Radical Heroes

The Marquis de Condorcet

Marquis de CondorcetMarie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1748-1794), was the first modern mathematical analyst of voting. His Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Decisions Given by the Plurality of Voices established both the promise of democratic decision-making as a means of aggregating the imperfectly informed opinions of diverse citizens and the perils of voting as a way to resolve conflicting preferences. His results directly inspired Kenneth Arrow’s celebrated “General Possibility Theorem” and anticipated failures of democracy as in Weimar Germany. Never able to resolve the puzzles he posed, when called upon to draft a constitution by his moderate French revolutionary Girodin constitution, he arrived at a result similar to the American constitution, based on super-majority rules, division of powers and other checks and balances to avoid the excesses of democracy he feared while maintaining the reforms he had fought for. Because of this moderation, Condorcet was persecuted by more extreme revolutionaries and eventually died in prison, apparently from self-poisoning. Despite his personal demise and the failure to implement his constitution, it proved tremendously influential to later French constitution drafter and, through Napoleonic conquests, throughout Europe.