The Myth of “The Will of the Majority”

Friends and acquaintances are often surprised to find out that I don’t vote.

In fact, I haven’t voted since 2010. I often say that I am both a “principled” and a “pragmatic” non-voter, meaning that both my beliefs and my assessment of the consequences of voting lead me to abstain from voting.

When I describe myself thusly, I think that people initially perceive the “principled” side of my decision not to vote as, “Well, all the candidates are lousy, so I can’t support any of them.” Then they try to convince me either that this or that candidate is different from the others, or to vote for the lesser of two evils.

Yet for me as a classical liberal, the principled objection to voting goes beyond just lack of confidence in any politician. It has to do with the nature and scope of collective decision-making, and the belief that the options presented to me as a voter force me to be complicit in policies and behaviors that I abhor.5193q3aklyl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

When I explain the fundamental, fatal deficiencies of the democratic process (deficiencies recognized by political scientists but rarely explained in civics class), the response is often the same as when I explain civil asset forfeiture: disbelief, shock, and dismay. As I see it, the two most fundamental flaws are “rational irrationality” as articulated by Bryan Caplan in The Myth of the Rational Voter, and Condorcet’s paradox. I highly recommend Caplan’s book, which I’ve discussed in a previous post. In this post, my outline of Condorcet’s paradox is taken from a talk given by Mike Munger of Duke. (Munger has since written a book on the subject which I have not yet read, but I assume he addresses the paradox.)


The essence of Condorcet’s paradox is this: When a group must choose between three or more alternatives, none of which is favored by a majority, it is possible for preferences to produce “cycling majorities” in which A is preferred over B, B is preferred over C, and C is preferred over A. This means that 1) there is no such thing as a “will of the majority,” since every option has a majority opposed to it; and 2) changing the order in which the options are compared changes the outcome of the voting process.

Here’s a simple illustration. Andy, Brian and Chris are coworkers who decide to go to lunch together. There are only three restaurants within easy distance of their workplace: A pizza joint, an Indian restaurant, and a steakhouse.

  • Andy doesn’t like Indian food, because it upsets his stomach. The steakhouse is OK, but he is looking to save money and would prefer pizza.
  • Brian is a vegetarian and doesn’t like the bland veggie options at the steakhouse. He would prefer the Indian restaurant because of the tasty vegetarian options, but would be OK with a pizza with cheese, mushrooms and peppers.
  • Chris has a gluten allergy and finds that there isn’t much he can eat at the pizza joint. He prefers the steakhouse, but is OK with Indian food.

In summary, their order of preference is as follows:

  • Andy: Pizza > Steakhouse > Indian
  • Brian: Indian > Pizza > Steakhouse
  • Chris: Steakhouse > Indian > Pizza

Initially unaware of each other’s preferences, they suggest an up-or-down vote on each option. The pizza joint loses, 2-1 (Yea: A; Nay: B & C). Then the “majority” also votes against the Indian restaurant (Yea: B; Nay: A & C). Finally, the steakhouse is voted down as well (Yea: C; Nay: A & B). There is no “will of the majority.”

At this point, Chris (who had read about Condorcet’s paradox in a poli sci course and was the student senate parliamentarian in college), offers to solve the problem this way: They will vote between two of the options, and then put the winning option up against the third. With only two choices in each vote, a majority is guaranteed. The “will of the majority” will be discovered!

First, they vote on Pizza vs. Indian food. Because both Brian and Chris prefer Indian food over Pizza, Indian wins, 2 votes to 1. Then, Indian food goes up against the Steakhouse. Andy and Chris both vote for the steakhouse.

Chris has craftily structured the order of the choices to ensure his preferred outcome. If the questions had been asked in the reverse order–first, Indian vs. Steakhouse, and second, the winner vs. pizza, the outcome would have been different:

Scenario 1

  • First question: Pizza vs. Indian
    • Indian wins, 2-1
  • Second question: Indian vs. Steakhouse
    • Steakhouse wins, 2-1
  • “Will of the majority”: Steakhouse

Scenario 2

  • First question: Indian vs. Steakhouse
    • Steakhouse wins, 2-1
  • Second question: Steakhouse vs. Pizza
    • Pizza wins, 2-1
  • “Will of the majority”: Pizza

As this simplified example shows, when none of three or more options enjoys majority support (only a plurality), then choosing the order of questions is tantamount to deciding the outcome–provided that the one choosing the order has an idea of second and third preferences and the strength of those preferences.


