this basis, the winning party in an election can reasonably claim that its policies mostclosely correspond to the interests of the largest group of voters.On the other hand, it can be argued that, rather than 'buying' policies, voters aretypically poorly informed about political issues and are influenced by a range of'irrational' factors such as habit, social conditioning, the image of the parties, and thepersonalities of their leaders. Moreover, the ability of parties to attract votes may
VOTING BEHAVIOUR223have less to do with the 'goods' they put up for purchase than with the way thosegoods are 'sold' through advertising, political campaigning, propaganda and so on. Tothe extent that this is true, election results may reflect not so much the interests of themass of voters as the resources and finances available to the competing parties.A further, and some would argue more intractable, problem is that no electivemechanism may be able reliably to give expression to the multifarious preferences ofvoters. This is a problem that the US economist Kenneth Arrow described in terms ofhis 'impossibility theorem'. In Social Choice and Individual Values (1951), Arrowdrew attention to the problem of' transitivity' that occurs when voters are allowed toexpress a range of preferences for candidates or policy options rather than merelycast a single vote. The drawback of casting but a single vote is not only that it is acrude all-or-nothing device, but also that no single candidate or option may gainmajority support. For instance, candidate A may gain 40 per cent of the vote, candi-date В 34 per cent, and candidate С 26 per cent. The situation could neverthelessbecome more confused if second preferences were taken into account.Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the second preference of all candi-date A's supporters go to candidate C, the second preferences of candidate В favourcandidate A, and the second preferences of candidate С go to candidate B. Thiscreates a situation in which each candidate can claim to be preferred by a majority ofvoters. The first and second preferences for candidate A add up to 74 per cent (40 percent plus B's 34 per cent). Candidate В can claim 60 per cent support (34 per centplus C's 26 per cent), and candidate С can claim 66 per cent support (26 per cent plusA's 40 per cent). This problem of'cyclical majorities' draws attention to the fact that itmay not be possible to establish a reliable link between individual preferences andcollective choices. In other words, election results cannot speak for themselves, andpoliticians and political commentators who claim to find meaning in them are, tosome extent, acting arbitrarily. Nevertheless, the latitude that this allows politicians isnot unlimited, because they know that they will be called to account at the nextelection. In this light, perhaps the most significant function of elections is to setlimits to arbitrary government by ensuring that politicians who claim to speak for thepublic must ultimately be judged by the public.