Why Arrow’s theorem matters for political theory even if preference cycles never occur
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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.
KeywordsArrow’s impossibility theorem Populism Democratic legitimacy Popular will
The author is grateful to Wulf Gaertner, Lucas Stanczyk, and David Wiens for comments on earlier drafts.
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