British Journal of Political Science

Research Article

Social Choice Theory and Deliberative Democracy: A Reconciliation

a1 Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University
a2 Nuffield College, Oxford


The two most influential traditions of contemporary theorizing about democracy, social choice theory and deliberative democracy are generally thought to be at loggerheads, in that one demonstrates the impossibility, instability or meaninglessness of the rational collective outcomes sought by the other. We argue that the two traditions can be reconciled. After expounding the central Arrow and Gibbard–Satterthwaite impossibility results, we reassess their implications, identifying the conditions under which meaningful democratic decision making is possible. We argue that deliberation can promote these conditions, and hence that social choice theory suggests not that democratic decision making is impossible, but rather that democracy must have a deliberative aspect.


a Previous versions of this article were presented at the Joint Sessions of the European Consortium for Political Research in Mannheim, 1999, and at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., 2000. The authors did much of the initial work while Dryzek was a visitor at Nuffield College in 1998, and Dryzek thanks the College for its hospitality. For helpful comments, we thank Keith Dowding, James Fishkin, Natalie Gold, Robert Goodin, Iain McLean, Gerry Mackie, David Miller, Claus Offe, Anne Sliwka, the Editor and the anonymous reviewers of this article.