Archive for the ‘Political Science’ Category

This has not been a good Supreme Court term for the Obama administration. Damon Root (Reason) has a quick and delightful overview of some of the key decisions. The most recent defeat—the Hobby Lobby decision—can be viewed as a loss for the administration, but it may provide some political benefits with respect to fundraising and continuing the “war on women” meme, as Byron Tau (Politico) explains:

Shortly after the court’s 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which said for-profit employers with religious objections can opt out of providing contraception coverage under Obamacare, the liberal fundraising emails went flying. Democratic candidates and liberal groups were seeking to collect scores of new email addresses and bank last-minute cash contributions in advance of the monthly FEC deadline at midnight Monday.

As Megan McArdle notes in the conclusion to her interesting discussion of the decision (Bloombergview):

Presumably, the administration hates this ruling–but at the same time, it has to love the passion that it has engendered. This is going to be fundraising gold for Democrats for the next two years. In a politics that cares more about symbolism than substance, that too was predictable. And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was the prediction that mattered more. Politics may not be rational, but it still has its own remorseless logic.

Jeremy Peters and Michael Shear (New York Times) argue that this was also a decision that the conservative movement can run with: “The ruling comes as social conservatives have suffered setbacks on another high-profile social issue, same-sex marriage, and leaders predicted Monday’s decision would infuse Republicans with energy as they fight to take control of the Senate this year and reclaim the White House in 2016.” Their analysis suggests that the decision could contribute to a revivification of the culture wars that defined much of the politics of the past few decades.

I hope that Peters and Shear are wrong. Any efforts of Republicans and Democrats to reignite the tiresome culture wars will threaten to draw attention away from the far more pressing issues of late, e.g., the ongoing growth of executive power, long-term fiscal instability, the failure of immigration policy, targeted killings abroad, and the expansive violation of civil liberties in the name of national security. These are the kinds of issues that sizable parts of both parties and the public should agree are of sufficient importance to avoid any of the short-term tactical appeals offered by the culture wars.

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Want to understand the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq? You can do no better than read this masterful account by Kenneth M. Pollock at Brookings. One quote:

These [ISIS and other Sunni militants] are Militias First and Foremost, Terrorists only a Distant Second. Here as well, Prime Minister Maliki and his apologists like to refer to the Sunni militants as terrorists. Too often, so too do American officials. Without getting into arcane and useless debates about what constitutes a “terrorist,” as a practical matter it is a mistake to think of these groups as being principally a bunch of terrorists.

The problem there is that that implies that what these guys mostly want to do is to blow up building or planes elsewhere around the world, and particularly American buildings and planes. While I have no doubt that there are some among the Sunni militants who want to blow up American buildings and planes right now, and many others who would like to do so later, that is not their principal motivation.

Instead, this is a traditional ethno-sectarian militia waging an intercommunal civil war. (They are also not an insurgency.) They are looking to conquer territory. They will do so using guerrilla tactics or conventional tactics—and they have been principally using conventional tactics since the seizure of Fallujah over six months ago. Their entire advance south over the past week has been a conventional, motorized light-infantry offensive; not a terrorist campaign, not a guerrilla warfare campaign. [emphasis original]

Wonder why political violence has persisted in eastern Ukraine even though public support for the rebels is extremely low? Jay Ulfelder draws on some of Fearon and Laitin’s work to explain:

Their study recently came to mind when I was watching various people on Twitter object to the idea that what’s happening in Ukraine right now could be described as civil war, or at least the possible beginnings of one. Even if some of the separatists mobilizing in eastern Ukraine really were Ukrainian nationals, they argued, the agent provocateur was Russia, so this fight is properly understood as a foreign incursion.

As Jim and David’s paper shows, though, strong foreign hands are a common and often decisive feature of the fights we call civil wars.

In Syria, for example, numerous foreign governments and other external agents are funding, training, equipping, and arming various factions in the armed conflict that’s raged for nearly three years now. Some of that support is overt, but the support we see when we read about the war in the press is surely just a fraction of what’s actually happening. Yet we continue to see the conflict described as a civil war.

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Early Friday morning, the House passed an important amendment to the  appropriations bill for Commerce, Science, Justice and Related Agencies. As Billy House reports (National Journal):

Using states’ rights as a bipartisan rallying cry, the House voted 219 to 189 early Friday to prohibit the Justice Department from using federal funds to conduct raids or otherwise interfere with medical marijuana activities that are legal in the states.

The amendment, which was sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), passed with the support of 49 Republicans and 170 Democrats.

“Despite overwhelming shift in public opinion, the federal government continues its hard line of oppression against medical marijuana,” Rohrabacher said. But he said the Drug Enforcement Administration would be blocked from using any money in this appropriations bill to conduct raids on state-legal medical marijuana operations or dispensaries, or otherwise interfere with state medical marijuana laws or doctors or patients abiding by them.

One might have hoped that more Republicans would have dusted off their support for the 10th amendment to cast a yea vote. But GOP support was far weaker when similar amendments were offered in the past (there have been six failed attempts since 2003). As the Marijuana Policy Project’s Dan Riffle (Reason) notes: “This measure passed because it received more support from Republicans than ever before…It is refreshing to see conservatives in Congress sticking to their conservative principles when it comes to marijuana policy. Republicans increasingly recognize that marijuana prohibition is a failed Big Government program that infringes on states’ rights.”

These days you take victories—even small ones—wherever you can find them. On to the dark hole of the Senate!

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At the end of the term, I always hold team debates in my introductory international relations course. After each team has presented, I hold a “just-for-fun” vote of the class on each resolution. This term, I had them debate the following resolutions. Some of the results surprised me, particularly since I try to craft reasonably balanced debate propositions.

Resolved: That NATO should send military aid to Ukraine to deter Russian aggression and stabilize the country.

The class voted against this resolution, 75%-25%.

Resolved: That the principal reason for the decline in violent death rates over history is the rise of the territorial state.

The class voted in favor of this resolution, 51%-49%.

Resolved: That the optimal level of U.S. counterterrorism expenditure is much lower than it is now.

The class voted in favor of this resolution, 87%-13%.

Resolved: That the World Trade Organization should incorporate labor and environmental regulations with loss of trade preferences as a sanction for defection from them.

The class voted against this resolution, 56%-44%.

Resolved: That for most countries, floating exchange rates are clearly superior to fixed ones or to currency unification.

The class voted in favor of this resolution, 100%-0%. (First unanimous vote I’ve ever seen.)

Resolved: That transnational advocacy networks make little difference in the human rights practices of authoritarian regimes.

The class voted in favor of this resolution, 77%-23%. (Due to an odd number of teams, I took the “con” side of this debate. The other students whipped me.)

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My friend Damon Linker has a new piece for The Week arguing that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice cannot be war criminals, because the laws they are accused of violating are merely “international law,” which is no law at all:

[I]t’s inaccurate to describe these rules and regulations as laws. They are, strictly speaking, bilateral and multilateral treaties between and among governments.

Laws, by contrast, are written, enacted, and executed by governments, and they apply exclusively to those residing within territorially defined political communities (be they city states, nations, or empires). Citizens of liberal democracies hold, moreover, that laws gain legitimacy — and become binding — only with the consent of the governed. And that standard is (tacitly) met only when the laws have been crafted by the people’s democratically elected representatives.

“International law” fulfills none of these requirements.

Treaties among governments are still written and enacted by governments. They enjoy the “consent of the governed” in just as much a sense as national laws do(*): they are created by representatives of the people. International organizations, after all, represent governments, who in theory represent voters.

Let’s look at what the U.S. Constitution says: Treaties are the supreme law of the land (Article 6, clause 2). That means they override laws passed by Congress! The Supreme Court can and should strike down ordinary legislation that conflicts with the U.S. government’s treaty obligations.

Now, international law doesn’t have a coercive enforcement arm (and a good thing too), but it does have enforcement mechanisms that rely on reputation and incentives. When a government violates its treaty obligations, it runs the risk of incurring sanctions, including (for war crimes) the extradition of its leaders to international criminal courts.

The U.S. government should be careful about entering into new international agreements and treaties precisely because international laws do have legal force. Were these instruments merely rhetorical, the Senate could afford to give them merely perfunctory debate, but Senators realize that they do matter, and they do debate them very seriously.

Now, whether Bush Administration officials are war criminals is another matter. It’s a complicated issue, but interested readers can take a look at the debate over how the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court should define the crime of “aggression.” One can plausibly argue that the U.S. government had not signed up to a particular definition of this crime at the time of the Iraq War and so was not bound by it.

(*) Which is to say: very little. I’m not bound to obey laws simply because someone assigned to represent me voted for them. But this argument undermines the moral force of all kinds of laws, not just international laws.

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This paper of mine is now available online in Constitutional Political Economy. It empirically investigates competing theories of how fiscal federalism constrains government. The main conclusion is that different federal systems conform roughly to different theoretical models, with the U.S. – a bit surprisingly – coming closest to “market-preserving federalism.” Some of the early findings from this paper were blogged here at Pileus some time ago.

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“The state,” wrote sociologist Max Weber, “is a relation of men dominating men.” I agree. Furthermore, no human being should dominate another human being. Therefore, the state should not exist.

But I’m not an anarchist. How can that be? We have to distinguish between “governments” and “states.” Anarchy is the absence of formal government, and I do not advocate the abolition of formal government.

Governments of all sorts are all around us. Companies and nonprofits have boards of directors with the authority to decide policies for their organizations.

“Very well,” the anarchist may say, “but they do not have direct coercive authority over their members, which is what I oppose.” Yet other “private governments” do have coercive authority of some kind: private security and arbitration companies.

“Very well,” the anarchist may say, “but they do not have a territorial monopoly over the legitimation of the use of coercion, which is what I oppose.” Yet any kind of supposedly private security and dispute resolution system will end up having a territorial basis. Imagine that, per David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom, you and I are represented by different dispute resolution agencies, A and B, respectively. We end up in a dispute, and we call in our agencies. How will they resolve the dispute? By themselves settling on a third arbitrator. Therefore, any competitive private justice system will end up becoming a single, connected network, with a definite process for appeals beyond a single agency. That network is a territorial monopoly over the legitimation of the use of coercion: a formal government.

“But then what if two networks come into conflict?” the anarchist may respond. “Then you are committed to a global network, a global government, which is obviously undesirable.” Actually, a global government of this kind already exists to some extent and seems obviously desirable. Global governance includes organizations adapted to serve specific dispute resolution functions: the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism, various international investment tribunals, United Nations peacekeeping (which the evidence suggests works very well when invited by both sides in a dispute), and so on. Global governance does not constitute a world state, because it exists at the pleasure of the contracting parties: any government may secede from the WTO or the UN whenever it wishes. Yet it is a kind of highly decentralized, functionally differentiated “world government.”

