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Edited by William F. Shughart II and Laura Razzolini
Chapter 4: Social choice theory
Michael J.G. Cain 1 Introduction Social choice theory is concerned with the aggregation of individual preferences or values into collective preferences or values. The theory’s general perspective on individual values and social choices has obvious relevance to economics, political science and philosophy. Social choice research also has important implications for theories of voting, public goods problems, constitutional design, welfare theory, normative and descriptive ethics, distributive justice and rights theory. Owing to its interdisciplinary focus, social choice theory has helped re-establish neglected intellectual linkages between economics, political science and philosophy, and helped reinvigorate interest in longstanding debates on the nature of the ‘good’ society, the origins of government authority and the legitimacy of democratic processes (Rowley 1993). This chapter discusses these issues by exploring two foundational questions relevant to welfare economics, philosophy and political theory. The ﬁrst question posed in this chapter asks whether – and how – a stylized social planner might use information about what individuals want to develop a rational perspective on what the society wants. I summarize the answers provided by utilitarians, welfare economists and social choice theorists. The second question addressed in this chapter focuses on mechanisms of social choice. In particular, what are the properties of that traditional hallmark of democracy, simple majority rule? Is it fair? Will it lead to the rational selection of a coherent set of social policies? I supply several answers to these questions by reviewing some of the most important ﬁndings in the social choice theories of voting. Although the implications of...
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