The Logical Space of Democracy

Philosophy and Public Affairs 39 (3):262-297 (2011)
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Can we design a perfect democratic decision procedure? Condorcet famously observed that majority rule, our paradigmatic democratic procedure, has some desirable properties, but sometimes produces inconsistent outcomes. Revisiting Condorcet’s insights in light of recent work on the aggregation of judgments, I show that there is a conflict between three initially plausible requirements of democracy: “robustness to pluralism”, “basic majoritarianism”, and “collective rationality”. For all but the simplest collective decision problems, no decision procedure meets these three requirements at once; at most two can be met together. This “democratic trilemma” raises the question of which requirement to give up. Since different answers correspond to different views about what matters most in a democracy, the trilemma suggests a map of the “logical space” in which different conceptions of democracy are located. It also sharpens our thinking about other impossibility problems of social choice and how to avoid them, by capturing a core structure many of these problems have in common. More broadly, it raises the idea of “cartography of logical space” in relation to contested political concepts.
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