“Very well,” says the anarchist, “I may concede that a loose governance network is necessary, but I still think that membership in the `primary’ dispute settlement agency should be non-territorial. You shouldn’t automatically have to deal with a particular court because of where you live.” Yet territorial exclusiveness is the way that dispute settlement has always evolved historically. There must be a reason for that. If nonterritorial coercive governance has never been stable for long periods (e.g., medieval Iceland and contemporary Somalia), then on what basis can anyone confidently predict that nonterritorial governance must be superior to territorial governance? Only a constructivist rationalist, Adam Smith’s “man of system,” who thinks he can design a new society from scratch, could be confident that some idealized legal system could efficiently replace the only one any of us have ever known. And if we are men of system, then we might as well design a centrally planned economy while we are about it. You can’t confidently claim that anarcho-capitalism will work, while sneering at the idea that socialism ever could.

So if government refers to some kind of integrated, territorially exclusive system by which security can be provided and disputes settled, I advocate government — of a particular kind. But what then is a state, and how does it differ from a government?

If government can be a (more…)

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“Why did the autonomous city-state die?” asks political-economic historian David Stasavage in a new American Political Science Review article. He finds that new autonomous city-states enjoyed higher population growth rates than nonautonomous city-states, up to 108 years. After that point, their population growth was lower than that of nonautonomous city-states. His argument is that the fusion of political and guild power within autonomous city-states at first promoted growth, but as technology changed came to suppress growth, relative to more “inclusive” institutions.

A better interpretation is that political institutions deteriorate with age, the law of political entropy. After all, if changing technology meant that constant institutions became less efficient, then population growth in autonomous city-states should vary by century, not by age of the city-state. Since in fact population growth varies by age of the city-state, we have evidence that the institutions were not constant: they became less efficient.

HT: Chris Blattman

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This term I have been teaching a new seminar entitled, “State Making and State Breaking.” It’s basically about state formation and capacity building from medieval Europe to contemporary Africa (“state making”) plus secessionism, irredentism, de facto statehood, and other challenges to sovereignty (“state breaking”). We’ve now reached about the halfway point, having dealt with the “state making” component of the class.

Here are a few evocative quotations from the authors we have read on state making.

“Like the political institutions historically preceding it, the state is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be.” – Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” (1919)

“The larger the state and the greater the discrepancy between the [geographic] distribution of coercion and that of capital, however, the stronger the incentives to resist central control.” – Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992, p. 24.

“The transition to direct rule [after the French Revolution] gave rulers access to citizens and the resources they controlled through household taxation, mass conscription, censuses, police systems, and many other invasions of small-scale social life. But it did so at the cost of widespread resistance, extensive bargaining, and the creation of rights and perquisites for citizens. Both the penetration and the bargaining laid down new state structures, inflating the government’s budgets, personnel, and organizational diagrams.” – Tilly, p. 25.

“Except for the relative urbanization of Muslim lands, the correlation between size of states and density of cities was negative [in the Middle Ages]: where cities swarmed, sovereignty crumbled.” – Tilly, p. 40

“[K]ings generally sought to limit the independent armed force at the disposition of townsmen, for the very good reason that townsmen were quite likely to use force in their own interest, including resistance to royal demands. . . By the nineteenth century, states had succeeded in arming themselves impressively, and in almost disarming their civilian populations.” – Tilly, pp. 55-56

“Europe’s bottom-up [commercial] hierarchies long remained more complete, connected, and extensive than its top-down structures of political control. That was a major reason for the failure of the many post-Roman attempts to build empires spanning the continent.” – Tilly, p. 129

“[In the eighteenth century,] the British state governed by means of a relatively small central apparatus, supplemented by a vast system of patronage and local powerholding. . . [B]efore the Napoleonic Wars, only customs and excise had substantial numbers of regularly appointed officials. Until then, Britain did not maintain a standing army. . . While Britain maintained local authorities to a larger degree than many of its continental neighbors, during the nineteenth century national officials involved themselves as never before in policing, education, factory inspection, industrial conflict, housing, public health, and a wide range of other affairs. Incrementally but decisively, the British state moved toward direct rule.” – Tilly, pp. 157-8

“Bishops, kings, lords, and towns all signed treaties and waged war [in medieval Europe]. There was no one actor with a monopoly over the means of coercive force. The distinction between public and private actors was yet to be articulated.” – Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, p. 12

“[T]here are three main reasons why states survived and displaced other forms of organization. First, the internal logic of organization of the sovereign state had less [sic] deficiencies than its rivals. Sovereign, territorial states were better at rationalizing their economies and mobilizing the resources of their societies. Second, state sovereignty proved to be an effective and efficient means of organizing external, interunit behavior. Sovereign states could more easily make credible commitments than their nonsovereign counterparts. Third, sovereign states selected out and delegitimized actors who did not fit a system of territorially demarcated and internally hierarchical authorities.” – Spruyt, p. 28

“[T]he issue of relative efficiency and effectiveness is actually one of efficiency of institutional makeup rather than size. For example, the revenues of some Italian city-states were equivalent if not higher than those of rival states. The Netherlands and England managed to defeat far larger and more populated enemies by virtue of their ability to raise revenue, stemming from well-defined property rights, and their overall economic strength. Size is an imperfect predictor of success in military competition.” – Spruyt, p. 84

“Aside from having to pay the taille, rural laborers [in France] were also subject to other taxes and feudal exactions. The ability to evade such forms of taxation, by moving to a chartered town and by paying a fixed taille to the chartering king or lord, must have seemed attractive. . . The towns were eager to capitalize on this newfound opportunity for freedom. Because of their growing importance and because of the competition between rival lords, they could make considerable demands. They often formed communes, sworn associations of equals. One of the most important demands of the communes was the decrease in burdensome taxes and exactions. The privileges granted in the Charter of Lorris by King Louis VII in 1155 were imitated throughout northern France. . . The [taille] became a fixed incidence rather than an irregular levy. . . [T]owns would negotiate for the right of self-assessment. The distribution of the tax burden would lie with the town leadership.” – Spruyt, pp. 90-1

“Since German towns were of intermediate size and wealth — Lubeck and Cologne to some extent being the exceptions — they could not survive on their own. They needed some form of authority to help pool their resources. And indeed, we will see that one of the main objectives of the city-leagues was mutual defense.” – Spruyt, p. 112

“French towns sacrificed full independence because sovereign kingship provided them with many benefits. The German towns, by contrast, had no such incentive to sacrifice their liberties.” – Spruyt, p. 120

“The development of [Italian] cities toward oligarchical republics or despotism proved [in the late Middle Ages] another barrier to league formation [in Italy]. . . The turn to more despotic regimes reflected a move toward a greater reliance on landed interests as compared to the mercantile interests of the republics, such as Lucca, Siena, Florence, Genoa, and Venice. Among the towns of the Hansa, by contrast, there was a stronger political and social homogeneity. In all towns a mercantile patriciate dominated.” – Spruyt, p. 144

“[T]he Hansa proved to be less efficient in reducing transaction costs and providing collective goods than the sovereign state. It did not manage to provide standardization of weights and measurements, enforce centralized justice, establish a general system of coinage, or establish a regular means of raising revenue for a general fund. The confederated nature of the Hansa led to continuous freeriding and defection. . . Defection from international agreements, for example, by engaging in piracy, led to deterioration of relations with trading partners such as England.” – Spruyt, p. 163

“Due to low population densities and the large amount of open land in Africa, wars of territorial conquest. . .have seldom been a significant aspect of the continent’s history. In precolonial Africa, the primary object of warfare, which was continual in many places, was to capture people and treasure, not land which was available to all. In contrast to European states that, at least at some points in their histories, needed to mobilize tremendous resources from their own populations to fight wars and were therefore forced to develop profound ties with their own hinterlands, precolonial African leaders mainly exploited people outside their own polity because the point of war was to take women, cattle, and slaves.” – Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, p. 20

“Migration to escape from social or political problems was also common among the Yoruba, the Edo, the Fon, and many others. A.I. Asiwaju notes, for example, that the reign of Oba Ewuare of Benin, in the mid-fifteenth century, was so unpopular that it generated, ‘waves of protest migrations which ostensibly led to the foundation of many communities of closely related groups.’ Similarly, Thomas J. Barfield notes, ‘the powers of the Dinka chief were weak. . .because rather than submit to his authority, dissident groups could move to a new territory if they were dissatisfied.’” – Herbst, p. 39

“[R]oads were vital to the exercise of formal authority because they allowed for the quick movement of troops and bound the territory into a relatively coherent economy.” – Herbst, pp. 41-2

“The common colonial failure to extend the infrastructure of power probably outweighs whatever differences in colonial practice suggested by the different theories when it comes to the spatial reach of the state.” – Herbst, p. 87

“Africans continued to subvert the [colonial] state for many years by simply moving. . . [T]he presence of open land and weak administrative structures outside the cities made it only natural that many Africans responded to abuses by simply escaping to an area that was not under the direct control of the European power.” – Herbst, p. 88

“Domestic security threats, of the type African countries face so often, may force the state to increase revenue; however, civil conflicts result in fragmentation and considerable hostility among different segments of the population.” – Herbst, p. 126

“[T]he presence of a palpable external threat may be the strongest way to generate a common association between the state and the population.” – Herbst, p. 127

“In an extraordinary use of diplomacy, African leaders were able to arrange a state system that reinforced their own biases to retain the states that the colonialists had demarcated. This success in preserving units and boundaries has been phenomenal from the perspective of leaders. . . The international system tolerated, and to a limited degree even encouraged, a particular political economy that was biased in favor of providing revenue for patronage and funded the political perquisites of leaders rather than consolidating the state apparatus.” – Herbst, p. 135

“[T]he type of decline experienced by small countries is different from that of large countries because even in decline, small countries can exercise considerable authority over their populations.” – Herbst, p. 155

“[S]tate consolidation is not necessarily a good thing for the population in the short-term. Rwanda’s exceptionally high road density. . .undoubtedly made the quick killing of almost eight hundred thousand Tutsi in 1994 possible.” – Herbst, p. 169

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Libertarians often bemoan the expansion of the federal government over the centuries and cite Thomas Jefferson’s quotation, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yeild [sic], and government to gain ground.” Of course, there have been important advances for liberty in the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries too, yet overall, government’s impact on the economy has increased dramatically. In his book, The Rise and Decline of Nations, political economist Mancur Olson theorized that the simple passage of time permitted the accretion of more and more interest groups (“distributive coalitions”), who would lobby government to increase their share of the economic pie at the expense of the total size of the pie. Therefore, more stable societies would see relative economic decline.

