Democracy and its Unjustifiably Inflated Reputation

Social choice theory has amusingly and severely dented the theoretical virtue of democracy, (to the point where many supporters of democracy have resorted to sniping at the credibility of social choice theory altogether). Unfortunately however, what it cannot do is measure the intangible, consumptive and participatory value of democracy which enables proponents of democracy to breathe a sigh of relief, left with an avenue to declare the legitimacy of the political system which is spreading its eager tentacles throughout the world. However, implicit in this salvaging operation is an awareness and an acceptance that the virtue of democracy has long been vastly overrated by both philosopher and political theorist alike.

Value exists for all social choice mechanisms, for they all intrinsically have a monopoly of force over society. Social choice mechanisms need the legitimacy of force if they are ever to be universally honoured by society. This gives all social choice mechanisms a Hobbesian value in that the horrors of the war of all against all can be avoided – where life for all would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. ” In effect, this is the first social choice – to allow a society’s preponderance of violence to be controlled by the social choice mechanism, whatever that may be. However, all social choice mechanisms potentially have this quality, and thus democracy does not as yet stand out as anything special.


Arrow’s impossibility theorem states that a social choice mechanism cannot simultaneously meet the conditions of unrestricted domain, pareto, independence of irrelevant alternatives, non-dictatorial and unique ordering. It will become apparent that democracy fails a lot of these conditions due to the unique quality of voting inherent in the mechanism.

Firstly, voting has the potential for a cyclical outcome. By cyclical it is meant that there is no coherent choice which is more convincingly preferred to the other choices. This is demonstrated in the Condorcet paradox, where, assuming there are more than 2 individuals and more than 2 choices, a savage use of the unrestricted domain condition (a freedom held dear by supporters of democracy) gives us a potential global preference ordering of aPbPcPa etc…… Thus, the system of voting cannot be assured of meeting the unique ordering (or decisive) condition.

Further to this, voting is invariably not strategy proof, and thus has the potential for perverse outcomes. This is shown in the example of 3 individuals weighting values to outcomes by allocating a percentage of points to each option, adding up to a sum total of 10. Player 1 rates “a” 7 and “b” 3. Player 2 rates “a” 6 and “b” 4. Player 3, however rates “a” 1 and “b” 9. This gives a global value of 14 to “a” and 16 to “b. The unfortunate reality is however, that these are merely the true utilities within the hearts of each player. Voting cannot pierce through to these true utilities. Maximizing agents will report to society, via voting, a distorted value allocation, in order to give themselves the greatest chance for their preferred option to be selected. In other words, they will vote strategically. In this case, players 1 and 2 will report 10 for “a” and 0 for “b”. Player 3 will report the inverse of this. The end result is the voting procedure selects option “a” on the basis of the reports – giving the society a perverse and utility minimised outcome. Thus democracy cannot guarantee a strategy proof system – another condition of Arrow’s not met.

Coleman and Ferejohn demonstrate in their article a situation where 4 different voting procedures lead to the election of 4 different victors . This shows the potential for ambiguous results in democratic society. So far, this means that voting has the potential for cycles, strategic perversity, and ambiguity.


Rational choice theory in relation to voting further weakens the perceived value of democracy. Theorists have wrestled with the basic premise that voting seems a largely irrational act. According to the basic theory, a person will vote if the expected benefit of voting exceeds the cost (normally measured as opportunity cost). The ordinary calculation of the expected benefit is a multiplication of the utility accrued from the preferred candidate winning (B), by the probability of casting the decisive vote in the election (P). In modern societies of millions, the expected benefit, calculated in this way, would be extremely low.

There have been several attempts to reconcile rationality with voting. Downs argues that people vote to “avoid the collapse of democracy”. The fear of nobody voting and having the legitimacy of democratic rule destroyed, compels people to vote. But, as Barry rightly points out, this is far from convincing; one single vote will be just as unlikely to avoid the collapse of democracy as it would be decisive in the election of a particular candidate.

Ferejohn and Fiorina went on to make the distinction between decision making under risk and decision making under uncertainty. They claimed that voting was a case of the latter, and as such, the probability is impossible to calculate and is therefore cognitively disregarded. It was therefore supposed that rational choice makers would calculate the loss associated with each outcome and subsequently vote for the option which would minimise regret. This too does not hold water. Beck and Aldrich make the point that although the exact probability is impossible to calculate, a mere rough approximation would make it readily apparent that the expected benefit of voting would be extremely small. In addition, as argued by Mueller, this analysis would lead to bizarre behaviour. The existence of an extremist candidate with little or no supporter base, would according to Ferejohn and Fiorina dramatically increase the voter turnout because the potential regret of having that unpopular extremist win (however unlikely) would be very high. Further to this, Ferejohn and Fiorina minimax regretters would be very unlikely to leave their homes due to the extremely high potential regret of getting hit by a car on the way to the polling booth. Riker and Ordershook claim that consumptive benefits from exercising the democratic right to vote need to be taken into account during the calculation of the expected benefit of voting. This line of argument will be dealt with later. At this stage at least though, voting seems to be an irrational act .

