Democracy and Will of the People


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D.George Mason University

Sometimes politicians talk about the “will of the people”. When thinking about democracy, it makes sense to think of the people as having a single will or desire and no leader could claim to have a legitimate authority without some sort of popular mandate. But discovering the will of the people is indeed pretty complicated.

An image of people holding US flags.
People are the primary element of a democracy. (Image: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock)

Will of the People: Does It Really Exist?

Suppose there are three people, Charlie, Monica, and Jamie, who want to order a pizza. They’re going to order one pizza and the restaurant only offers three toppings: cheese, pepperoni, or olives. People have different preferences about what they want. Charlie prefers cheese pizza, then pepperoni and his last pick is olives. Monica likes pepperoni, then olives, then cheese. Jamie prefers olives, then cheese, and lastly, pepperoni. 

What Monica noticed is that there’s a sort of cycle among their preferences. Each individual has perfectly rational preferences over pizza; they can each rank order their preferences in a logical way. But as a group, there is no rational order. There is a majority that prefers each option, but each option is preferred by a different majority. 

The group has discovered that no voting mechanism can help them find the will of the people or the pizza option that is most liked by most people because it literally does not exist. There is no group preference. Or, another way to think about it is that there are several defensible group preferences.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US GovernmentWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Will of the People and Coherence

A portrait of Marquis de Condorcet.
Marquis de Condorcet once developed a mathematical proof showing that the will of the people doesn’t exist. (Image: Augustin de Saint-Aubin/Public domain)

Marquis de Condorcet, the 18th-century French philosopher and mathematician, first developed the mathematical proof that showed this possibility. The Nobel Prize-winning 20th century American economist, Ken Arrow, developed the idea further.

Not only is group decision-making subject to the kind of cyclical chaos found in the hypothetical pizza example, but it also turns out that as the number of voters goes up and the number of options gets larger, the probability that a group will lack a coherent group choice increases. 

Imagine that little three-by-three preference matrix getting larger, in both directions, with more rows and more columns. As the system grows to the size of the US House of Representatives with 435 voting members, or the 2020 primary field that includes millions of voters and at one point about two dozen candidates, it’s not only possible that these groups do not have a single will, it’s in fact likely that they do not.

This, of course, creates a huge problem for a democracy, especially in a society as large and complex as the United States. If there is no single will of the people, or if the people could form majorities for any number of possible outcomes, how can it function? How can leaders claim any mandate or authority?

Learn more about the American democracy.

True Democracy and Its Lack of Coherence

In truth, the likelihood that there will routinely be different majority preferences in politics, elections, and policymaking is very real. If the US government was organized as a true democracy or a direct democracy, nothing would ever get done, and chaos would reign. 

It would be difficult for any leader or selected outcome to claim that it has authority as the correct choice for the group. It doesn’t suggest that large groups always have incoherent preferences; sometimes, people are unified, or close to it, in what they want. But it is better to say that lack of coherent preferences almost certainly happens a whole lot more than anyone ever notices.

Institutions: Democracy and Self-Rule Without Chaos 

So, pure democracy is really a fantasy. Not only would it be hugely complicated and costly, but it would also fail to find the will of the people in the cases where one doesn’t exist, and that could happen a lot. So how is this problem solved? How do politicians maintain a society where the people have sovereign power and self-rule, but without total chaos? This happens with the use of institutions.

The purpose of these institutions is to solve collective action problems. In other words, they are a mechanism for helping groups of people take collective actions and produce something that would be almost impossible for any one of them to do on their own. But institutions are important for another reason, too. They also provide stability. 

Learn more about civil liberties: freedoms from government.

How to Establish Democracy Without Chaos

The key characteristic of democracy is that the people are the source of sovereign power. In that sense, it’s a form of self-rule. But as societies get large and complex, we need mechanisms to organize that self-rule, and one of the core tasks is to figure out what the people want. 

Image of a book with democracy written on it, and a judicial gavel kept on it.
Democracy must secure liberty. (Image: create jobs 51/Shutterstock)

As it is clear, pure democracy is too untenable and messy to be functional, but the alternatives to democracy can be really unpleasant, as well.

Dictatorships, authoritarian states, monarchies, theocracies, oligarchies—any of these alternative forms of government tend to strip people of individual liberties and generate massive inequalities among its citizens.

The great hope of democracy was that it would offer both liberty and equality to people, but in order to avoid chaos, politicians must use institutions to help societies arrive at stable, legitimate outcomes.

Common Questions about Democracy and Will of the People

Q: Does the will of the people really exist?

A philosopher and mathematician named Marquis de Condorcet created a mathematical proof and concluded that achieving full democracy and the will of the people was not only difficult but in fact impossible as the number of voters is always growing.

Q: How can true democracy incite chaos in a society?

Various people have different opinions and priorities. And the more people and priorities, the harder it is to establish democracy or the will of the people. In fact, real democracy can cause instability and chaos in society. Consequently, real democracy isn’t even possible.

Q: What can politicians do to avoid chaos?

Since it isn’t possible to form a fully democratic government, politicians use various institutions to establish stability and democracy to avoid unrest and chaos. These institutions help communities to achieve desired outcomes or the will of the people.

Keep Reading
The Working of the Supreme Court
The Modern US Federal Court System: The Role of the Supreme Court
‘Marbury v. Madison’: Extending the Authority of the Supreme Court