I have always been skeptical that the mere passage of time was an important predictor of interest-group power and bad economic policy. Indeed, all of Olson’s data came from the post-World War 2 period, and he had good things to say about France and Japan, particularly in relation to Britain, that do not ring true 30 years after he wrote the book.

However, as I investigate the economic history of early modern Europe, I am struck by what looks like a “law of political entropy,” that is, a tendency for relatively “associational” governments that act as agents for the taxpayer to become ossified, oligarchic, “predatory” states that exploit the taxpayer. Consider the Dutch Republic and Switzerland, probably the two most “associational” states in early modern Europe.

During the Dutch Golden Age, the highly decentralized federation acted as an agent of the provinces, who in turn were federated associations of the towns. The towns were ruled by the principal merchants. There was a semi-hereditary “stadtholder” position at the central level, demanded by the monarchical ideology of the day, but the real political power lay with the great taxpayers.In fact, during the period of the Republic’s most rapid economic growth, there was no stadtholder, just an elected “grand pensionary,” the proto-liberal Johan de Witt, who supported free trade, republicanism, and religious toleration, opposed imperialism and military meddling, and strongly endorsing the doctrine of provincial (and town) sovereignty over Republic-level control.

Unfortunately, after the French and English launched a combined sneak attack on the Republic in 1672, de Witt was overthrown and lynched, and the stadtholders returned. Although the Dutch escaped that war with their independence, over time the political system became more ossified, and by the end of the 18th century English GDP per capita had caught up with Dutch. According to Wikipedia,

At first the lower-class citizens in the guilds and schutterijen could unite to form a certain counterbalance to the regenten, but in the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th century the administration of the cities and towns became oligarchical in character, and it became harder and harder to enter their caste. From the latter part of the 17th century the regent families were able to reserve government offices to themselves via quasi-formal contractual arrangements. Most offices were filled by co-option for life. Thus the regent class tended to perpetuate itself into a closed class.

Similarly, Switzerland started off as an extremely loose confederation of republican cantons in the late Middle Ages (individual cantons could even declare war). The cantons themselves were originally established by peasants who had thrown out the Habsburg aristocracy, winning a bloody victory over their knights at the Battle of Morgarten:

When the Confederates attacked from above with rocks, logs and halberds, the Austrian knights had no room to defend themselves and suffered a crushing defeat, while the foot soldiers in the rear fled back to the city of Zug. About 1,500 Habsburg soldiers were killed in the attack. According to Karl von Elgger, the Confederates, unfamiliar with the customs of battles between knights, brutally butchered (more…)

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Having finally turned the corner on a brutal, 11-day (and counting) cold, I feel up to getting back to my blogging routine. First up: a followup to last month’s post, “Why So Little Decentralization?”

To review, that post posed a puzzle (a problem for political scientists to ponder, you might say). The puzzle is this: developing countries are far more centralized than developed countries. That is so despite the fact that some developing countries are much larger and more diverse than developed countries, and many of them have now been democratic for quite some time. Furthermore, if decentralization were simply a relict of post-medieval state-building (some might venture that sort of claim about Switzerland, for instance), then the fact that developing countries have lower state capacity and a more recent independence than almost all developed countries deepens the puzzle.

I went through two explanations that do not actually explain the puzzle very well: shallow local talent pools and illiberalism. In particular, they cannot explain why developing countries are often very decentralized along some dimensions (allowing discrimination against goods and workers from other regions, linguistic and cultural rights, etc.), but not others (chiefly tax policy).

I think there are two explanations that actually work: secession prevention (in ethnic federations) and excessively personalist electoral systems (in nonethnic federations). In this post I’ll talk about secession prevention.

Some developing democracies are ethnoregionally diverse, that is, they contain minority ethnic homelands that could form the basis of independent states. Examples include (more…)

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There has been much coverage of last week’s Supreme Court decision on campaign finance (McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission), most of it negative (insert shocked surprise here) given that it will provide more opportunities for the wealthy to shape public policy. As Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) observes:

“It is far too often the case in Washington that powerful corporate interests, the wealthy, and the well-connected get to write the rules and now the Supreme Court has given them more power to rule the ballot box by creating an uneven playing field where big money matters more than the voice of ordinary citizens.”

Perhaps one should not be too quick to fault the “powerful corporate interests, the wealthy, and the well-connected.” They are only being rational. They clearly understand that there are largely two ways to thrive economically: (1) produce more of the things that people value or (2) seek a variety of policy-related privileges that allow you to lay claim to what others have produced and/or create impediments to what your competitors might produce. Over time, the second of these paths—rent-seeking or transfer-seeking has grown in importance in shaping economic outcomes. It is effective, often invisible, and the costs are borne by taxpayers and consumers. As long the elected officials of both parties are in the business of selling privileges, there will be buyers. The rent seeking society will thrive, even as it throttles growth and economic dynamism and contributes to our long-term fiscal problems.

One should not be surprised that the critique of the McCutcheon decision has begun to merge with the attack on the Koch brothers. This morning, a Google search for “McCutcheon and Koch” generates 364,000 hits (I am assuming this number will grow rapidly). Apparently, some believe the best way to frame the decision is to connect it to the Koch brothers, creating a compelling tale of a new plutocracy. (more…)

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I delivered this brief talk to a Model UN conference at Dartmouth on March 28. Here is the text of my remarks.
My topic for tonight is “The Right to Self-Determination in International Law and Practice.” The right to self-determination is one of the most controversial concepts in international relations today. The government of Russia has cited it as a justification for its annexation of Crimea following a doubtfully free and certainly unfair referendum in that territory. The government of Catalonia has cited it in its effort to hold a truly democratic referendum on independence from Spain later this year. What does the right to self-determination mean in international law? And how well does international practice actually conform to international law?

The right to self-determination of peoples is found in the original United Nations Charter, which states among its purposes, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” The two original UN human rights instruments, the ICCPR and ICESCR, also guarantee the right of self-determination to “all peoples.”

But what is a “people”? That was left undefined. The UN developed a list of “non-self-governing territories” whose status was to be monitored. Originally, the right to self-determination for these territories was not meant to include a right to immediate independence. Article 73 of the original UN Charter merely provides that member states administering non-self-governing territories ensure their “political, economic, social, and educational advancement,” and assist the “progressive development of their free political institutions.”

In the 1940s and 1950s, anticolonial movements emerged in Africa and Asia to fight for immediate independence, and frequently faced stiff military opposition from their imperial masters. The major colonial powers gradually realized that they could not prevent many of their territories from claiming independence. Only in 1960 did the UN adopt the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.” This resolution affirmed that the right of self-determination meant that every non-self-governing territory was to have a chance to decide its own political status, whether integration with the metropole, a status of “free association” with the metropole, or independence.

The criterion for determining whether a territory belonged on the list for decolonization was that it be “geographically separate” and “distinct ethnically and/or culturally from the country administering it.” This criterion has come to be known as the “salt water test”: only if a territory is separated from its metropole by salt water does it have the right to self-determination under international law.

Clearly then, the right to self-determination under international law was never meant to be applied to secessionists in the classic sense. It was a tool for decolonization. This fact does not mean that secession is illegal under international law, only that member states of the United Nations are not required to give secessionist regions the opportunity to determine their own political status. Russia’s justification for its forcible seizure of Crimea is therefore wrong.

International law itself is merely the creation of the governments that happen to exist on the globe. It would be surprising if existing governments were to set up a legal framework for their own dissolution. The “salt water test” is morally arbitrary, and it does not seem to have any rationale in conflict prevention or reduction.

There is another concept of the right to self-determination: a moral concept. Last year, (more…)

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With the ongoing tension over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, now would be a good time to talk about the biggest myths people believe about the origins of secessionist movements around the world (even though Crimea is a case of irredentism not secessionism).

  1. Myth: Secession is contagious. Back in the 1990s, journalists worried a lot that the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Ethiopia heralded some broader worldwide trend toward the splintering of the state. Even some scholars indulged talk of our “neomedieval” future of microstates. Now, with secession referendums in Scotland and Catalonia on the docket, a secessionist party gaining support in Quebec, that online referendum in Veneto, and recent events in the post-Soviet space, I’m seeing similar questions about whether this is a new “trend.”

    Fact: Secession happens because of particular circumstances, not contagion. Scholars have looked at the evidence every which way, and in no case have they found evidence that secessionism spreads from country to country. The classic piece here is Ayres and Saideman (2000). I have also looked at the data in detail. The most one can say is that: 1) if a country has more secessionist movements, then any given ethnic group or region in that same country is more likely to become secessionist; 2) if an ethnic kin group in a neighboring country is secessionist, then an ethnic group is more likely to become secessionist (e.g., Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, & Syria); and 3) governments may worry somewhat about the precedents they establish when recognizing successful secessions (see Coggins (2011) – one example is Spain’s refusal to recognize Kosovo).

  2. Myth: Secession is an exercise of the right to self-determination enshrined in international law. Would-be secessionists sometimes point to the UN Charter’s statements on self-determination to argue that their central governments are legally bound to recognize their claims.

    Fact: The right of self-determination was never meant to apply to secessionists in the classic sense. The UN Charter did not originally affirm a right to self-determination as against existing states. Only in 1960 did the UN General Assembly pass a resolution authorizing independence for colonial peoples. Since that date, the UN has maintained a list of “non-self-governing territories” with a right to self-determination, that is, a right to determine their own status by plebiscite, whether independence or autonomy. Some of these, like Puerto Rico, have opted for autonomy. Still, the right to self-determination in the UN Charter and in international law was meant only to apply to cases of decolonization, and to cases of secession in which the right to colonial self-determination had not been recognized (as in East Timor, which Indonesia had conquered after its withdrawal from the Portuguese Empire). What counts as a colony? The “salt water test” applies: a territory is a colony/non-self-governing territory only if it is separated from its metropole by sea. According to UN Resolution 1541, a colony is “a territory which is geographically separate and is distinct ethnically and/or culturally from the country administering it.” This may be an arbitrary criterion from many perspectives, but it is the standard in international law.

  3. Myth: A distinct ethnic or cultural identity is what determines whether a region will host a secessionist movement. I cannot count the number of times I have seen Internet commenters casually assert that because Crimea is majority ethnic Russian, it must have a majority in support of joining Russia. The notion that a separate ethnic identity in a region causes secessionism there is widespread among laypersons.

