Application of rational choice theory to the provision of welfare services and public goods and the relation between citizens’ preferences and public policy.
There are difficulties in rationally translating people’s choices into public policy, as indicated in the impossibility theorem.
Social choice is a theory not so much of the translation of individual into collective decisions as of the difficulty or impossibility of achieving such a connection.
Geoffrey Roberts and Alistair Edwards, A New Dictionary of Political Analysis (London, 1991)
Social choice theory or social choice is a theoretical framework for analysis of combining individual opinions, preferences, interests, or welfares to reach a collective decision or social welfare in some sense. A non-theoretical example of a collective decision is enacting a law or set of laws under a constitution. Social choice theory dates from Condorcet’s formulation of the voting paradox. Kenneth Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values (1951) and Arrow’s impossibility theorem in it are generally acknowledged as the basis of the modern social choice theory. In addition to Arrow’s theorem and the voting paradox, the Gibbard–Satterthwaite theorem, the Condorcet jury theorem, the median voter theorem, and May’s theorem are among the more well known results from social choice theory.
Social choice blends elements of welfare economics and voting theory. It is methodologically individualistic, in that it aggregates preferences and behaviors of individual members of society. Using elements of formal logic for generality, analysis proceeds from a set of seemingly reasonable axioms of social choice to form a social welfare function (or constitution). Results uncovered the logical incompatibility of various axioms, as in Arrow’s theorem, revealing an aggregation problem and suggesting reformulation or theoretical triage in dropping some axiom(s).
Later work also considers approaches to compensations and fairness, liberty and rights, axiomatic domain restrictions on preferences of agents, variable populations, strategy-proofing of social-choice mechanisms, natural resources, capabilities and functionings, and welfare, justice, and poverty.
Social choice and public choice theory may overlap but are disjoint if narrowly construed. The Journal of Economic Literature classification codes place Social Choice under Microeconomics at JEL D71 (with Clubs, Committees, and Associations) whereas most Public Choice subcategories are in JEL D72 (Economic Models of Political Processes: Rent-Seeking, Elections, Legislatures, and Voting Behavior).