The Democratic Trilemma: Rational Choice Theory and the Challenge of Designing Democratic Decision-Making; May 3, 2010, Part Two

How to design democracy? This program features political scientists Steven Brams (New York University) and Christian List (London School of Economics) in a conversation with designer and artist Colleen Macklin (Parsons The New School for Design) on the design of democratic decision-making procedures that are broadly associated with Rational Choice Theory and reflective of game theory.

Titled after List’s research – who coined the term – “The Democratic Trilemma” probes the quandary stemming from three basic requirements for the successful design of a democratic, collective decision-making process: value pluralism, majoritarianism, and rationality. A trilemma ensues, as these three requirements are mutually inconsistent although, separately, any pair is perfectly consistent. Depending on which one we reject or violate, we end up with a very different conception of democracy.

List is joined in this cross-disciplinary conversation by Steven J. Brams and Colleen Macklin. Brams presents his research on the relevance of Rational Choice Theory (RCT) to real-life situations, drawing in particular from his recent book, Mathematics and Democracy: Designing Better Voting and Fair-Division Procedures. Voters today often desert a preferred candidate for a more viable second choice in order to avoid wasting their vote. A leading authority in the use of mathematics to design decision-making processes, Brams discusses how social-choice and game theory could enable voters and participants to better express themselves, thereby making political and social institutions more democratic. Macklin presents “Budgetball,” a newly developed sport designed to increase awareness of the national debt and reward strategic thinking and collaborative problem-solving around the issues of fiscal responsibility.
Ultimately, the focus of the program is on how theory can contribute to society and, in particular, how abstract results such as those identified as the “Democratic Trilemma” may guide us to view our discourses about democratic decision-making in a new light. The program echoes the VLC’s previous cycle on democracy as an eternally deferred state.


Steven J. Brams is Professor of Politics in the Department of Politics at New York University. He earned his B.S. at MIT in Politics, Economics, and Science in 1962, and his Ph.D. in Political Science at Northwestern University in 1966. He worked briefly in U.S. federal government positions before moving to NYU in 1969. From 2004 to 2006, he was President of the Public Choice Society. His main research interests are game theory and its applications, particularly in political science and international relations. Brams is best known for using the techniques of Rational Choice Theory to explore voting systems, fair division, and electoral reform. He is one of the independent inventors of “approval voting,” which allows voters to vote for as many candidates as they like or consider acceptable. He is the author of Theory of Moves, among many other books, and the coauthor of The Win-Win Solution: Guaranteeing Fair Shares to Everybody and Fair Division: From Cake-Cutting to Dispute Resolution.

Christian List is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at the London School of Economics, and is currently a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He works in social choice theory, political philosophy, formal epistemology, and the philosophy of the social sciences. A graduate of the University of Oxford, he has held research and visiting positions at Oxford, the Australian National University, MIT, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Konstanz. He was awarded a Nuffield Foundation New Career Development Fellowship, a Philip Leverhulme Prize in Philosophy, and the 5th Social Choice and Welfare Prize (jointly with Franz Dietrich). He is also an editor of the journal Economics and Philosophy.

Colleen Macklin is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Design and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design. She is also Director of PETLab (Prototyping Evaluation, Teaching and Learning Lab), a joint project of Games for Change and Parsons focused on developing new games, simulations, and play experiences which encourage experimental learning and investigation into social and global issues. Projects range from a curriculum in game design for the Boys and Girls Club to big games such as Re:Activism and the sport “Budgetball.” In addition to work in social games and interactive media, her research focuses on the social aspects of design and prototyping process. In this vein, she is working with the Social Science Research Council on a prototyping approach to creating innovative learning spaces with youth, public schools and cultural institutions.

* Presented on occasion of the Vera List Center’s 2009/2010 program theme “Speculating on Change,” and initiated and organized by Begum Yasar, a graduate student at Columbia University and Vera List Center Program Intern.

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