    Fact: Although a separate ethnic identity is close to a necessary condition, the economic and political benefits of independence are what determine whether a region will host a secessionist movement. Plenty of ethnically distinctive regions do not host secessionist movements. In Belgium, Dutch-speaking Flanders is fairly secessionist, but hardly anyone in French-speaking Wallonia wants to secede. Flanders would benefit economically from independence; Wallonia would not. In India, hardly anyone in the Dravidian states of the south wants to secede, even though they are different linguistically, phenotypically (“racially”), and even religiously from the Hindi-speaking Hindus of the north who constitute the “ethnic core” of the Indian state. In the former Soviet Union, ethnocultural distance from the Russian majority was inversely related to strength of secessionism, with secessionism weakest in the majority-Muslim central Asian republics and strongest in the Baltics, Armenia, and Georgia. Not coincidentally, the central Asian republics were heavily dependent on Soviet subsidies.

  4. Myth: If every ethnic group had a right to secede, we would very quickly end up in a world with 10,000 independent microstates. This misconception is even common among academics.

    Fact: The vast majority of ethnic minorities around the world have no interest in seceding from their existing governments. This one is a myth for the same reasons that #3 is a myth. Even when we look solely at populous ethnocultural minority groups regionally concentrated in a historic homeland, of which the Minorities at Risk dataset counts 283 in the world, only about 38% of them have a secessionist movement of any kind, and most of those are small. Very few ethnonational minorities would vote for independence even if they were allowed to do so. In India, secessionists call for boycotts of federal elections. Yet in only one state with a secessionist movement, Jammu and Kashmir, do a majority of eligible voters actually fail to vote — and even in that state, my own research suggests a ceiling on secessionist support of about 20% of the population.

  5. Myth: Federalism is a good alternative to secession. Scholars and politicians in Western democracies often propose federalism or decentralization as a solution to secessionist pressures or conflicts. And indeed, a secessionist rebel group is unlikely to lay down arms without some kind of compromise on regional autonomy. But does federalism actually work well to prevent growth in secessionism?

    Fact: There is no solid evidence that decentralization reduces secessionism or the future risk of conflict, and federalism in the developing world is often very poorly designed. Will Kymlicka’s piece, “Is Federalism a Viable Alternative to Secession?,” is a useful starting point on this question. Even though Kymlicka is not an empirical political scientist, his comparative reflections on Canada and the U.S. get him a long way. The quantitative literature does not support any general relationship between federalism and ethnic conflict or secessionism, even though one can find individual pieces on one side or the other of this issue. The basic problem is that both secessionists and central governments face incentives to undermine federalism, and as a result, neither side will trust the other. Federalism is a particularly beside-the-point proposal in situations in which an ethnic minority faces off against a highly nationalistic and chauvinist ethnic majority, as in Sri Lanka, or in dictatorships in which constitutional bonds are particularly flimsy, as in Serbia under Milosevic or China today. Federal institutions will be unstable, and the ethnic minority will not trust them. Independence may be the only solution for preventing future conflict in such cases.

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Today Vladimir Putin signed a treaty with the self-styled independent government of Crimea, annexing Crimea to Russia. I did not see this coming. It is an unprecedented deviation from the post-World War 2 international norm that force and the threat of force shall not be used for conquest. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter states: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” When Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait to Iraq, the UN Security Council swiftly and unanimously approved sanctions, and when Hussein did not withdraw, authorized the use of force to expel his forces. Other de facto annexations have happened — Russia has occupied Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, and Armenia has occupied Nagorno-Karabakh — but in none of these cases has annexation been formalized. There have been other conflicts over disputed territory — China-India, Somalia-Ethiopia, and Britain-Argentina, for instance — but in all these cases there was a legitimate dispute over proper ownership of the territories involved. By contrast, Russia had previously guaranteed to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, in exchange for obtaining the latter’s nuclear weapons. Finally, all secessions between 1945 and 2007 were widely recognized only with the consent (however begrudging) of the rump state. Kosovo’s independence was an important — some would say “dangerous” — deviation from this pattern in 2008.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea therefore sets a dangerous new precedent. It threatens to return the world to an environment in which the “strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must,” with adverse repercussions not just for Russia and Ukraine, but for the whole world. Russia under Putin bids fair to become a pariah state.

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Many scholars (for instance) have noted a trend around the world of greater decentralization, at least on certain dimensions. Many non-federal, unitary states have tried to devolve some spending and decision-making authority on local or regional governments. Virtually every democratic government nowadays at least feigns some interest in decentralization.

Yet what strikes me is how little decentralization there has been, especially in the developing world. Some developing democracies that are sometimes described (or describe themselves) as “federal” or “semi-federal” include Mexico, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela (before it went authoritarian some time in the 2000s), South Africa, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iraq, Nepal, and Nigeria. Yet none of these countries, other than Mexico, affords its constituent state or regional governments autonomy commensurate with that found in federal and semi-federal “Western liberal democracies” like Spain, Canada, the U.S., Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Australia, and Italy. For instance, in Brazil, states do not have exclusive powers, and the federal government may overrule any state law with its own legislation. In India, the federal government may suspend state governments from operating at all and impose “President’s Rule.” Of all developing democracies, only India, Mexico, and Brazil routinely allow subcentral governments to raise significant revenue through autonomous taxation policies. (I count 9 Western democracies with such fiscal autonomy.)

Some of these developing countries are both huge and ethnically and regionally diverse, India and Indonesia most notably. One might think that these governments would have even more reason to decentralize than would the governments of comparatively homogeneous Western democracies. Therefore, the relative lack of decentralization in developing countries remains a puzzle.

One explanation might be the smaller talent pool in developing countries. Decentralization might not be feasible because uneducated or politically unsophisticated local officials require close supervision from a small cadre of Western-educated central administrators. While this explanation might have some weight in very poor democracies like Mali (before the recent coup), it likely does not apply to the majority of the cases just mentioned. If the talent pool in developing democracies were desperately shallow, then small developing democracies should have little state capacity plus all the adverse sequelae political scientists typically attribute to state weakness. Yet many small democracies in the developing world have performed fairly well: Costa Rica, Jamaica, Trinidad, Botswana, Mauritius, and Namibia, not to mention Slovenia and the Baltic republics in central and eastern Europe. There is no obvious positive relationship between country size and economic or political performance in the developing world.

Furthermore, many of the cases just mentioned do boast significant decentralization along some dimensions. For instance, India and Indonesia lack a unified internal market, allowing local and state or provincial governments to impose trade barriers on products from other regions. This is an economically perverse form of decentralization and one that has been nearly stamped out in the West, apart from certain discriminatory government procurement regulations. In addition, many developing democracies feature significant decentralization of expenditures: local and regional governments control significant budgets, but those budgets are funded by central grants, and most policy authority lies with the center. This set of policy choices is also likely economically perverse, as “vertical fiscal imbalance,” whereby subcentral governments depend heavily on grants or mandatory revenues from the center, tends to encourage fiscal irresponsibility. In Argentina in the 1980s and 1990s, provincial governments established their own banks, which were forced to lend money to those governments, leading to repeated fiscal crisis.

Another explanation might be that there is something about the Western liberal tradition of political philosophy that encourages decentralization. Many developing democracies fit within the category of “illiberal democracies,” where majorities use their political power to trample the rights of minorities. Sri Lanka might be just such a country, where the Sinhalese majority has repeatedly refused to countenance significant autonomy for the Tamil minority, and the central government fought a brutal civil war against Tamil rebels, complete with vast numbers of civilian killings and other human rights violations.

There may well be something to this explanation, but there are also hazards. As Vito Tanzi noted (PDF), demand for decentralization rises with size of government. A nightwatchman state can afford to be centralized because no one really cares about who controls it. Developing countries have bigger governments than Western democracies, not in the government spending as a share of GDP sense, but in the sense that the distribution of resources in such societies is more elastic with respect to the distribution of political power. So demand for decentralization should be higher there. True, the constraint might instead be supply: the views of political leadership in such societies. But then why the “perverse” decentralization in some countries?

To examine the extent and form of decentralization in developing democracies, I have, with the help of University at Buffalo Ph.D. student Govinda Bhattarai, developed a new dataset of regional self-rule in consolidated democracies worldwide. The coding scheme extends that introduced by Liesbet Hooghe, Gary Marks, and Arjan Schakel for Western democracies and various postsocialist European countries. Without going into details here, I will simply note that we coded the scope of policy powers of subcentral governments, the scope of taxation powers of subcentral governments, the local electoral accountability of subcentral officials, and the ability of the central government to veto subcentral laws.

Using those indicators, I then construct two higher-level, multiplicative indices of economic self-rule and political self-rule. Economic self-rule takes into account political self-rule as well as the tax autonomy of subcentral governments. Economic self-rule ranges from 0 (none) to 48 (maximum). Political self-rule ranges from 0 (none) to 16 (maximum).

The scatter plot below shows regional self-rule on the economic (Y axis) and political (X axis) dimensions in 2006, the latest year for which data on regional self-rule in the Hooghe, Marks, and Schakel dataset are available (our data go to 2010, however). Each observation in this plot is a type of region: either a particular region with its own autonomy statute (like Aaland in Finland or Scotland in the UK), or a type of regional government with the same autonomy arrangement (like states in the U.S. or in India).

economic & political self-rule(You can click the image to get a better view.)

Look at how few (more…)

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Russia’s annexation of Crimea, de facto or de jure, is likely to spur violence in the peninsula. “Crimean Tatar representative” in Lviv, Ukraine Alim Aliyev is quoted as saying, “Tatars will launch a guerrilla war against the Russian forces if they do not pack up and leave the region.” While he could be communicating a mere bluff, I wouldn’t count on it, and I doubt Putin will either. Crimean Tatars currently have a low risk of secessionist insurgency, because they are just 12% of the region’s population, but they also see themselves as the indigenous population of the region and deny any other ethnic group’s claims to a homeland in the region. For those reasons, and because of a history of repression at the hands of Stalin, Crimean Tatars support Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea and reject the small ethnic Russian majority’s claims. If Russia effectively annexes Crimea, Tatar violence is likely to flare up. While the massive Russian military will be able to crush organized resistance, I doubt Putin wants to create another Chechnya, with the attendant risks of future terrorist attacks on Russian civilians.

Steve Saideman and Bill Ayres’ research suggests that irredentism is rarely consummated because it requires an infrequent coincidence of interests: a minority that wants to be rescued and a powerful state willing to pay costs to rescue it. Rescuing Crimea is likely to have significant long-term costs for Russia, and if Putin acts rationally, he will prefer a negotiated settlement permitting a military withdrawal from the peninsula over any kind of annexation.

In other news: the Crimean referendum will have two options: annexation by Russia and independence. Rejecting both and remaining within Ukraine is not an option for voters.

