Democracy as a Game of Trust: The Limits of Generality Constraints


Unconstrained majoritarian democracy is often bitterly partisan, economically inefficient, and subject to rent-seeking by powerful interest groups. Can we improve upon these outcomes without abandoning popular democratic institutions such as decisions by simple majority rule? In Politics by Principle, not Interest, Buchanan and Congleton (1998) argue that we can. They propose a generality principle that would constitutionally prohibit majorities from favoring members of dominant coalitions or special interest groups. This paper argues that generality-constrained democratic politics does not necessarily outperform the unconstrained version. By modeling two-party majoritarian democracy as a type of trust game, one can identify circumstances where generality-constrained democracy results in less efficient outcomes than the unconstrained version. At the same time, generality constraints can reduce incentives for political participation and collective action by ordinary citizens in ways that may erode democratic institutions such as popular elections and political parties. This paper therefore urges caution and further investigation before implementing such constitutional constraints.

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  1. 1.

    Buchanan and Congleton (1998) summarize the main argument of the book on the first page as follows: “The generality principle is familiar in application to law; legal systems incorporate the ideal that all persons are to be treated equally. In summary, this book extends the generality norm to politics”. In this paper, I take for granted the somewhat artificial boundaries that Buchanan and Congleton draw between law and politics (see, especially, pp. 7–12). A full analysis of the generality principle would have to further investigate the theory and practice of generality in the legal context and the feasibility of the distinction drawn in the book.

  2. 2.

    Throughout the Buchanan and Congleton book, the assumption is made that individuals vote instrumentally in order to promote their interests. This assumption has been challenged on theoretical and empirical grounds (Brennan and Lomasky 1993; Brennan and Hamlin 1998; Brennan and Hamlin 2000; Copeland and Laband 2002; Hamlin and Jennings 2011; Hamlin and Colin 2019). In this paper, I follow Buchanan and Congleton in their assumptions about voter motivation. To pursue the analysis in terms of a more “expressive” voting model (where the gap between revealed voter preference and true voter interests may be considerable) would carry the argument further from the Buchanan and Congelton reasoning than I have judged desirable here. But there seems little doubt that in an extended treatment analyzing majoritarian politics in a further institutionalised fashion, some allowance for the expressive line of reasoning would be obligatory.

  3. 3.

    Traditional individual rights as protections against intrusive policies can also be reconstructed as functional equivalents of veto rights restricted to specific dimensions or areas of decision-making. Provided that a right is alienable, the veto must be overcome by providing compensation to the right’s holder in cases where the collective decision affects the relevant domain. [Thanks are due to Hartmut Kliemt for this point].

  4. 4.

    According to the Rae-Taylor theorem (Taylor 1969), if individuals are equally likely a priori to accept or reject a proposal, simple majority rule is the only rule that minimizes the possibility that a typical member would either reject a proposal supported by the group or accept a proposal rejected by the group. (This result, however, does not hold once individuals’ “stakes” in the outcome are different).

  5. 5.

    Buchanan’s contractarianism commits him to assigning authority to broad consensus. Once he accepts that there seems to be a broad consensus about the normative authority of simple majority rule in normal collective decisions, he is bound to defer to that view despite the arguments he himself has mounted in The Calculus of Consent. [Thanks are due to Geoffrey Brennan for this point].

  6. 6.

    If benefits fall unevenly, then each might be required to contribute in relation to the benefit received. A full discussion of such a “benefit theory” of taxation is beyond the scope of the paper.

  7. 7.

    Buchanan and Congleton suggest that “persons may be deemed to be treated in accord with the generality norm when their coerced exactions in payment for sharing do not depart significantly from equality in the labor time required to meet these exactions” (1998, 46).

  8. 8.

    They call it “a stylized theory of that which we observe in the workings of modern majoritarian democracies” (1998, 15).

  9. 9.

    Figures 1 and 2 are the same as Figs. 2.1 and 2.2 in Buchanan and Congleton (1998), 22–23.

  10. 10.

