The impossibility of rational politics?

Politics, Philosophy and Economics 2 (2):239-263 (2003)
Abstract
Jon Elster denies that collectives can behave rationally. Rational behavior requires action in conformity with preferences and beliefs. According to Elster, however, social choice theory demonstrates that collectives cannot have preferences, even in principle, and this precludes them from behaving either rationally or irrationally. (Irrationality, after all, is a property that can only be possessed by something that could in theory be rational.) Elster, however, does not fully accept this refutation of the possibility of collective rationality. For in exploring the question of random selection, he argues that collectives, as well as individuals, can employ random selection as a tool to facilitate more rational behavior. This contradiction can be resolved if collective preferences are not as inconceivable as Elster suggests, and Elster himself gives reason for believing they may not be. He does this by distinguishing between a thin and a broad theory of rationality. His refutation of the possibility of collective preferences depends on a thin theory of preferences (and beliefs), a theory that he admits is inadequate for purposes of normative assessment. A broad theory of preferences and beliefs, when properly developed, could well accommodate the notion of collective preferences and beliefs, and thus of collective rationality. Key Words: Elster • rationality • social choice theory.
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