As Coleman and Ferejohn state, voting procedure can be free and fair but meaningless, or meaningful with a restricted domain, but not both . Unrestricted domain is a freedom of democracy many hold dear, so we will try to hold true to this condition. In doing this, as Van Mill articulates, “a fair procedure is always open to the possibility of randomness and distortion. Given this uncertainty, we can never know that the results produced by a fair majority actually are manifestations of the popular will. ” This means that the Pareto condition cannot be assured either. If any one individual is aware of the potential for cycles, randomness, strategic perversity, and ambiguity resulting from an electoral process which largely has no rational basis – then that individual will lose faith in the “Pareto” potential of the social choice mechanism, and thus vote either with cynicism, apathy, or not at all. These negative feelings towards this theoretically flawed system of preference aggregation attack the fundamental legitimacy of the democratic system, almost to the point where it is glaringly obvious that democracy has no value at all.

To make matters worse, there is the problem of PAC activity in representative democracy. Where there is pressure group activity, there is a reduction in overall utility, as the direct interests of PAC’s are being catered for, without regard for the larger population. Bureaucrats and representatives are especially susceptible to PAC’s as they have only a small financial incentive to serve the larger public, when compared with the direct and immediate financial benefits received from PAC contributions. These contributions in turn assist representatives in future electoral campaigns. Because the costs of forming different pressure groups vary, those that have a cost advantage will tend to form while others will not. Thus only the rich and influential will have the capital to maintain an effective PAC. Members of pressure groups can cause laws and policies to be made even when their total benefits seem less than the costs, and as a result, reduces the perceived egalitarian value of representative democracy.

Indeed, if value exists in the democratic system, it will only be found from a philosophical angle.


The rescuing of democracy via a liberalist line of argument is one most prominently adopted by Riker. He argues that voting outcomes depend as much on the procedure as the preferences. Therefore all social choices can be manipulated. He puts a positive spin on the fact that voting is a strategic process. Riker claims that losers will attempt to concoct ways of becoming winners, and it is this process of eliminating the tall poppy which is valuable to a society. He concedes that “there is generally no sense in which a social outcome is best or represents truth. But in every such choice, democracy ensures the power of dissatisfied individuals to overturn the outcome. ” This, it is argued, is a safeguard against tyranny which only democracy can achieve. But this argument is weak for two reasons. If people are to bother overthrowing a tyrant, the replacement must be satisfactory. But, from the above analysis of the voting system, the result of any election will either be tyrannical, cyclical, ambiguous, irrational or inefficient. A process by which society replaces an unsatisfactory choice with another unsatisfactory choice hardly seems a worthwhile exercise. In addition to this, if the only purpose of democracy is to prevent representatives from abusing their powers , then the society runs the risk of grossly and unnecessarily exercising this power, ala the mistrusting Australian public in voting out a perfectly good Prime Minister in Paul Keating, mistakenly fearing that he was becoming tyrannical, only to replace him with an unspectacular Prime minister in John Winston Howard.

Participatory Democracy : A Morally Improving Exercise???

There remains one avenue of analysis, yet unexplored, that may save democracy from becoming completely redundant. It is argued that in participating in social choices, individuals are impacted upon from this experience in a positive way. The great Greek philosophers, Socrates and Plato were the first to convincingly argue the notion that there is no greater pursuit in life than that of politics . It follows that the participatory nature of the democratic system encourages each and all in that society to improve themselves via an interest and an involvement in politics. Mill argues that the prime functions of democratic institutions are education and enlightenment. Mill judged political institutions by “the degree to which they promote the general mental advancement of the community, including……advancement in intellect, in virtue, and in practical activity and efficiency .” It is contended that only institutions that encourage participation in the political process cultivate such advancement in the citizenry . This appears to be the saving grace for democracy. It is a quality that is unique to the system, and it appears to be a positive one.


It appears Riker and Ordershook were closest to the mark when they suggested that consumptive values need to be incorporated into the calculation of the expected benefits equation . Of course, exact figures are impossible to calculate, but a general sense of these benefits will be enough for the citizen to find the motivation to vote. Democracy is like a medicine, in which all who participate receive their dose – and although sometimes bitter to swallow – are morally improved as a result of the exercise. In short, the true value of democracy is that, unlike any other social choice mechanism, it gives everyone in society the opportunity to contribute to social choices, no matter how meaningless that contribution may end up being. Without that right to contribute, we are barely distinguishable from animals : running around in the fearful state of nature, or worse; like slaves : unenlightened and apathetic due to the repression of tyranny. But this scrutinising of democracy has, it seems, revealed it as far from the panacea that many have claimed it to be over time , and that is a sobering revelation.


1. Hobbes T “The Leviathan” Penguin, 1968.

2. Coleman and Ferejohn, “Democracy and Social Choice” Ethics 97(1), 1986 : p 6.

3. Blais A, “To Vote or Not to Vote? : the Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory” University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

4. Van Mill D, “The Possibility of Rational Outcomes from Democratic Discourse and Procedures” Journal of Politics 58(3) 1996 : 734.

5. Riker WH, “Liberalism and Populism, a Confrontation between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice” WH Freeman, 1982.

6. Ralston Saul J, “Voltaire’s Bastards : The Dictatorship of Reason in the West” Penguin 1993.

7. Mill JS, “On Liberty; Representative Government; The Subjection of Women : Three Essays” Oxford University Press, 1912.

8. Radcliffe and Wingenbach, “Preference Aggregation, Functional Pathologies, and Democracy : A Social Choice Defense of Participatory Democracy.” The Journal of Politics, 62(4) November 2000, pp: 977-998.

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