Thursday, 23 December 2010

First comes dictatorship, then comes marriage...

Having hit the age of 28 a few weeks ago, I have now crossed that stage where my parents (and various other relatives and family friends) keep asking me when I'm going to get married and am now at the point wherein said elders (and some youngers, I might add) have decided to take it into their own hands to find me a wife. Now I'm not much of a fan of arranged marriage, both conceptually (too loaded in favour of the guy, etc) and practically (I've lived away from home for over 1o years now and move in a different social milieu from my parents, so it would be pretty difficult for them to find someone I would have independently chosen), but I've gotten tired of fighting the idea outright. Instead, I've given in to allowing them to start looking, while using equal parts of rational discussion and emotional blackmail to ensure they stick to some basic principles while choosing. I'm hoping this will buy me some time, and also put to the test an important principle in economics. That's right - I'm actually trying an experiment, so if I get married in the next 6 months, consider me a martyr to science. Or, at least, social science. Allow me to explain:

(A quick word before I start: kids, don't try this at home!)

It helps that my parents are actually pretty nice about this whole thing, wanting to take into account each other's opinion as well as the opinions of various friends and well-wishers, not to mention my own. If they were more dictatorial, of course, I'd have been married by now. So, anyway, what this means is that any decision that gets made in choosing a potential mate involves aggregating the opinions of a whole lot of people. I suppose I could hold more sway over the final decision by getting more involved in the selection process, but I find it somehow weird, not to mention time-consuming, to sit in judgement over random women based on what they (or, more likely, their parents) have written in a profile on or some such site. So instead I've traded that dubious 'right' for the moral high ground, from whence I only look on smilingly at their efforts, asking only that they follow some simple principles:
  1. That if they decide that they prefer Girl A to Girl B and in turn prefer Girl B to Girl C, they ought to prefer Girl A to Girl C (where A, B and C are of course hypothetical)
  2. That their preference of Girl A over Girl B should not change if they come to the conclusion that Girl B is after all a better choice than that other girl D
  3. That if everyone whose opinion seems to matter prefers Girl A to Girl B (say), then collectively they ought to state that preference; And finally,
  4. That the final choice should take into account everyone's preferences and should not be imposed on the basis of one person's opinions

Now all this might seem only like the decent and sensible thing, and you might wonder why it would prevent me from getting married in the next couple of weeks, leave alone six months. And well you might, if you haven't studied much economics.
Because, ladies and gentlemen, the above conditions are all part of the wonderfully named 'Arrow's Impossibility Theorem' (sounds like something out of a geeky superhero comic, no?). Formally, Arrow's theorem states that if there are 3 or more alternatives and 2 or more decision-makers, no preference aggregation rule exists that would satisfy the conditions of unanimity (condition 3), non-dictatorship (condition 4) and the independence of irrelevant alternatives (condition 2). Alternatively, it can also be stated as: any preference that aggregation rule that respects transitivity (condition 1), unanimity and the independence of irrelevant alternatives is a dictatorship (i.e. it cannot meet condition 4). Or, to put it simply, yours truly can stay single for a while longer while appearing to be a reasonable and logical young man.
For those of you who want a more detailed explanation of the theorem, good old Wikipedia has a good explanation of this including a pretty neat proof, so I'll just point you there.

There are of course a few quibbles that may come to your mind. Firstly, people obviously still get marriages arranged, even reasonable people, so there must be some way around the problem. Usually that happens because at some point a few decision-makers decide that they've had it with trying to get consensus and make a choice i.e. something like a dictatorship (or at least a marital junta of sorts) gets formed. What that usually means is that while a few people get the power to decide, it appears that everyone's choice was taken into account, including the person getting married (though everyone outside the junta is actually being over-ruled). Here's where a bit of emotional blackmail helps - by claiming to cede my right to choose, I'm basically in a position to ensure that no-one else plays dictator either.

The other possibility is what might be termed a 'cake or death' case - if there's one option that's obviously better than the other(s) so that everyone's rooting for it, then it basically means that everyone's preferences are identical, and there's actually a consensus and I have to get married. But that would just mean that I have to marry someone who's so awesome that she impresses my parents and extended family, all of whom have higher expectations than I do, and she's willing to marry me. Well, I guess one could settle for that, I suppose.