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Archive for the ‘Political Science’ Category

Constitute.org is a useful website designed by political scientists to let researchers search for and compare constitutional texts on particular topics. Here for instance is a search on secession clauses. Although one of the site’s creators, Zachary Elkins, says that 22 states contemplate some process for state divorce, only three constitutions expressly authorize some part of the country to secede: Ethiopia, Liechtenstein, and St. Kitts and Nevis. Ethiopia lets each people or nationality secede by a supermajority vote of its legislature, Liechtenstein lets each commune secede (I believe this was an addition of the 2003 constitution), and St. Kitts and Nevis lets Nevis secede by a supermajority referendum vote.

In addition to these, Britain’s Northern Ireland Act of 1998 lets the majority of Northern Irelanders decide to join the Republic of Ireland, and the constitution of Uzbekistan lets Karakalpakstan secede with the consent of the Uzbekistan government.

It would be interesting to see how many states define themselves as “indivisible,” thus tying a government’s hands and preventing it from authorizing secession. A search on the term brings up some irrelevant cases, but 72 constitutions contain the term.

By the way, the Prince of Liechtenstein is a moderate libertarian, and their constitution is fairly consistent with the philosophy. Check out his book on the topic.

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NH House in 2 Dimensions

Ideal Points of NH State Legislators in 2 Dimensions (Click to Expand)

The New Hampshire Liberty Alliance does a Liberty Rating each year in which they analyze liberty-related roll-call votes of state representatives and senators and grade them. (The NHLA is a great government accountability organization, by the way, and well worth supporting; a lifetime membership is only $100.)

I used their roll-call votes for the 2014 N.H. House of Representatives but analyzed them differently (I also corrected three errors in their spreadsheet). The vast majority of roll-call votes are on economic issues, where conservative Republicans and libertarians line up. So the Liberty Rating might overstate how libertarian conservative House members really are, if those social issues that are voted on are disproportionately important. The Liberty Rating tries to assess how important each vote is, but the way they do it is arbitrary and subject to dispute (for instance, they rate a bill restricting the sharing of public school student information as highest-priority, on a level with legalizing marijuana and three times as important as a bill enacting occupational licensure of medical technicians). Furthermore, some of their bills are disputably freedom-related: they rated as negative a bill creating a new crime of “domestic violence.” Now, that bill might or might not have been a good idea, but it doesn’t seem like a liberty-related issue, unless you’re an anarchist who wants to legalize everything, including violence.

I used Item Response Theory in a Bayesian framework to estimate the ideal points of legislators in two dimensions. Let me unpack that statement for the layman. I let the data speak for itself. If legislators who generally voted libertarian voted in favor of a bill, the data are telling me that that bill is liberty-enhancing. If legislators who generally vote libertarian split on a bill, then maybe it’s not a liberty issue. Some votes might be “harder” or “easier” than others, like questions on a test. Even a pretty libertarian legislator might vote the wrong way on a hard vote, like a bill legalizing physician-assisted suicide (“Death with Dignity”, HB 1325 in 2014), which failed 219-66.

Using the R package “pscl,” I first hypothesized that all 93 roll-call votes in 2014 reflected a single ideological dimension: each legislator’s degree of libertarian-ness. We could line up all legislators’ ideal points in ideological space along a single line, and that line would be the best way to predict how all the legislators vote on any given issue.

That hypothesis ended up being wrong. On 84 roll-call votes, I couldn’t reject that hypothesis, but on 9, I could. Those were votes on which those voters who tended to vote in a libertarian direction on the other 84 votes tended to vote in an anti-libertarian direction instead – and conversely, those voters who usually voted anti-libertarian actually tended to vote libertarian on those 9 votes.

What were those 9 votes?

  1. HB1237, prohibiting local sex-offender residency restrictions (passed 231-97)
  2. HB1325, Death with Dignity (failed 66-219)
  3. HB1501, mandating licensing of outpatient abortion facilities (killed 211-86) (the NHLA generally stays out of abortion bills, but they believed, and I agree, that business licensing is the wrong way for pro-lifers to restrict abortion)
  4. HB1577, allowing alkaline hydrosis for the disposal of human remains (passed 209-116)
  5. HB1624, modernizing the juvenile justice system (passed 256-40)
  6. HB1625, decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana (passed 215-92)
  7. HB249, mandating employer use of E-Verify (killed 266-68)
  8. HB492, legalizing marijuana (passed 170-162)
  9. SB296, discriminating in favor of veterans in public employment (killed 210-128)

What do all these issues have in common? They’re social issues on which libertarians make common cause with the left! And note that apart from Death with Dignity, libertarians won on every one of these bills. Part of that has to do with the fact that socially liberal Democrats were in the majority in 2014, and part of it has to do with the fact that libertarians are numerous enough in the House to swing some close votes, like the legalization of marijuana.

