Is Global Social Welfare Increasing? A Critical-Level Enquiry

CRREP Working Paper 2014-04

39 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2014 Last revised: 16 Jul 2018

See all articles by John Cockburn

John Cockburn

Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP); Université Laval; Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP)

Jean-Yves Duclos

Laval University; IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Agnès Zabsonré

Université Laval

Date Written: June 25, 2014


We assess whether global social welfare has improved in the last decades despite (or because of) the substantial increase in global population. We use for this purpose a relatively unknown but simple and attractive social evaluation approach called critical-level generalized utilitarianism (CLGU). CLGU posits that social welfare increases with population size if and only if the new lives come with a level of living standards higher than that of a critical level. Despite its attractiveness, CLGU poses a number of practical difficulties that may explain why the literature has left it largely unexplored. We address these difficulties by developing new procedures for making partial CLGU orderings. The headline result is that we can robustly conclude that world welfare has increased between 1990 and 2005 if we judge that lives with per capita yearly consumption of more than $1,248 necessarily increase social welfare; the same conclusion applies to Sub-Saharan Africa if and only if we are willing to make that same judgement for lives with any level of per capita yearly consumption above $147. Otherwise, some of the admissible CLGU functions will judge the last two decades’ increase in global population size to have lowered global social welfare.

Keywords: Global welfare, Critical-level generalized utilitarianism, Social evaluation, Welfare dominance, Critical level, Population growth

JEL Classification: D31, D63, I32, O15, Q56

Suggested Citation

Cockburn, John and Duclos, Jean-Yves and Zabsonre, Agnes, Is Global Social Welfare Increasing? A Critical-Level Enquiry (June 25, 2014). CRREP Working Paper 2014-04. Available at SSRN: or

John Cockburn

Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) ( email )

P.O. Box 30772-00100
ICIPE - Duduville Campus, Kasarani

Université Laval ( email )

Dept. of Economics
Québec, Quebec G1V 0A6

Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) ( email )

Duduville Campus, Kasarani
P.O. Box 30772-00100

Jean-Yves Duclos (Contact Author)

Laval University ( email )

Quebec G1K 7P4
418-656-7096 (Phone)
418-656-9727 (Fax)

IZA Institute of Labor Economics

P.O. Box 7240
Bonn, D-53072

Agnes Zabsonre

Université Laval ( email )

2214 Pavillon J-A. DeSeve
Quebec, Quebec G1K 7P4

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