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date: 28 March 2017

Social Choice Theory and Legislative Institutions

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Narrowly understood, social choice theory is a specialized branch of applied logic and mathematics that analyzes abstract objects called preference aggregation functions, social welfare functions, and social choice functions. But more broadly, social choice theory identifies, analyzes, and evaluates rules that may be used to make collective decisions. So understood, social choice is a subfield of the social sciences that examines what may be called “voting rules” of various sorts. While social choice theory typically assumes a finite set of alternatives over which voter preferences are unrestricted, the spatial model of social choice assumes that policy alternatives can be represented by points in a space of one or more dimensions, and that voters have preferences that are plausibly shaped by this spatial structure.

Social choice theory has considerable relevance for the study of legislative (as well as electoral) institutions. The concepts and tools of social choice theory make possible formal descriptions of legislative institutions such as bicameralism, parliamentary voting procedures, effects of decision rules (e.g., supramajority vs. simple majority rule and executive veto rules), sincere vs. strategic voting by legislators, agenda control, and other parliamentary maneuvers. Spatial models of social choice further enrich this analysis and raise additional questions regarding policy stability and change. Spatial models are used increasingly to guide empirical research on legislative institutions and processes.