Social Choice and Popular Control

Journal of Theoretical Politics 28 (2):331-349 (2016)
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In democracies citizens are supposed to have some control over the general direction of policy. According to a pretheoretical interpretation of this idea, the people have control if elections and other democratic institutions compel officials to do what the people want, or what the majority want. This interpretation of popular control fits uncomfortably with insights from social choice theory; some commentators—Riker, most famously—have argued that these insights should make us abandon the idea of popular rule as traditionally understood. This article presents a formal theory of popular control that responds to the challenge from social choice theory. It makes precise a sense in which majorities may be said to have control even if the majority preference relation has an empty core. And it presents a simple game-theoretic model to illustrate how majorities can exercise control in this specified sense, even when incumbents are engaged in purely re-distributive policymaking and the majority rule core is empty.
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