Website owner:  James Miller

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Choosing the "best" from several possible alternatives

   What is the "best" route to take in going from point A to point 
   B?  What is the "best" product to buy, product A or product B?  
   What is the "best" economic system, economic system A or 
   economic system B?  Questions like these arise all the time.  
   We are always being forced to make a choice between 
   alternatives and the word "best" comes up.  The very first 
   thing we should do when faced with this type question is to ask 
   ourselves, "best in what sense?"  What is the criterion by 
   which we want to judge the alternative routes or products?  For 
   example, suppose we are asked the question, "What is the best 
   route to take in driving from Washington to Richmond?"  The 
   question we should immediately ask ourselves is "Best route in 
   what sense?"  Do we want the route that will get us there the 
   fastest, the route that is the shortest in terms of miles, the 
   route that is the safest, the route that is the most scenic, or 
   what?  Let us take another example.  Suppose we are faced with 
   the question, "Out of say fifty kinds of cars available on the 
   market which one is the best one?"  Immediately one should ask, 
   "What is our criterion for best?"  Is it good gas mileage, 
   comfort, handling, reliability, roominess, looks, or what?  One 
   car may be the best as far as mileage is concerned, another the 
   best as far as comfort is concerned, etc.. 

   Now let us make another point.  Usually when we are forced to 
   choose one of several possible alternatives each alternative is 
   what one might term a "multi-element package".  That is, each 
   alternative has associated with it a number of features or 
   elements that we are interested in and wish to weigh in making 
   our choice.  For example, in the car example above the features 
   we would probably want to weigh would be gas mileage, comfort, 
   handling, reliability, etc. and we would probably pick some car 
   that we felt represented some "best combination" of these.  It 
   is important to realize that this problem may be very much the 
   same type problem as that of choosing from several fruit 
   baskets (each basket containing varying proportions of bananas, 
   oranges, apples, and pears, let us say) the "best".  There is 
   no "right" answer.  The answer really depends on our personal 
   preferences.  It involves a value-judgment.

   These observations may seem somewhat trivial and self-evident 
   when we apply them to some things, such as buying cars, but for 
   other things they may not be so self-evident.  In essence, what 
   we are saying is that in many cases all one can hope to do is 
   lay out the advantages and disadvantages of the different 
   alternatives and each person has to decide for himself which he 
   thinks is "best".  We may all think to use this type of 
   analysis when we are buying a car or a house but do we think of 
   using it when we are analyzing economic or political systems or 
   when we are choosing a mate? 

   Apr 1980

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