Imagine the voting rule: A person will vote on a proposal that helps you, the same way she’d vote on a proposal that helps herself. What if all people in a democracy followed this rule?

In a paper published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1959, Gordon Tullock discussed a rule of this sort, which he dubbed the “Kantian” rule. He then contrasted that result with “what actually happens,” arguing that, in reality, people do not vote for others the way they would vote for themselves. The same year, his colleague James Buchanan wrote that it was not enough for a majority to show that a policy change would enable a majority of a group to be better off. Instead, new measures should obtain the consensus of the group in hope of a possible Paretian improvement.

Economists have long worried about how voters can manipulate the outcomes of different voting mechanisms. Sometimes the manipulations are significant, as when a group decides by a vote of the majority to educate the majority of their members but not the minority.

For reasons that are obvious from the schooling example, economists, political theorists, and philosophers have devoted much attention to the problem of voting. This does not mean that they oppose democracy; just the opposite, those who have written about these problems are generally fierce defenders of democracy. Favoring democracy and worrying about how the institutional framework constrains how majority groups treat minority groups are fully consistent research agendas.

Like politicians, leaders lead groups that contain sub-groups. At the Jepson School, Don Forsyth’s research focuses on the dynamics that characterize a group as decisions are made collectively.

The difficulty for leaders arises when a decision promises to harm some in the group at the expense of others. Consider two decision-making rules:

  • The first rule requires that all in the group acquiesce to the decision. To convince the losers to vote for the decision, they will need some quid pro quo, compensation for the harm that the decision will cause.
  • The second rule requires only a majority vote to acquiesce. No compensation is required, and the minority can be harmed by the leader’s decision to appeal to the majority without concern for the minority.

In real life, consensus is difficult to achieve since compensation is rarely forthcoming. So, when a decision to create schools that were separate but (un)equal was made, those who were subjected to the crummy schools were not offered side payments to make up for their future poor employment prospects.

The majority often wields an unquestioned sort of authority. For leaders, accordingly, care and skill are required to assess whether a recommendation will impose harm on the sub-group. And then, the question is whether and how best to ensure that the majority is not taking advantage of its position at the expense of the minority.

Leadership and the problem of voting

Sandra J. Peart


Dr. Peart is Dean of the School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is an economist with special interests in leadership and economics and leadership ethics. More about her: Go to jepson.richmond.edu and see faculty information.


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