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John S. Dryzek on Social Choice Theory - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 146
Social choice theory/Dryzek: Social choice theory has developed for half a century alongside a rational choice account of politics, though the two enterprises are actually logically distinct (...). At a time of democratic advance in the real world, their main thrust, with a few exceptions, has been in exactly the opposite direction. >Deliberative Democracy/Dryzek.
The public choice field that they constitute is home to many demonstrations of the arbitrariness, instability, perversity, and inefficiency of democratic politics. Beyond Riker's exposé of the vacuum at the heart of democracy, (>Democracy/Riker) public choice theorists have argued that:
- In political systems of any size, voting is irrational.
- Majority rule entails the Pareto-suboptimal exploitation of minorities.
- Self-interested elected representatives at best create programmes that benefit their own constituents at the expense of the public interest, at worst deliberately design programmes badly
such that their own intercession is required to deliver benefits.
- Public spending levels are mostly a consequence of self-interested bureaucrats maximizing budgets. Bureaucrats can conspire with special interest groups and their supportive
politicians to divert public resources for their own benefit.
- More generally, 'distributional coalitions' such as labour unions and employers secure laws and
policies to protect their own privileges at the expense of economic efficiency.
Gaus I 147
- Democratic politics is intrinsically irresponsible because all actors seek benefits for themselves
while imposing costs upon others; the result is a negative-sum game where total costs outweigh
total benefits. >Democracy/Social choice theory.
Russell Hardin conclude[s] that public choice analyses have 'largely helped to expose flaws - grievous, foundational flaws - in democratic thought and practice' (1993(1): 170).
The claims of rational choice as explanatory theory have been severely dented within political science (Green and Shapiro, 1994)(2).
Gerry MackieVsSocial Chice theory/MackieVsRiker: Social choice theory in its Rochester-style anti-democratic manifestation has been destroyed by Mackie (2003)(3). Gerry Mackie shows that every real-world example of a voting cycle (A beats B beats C beats A) adduced by William Riker or his followers to illustrate the potential for arbitrariness, instability, and manipulation in collective choice is actually inconsistent with the historical evidence.


1. Hardin, Russell (1993) 'Public choice versus democracy'. In David Copp, Jean Hampton and John E. Roemer, eds, The Idea of Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Green, Donald P. and Ian Shapiro (1994) Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
3. Mackie, Gerry (2003) Democracy Defended. Cambridge: Cambridge Umversity Press.

Dryzek, John S. 2004. „Democratic Political Theory“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Dryzek, John S.
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2021-06-18
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