There were also a few votes without a clear libertarian position; in statistical jargon, they didn’t “load” onto the first ideological dimension at all:

  1. SB318, establishing the crime of domestic violence (passed 325-3)
  2. SB336, banning deer baiting on public land (killed 200-85)
  3. SB366, establishing two casinos in New Hampshire (killed 173-172)

Arguably these roll-calls shouldn’t have been included in the Liberty Rating.

So I divided the roll-call votes into two groups: (more…)

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Once and Future King

Frank Buckley was kind enough to send me a copy of his new book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America, and now seems like an appropriate time to post my review.

Buckley argues persuasively — and surprisingly — that the Founders intended to establish a semi-parliamentary form of government in Philadelphia in 1787. But the rise of democracy, especially the popular election of the president, empowered the executive and led by the 1830s to a new form of government: separation-of-powers presidentialism. Most political scientists still perceive the U.S. system as one of extreme checks and balances, but Buckley argues that we have now progressed to yet another constitutional order, marked by executive dominance, the “elective monarchy” that the Founders feared so much. The impetus for this change has been the rise of a vast regulatory apparatus: “Modernity, in the form of the regulatory state, is the enemy of the separation of powers and diffuse power, and insists on one-man rule” (p. 6).

When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, they first dealt with a “Virginia Plan” that had the president elected by Congress, the Senate chosen by the House from states’ nominees, and no executive veto. The plan was clearly parliamentary. The changes that occurred, to an electoral college process for the President, to an executive veto, and to state legislative selection of the Senate, were largely the product of compromises between states’-rights and nationalist factions at the Convention. The Framers did not anticipate direct popular election of the President, and in fact they thought that in most presidential election years, no candidate would win a majority, throwing the choice to states’ House of Representatives delegations. Some delegates claimed that a directly elected President would be a dangerous seed of demagogic monarchy.

F.H. Buckley

F.H. Buckley

In the 19th century, the progress of democracy caused the British and Canadian constitutions to cross paths with the American one. In the U.S., the electoral college became toothless, and Presidents were effectively directly elected by the people. In Britain and Canada, the monarch and the upper house lost legitimacy as nondemocratic bodies, and electoral reform in the U.K.’s House of Commons gave it democratic legitimacy and the upper hand in any battles among the branches. By the time Canada adopted its institutions under the British North America Act of 1867, they were consciously copying a fused legislative-executive, parliamentary system that had emerged in Great Britain, what Walter Bagehot referred to as “the efficient secret” of the British constitution. While the U.S. now featured strong separation of powers, Britain and Canada concentrated power in the Prime Minister.

Today, political scientists still teach that presidents are less powerful than prime ministers, because their legislative role is weak. The U.S. system has more veto players, and as a result policy change is slower.

Buckley acknowledges the logic of the traditional political science approach, but his story doesn’t end there. (more…)

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The Cato Institute has conducted a new poll of Americans’ attitudes toward federalism. Apparently Americans have become much more favorable to federalism and decentralization over the past 40 years.

The Cato Institute commissioned YouGov for the poll. They asked respondents questions about which level of government should have primary control over each issue area, using the exact same wording from a Harris poll conducted in 1973. This method allowed them to see how Americans’ attitudes have evolved over the past 40 years. On 10 out of 11 issues, Americans were more favorable to state or local control in 2013 than they had been in 1973 (the bars in this graph represent the percentage of Americans favoring primarily federal control over that issue):

cato poll

A majority of Americans still want primarily federal decision-making over national defense, Social Security, and cancer research. Two of those three seem to make a great deal of sense: cancer research is a global collective good, and national defense, by definition, is a national collective good. “Prison reform” and “drug reform” are the two issues on which Americans’ attitudes have moved most significantly toward decentralization. A large majority of Americans now think housing, transportation, education, welfare, prison reform, health insurance, and drug reform, in that order, should be primarily state and local issues. Only on education have Americans become more centralist, and that change is so small as to lie within the margin of error.

