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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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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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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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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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