Andy, Brian and Chris only have a problem in this scenario if they are committed to a common lunch location. They could go to lunch separately, or get takeout and meet back at work for lunch. They are friends who (presumably) want to enjoy each other’s company and are willing to make some concessions in order to have lunch together. This is not that big a problem.

Collective decision-making becomes much more difficult for a body politic that is 1) large (a nation of millions, for example), 2) committed to making many important decisions corporately, and 3) comprised of individuals with irreconcilable preferences.

Munger gives this example. On the eve of the Iraq War (2003-present), the United States leadership (President Bush and his administration, and Congress) and public believed Saddam Hussein had WMDs, or would be able to construct them very soon. What should be done about it? Broadly, there were three sorts of options:

  • O1: Do nothing–avoid foreign entanglement and putting troops and civilians at risk. Saddam is a bad guy, but he is far away, and the alternatives might be worse.
  • O2: “Police action”: Economic sanctions and perhaps a no-fly zone until Saddam cooperates with UN inspectors
  • O3: Invade, topple the regime, and rebuild.

Munger suggests three quite plausible orders of preferences among the leadership and the public, and asserts (not sure if he’s right) that public opinion evidence from this period suggests that Americans were mostly evenly divided into these three camps.

  • P1: “Prudent Dove”: Saddam has a bad human rights record, and we should try to prevent him from getting WMDs. But we should only use sanctions and international pressure through the UN. Invading would only make things worse and expose our troops–absolute last option.
  • P2. Pragmatic isolationism (someone like Colin Powell): We should avoid foreign entanglements. But if our involvement becomes necessary, it is better to go in full-force for regime change, rather than risk sanctions antagonizing a bad guy who may have WMDs.
  • P3. Urgent interventionism (Donald Rumsfeld): We should do something–preferably invasion and regime change, but sanctions at the very least.

The three perspectives’ preferences, from most to least preferred:

  • P1: Sanctions > Nothing > War
  • P2: Nothing > War > Sanctions
  • P3: War > Sanctions > Nothing

If we assume that each of these perspectives enjoys roughly 1/3 support, no single plan will receive majority support in an up-or-down vote.

Let’s say that we first ask the question, “What sort of force should we be prepared to use in Iraq?” and then, “Should we use that force in Iraq?” the votes would go like this:

  • Sort of force: Sanctions vs. War
    • War wins, 2-1
  • Use force: War vs. Nothing
    • Nothing wins, 2-1
  • “Will of the Majority”: Do Nothing

If we ask the question the other way around: “Should we use force in Iraq?” and then “What sort of force should we use?” the answer is the complete opposite:

  • Use force: Nothing vs. Something
    • Something wins, 2-1
  • Sort of force: War vs. Sanctions
    • War wins, 2-1
  • “Will of the Majority”: Invasion of Iraq

When democracies must choose only one option of three or more, they can be radically indeterminate. Setting the agenda is tantamount to choosing the outcome–tyranny with the veneer of democracy.


Imagine a grocery store where instead of snaking through the aisles choosing items and putting them in your cart, you could only choose between two pre-filled carts, each of which appeared to contain some items that you wanted and needed, but not all the items you needed, and also a bunch of stuff that you didn’t want–and you could only choose one cart. (And you had to overpay for it.)

This is what “democracy” is in a two-party system. (Our actual system is worse, because at least in the grocery store scenario you can see for sure what is inside the cart and be reasonably certain of what you’re getting. Politicians are about as non-WYSIWYG propositions as one can imagine.) This November, voters will be forced to choose between two options that most of them would not have chosen. Of course, there are third parties. But in our winner-take-all system of delegates and districts, third parties have almost no chance–voters tend to coalesce into two broad groups.

What is the solution? We need to remove as many decisions as possible from the public forum, and return those decisions to individuals and their voluntary associations. Individuals may not always make the right choices for themselves, but they can learn from their mistakes and decide for themselves better than can “the public.”

There are a few decisions that are truly collective–they simply cannot be made efficiently by individuals for themselves. I’m thinking about which side of the road we drive on, or nuclear weapons, or polluting emissions. There is a role for collective decision-making, some of which needs to be at the national level. But we have taken so much out of the hands of individuals and forced all of us to choose for each of us.


Until the scope of collective decision-making is reduced to the point that it represents only minimal infringement of basic human rights (including the right to keep what I earn and to voluntarily exchange it with others), I cannot in good conscience participate in that process without being complicit in tyranny.


About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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3 Responses to The Myth of “The Will of the Majority”

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