Jon Elster. “The Market and the Forum: Three Varieties of Political Theory.” In Foundations of Social Choice Theory, ed. Jon Elster and Aanund Hylland, 104-32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Social Choice Theory
o Political process is an instrument rather than an end in itself.
o The decisive political act is a private rather than public action.
o The structure is as follows:
1. Agents are given so the issue of a normative justification of political boundaries does not arise.
2. Agents confront a given set of alternatives so agenda manipulation is not an issue.
3. Preferences of agents are given and not subject to change in the course of the political process and those preferences are causally independent of the set of alternatives.
- In operation, individual preferences they are purely ordinal, complete, and transitive.
- Social preference ordering of alternatives should be complete and transitive, Pareto-optimal, depend on only the relevant alternatives, and respect and reflect individual preferences, over and above the condition of Pareto-optimality (anonymity, non-dictatorship, liberalism, strategy-proofness).
Criticism of social choice theory: it embodies a confusion between the kind of behavior that is appropriate in the market place and that which is appropriate in the forum. The consumer is sovereign in the marketplace because he chooses between courses of action that differ only the in the way they affect him; in political choice situations, he is asked to express his preference over states that also differ in the way in which they affect others. A social choice mechanism is capable of resolving market failures that result from unbridled consumer sovereignty, but is hopelessly inadequate at redistributing welfare. The task of politics is not just to eliminate inefficiency, but to create justice--a goal to which the aggregation of political preferences is an incongruous means.
The transformation of public preferences through public and rational discussion:
- The conceptual impossibility of expressing selfish arguments in a debate about the public good and the psychological difficulty of expressing other-regarding preferences without ultimately coming to acquire them bring about that public discussion tends to promote the common good.
- Elster objects to this line of argument because not everyone will deliberate, there are time constraints, rational arguments will not align underlying values or eliminate self-interest.
What makes democracy superior are its side effects on economic prosperity. But those side effects can not be what motivate a government to pursue democracy because then society would not believe in democracy on any other ground and the side effects that come with it would not be produced.
The political process is:
1. instrumental in purpose
2. an end in itself, a good or even the supreme good for those who participate in it
Additional summary by Scott Guenther
Elster, J. The Market and the Forum: Three Varieties of Political Theory. Scott Guenther
Summary: Democratic politics is concerned with the public good. Contrasts social choice theory of democratic politics with alternative theory rooted in Habermas' rational theory of compromise and Mill's theory of political
Social Choice Theory: Individuals are instrumentally self-interested. Aggregation of these interests will achieve best possible outcome for the greatest number.
Critique of Social Choice Theory: Embodies a confusion between the king of behavior that is appropriate in the market place with that which is appropriate in the forum. In political situation, the citizen is asked to express his preference over states that also differ in the way in which they affect other people.
Habermas Theory: Politics should serve to transform the preferences of participants through public and rational discussion. This makes unanimous agreement the goal of politics. The need for unanimous agreement necessarily requires individuals to behave in a less self-interested manner than under a social choice paradigm. This may militate negative externalities on individuals without preferences at the time of decision making (i.e. future generations).
Critique: Such mechanisms of political decision making may be overly paternalistic; assume unlimited time to find unanimous agreement; assumes unanimous action would eventually be agreed upon; fails to account for instances where deliberation may be less favorable than expedience; assumes group-think would not interfere with Pareto-optimality; assumes desire to conform would not dissuade individuals from holding out for better policy; assumes that seeking 'common good' will purge all selfish arguments made by participants.
Mill's/Rawls' Theory: The benefits of political participation extend beyond the instrumental benefits of policy enactments to include the by products of political activity in and of itself. Political participation leads to a social education of others' perspectives that ineluctably changes ones own ideals. Pure utilitarian aggregation would entail loss of self-esteem of political losers, that would also lead to a loss in average utility (since people care what others feel).
Critique: Assumes that humans care about other humans (Or at least to the extent that if politics were ineffectual, the benefits of engaging in politics would not necessarily provide reasons to continue engagement.
Conclusion: The forum of political engagement should differ from a the market in its mode of functioning, yet be concerned with decisions that ultimately deal with matters that influence the well-being of others. Time creates a need for focus and concentration that cannot be provided for within the non-social choice theories.