Advertisement

Public Choice

, Volume 179, Issue 1–2, pp 97–111 | Cite as

Why Arrow’s theorem matters for political theory even if preference cycles never occur

  • Sean InghamEmail author
Article

Abstract

Riker (Liberalism against populism, Waveland, New York, 1982) famously argued that Arrow’s impossibility theorem undermined the logical foundations of “populism”, the view that in a democracy, laws and policies ought to express “the will of the people”. In response, his critics have questioned the use of Arrow’s theorem on the grounds that not all configurations of preferences are likely to occur in practice; the critics allege, in particular, that majority preference cycles, whose possibility the theorem exploits, rarely happen. In this essay, I argue that the critics’ rejoinder to Riker misses the mark even if its factual claim about preferences is correct: Arrow’s theorem and related results threaten the populist’s principle of democratic legitimacy even if majority preference cycles never occur. In this particular context, the assumption of an unrestricted domain is justified irrespective of the preferences citizens are likely to have.

Keywords

Arrow’s impossibility theorem Populism Democratic legitimacy Popular will 

Notes

Acknowledgements

The author is grateful to Wulf Gaertner, Lucas Stanczyk, and David Wiens for comments on earlier drafts.

References

  1. Arrow, K. (1963). Social choice and individual values (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Austin-Smith, D., & Banks, J. (1999). Positive political theory I: Collective preference. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  3. Banks, J. (1995). Acyclic social choice from finite sets. Social Choice and Welfare, 12(3), 293–310.Google Scholar
  4. Bellamy, R. (2007). Political constitutionalism: A republican defence of the constitutionality of democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Brennan, J. (2016). Against democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Christiano, T. (2008). The constitution of equality: Democratic authority and its limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Cohen, J. (1986). An epistemic conception of democracy. Ethics, 97(1), 26–38.Google Scholar
  8. Dennett, D. C. (2013). Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  9. Dowding, K. (2006). Can populism be defended? William Riker, Gerry Mackie and the interpretation of democracy. Government and Opposition, 41(3), 327–346.Google Scholar
  10. Dryzek, J. S., & List, C. (2003). Social choice theory and deliberative democracy: A reconciliation. British Journal of Political Science, 33, 1–28.Google Scholar
  11. Elster, J. (2011). How outlandish can imaginary cases be? Journal of Applied Philosophy, 28(3), 241–258.Google Scholar
  12. Knight, J., & Johnson, J. (2011). The priority of democracy: Political consequences of pragmatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (2008). Against self-ownership: There are no fact-insensitive ownership rights over one?s body. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 36(1), 86–118.Google Scholar
  14. Mackie, G. (2003). Democracy defended. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Morreau, M. (2010). It simply does not add up: Trouble with overall similarity. The Journal of Philosophy, 107(9), 469–490.Google Scholar
  16. Müller, J.-W. (2016). What is populism?. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  17. Okasha, S. (2011). Theory choice and social choice: Kuhn versus Arrow. Mind, 120, 83–115.Google Scholar
  18. Patty, J. W., & Penn, E. M. (2014). Social choice and legitimacy: The possibilities of impossibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Regenwetter, M., Bernard Grofman, A. A. J., Marley, A. A. J., & Tsetlin, I. (2006). Behavioral social choice: Probabilistic models, statistical inference, and applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Riker, W. (1982). Liberalism against populism. New York, NY: Waveland Press.Google Scholar
  21. Saari, D. G. (2003). Capturing the ‘will of the people’. Ethics, 113(2), 333–349.Google Scholar
  22. Schumpeter, J. (1942). Capitalism, socialism, and democracy. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.Google Scholar
  23. Sen, A. (1973). On economic inequality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Sen, A. (1976). Poverty: An ordinal approach to measurement. Econometrica, 44(2), 219–231.Google Scholar
  25. Sen, A. (1977). On weights and measures: Informational constraints in social welfare analysis. Econometrica, 45(7), 1539–1572.Google Scholar
  26. Shepsle, K. A., & Weingast, B. R. (1981). Structure-induced equilibrium and legislative choice. Public Choice, 37(3), 503–519.Google Scholar
  27. Waldron, J. (1999). Law and disagreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Political ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaSan DiegoUSA

Personalised recommendations