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Gazeta.pl reports that the majority of the Crimean parliament did not vote in favor of a referendum on independence, but that armed men prevented a quorum from attending, allowing a pro-Russian rump to pass the measure. (For my translation, I am relying on Jacek Rostowski on Twitter.) In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian crowds face determined Ukrainian nationalist, pro-Maidan forces.

Russia’s military occupation of Crimea should not be taken as evidence of autochthonous secessionism. Instead, Russia seems to be using a minority of secessionist diehards to serve as an excuse for, possibly, annexing Crimea de facto to Russia, in more or less the same way as it did with Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. The main differences between that episode and this one are that Abkhazia and South Ossetia had already established de facto independence, and Georgia initiated the conflict with Russia. Thus, Russia’s intervention in Crimea is a riskier gamble. It may indicate, however, just how threatened Russia feels by a future in which Ukraine joins the EU and perhaps even NATO.

Update: TAC’s Dan McCarthy plausibly argues that Russia would prefer to use its military control over Crimea as a bargaining chip to ensure a subservient Ukraine.

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The Risk of Civil War in Ukraine

The government and the opposition in Ukraine have begun to shoot each other, leading to 26 deaths overnight. The Ukrainian army is being mobilized, and protestors have started to storm police stations and arm themselves. Could Ukraine be facing civil war?

Several factors point to a high likelihood of civil war. The first is the existing violence. Most civil wars are preceded by low-level internal violence. On the other hand, only a minority of armed conflicts with at least 25 battle deaths eventually escalate to civil war intensity (at least 1000 battle deaths). Still, the Libyan and Syrian civil wars provide recent examples of mass protests that escalated to armed conflict and then to civil war.

The second factor suggesting high violence risk is that rebels have a geographic base in the west of Ukraine. Some reports hold forth that the Lviv region has “declared independence” from Ukraine, but this is misleading. The Lviv regional council has declared sovereignty over its territory to the exclusion of the Ukrainian central government, but it is apparently open to reconciliation if a negotiated solution can be found. Still, when rebels have support of local political authorities, they are far more capable of inflicting large-scale damages on the government, because they have access to police weapons and, even more importantly, tax revenues.

The third factor suggesting high risk of escalation is external involvement. Russian support of the Ukrainian government will diminish rebel capability, but the European Union is preparing sanctions against the Ukrainian government. It is easy to imagine that Russia would send troops to assist the Ukrainian government if necessary; it is inconceivable that NATO or individual European governments would send troops to assist the rebels. Thus, the likelihood of external involvement tells more in favor of Ukrainian government capability than rebel capability. Still, what matters for conflict escalation is not necessarily preponderance of capabilities as such, but asymmetric information about capabilities. If the Ukrainian government is wrong (or the opposition thinks they are wrong) to think that Russia will send troops, it may take a harder line than necessary to reach an agreement that the opposition could countenance – and so far this indeed seems to be happening, as from all reports Yanukovych is not taking negotiations very seriously.

Nevertheless, several factors diminish the likelihood of civil war. One of the factors diminishing the likelihood of civil war is that ideological and ethnic divisions in Ukraine, while serious, are not truly deep as in multiethnic or multireligious societies like Burma, Lebanon, and Syria or highly unequal, sharply ideologically polarized societies like Venezuela, Colombia, and Bolivia. It is extremely unlikely that any region of Ukraine will actually try to secede (save perhaps Crimea’s ethnic Russians), and no Marxist-Leninist insurgency is on the cards either.

Ukraine is a relatively well-off country, and GDP per capita is one of the strongest factors associated with civil peace. That association likely reflects something about institutional quality, rather than affluence as such. Ukraine’s institutions are fragile and contested, but not collapsed as in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Finally, (more…)

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I always find polls to be interesting. In my mind, one of the more fascinating things is when there is a large disjunction between individuals’ assessment of X (e.g., the environment, crime, education, the economy) as they experience it and their assessment of X as the nation experiences it. I often attribute the differences to the simple fact that the latter question is strongly influenced by the way in which X is portrayed by the media and political elites. One might be satisfied with the environment as one experiences it at home, for example, but the media provides heavy coverage of environmental catastrophes, oil and chemical spills, etc.

In the latest NBC/WSJ Poll (results here), 61 percent report being very/somewhat satisfied when asked to assess their “own financial situation today.” At the same time, when asked “how satisfied are you with the state of the U.S. economy today?,” only 28 percent say they are very/somewhat satisfied. 71 percent claim to be dissatisfied (37 percent somewhat dissatisfied, 34 percent very dissatisfied).

Another question: how well is the economy working for different types of people? Fully 81 percent believe it is working very/fairly well for the wealthy whereas only 22 percent believe it is working very/fairly well for the middle class. There is an obvious tension here, given that “middle class” is the modal category and a majority (71 percent) is very/somewhat satisfied with the economy as they experience it. Similar to the earlier example of the environment, one might hypothesize that the disjunction is a product of the way in which the economy is portrayed in the media and by political elites. (more…)

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Thomas Carsey and Geoffrey Layman in The Monkey Cage:

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported on June 10, 2013 that the percentage of Democratic identifiers who found NSA surveillance programs acceptable increased from 37 percent in January 2006 to 64 percent in June 2013. In contrast, the percentage of Republican identifiers saying these programs were acceptable decreased from 75 percent to 52 percent over this same time period. We doubt these changes emerged from a large influx of anti-surveillance advocates into the GOP or of pro-surveillance supporters into Democratic ranks between 2006 and 2013. Rather, the shift likely occurred because we had a Republican president in 2006 and a Democratic president in 2013, and many people simply adjusted their views on NSA activities to fit with their prior partisan attachments.

It’s a good thing these people are deciding how my life will be run.

HT: Chris Andrew

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That’s the title of a very good article by Princeton political scientist Carles Boix and J.C. Major. The article provides background to the Catalan self-determination movement but also discusses recent developments and the reasons for them. One takeaway is the enormous role that the Spanish government’s response to the last Catalan autonomy statute, essentially gutting it, played in provoking the growth of the independence movement. As I noted in a piece in Electoral Studies 10 years ago, when the central government spikes decentralization, secessionists strengthen, but when a referendum on independence or autonomy fails (the failure being internal rather than external in origin), secessionists weaken. The article also contains important information on what the Catalan government plans to do if the central government forbids it to hold a referendum, as seems likely. I won’t spoil it; just read the article.

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Dani Rodrik, the political scientist’s favorite economist, argues for a limit to globalization in his recent book Globalization’s Paradox. The LSE EUROPP blog has a nice little summary of the book’s argument:

  1. Markets require a wide range of non-market institutions (of regulation, stabilisation, and legitimation) in order to work well and remain socially sustainable.
  2. These institutions do not take unique forms, in the sense that ultimate goals such as efficiency or stability can be achieved under a variety of designs and blueprints.
  3. Different societies, organised around their own states, have patently different needs and preferences regarding the shape that market-supporting institutions can take.
  4. A world that is sufficiently responsive to democratic preferences will therefore be one of institutional diversity and heterogeneity rather than institutional harmonisation and convergence.
  5. Since institutional diversity inhibits the global integration of markets by raising transaction costs across jurisdictional boundaries, a world that is sufficiently responsive to democratic preferences will also be one that falls short of full globalisation.

The idea is that it is desirable to have different countries have different regulatory schemes, but full globalization demands complete harmonization of regulation in order to minimize transaction costs. Exporters and investors want to face the same regulations abroad as they do at home. Some of the premises of the argument are incorrect, but I actually agree with the conclusion for different reasons. First, the problems with the premises.

Premise #1 is disputable to some extent. It’s stated broadly enough that these “institutions” could be social or governmental, and the governmental institutions could be nothing more than enforcing appropriate rules of appropriation and exchange. Yet I suppose Rodrik means something more by the statement, as illustrated by his example of financial regulation. The sparer those institutions within which markets need to be embedded, the more harmonization is possible and desirable even if the rest of the argument is right.

Premise #3 is deeply problematic. It’s just not appropriate to speak of societies having “preferences,” and it’s even more naive to think of democracy as somehow translating those preferences into law. If the only reason for retaining national economic sovereignty is that the latter might permit different “societies” to enact their “preferences” into law, then the case is very weak.

My argument for an outer bound to globalization would be more contingent. Taking everything into account, the scales seem to tip against harmonization when: 1) different national approaches can give us better information about what works, rather than enshrining a subpar approach into law, 2) regulatory arbitrage allows better rules to develop, ultimately yielding harmonization but not through a centralized process, 3) smaller polities are less likely to be influenced by “insider” interest groups than some multilateral institution tasked with harmonizing regulations, or 4) citizens perceive globalization as a threat to sovereignty that they value, and therefore respond to harmonization attempts with a stronger backlash against globalization more broadly (Rodrik does address this last consideration in his book). Sometimes multilateral harmonization is justified and sometimes not; it depends on the balance of considerations. For instance, harmonizing customs rules, as was agreed recently by the WTO trade ministers in Bali, seems harmless.

Ultimately, I think Rodrik is pushing on a string. There is little risk that harmonization will go “too far,” given the extremely decentralized nature of global economic governance. And I disagree with Rodrik that globalization has gone about as far as it needs to go, and now requires defense from its own advocates. For instance, the West can do much more to repeal agricultural trade barriers that kill poor people around the world.

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Ross Tilchin writes up the results of a Brookings study on libertarians in the Republican Party, citing some of the research I have done here on Pileus. The main point Tilchin argues is that libertarians are at a severe disadvantage nationally within the Republican Party, relative to competing constituencies like moderates and the religious right. However, see also David Kirby’s rejoinder at Cato@Liberty. He argues that the Brookings study seriously underestimates the proportion of libertarians in the general population and in the Republican Party. The debate seems to turn on how strictly one wants to operationalize the concept “libertarian.” If weak libertarians are included, there are many more of them. Regardless, I echo Kirby’s appreciation of growing scholarly attention to the political role of libertarians in the U.S. polity.

For more on figuring out where libertarians are, also check out an interesting paper on two-dimensional ideological preferences at the congressional district level by Warshaw and Rodden. (Americanideologyproject.com is an interesting site for data on one-dimensional preferences at the subnational level in the U.S.)

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Twenty years after its establishment, the World Trade Organization finally reached its first global trade deal last night at the meeting of the world’s trade ministers in Bali. The successful agreement foiled expectations that this meeting, like all others of the Doha Round, would end in failure and acrimony. Media outlets have been reporting the Peterson Institute’s estimate of $1 trillion in higher global output as a result of the deal, but what’s most interesting about the deal is that it happened only because the member states decided to focus on a narrow slice of the issues under discussion in the Doha Round. The deal focuses mostly on streamlining customs procedures to facilitate timely cross-border transportation, along with measures to eliminate tariff and quota barriers against exports from “least developed countries” to richer countries, to reduce agricultural export subsidies (here the deal merely makes a “strong political statement” and doesn’t require specific changes in law), and to permit developing countries’ governments to stockpile food.

