Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

A Short History of the Bergson-Samuelson Social Welfare Function

Igersheim Herrade, CNRS

The so-called Bergson-Samuelson social welfare function was first introduced in 1938 by Abram Bergson, and subsequently developed by Paul Samuelson in his 1947 Foundations of Economic Analysis. However, the very existence of the social welfare function was called into question by Arrow’s 1951 landmark impossibility theorem, which states that under a set of reasonable conditions, the social welfare function can be shown not to exist. Yet social welfare functions are today still widely used in a range of fields in order to formulate policy ends. It thus seems that the use of such functions has flourished independently of the theoretical debate about their existence. The objective of this chapter is to offer a short history of the social welfare function, from its origins in the late 1930s up to the present day.

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Keywords: Arrow; Bergson; Little; Samuelson; social welfare function; welfare economics

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