Deliberative Democracy and Social Choice

by Kieran Healy on August 9, 2003

If you’re interested in the relation between deliberative democracy and social choice theory, which Henry has just written about, then you might want to read an interesting and constructive paper by two of my new colleagues here at the RSSS, John Dryzek and Christian List. The paper, “Social Choice Theory and Deliberative Democracy: A Reconciliation” [pdf] just appeared in the British Journal of Political Science. Here’s the abstract:

bq. The two most influential traditions of contemporary theorizing about democracy, social choice theory and deliberative democracy, are generally thought to be at loggerheads, in that the former demonstrates the impossibility, instability or meaninglessness of the rational collective outcomes sought by the latter. We argue that the two traditions can be reconciled. After expounding the central Arrow and Gibbard-Satterthwaite impossibility results, we reassess their implications, identifying the conditions under which meaningful democratic
decision making is possible. We argue that deliberation can promote these conditions, and hence that social choice theory suggests not that democratic decision making is impossible, but rather that democracy must have a deliberative aspect.

It’s a good introduction to why results from social choice theory pose a challenge to what we think democracy can do, and also a useful corrective to the idea that these results should just make us chuck the whole idea of democracy out the window.



Chirag Kasbekar 08.09.03 at 9:28 am

Another interesting look at these connections is Michael Wohlgemuth’s Hayekian look at Social Choice and democracy. Especially his “Democracy as a discovery procedure”. He claims that democracy isn’t just an aggregation of existing preferences — a neoclassical/social choice conceit — but is a Hayekian discovery procedure where opinions are formed.

In fact I think Hayek himself recognised this to a significant degree:

“Democracy is, above all, a process of forming opinion. Its chief advantage lies not in its method of selecting those who govern but in the fact that, because a great part of the population takes an active part in the formation of opinion, a correspondingly wide range of persons is available from which to select… It is in its dynamic, rather than in its static, aspects that the value of democracy proves itself… The ideal of democracy rests on the belief that the view which will direct government emerges from an independent and spontaneous process. It requires, therefore, the existence of a large sphere independent of majority control in which the opinions of the individuals are formed.”
(The Constitution of Liberty, pp.107-108)

Another good place for such a Hayek-inspired process view of democracy is Gus diZerega’s work:

Persuasion, Power and Polity: A Theory of Democratic Self-Organization

…and other stuff


Chirag Kasbekar 08.09.03 at 12:48 pm

Michael Wohlgemuth seems to have moved to the Walter Eucken Institute.

Also, the article I cite above doesn’t seem to be available online. But you can request Michael for a copy:

Or you can request the Max-Planck Institute for a free copy by mail. They do that. The paper is listed here under 1999:

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