A review of books by John Bonner, Politics, Economics and Welfare (Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books, 1986); Jon Elster & Aanund Hylland [Eds], Foundations of Social Choice Theory (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge U Press, 1986); & Michale Laver, Social Choice and Public Policy (Oxford & New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986 [see listings in IRPS No. 43]). Bonner's work introduces the main elements of social choice theory to undergraduates, & presents the concepts of social welfare, utility, rationality, interpersonal comparisons, &, especially, the issue of deriving aggregate or collective welfare functions. Laver's work is also directed toward undergraduates, but its somewhat novel approach should give it a wider audience. The problem of collective action is at the core of the text. A framework for a general comparative discussion of policy outcomes in different systems is developed. The Elster & Hylland work is a collection of essays addressing substantive issues in social choice theory. F. Rasmussen
Pluralist political theory identifies certain patterns of political preferences as promoting the "stability" of democratic political systems and others as threatening to such stability. Social choice theory likewise identifies certain patterns of political preferences as leading to "stability" in social choice under majority rule and related collective decision rules, and other patterns as leading to "unstable" social choice. But the preference patterns identified by pluralist theory as promoting stability are essentially those identified by social choice theory as entailing instability. Thus the notions of stability and the implicit normative criteria associated with the two theories are very close to being logically incompatible. This incompatibility suggests that the social choice ideal of collective rationality may not be one that we should endorse. Indeed, the generic instability of the pluralist political process and its consequent collective irrationality may contribute to the stability of pluralist political systems.
Many philosophers have regarded social choice theory as a technical discipline of limited relevance to substantive questions in moral & political philosophy. It is argued here, however, that it is concerned with questions of central philosophical importance, since it examines the consistency of various beliefs we may have about the desirable characteristics of philosophical theories about the good for society. Kenneth Arrow (Social Choice and Individual Values [see SA 13:5/64B6797]) showed that some apparently innocuous beliefs are inconsistent, & much of the subsequent literature has been concerned with finding ways out of the inconsistency. One fruitful way of doing so is to relax the requirement that theories be applicable to all conceivable combinations of individual preferences. Another is to accept the moral relevance of many aspects of society other than the welfare of individuals. Some of the literature has focused on rights, & has illuminated our understanding of the risk that the rights of different individuals may conflict. Social choice theory has been increasingly integrated into game theory. Recent developments in the field are noted, & suggestions offered regarding which topics will prove to be of philosophical significance in the future. Modified AA