high on my list.
Democracy – 1. Not exactly edible, but probably kind of nasty if it were. At lot goes on under the label of democracy, and much of it is distasteful.

Apple – 5. Not only good, but good for you. Or something like that.
Democracy – 2. Famously devoid of nutritional content, but does allow for the possibility of nutrition better than many other governmental systems.

Apple – 5. Handy to carry around, especially if cut into slices or dried.
Democracy – 1. Unwieldy and not susceptible to carrying around in pockets.

Now that we’ve ranked our item on our criteria, it’s time to sum up. I’m lazy, so I’ll just add, but alternative methodologies include weighted averaging and other fun mathematical games. Apple gets a 13 while Democracy barely registers with a 3. Obviously, Apple gets the nod for tasty snack. I’m sure you can run this exercise in the other direction for preferred system of government. I think we can all see that comparison is not such a difficult thing to do after all. Of course, a comparison similar to my example is mostly absurd and not of any real use. Perhaps deriving any real utility from comparisons of thoroughly dissimilar objects is the difficult feat.


Blogger coblin said...

Taste - 0; Not edible, a concept, intangible
Nutrition - 0; Not edible, a concept, intangible
Portability - 0; Merely a concept, intangible

And that is what Volokh meant. If you did it with oranges, you'd see that it wouldn't score zero in all criterias. And now you can use the saying, "it's like comparing apples to democracy."

4:40 PM  
Blogger T said...

Where to begin? First off, you cannot rank democracy a 0 in any of the categories. The ranking system was defined as 1 through 5. 0 is not included. My example, my rules, okay? Even if you do take the copout of giving democracy ones in all categories because of intangibility, it still sucks as a snack. So apples are better than democracy.

You're also missing the larger point. I can make the comparison scale anything I like. Off the top of my head, let's decide that things with fewer letters in their names are better. In this case, according to that simple criteria, apples win again. Go apples!

My point was that, as an intellectual exercise, it is possible to compare any object A to any object B using any set of criteria you care to define. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a difficult process. In fact, people compare amazingly unrelated things constantly using the basic criteria of utility: which of these disparate objects will provide me with the most utility for the effort I will expend in acquiring it? This individual calculus writ large is one of the basics of economics.

What is difficult, which I mentioned, is using the comparisons to draw any meaningful conclusions. I can compare apples and democracy all day long according to any set of criteria imaginable. The act of comparison itself is not difficult. Deriving anything useful from the exercise is the trick.

However, the pointlessness of absurdist comparisons was not the issue. What was the issue was the supposed difficulty of comparing two random things. It's not difficult.

9:48 AM  

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