Populism Is Ontologically Impossible
By Pierre Lemieux
The summer issue of The Independent Review just published my article “The Impossibility of Populism.” In an introductory article to the whole volume, which discusses populism and liberty, Michael C. Munger writes:
We lead off with a piece by Pierre Lemieux, which we have selected as the winner of our third Independent Excellence Prize. Lemieux notes quite rightly that there is a logical contradiction at the heart of populism. This contradiction, as has been pointed out in much of the public-choice movement (Buchanan 1954; Riker 1982) is ontological, not (just) epistemological. That is, the problem of populism is not do what the people command, if you can figure out what that is! That would be a hard problem because information, complex voting procedures, and problems with turnout and participation are daunting. Lemieux’s point is that “the people” does not exist as an independent individual-like or superindividual entity, so that “the will of the people” is not just hard to discover but also cannot be assumed to exist. The problem of Condorcet’s Paradox, generalized by Kenneth Arrow’s “impossibility theorem” (for background, see Munger and Munger 2015, chap. 7), is that there is no single will that can be arrived at by aggregating the preferences of citizens.
An abstract of my more detailed argument runs as follows:
Defined as a political regime where the people rule, populism is impossible. The reason is that “the people” does not exist as an independent individual-like or superindividual entity. In any event, the “will of the people” is unknowable. As shown by many strands of economic theory and especially by Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, the preferences of different individuals cannot be aggregated into coherent and non-dictatorial social preferences. In other words, there is no coherent social welfare function equally incorporating the preferences of all individuals. Thus, populism requires the illusion of a ruler who incarnates the people and its will but who, in reality, can only govern in favor of a part of the people at the detriment of the rest. The only way populism would be possible is if the people is conceived as a set of separate individuals who each governs himself. However, there is already a label for such a philosophy and political regime: (classical) liberalism or libertarianism, which deeply clashes with populism as generally defined.