Low-Distortion Social Welfare Functions
Work on implicit utilitarian voting advocates the design of preference aggregation methods that maximize utilitarian social welfare with respect to latent utility functions, based only on observed rankings of the alternatives. This approach has been successfully deployed in order to help people choose a single alternative or a subset of alternatives, but it has previously been unclear how to apply the same approach to the design of social welfare functions, where the desired output is a ranking. We propose to address this problem by assuming that voters’ utilities for rankings are induced by unknown weights and unknown utility functions, which, moreover, have a combinatorial (subadditive) structure. Despite the extreme lack of information about voters’ preferences, we show that it is possible to choose rankings such that the worst-case gap between their social welfare and that of the optimal ranking, called distortion, is no larger (up to polylogarithmic factors) than the distortion associated with much simpler problems. Through experiments, we identify practical methods that achieve nearoptimal social welfare on average.