Why did it happen? Ten days ago, after talks in Geneva, WTO head Roberto Azevedo warned that global trade talks would collapse if ministers did not narrow down the scope of their deliberations to issues on which consensus was achievable. Global trade talks have been bogged down over the last 20 years over severe distributional issues: developing-country governments want sharp cuts in rich-world agricultural subsidies, tariffs, and quotas, while rich-country governments want their poorer counterparts to cut trade barriers on services, beef up intellectual-property enforcement, and liberalize foreign investment. None of those big issues were solved in Geneva and Bali. A narrow deal on customs procedures happened because the distributional and enforcement issues here are far less severe. Few governments have any interest in holding up traffic at the border longer than necessary. Simplifying customs procedures is more like a coordination game than a Prisoner’s Dilemma: everyone benefits if forms are standardized and simplified. Rich-country governments also promised poor-country governments help with hiring customs officials to help speed up processes.

The conventional wisdom in international relations is that a broad scope of issues helps international organizations solve distributional problems, all else equal, because broad scope makes it easier for governments to trade off gains to one side on one dimension with gains to the other on another dimension. But all else was not equal here: some issues faced much lower distributional conflict than others, and on those it was relatively easy for governments to reach agreement. They chose to go for a small deal rather than a big one because, frankly, the WTO needed a win. Another collapse of talks would have called into question whether multilateral trade liberalization is even possible.

This deal does not end the Doha Round. Talks will continue on the “big issues” mentioned above. This is fortunate, since the Bali deal does little to reduce the extent to which U.S. and European agricultural policies kill poor people. While the deal helps with market access for least developed countries, essentially all rich countries have already implemented duty-free, quota-free access for these countries’ exports, and least developed countries contain merely 12% of the world’s population and less than half of those living in extreme poverty. There need to be binding legal limits, actionable before the Dispute Settlement Body, on agricultural subsidies, quotas, and tariffs in rich countries.

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In the third and final part of my series summarizing my working paper, “Designing a Constitutional Right of Secession” (here are parts one and two), I examine the legitimate objections we can raise to a right to secede. Some of these other scholars have previously mooted, while others are apparently original. Regardless, I will argue that all of these arguments merely establish reasons to qualify the right to secede, rather than to abolish it altogether.

Strategic Demarcation of Territory

When secessionists can determine the territory subject to a referendum, they can include as much territory as they feel confident getting away with, while still winning a referendum. They may include territory dominated by opponents of secession, so long as the rest of the people living in the seceding unit can outvote them.

One way of dealing with this problem is to allow recursive secession: territories that oppose secession can themselves secede from the seceding state. Indeed, that may be a good idea, although it poses some risks: the central government could use recursive secession as an excuse to attack a secessionist state, and there will always be controversies about where boundaries should lie. What if secessionists don’t permit recursive secession? Simply banning secession altogether wouldn’t make sense as a response, since that would violate the rights of the many to safeguard the rights of the few.

A better solution is to limit the right of secession to top-tier geographical subunits of the state. Now, there are some problems with this solution as well. First, administrative boundaries may be morally arbitrary, just like
interstate boundaries. Second, relying on administrative boundaries to set the limits of regions that enjoy the right to secede gives central governments an incentive to manipulate administrative boundaries to dilute potential secessionist challenges. Third, allowing regions to secede along existing administrative boundaries may trap significant minorities within the new state. These are all very real problems, as Yugoslavia’s attempted recursive secessions demonstrate. The secession of Croatia trapped Serbs, and the secession of Bosnia trapped both Croats and Serbs. The Badinter Commission denied these groups a recursive right of secession, and therefore they saw their only option as war combined with ethnic cleansing to alter ethnic balances.

So the administrative-boundaries solution works best if there’s a good procedure for letting people decide to which region they will belong. There should be an easy way for people to secede by referendum and set up new administrative regions. It should also be easy to hold referendums in small areas on moving from one region to another. Had Yugoslavia followed these principles, Serb-majority areas of Croatia and Bosnia would not have been part of Croatia and Bosnia, respectively, at all, and there would have been no reason for war.

Even when there are no good procedures for making sure administrative boundaries line up with what people on the ground want, it is better to make existing regions the subjects of a legal right to secede than to allow secessionists or the central government to redefine the scope of the territory subject to secession without the agreement of the other side.


Irredentism refers to movements seeking to take territory from one state and give it to another. Irredentism needs to be regarded more skeptically than secessionism, because irredentism has often been a cause of war among states, including both world wars. Regional irredentists often instigate violence to try to draw in their “parent” state.

Legalizing irredentism by plebiscite would encourage states to meddle in each other’s domestic politics in hopes of boundary revisions. Instead, irredentism can usually be alleviated with generous autonomy, as has occurred in Aaland and South Tyrol. Where irredentism cannot be satis ed with autonomy, such as where the irredentist group is a minority in the disputed region (e.g., Northern Ireland), then a solution will be more difficult, and the states involved may not wish to rule out completely a future transfer of sovereignty. In most cases where a secessionist movement has irredentist potential (e.g., Nagorno-Karabakh), it is reasonable to impose a conditions on a right to independence that the new state will never be allowed to join its ethnic-kin state, that the new state will be demilitarized, and so forth.

Vague Referendum Questions


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Does a civil war in Mozambique significantly affect my interests? I say no. Most of my students seem to think yes. On my intro IR final essay exam, I asked a question about what the theory of hegemonic stability would predict about future environmental and human rights politics. I wanted to see whether students could differentiate between the public-goods characteristics of those two sets of issues. The theory of hegemonic stability says that the existence of a global hegemon is a necessary condition for the provision of global public goods.

To review, a public good is a good that is non-excludable for all those who enjoy it. In other words, you can’t exclude a non-contributor (“free rider” in the jargon) from enjoying the benefits of the good. (There’s also a non-rivalrousness condition, but it is irrelevant to the “problem” of public goods.) Because it is non-excludable, people have an incentive to free ride, and the good won’t generally be provided unless individuals can be somehow coerced or otherwise incentivized to contribute. Since the world is an anarchy, there is no power that can coerce sovereign governments to contribute to global public goods. But if there is one very large, powerful state in the world, it may derive disproportionate benefits from the public good, making it willing to contribute something (probably still less than optimal) toward its provision.

So are there any global public goods? I think so. Preventing the ozone hole is a pretty clear example. CFC emissions depleted the earth’s ozone layer, resulting in more harmful ultraviolet radiation on the earth’s surface. Everyone in the world derived significant benefit from banning CFC emissions, but individual countries had no incentive to enact bans on their own, so the U.S. government successfully led the way toward global cooperation in banning CFCs.

But what about human rights? If a government is repressing its subjects — killing them extrajudicially, torturing them, “disappearing” them without trial — are subjects of other governments harmed as well? Possibly. Repression might create refugee flows across borders, or raise the risk of a civil war that could threaten neighboring states. More instability might reduce economic output, marginally negatively affecting trade relations and prosperity in other countries. But at most, human rights protection is a regional public good, not a global one. Moreover, the “externalities” (spillovers) are small relative to the direct, private benefits of human rights protection. The people who lose the most from repression, by far, are those actually being repressed.

Since human rights protection is not a global public good, the existence of a hegemon should make no difference as to whether the good will be provided. Currently, the U.S. government does take an interest in protecting human rights abroad, via the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. (Cynics may say the U.S. takes more of an interest in protecting human rights abroad than it does protecting them at home.) Would China do the same if it were hegemonic? Doubtful, to say the least. Moreover, while the U.S. still enjoys military hegemony around the globe, it is not even close to being an economic or demographic hegemon, so its military hegemony is unlikely to explain the government’s interest in promoting human rights abroad.

The broader lesson: the mere fact that something is a good, even a normatively desirable good, does not make it a public good, one subject to market failure.

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The Government of Scotland has just released its 600-odd-page white paper on independence in advance of the September 18, 2014 referendum on the question. First Minister Alex Salmond and the rest of the pro-independence side have their work cut out, with the latest poll showing a 47-38% plurality in favor of “No.”

In part, the white paper aims to show that independence would not harm the Scottish economy. There is a debate between nationalists and the British government about whether Scotland would face a significant fiscal gap after independence. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says Scotland would face a long-run fiscal gap amounting to 1.9% of national income after independence, while the British government says Scotland would have to raise taxes 9% upon independence to fund the same benefit levels. Nationalists retort that they would change policies to save money. Nevertheless, like most political parties, they are only specific about the new benefits they plan to introduce after independence.

Still, there is good evidence that most Scots are not concerned about the fiscal issues relating to independence. After all, somewhere between 52 and 68% of Scots express support for either independence or “devo max” in polls. “Devo max” is a term used in the UK for full fiscal autonomy, under which Scots would pay no direct taxes to and receive no direct benefits from the UK government (everything would be negotiated between the Scottish and British governments). The strong support for at least devo max implies that Scots aren’t worried about suffering from a fiscal gap even when fully fiscally autonomous.

The dropoff in support from devo max to independence reflects that Scots are more worried about the foreign, monetary, and trade policy uncertainties attendant upon independence. A major bone of contention has been nationalists’ desire for a currency union. The “No” side insists that there is no guarantee the British government will accept a currency union. Salmond has said Scotland could repudiate its share of British debt if the British government didn’t accept a currency union.

The key sticking point in the currency union debate is that the nationalists desperately want Scotland to retain a say in the Bank of England’s monetary policy. Absent that desire, it would perfectly straightforward for Scotland to retain the pound. They don’t need a central bank: people, including the new independent government, could go on using the pound as usual. Indeed, a better threat than debt repudiation that Salmond could make would be for Scotland to abolish central banking, legal tender laws, deposit insurance, and financial regulation, and suck financial business out of London into Edinburgh. (A libertarian can dream, right?) But Scotland’s political culture is solidly left-wing, and any suggestion of going without a lender-of-last-resort wouldn’t fly with voters.

So as we have seen with previous referendums in Quebec, the “Yes” side will insist that all will go on as normal after independence: same treaties, same trade relations, same monetary policy. Meanwhile, the “No” side will play up the uncertainties. They won’t “talk down” Scotland, which would risk a backlash, but instead they’ll just keep saying “there are no guarantees” and attacking the nationalists’ plans as “unrealistic,” “uncosted,” and “amateur.” Steve Saideman notes that there is a tension between nationalists’ desires to “keep everything the same” and promise improvements after independence: secession is either meaningful or it isn’t!

