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There Is No “Will of the People”

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:


You wisely applaud states that prohibit ranked-choice voting (“A Welcome Rethink on Ranked-Choice Voting,” April 6). The goal of those who advocate this voting system are electoral outcomes that better reflect “the will of the people.” But this goal is chimeral, and, thus not worth the cost of pursuing with complex and confusing voting schemes. The best we can do is to ensure a wide franchise with one person, one vote.

The late Kenneth Arrow won the economics Nobel Prize in part for formulating Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem – a proof of the impossibility of designing a method of collective decision-making that results in outcomes determined only by the preferences of the decision-makers. Regardless of the collective-decision-making method used, Arrow showed, outcomes will always be determined in part by arbitrary circumstances having nothing to do with people’s preferences.

An implication of Arrow’s theorem is that there is no “will of the people” comparable to the will of an individual. Because no collective is sentient, no collective has preferences. A set of preferences – “a will” – exists only at the level of the individual. Attempts, therefore, to engineer voting to better reflect the “will of the people” are attempts to engineer voting to better reflect that which doesn’t exist.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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