Is Democracy Meaningless?
by Gerry Mackie
St. John's College
University of Oxford
Oxford OX1 3JP
April 18, 1997
Forthcoming in Jon Elster, ed.,
One current of thought within the rational choice
approach to the study of politics asserts that democratic voting and democratic discussion are each, generally, inaccurate and meaningless. 2
will call an emphasis on these descriptive assertions
against democracy "the
Rochester current," because its exemplar, the late William Riker, was long a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, and his work on social choice and democracy influenced many of his students and colleagues th
The Rochester current is heir to a tradition of skepticism against the possibility of democratic politics, most respectably expressed earlier in this century by the economists Pareto and Schumpeter.
In America the skeptical view of democracy is
often accompanied by
a family of arguments to the effect that "most public sector programs . . . are inappropriate, or are carried on at an inappropriate level, or are executed in an inappropriate manner."
The normative recommendation that is supposed
follow from these descriptive assertions is that we are best protected from the absurdities of democracy by liberal institutions that, to the maximum extent feasible, shunt decisions from the incoherent democratic forum to the coherent economic market, an
d that fragment political power so that
ambitious elites circulate and contest in perpetual futility; in other words, that the U.S. Constitution, especially as it was interpreted before the New Deal to prevent political interference in the economy, is one of the best of all
possible political arrangements.
The descriptive assertions against
democracy and that normative recommendation are not necessarily linked, however. There are those who grant some credence to the descriptive assertions, yet would pres
umably recommend institutions more social
democratic than conservative in content.
Others could plausibly argue that
if voting and discussion are inaccurate and meaningless, then coercive paternalism is necessarily better than any liberalism for coherent ly shaping
and satisfying people's needs.
Liberalism against Populism
, an interpretation of the results of
social choice theory, Riker makes an apparently powerful case against the very intelligibility of majoritarian democracy.
systems yield different outcomes from the same profile of individual voters' preferences, he argues, democracy is
. For a simple example,
consider that if a group of people is voting for one among three or more candidates for an office,
then a voting system that on one ballot selected the
candidate with a plurality (the most votes, but not necessarily a majority) might select a different candidate than a system that held a second ballot for a majority runoff between the two top vote
ers from a first ballot.
Different methods of aggregating individuals' fixed choices may yield different group choices.
Next, Riker continues, given a fixed voting system, then democracy is
: the outcome of voting is manipulable, and it is n
to distinguish manipulated from unmanipulated outcomes because of the unknowability of private intentions underlying public actions. The spirit of the argument is best conveyed by presenting Condorcet's paradox of voting. Suppose that there a
re three persons named
, deciding by majority
vote among three alternatives
and that individual preference
orders are equivalent to what follows.
(left > right)