Another compilation of surveys suggests that a majority of Americans also want primarily federal decision-making over immigration, stem-cell research legality, protecting the border, protecting civil rights, protecting civil liberties, abortion laws, creationism in public schools, and food safety, in descending order. Most Americans also think paving roads, providing job training, law enforcement, running courts, providing pre-K to low-income children, unemployment, gay marriage, and gun control should be primarily state and local issues.

These results are consistent with those of other surveys, which have tested Americans’ views on particular issues. A 2012 CBS News poll found that 69% of Americans preferred that the states handle marijuana policy, while only 27% preferred that the federal government handle it.

What’s interesting is that on all these issues on which the study reports a partisan breakdown, even drug laws, Democrats are more in favor of federal control than are Republicans. Decentralization has emerged as a very starkly partisan wedge issue.

Growing support for decentralization in the U.S. does not necessarily mean that decentralization is a good idea or that it will happen, of course. As my review of Daniel Treisman’s recent book acknowledges, decentralization can have its pitfalls. Yet within the American context of largely market-preserving federalism, greater decentralization on many of these issues will (more…)

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Since the Scottish independence referendum, the Scottish National Party has seen its membership treble and its poll ratings climb. This boost to pro-independence forces after their referendum failure departs from the script established in previous referendums on autonomy or independence. After the failed 1979 referendum on devolution (due to a turnout requirement – the measure got a majority of votes), the SNP fell back in the polls. After the successful 1997 referendum, the SNP gained in the polls, even though devolution was a Labour-implemented project. After the 1980 and 1995 failed referenda, the Parti Quebecois declined a bit in the polls.

So what’s going on? The biggest reason for the SNP’s gains may be that “Yes” and even some “No” voters in the referendum want to make sure that the Westminster parties follow through on their pledges for even greater devolution. Alex Salmond once said, “It’s only SNP votes that concentrate the minds of Labour.”

To a point, the logic makes sense. The British parties are contesting for power at the center, and party leaders are unlikely to devolve power away from themselves if they can at all help it. A credible secession threat is useful for eliciting concessions.

At the same time, though, there has to be some (more…)

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Vox Populi

This week we celebrated Constitution Day, by among other things, watching Congress authorize funding for a war that is not a war, and allowing it to be waged on the basis of a 2001 use-of-force resolution that authorized military actions against parties involved with the 9/11 attacks (conveniently, it did not have an expiration date).

Every year, it seems, there are poll results released on Constitution Day that suggest that the majority may not even know that a constitution exists (or if it does, what it might say). A survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that:

While little more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, just as many (35 percent) could not name a single one.

With respect to the Congress—which, we are told repeatedly, is held in remarkably low esteem by the public:

Asked which party has the most members in the House of Representatives, 38 percent said they knew the Republicans are the majority, but 17 percent responded the Democrats, and 44 percent reported that they did not know (up from 27 percent who said they did not know in 2011).

Asked which party controls the Senate, 38 percent correctly said the Democrats, 20 percent said the Republicans, and 42 percent said they did not know (also up from 27 percent who said they did not know in 2011).

(more…)

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A few takeaways from the 55-45% victory for No in the Scottish independence referendum:

  1. The polls overestimated support for independence, just as in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Secession from a well-established democracy is extremely difficult due to voters’ risk-aversion and status quo bias.
  2. Scotland’s right to decide elicited salutary promises of decentralization from the British government. My book found that countries with legal secession saw more decentralization than countries without, and countries with legal secession never recentralized power in the post-World War 2 era, according to the measure of regional autonomy I used.
  3. While Westminster is likely to follow through on some additional powers for Scotland, they are not likely to approach anything like “devolution max.” For one thing, the Barnett formula will continue, suggesting the Scottish government’s budget will remain heavily dependent on transfers. For another, significant powers for Scotland will require wholesale constitutional reform, particularly to deal with the West Lothian Question, and there are many obstacles to a solution to that problem. Finally, the scale of No’s victory will reduce the urgency for British leaders to get something done. I will be very much surprised if a bill is produced to give Scotland autonomy equivalent to that enjoyed by, say, New Hampshire, let alone the Isle of Man.
  4. There’s going to be a lot of ignorant commentary about what this means for Catalonia. It means very little. Catalonia will proceed toward its own vote on independence. Secessionism isn’t contagious across borders, nor is declining secessionism. If anything, the No camp’s victory might persuade the Spanish government to allow a Catalan vote — but I wouldn’t count on it.

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