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Brennan and Lomasky: Democracy and decision

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Brennan and Lomasky. 1993. Democracy and decision: The pure theory of electoral preference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In Brief (ch 1)

Public choice generally assumes that (1) people are rational wealth-maximizers (homo economicus) and (2) this is true regardless of institutional context (that is, it is true in markets, in politics, and in any other interaction). The authors have little complaint with assumptions of rationality (though they back away from pure wealth-maximization), but they attack a supposed implication of the second assumption. This is the central claim: Even if people always have the same motivations regardless of context, this does not mean that those motivations will be expressed in exactly the same way; institutions affect which "preferences" are revealed.

Before I can explain this in more detail, several definitions are essential.


Overview of the Argument

The authors accept motivational neutrality but argue against behavioral neutrality. Though people carry the same utility function into every arena, "each institutional structure engages ... with different aspects of human motivation ... so that the behavior that emerges will be different."

This behavioral non-neutrality will be especially pronounced when comparing market behavior with voting. In markets, your actions are decisive; if you want a good, your choice of whether to buy it entirely determines the outcome (i.e. whether you get it). As a result, we aren't surprised that preferences for wealth maximization seem dominant in markets. But when voting, your actions are not decisive. Elections are (almost always) decided by everybody else, not by you. Thus, there is no logical reason to suppose that you will necessarily behave in a wealth-maximizing way. As the book proceeds, the authors will argue that voting might be more "expressive" (of ethical and ideological principles) than wealth maximizing. That's why we observe rent control, minimum wages, and pricing strategies of state enterprises that don't necessarily maximize the median voter's self-interest.

The authors emphasize that they will not be making an empirical argument to prove all these claims--merely a logical one to force us to think twice about what we already observe.

Research by the same authors

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Brennan, Geoffrey (author)Lomasky, Loren (author)Political TheoryVotingWhy Vote

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