Kenneth Arrow’s “impossibility” theorem is rightly considered to be a landmark result in economic theory. It is a far-reaching result with implications not just for economics but for political science, philosophy, and many other fields. It has inspired an enormous literature, “social choice theory,” which lies on the interface of economics, politics, and philosophy. Arrow first proved the impossibility theorem in his doctoral dissertation—Social Choice and Individual Values—published in 1951. It is a remarkable result, and had Arrow not proved it, it is unlikely that the theorem would be known today.
A social choice is simply a choice made by, or on behalf of, a group of people. Arrow’s theorem is concerned more specifically with the following problem. Suppose that we have a given set of options to choose from and that each member of a group of individuals has his or her own preference over these options. By what method should we construct a single ranking of the options for the group as a whole? Any such method may be represented mathematically by a “social welfare function.” This is a function that receives as its input the preference ordering of each individual and then generates as its output a social preference ordering.
Arrow defined some properties that would seem to be essential to any reasonable social welfare function. These properties are called “unrestricted domain,” “weak Pareto,” “independence of irrelevant alternatives,” and “non-dictatorship.” Each of these properties, when taken alone, does appear to be very necessary indeed. Yet, Arrow proved that these properties are in fact mutually incompatible. This troubling fact has been central to the study of social choice ever since.