The way to square the circle is that Scots want more left-wing policies than the British status quo on welfare rights, education, the environment, Europe, labor, and defense, but they also like the risk-pooling advantages of a larger state. They see no advantage in a new Scottish currency or a nonaligned foreign policy. Therefore, nationalists promise Scots what they want on the former set of policies while trying to assuage their doubts about the latter.

The figure below shows how Scottish nationalism has tracked left-right ideological change in the Scottish electorate, for UK general elections only. The blue line represents the vote share for secessionist candidates in Scotland: mostly Scottish National Party (SNP), but also Greens, Socialists, and some independents. The blue line represents the UK vote for center and right parties minus the Scottish vote for center and right parties (mostly Conservatives, but also UKIP, Unionists, and the like). In general the two lines correlate pretty closely; the only major exceptions are the 1979 and 1983 elections, when Scotland moved left relative to the UK as a whole, even as the SNP vote collapsed. Since then, the lines have correlated rather well. There is some reverse causation here, since the SNP is a left-wing party, but the fact that the nationalists have adopted a forthrightly left-wing platform tells us something. The bottom line is that Scotland’s move further to the left of the UK has helped promote the secessionist cause. (The spike in the 1974 elections was due to the discovery of North Sea oil, which the SNP politicized under the campaign slogan, “It’s Scotland’s Oil!”)

lefties & nats in scotland

Whether Scotland votes “yes” or “no” in the referendum will depend on how the pivotal voters trade off concern over future Conservative governance in Britain against the uncertainties of full independence. One reason why “no” appears headed for victory is that the Conservatives look set to lose the next UK election, and over the last two decades, Labour has looked like the natural party of government in Britain and has in fact moved British policy significantly to the left, at least on fiscal issues. Scottish voters have less to fear from union.

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I recently held team debates in my introduction to international relations course on a variety of topics. Here are the topics the students debated, along with the “pro” and “con” “prompts” I provided them.

  1. Resolved: That the coming power transition between China and the U.S. appreciably raises the risk of war between the two powers over the next 40 years.
    Pro: Joshua Keating
    Con: Lynn White
  2. Resolved: That the best way for governments to prevent civil war is to boost security and credibly threaten to punish rebellion harshly.
    Pro: Barbara F. Walter
    Con: Ted Gurr
  3. Resolved: That the optimal level of U.S. counterterrorism expenditure is close to zero.
    Pro: Mark Thompson
    Con: John Mueller and Mark Stewart
  4. Resolved: That democracy promotion programs can make the world a safer place.
    Pro: Steven Brooke & Shadi Hamid
    Con: Christopher Coyne
  5. Resolved: That liberalizing trade, investment, and immigration, not foreign aid, is the best way for Western countries to promote development abroad.
    Pro: William Easterly
    Con: Dani Rodrik
  6. Resolved: That most developing countries have little bargaining power vis-`a-vis multinational corporations.
    Pro & Con: Shah M. Tarzi
  7. Resolved: That transnational advocacy networks make little difference in the human rights practices of authoritarian regimes.
    Pro: Emilie Hafner-Burton
    Con: Margaret Keck & Kathryn Sikkink

How would you come down on each of these resolutions? What do you predict my students thought? (I held a vote of the class after each debate.)

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In my last post on this topic, I argued for a right of unilateral secession on the grounds that: 1) legalizing secession would reduce the risk of violence on net, and 2) codifying a plebiscitary, unilateral right to secede would reduce uncertainty without any compensating disadvantages. In this post, I consider some common objections in the literature to a liberal right to secede and show why they do not overturn the case for a legal right of unilateral secession to be accomplished through democratic plebiscite.

1. Rights-Violating Secessionists

Counting heads is probably not the best way to determine the relative legitimacies of governments. If a region gets 51% of the voters to approve secession, but then the 51% decide to persecute the 49% minority, then secession would cause a net loss in freedom or human rights. Under these conditions, secession should be restricted.

In the abstract, the case for restraining rights-violating secessions is plausible, but it is unworkable institutionally. A legal provision allowing the central government to veto secession if the secessionists are likely to violate rights would suffer from the “biased referee” problem. Central governments will be tempted to use the provision as an excuse to ban all secessions. Similarly, secessionists will always claim to be liberal if they are required to do so, but that does not mean practices will not change once they achieve independence.

Some scholars have argued that the potential for rights violations by secessionists justifies a higher threshold in the referendum on independence (say, 55% rather than 50%+1). There are two problems with this argument: 1) the correlation between secessionists’ likelihood of violating rights and ability to get widespread support in a referendum is probably weak, and 2) this suggestion assumes that secessionists are more likely to violate rights than governments. If governments are more likely to violate rights, then a higher threshold will tend to prevent more morally desirable secessions than the morally objectionable ones it prevents.

In cases such as the U.S. Civil War, in which the central government is sincerely persuaded that a particular secession would be morally disastrous despite, let’s assume, a constitutional provision permitting it, then the government may be morally justified in acting extraconstitutionally to prevent the secession.

2. Nationalist Objections

Nationalists (more…)

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Do you more about international relations than an intro student at Dartmouth? Prove it! Here are a few questions from a recent midterm I gave my students. The first commenter to get all of these right will win a paperback copy of my book, Secessionism.

1. What usually happens to public support for a war in the U.S. over time?

2. In general, why do civil wars tend to last longer than interstate wars?

3. What two general solutions have scholars discovered for collaboration problems (the Prisoner’s Dilemma)?

4. Give an example, general or specific, of an international issue that the “Battle of the Sexes” game can model well.

5. In any bargaining situation, which side has the greater power?

6. Suppose there are two or more theories that appear to explain equally well a phenomenon of interest, such as the democratic peace or a decline in the rate of violent death over time. How can you determine which of the theories is actually the best explanation?

UPDATE: Just to be clear, you may try more than once if you get one wrong the first time. :)

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In this three-part series of posts, I will be blogging my new SSRN working paper, “Designing a Constitutional Right of Secession: Applying Normative Principles and Empirical Findings.” The paper defends a right of unilateral secession for any country in which the possibility of secessionist violence is non-negligible, or where central governments are already unwilling to suppress secession militarily.

In this post, I will explain the basic argument in favor of a right of unilateral secession, that is, a justiciable right of a region to secede by plebiscite without a right of veto for other parts of the country or for the central government. I argue for a moral duty on a government to implement a constitutional or legal right to secede, not for a fundamental, abstract, moral right to secede. The difference is important because real-world politics often makes it impossible to satisfy everyone’s moral rights. The case presented in the paper is for legally recognizing a right to secede even when secession would violate some individuals’ rights. Moreover, the argument is about domestic legal guarantees for secession, not international institutions. It may be desirable for a government to recognize a unilateral right of secession even when it is undesirable for international institutions to intervene to enforce such a right.

In the next post, I will address arguments against a legal right of unilateral secession that fail. In the final post, I will explain how a right of unilateral secession should be qualified and structured in a country’s constitution.

To make the argument, I start with a set of normative assumptions and a set of empirical findings. The normative assumptions are intended to be general enough that they can be widely endorsed by people of widely differing moral and political perspectives, who nevertheless share some basic commitments. I then consider how different “secession regimes” — that is, legal approaches regulating secession — can satisfy these principles, bearing empirical findings in mind.

Here are the normative assumptions, ordered lexically so that higher principles take precedence over lower ones:

  1. Maximize physical integrity rights for all. The range of potentially permissible secession regimes is limited to those that can plausibly satisfy this principle. Physical integrity rights include individual rights against extrajudicial killing and physical assault, torture, and illegal detention.
  2. Maximize other basic liberties for all. Among those regimes that can satisfy the first principle, only those that also satisfy the second principle are potentially permissible. Political philosophers disagree on what counts as “basic liberties” that any minimally just regime must satisfy. At the very least, these liberties include wide guarantees for freedom of speech, thought, conscience, association, and equality before the law. John Rawls (1999, pp. 197-9) argues that the “fair value of equal political liberty,” a right to security of personal property, and the right to free choice of an occupation or profession count as fundamental liberties. “Free-market fairness” advocate John Tomasi (2012) also includes the right to security of productive property and the right to own a business. And so on. To the extent that there is disagreement about what counts as a basic liberty, there may be disagreement about the range of potentially permissible secession regimes.
  3. Follow the principle of Pareto optimality. For any two regimes A and B and any two sets of citizens X and Y, if the consequences of the two regimes are such that X prefer one regime to the other, while Y are at least indifferent between the two regimes, then select the regime that X prefer. This principle rules out secession regimes that make some people worse off without making anyone better off, relative to some alternative regime.
  4. Satisfy all other moral principles. Differing moral foundations yield different moral principles. I avoid making claims about moral foundations, but these foundational views may yield further principles limiting the range of permissible secession regimes. Differing views on the nature and importance of distributive justice and economic growth can justify marginally different views on the appropriate secession regime.

I consider the principle of “no forced association” under this last heading. Libertarians, for example, often claim that governments may rule only with the literal consent of each individual under their rule. (Nozick famously disagrees.) Real-world politics always requires some individuals to be coerced. Prohibiting secession coerces some people into supporting a government to which they do not consent. But allowing secession also allows secessionists to coerce the anti-secessionists in their midst. It may be ideal for governments to rule only on the basis of unanimous consent — a question outside the scope of this paper — but in practice, they do coerce nonconsenters. So we have to figure out legal rules for secession in the world as it exists. I argue that the consent principle yields only a weak presumption in favor of allowing secession whenever a majority in the seceding region votes for it. Presumably allowing secession under such conditions will reduce the number of nonconsenters. But it won’t necessarily minimize the number of non-consenters or the number and severity of rights violations, as we shall see.

The generalizable empirical findings about secessionism are as follows: (more…)

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This question, made famous during the Watergate hearings, seems to be the driving question these days, whether one is speaking of the clumsy rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the number of people in the independent insurance market who will in fact lose their coverage, or the NSA’s surveillance program. In Dana Milbank’s words (Washington Post):

It stretches credulity to think that the United States was spying on world leaders without the president’s knowledge, or that he was blissfully unaware of huge technical problems that threatened to undermine his main legislative achievement. But on issues including the IRS targeting flap and the Justice Department’s use of subpoenas against reporters, White House officials have frequently given a variation on this theme.

Question: What did Obama know and when did he know it?

Answer: Not much, and about a minute ago.

Milbank concludes:

On one level, it would be reassuring — and much more credible — if the White House admitted that Obama is more in the loop than he has let on. On another level, it would be disconcerting: Is it better that he didn’t know about his administration’s missteps — or that he knew about them and didn’t stop them?