    For simplicity, I focus on a two-player version in which the role of decision-maker or leader is strictly alternating. The interested reader can consult the literature on alternating PDs for modifications involving randomly alternating the leader role (Nowak and Sigmund 1994), continuous rather than discrete actions (Frean 1994), and n-player extensions (Hauert and Schuster 1998).

  11. 11.

    For further discussion of extensive-form games of imperfect information, see (Binmore 1987; Binmore 1988).

  12. 12.

    If both (a + b) and (c + d) are greater than zero, condition (2) translates to (a + b) > (c + d). Together with (1), this means that b > d.

  13. 13.

    Of course, the same logroll could be negotiated within a single coalition if individuals had effective veto power within the party, but if generality constraints rule out differential subsidies, then the logroll would still be effectively excluded.

  14. 14.

    And that these losses should be compared to a realistic baseline of a status quo riddled with economic inefficiencies.

  15. 15.

    Further information is necessary in order to precisely assess which coalitions are most plausible. However, there are many scenarios where both Party A and Party B would prefer a coalition with Party C over a coalition with each other (particularly if a minimal winning coalition proves less expensive and more stable than a-larger-than-minimal one).

  16. 16.

    Although the democratic significance of turnout is contested, I would argue that many ordinary citizens would identify a reduction in turnout with a loss of legitimacy. Such a decline in perceived legitimacy can have important negative consequences even if the policies chosen were to better promote the interests of citizens.

  17. 17.

    Note that they never explicitly state who these “participants” are (i.e., whether they are voters, members of special interest groups, members of political parties, etc).

  18. 18.

    The model with differential evaluations allows for some investments in rent-seeking, but investments that are likely to cancel each other out and produce no supplementary inefficiency in the political process:

    With differences in evaluations, the separate players may prefer differing solutions, even along the diagonal. And, although the median voter's preference will tend to be determining under normal settings, there will remain some incentive for nonmedian participants to invest in efforts to secure more favorable outcomes. In the example, Individual C will invest resources in efforts to shift the majoritarian solution toward a larger supply of the public good, whereas Individual A will make similar investment to exert pressures in the opposing direction (Buchanan and Congleton 1998, 40).

  19. 19.

    Of course, it is worth remembering that the opportunity cost of failing to act may be quite substantial, particularly in cases where externalities of private behavior are high.

  20. 20.

    Individual candidates and political parties have incentives to collect this information in order to win elections and most models assume that politicians are independently motivated to pursue office. However, even if these political entrepreuneurs are independently motivated, political campaigns are expensive to organize and require financial and organizational support. This means that candidates and political parties have to engage in extensive fundraising from individuals and groups in order to finance their political activities and rely on citizens, individually and collectively, to provide both resources and information. One way to increase the resources available to political parties is to provide public subsidies. However, it is important to remember that such solutions carry negative consequences for democratic legitimacy, including the weakening of incentives for political parties to cater to voter preferences. See, especially, the literature on cartel parties (Katz and Mair 1995, 1996, 2009).

  21. 21.

    As discussed above, it also motivates electoral turnout.

  22. 22.

    There are two qualifications to this claim. First, the individual candidates and party members who win office do receive differential benefits that come from office holding and satisfying their ambition. However, the resources they have at their disposal to win elections depend in key ways on voters’ willingness to make differential investments. Second, there is a difference between better and worse policies which conform to generality principles. However, investing in identifying better policies is still open to free riding because any policy with higher payoffs benefits all citizens equally.


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I would like to thank Geoffrey Brennan, Hartmut Kliemt, Keith Dowding, Sair Goetz, Christopher Kennedy, Daniel J Stephens, and Brian Spisiak, as well as two anonymous reviewers for their generous feedback and constructive criticism. All remaining errors are, of course, my own.

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Oprea, A. Democracy as a Game of Trust: The Limits of Generality Constraints. Homo Oecon 36, 227–248 (2019).

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  • Political parties
  • Generality
  • Constitutional political economy
  • Game theory
  • Democratic theory

JEL Classiication

  • D70
  • D72