The Theoretical Interpretation of Voting

Dissertation, The University of Wisconsin - Madison (1986)

David Estlund
Brown University
The present thesis is intended as a contribution toward a Rousseauean theory of democracy. The central problem discussed is how the act of voting must be interpreted in democratic theory. The notion of a theoretical interpretation of voting is discussed in Chapter One. A theory of democracy must include an interpretation of the act of voting if any praise or criticism of democracy is to be possible. The theoretical interpretation is distinct from an empirical account of voting behavior, and also distinct from a moral or prudential imperative. It is left as an open question whether one ought, morally or prudentially, to vote in the way that democratic theory interprets voting, or indeed whether one ought to vote at all. ;Social choice theory typically assumes that votes are expressions of individual preferences--that each individual expresses his or her narrowly self-interested preferences, and a proper aggregation of these will yield a utility maximizing result. In Chapter Two it is argued that, for reasons stemming from analysis of the concept of democratic voting, no understanding of "preference" is acceptable as a theoretical interpretation of voting. Six such understandings are disqualified, and the interpretation of votes as statements on the common interest is argued to succeed where these fail. In Chapter Three Richard Wollheim's puzzle of the minority democrat is discussed in relation to several closely related puzzles which apply to both democracy and utilitarianism. All three puzzles are argued to be dissolved if votes are interpreted as statements on the common interest. The solution to Wollheim's paradox, called the Correction Solution, gives rise to the disturbing possibility that the minority is interpreted as simply deferring to the majority. This danger is discussed in detail in Chapter Four, and again the interpretation of votes as statements on the common interest is argued to be uniquely qualified to avoid it
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