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Social Choice Theory on Democracy - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 146
Democracy/social choice theory/Dryzek: The social choice account of democracy takes its
bearings from Kenneth Arrow's (1951)(1) demonstration of the impossibility of any collective choice
mechanism, such as a voting system, simultaneously achieving an innocuous set of conditions
(unanimity, non-dictatorship, transitivity, unrestricted domain of preferences, and independence
of irrelevant alternatives). (VsDemocray).
William Riker (1982)(2) radicalized the social choice critique of democracy by observing that different voting systems and rules avoid the Arrow problem only by introducing an element of arbitrariness into collective choice. Given that different mechanisms will produce different results from identical distributions of preferences, there is no such thing as a popular will independent of the mechanism that ascertains it. This is especially true if, as Riker believes, there is no particular reason to prefer any mechanism (e.g. majority rule, or approval voting, or consensus) over any other. Democracy is then emptied of meamng. >Deliberative democracy/Dryzek.
(...)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.


1. Arrow, Kenneth J. (1951) Social Choice and Individual Values. New York: Wiley.
2. Riker, William H. (1982) Liberalism against Populism: A Confrontation between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice. San Francisco: Freeman.

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.
Social Choice Theory
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2021-05-12
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