Eugene Robinson (Washington Post) also finds the claims of ignorance difficult to accept, albeit with a somewhat more ominous alternative:

Either somebody’s lying or Obama needs to acknowledge that the NSA, in its quest for omniscience beyond anything Orwell could have imagined, is simply out of control.

Both could be true, of course. The growing scale and complexity of government creates enormous problems of oversight and political control. Even if a well-intentioned and moderately intelligent president attends national security briefings and takes copious notes, there are distinct limits to how much one can know and how effectively one can alter the course of the bureaucracy.

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The Return of Marx?

The decades roughly separated by Reagan’s 1980 victory and the financial collapse brought a greater respect for markets and growing interest in libertarianism.  The financial crisis, in contrast, led to a rejection among many of market-oriented doctrines and a revival of Keynes (in Robert Skidelsky’s words, it marked “The Return of the Master”).* According to Michelle Goldberg (h/t Marginal Revolution) it has also brought  renewed interest in Marx. One quote:

After the financial crisis, “you didn’t need to be Karl Marx to see that people were getting kicked out of their homes,” says Gessen. And privileged young people—particularly the kind of who are inclined to read and write essays about political theory—haven’t just been spectators to immiseration. Graduating with student debt loads that make them feel like indentured servants, they’ve had a far harder time than their predecessors finding decent jobs in academia, publishing, or even that old standby law and are thus denied the bourgeois emollients that have helped past generations of college radicals reconcile themselves to the status quo.

I am not certain that one can generalize from Goldberg’s piece. While my experience may not be representative, it suggests that she is on to something. During the 1990s, there was e a growing fascination among a subset of my students with the works of Ayn Rand.  Once the bottom fell out, the appeal of objectivism dissipated and I have seen a growing curiosity with Marx’s basic arguments regarding the intrinsic flaws of capitalism and greater support for socialism. Given the power of postmodernism, my guess is that students will bypass classical Marxism and head toward the New Left’s take on Marx (e.g., Marcuse’s synthesis of Marx and Freud) or some combination of Marx and postmodern theory. Whether this can be translated into a political program remains an open question.

This raises some interesting questions: Has the Great Recession undermined the demand for classical liberalism? Will the financial collapse be the event that shapes the ideological orientations of a generation? What are the political implications?

*Note: the empirical record does not support the contention that the Reagan administration marked some wholesale return to the market—the rhetoric was rarely translated into policy. Similarly, the empirical record does not support the argument that the financial collapse was simply a product of a zealous embrace of deregulation and free markets. Nonetheless, these are the popular interpretations and they likely carry a good deal of weight among those who do not have the time or inclination to delve deeply into political economy.

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A few days ago, I gave the theoretical logic for why the availability of the government shutdown results in growing government spending. Advocates of smaller government should advocate a default budget rule that is far milder than shutdown. Now, I have come across academic research by David Primo finding just this at the state level. States with an automatic shutdown provision actually spend on average $64 more per capita than states without such a provision.

As Tea Party Republicans approach the final denouement of their humiliating, destructive defeat on the latest budget battle, it bears thinking about how U.S. fiscal institutions essentially predestined this outcome.

HT: Matt Mitchell

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Breaking Binary

By all indicators, Congress is a failed institution that is no longer capable of executing its basic constitutional duties. Given the role of parties in organizing Congress and controlling the agenda, one should not be surprised that much of the blame is attributed to the GOP and the Democratic Party. A new Gallup Poll has some interesting results for those who have tired of the binary. As Gallup reports:

Amid the government shutdown, 60% of Americans say the Democratic and Republicans parties do such a poor job of representing the American people that a third major party is needed. That is the highest Gallup has measured in the 10-year history of this question. A new low of 26% believe the two major parties adequately represent Americans.


One should not be surprised that 71 percent of independents believe that a third party is needed (a majority of independents have held this position as long as Gallup asked the question). But now “Republicans (52%) and Democrats (49%) are similar in their perceptions that a third party is needed. In fact, this marks the first time that a majority of either party’s supporters have said a third party is needed.”

Of course, there are massive institutional barriers to successful third parties, not the least of which is the existence of single-member, simple-plurality districts.  As those of us who have supported third parties in the past know, their candidates are routinely excluded from debates and have difficulties even accessing the ballot in many states.

Even if the binary is broken, it is not going to go down easily.

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Sympathy for the Rebel

I was pleased to read these statements in the textbook I’m using for intro IR (p. 241):

[I]deally, we would like to reduce the likelihood that bloody and destructive civil wars will break out in the first place. There are several challenges to this aspiration. . . [T]here are truly repressive regimes that deserve the opposition of their people. In these cases, reducing the risk of armed rebellion can have the unintended effect of diminishing the government’s incentives to liberalize.

When discussing civil wars in class, I found my students took a typically “statist” perspective on the problem. For them, the most important thing was strengthening security services and the government’s surveillance capabilities to make armed opposition unthinkable. Most of them seemed shocked when I said that higher civil war risk was probably a good thing in many places. Do we want to strengthen the North Korean state’s surveillance capabilities? Would North Koreans be better or worse off if there were an armed opposition and the government knew it?

You don’t have to be a right-wing gun nut to answer “no” and “better off,” respectively.

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Following Marc’s great post on congressional dysfunction, I’d like to point how political science tells us that the availability of government shutdowns actually causes the growth of government spending. The analysis follows the 1979 spatial analysis of zero-based budgeting by Thomas Romer and Howard Rosenthal.

Suppose that there is one dimension of politics: the size of the federal budget. There are a fiscally conservative party and a fiscally liberal party. For simplicity, assume the median, electorally decisive American voter is somewhere between the two. We could plot the parties’ and median voters’ positions on this dimension like this, where “C” is the conservative party, “M” is the median voter, and “L” is the liberal party:

Federal budget

 0|----------------------------------|--------|-----------|------------------------------------------| 100% of GDP
                                    C        M           L

Now suppose that there is a need to pass a budget. If the budget doesn't pass, the government partially shuts down (S). Once the government shuts down, the median voter M perceives the outcome as being more favored by the conservative party, with ideal point C. The liberal party with ideal point L can make a budget proposal that must get approval from both parties, so conservatives have the opportunity to accept or reject it - in the latter case, the government stays shut down. After the budget is approved or rejected, there is an election, and the median voter M votes for the party with the closer budget position. Parties care most about winning election, then secondarily obtaining their preferred budget.

In this example below, once the conservative party gets associated with S, causing the shutdown, then L is able to propose its ideal point (L). Conservatives accept the budget, because otherwise they would remain associated with S, and the median voter prefers L to S, so would turn conservatives out at the next election.

 0|----------|-----------------------|--------|-----------|------------------------------------------| 100% of GDP
            S                       C        M           L

The median voter will only be willing to vote for conservatives who reject a liberal budget proposal if S is closer to their ideal point than the liberal budget proposal. Knowing this, L will propose something close enough to the median voter to prevent that outcome - and conservatives will accept it. Take the following example, where P is the proposal liberals make:

 0|----------|----|-----|----------|----------------------|------------------------------------------| 100% of GDP
            S    C     M          P                      L

P is infinitesimally closer to M than S is, so M votes for the liberal party, unless the conservatives also vote for the budget.

So once a shutdown happens, a bigger budget than the median voter prefer (let alone the conservative party) looks inevitable. Knowing this, conservatives won't want the government to shut down to begin with. But that still means liberals have a lot of bargaining power, and the budget will tend to grow.

In real life, of course, shutdowns happen very occasionally. Why? (more…)

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I recently read Daniel Treisman’s brilliant book, The Architecture of Government: Rethinking Political Decentralization. This book is particularly important for classical liberals who defend decentralization as an important institutional reform for promoting and protecting individual freedom. Treisman’s thesis is essentially that decentralization is overrated. He doesn’t argue that decentralization generally has bad consequences, even under readily identifiable circumstances, but that the consequences of decentralization are so unpredictable and case-specific that few generalizations, even highly conditional ones, can be made about them. The book is largely architecture of governmenttheoretical, and Treisman takes on standard justifications of decentralization like Tiebout sorting, the role of mobile capital in keeping government small, and keeping government “close to the people.” While Treisman’s counterarguments to decentralization’s defenders are well thought out and in many cases persuasive, I remain more optimistic about our ability to make valid generalizations about decentralization. Still, any defender of “competitive federalism” or more local governance will need to grapple with Treisman’s challenges. I’ll take some of the most important of these challenges in turn.

One common argument for decentralization comes from Charles Tiebout: competition among local governments providing public goods allows residents to reveal their true preferences for these goods and incentivizes local governments to act on those preferences. Treisman argues that key assumptions of the model are so thoroughly violated in reality that the predictions of the model are not likely to hold true in the real world.

First, he argues that if “public service differentials are capitalized into property prices, then pressure on governments may disappear completely” (79). Residents then won’t leave districts that provide poor public services, and local officials will not be disciplined. (more…)

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I have just posted a couple of my working papers to SSRN for those who are interested. They are as follows:

  1. Public Policy and Quality of Life: An Empirical Analysis of Interstate Migration, 2000-2012
    Individuals and households choose their political jurisdiction of residence on the basis of expected income differentials and jurisdiction-specific characteristics covered by the general term “amenities.” In addition to fixed characteristics like climate and terrain, amenities may include public policies, as in the well-known Tiebout model of migration. Do Americans reveal preferences for certain public policies by tending to migrate toward jurisdictions that offer them? This article tests whether state government involvement in fiscal policy, business regulation, and civil and personal liberties more often reflects an amenity or a disamenity for Americans willing to move. As identification strategies, the article estimates spatial, matched-neighbors, and dyadic models of net interstate migration for all 50 states, covering the years 2000-2012. The evidence suggests that cost of living, which is in turn strongly correlated with land-use regulation, strongly deters in-migration, while both fiscal and regulatory components of “economic freedom” attract new residents. There is less robust evidence that “personal freedom” attracts residents.
  2. Civil Libertarianism-Communitarianism: A State Policy Ideology Dimension
    This paper investigates the existence of a second dimension of state policy ideology orthogonal to the traditional left-right dimension: civil libertarianism-communitarianism. It argues that voter attitudes toward nonviolent acts that are sometimes crimes, particularly weapons and drugs offenses, are in part distinct from their liberal or conservative ideologies, and cause systematic variation in states’ policies toward these acts. The hypotheses are tested with a structural equation model of state policies that combines “confirmatory factor analysis” with linear regression. The existence of a second dimension of state policy essentially uncorrelated with left-right ideology and loading onto gun control, marijuana, and other criminal justice policies is confirmed. Moreover, this dimension of policy ideology relates in the expected fashion to urbanization and the strength of ideological libertarianism in the state electorate. The results suggest that the libertarian-communitarian divide represents an enduring dimension of policy-making in the United States.

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