Why Do Voters Dismantle Checks and Balances?

A fascinating paper, Why Do Voters Dismantle Checks and Balances? by Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson and Ragnar Torvik (h/t FE). There is a pile of maths in there, but you don’t really need it and I only skimmed it. From the conclusions:

In many weakly-institutionalized democracies, particularly in Latin America, voters have recently dismantled constitutional checks and balances that are commonly thought to limit presidential rents and abuses of power. In this paper, we develop an equilibrium model of checks and balances in which voters may vote for the removal of such constraints on presidential power. Our main argument is simple: checks and balances are indeed effective (at least partially) in reducing presidential discretion and prevent policies that are not in line with the interests of the majority of the citizens. This naturally reduces presidential rents, which is however a double-edged sword. By reducing presidential rents, checks and balances make it cheaper to bribe or influence politicians through non-electoral means such as lobbying and bribes. In weakly-institutionalized polities where such non-electoral influences, particularly by the better organized elite, are a major concern, voters may prefer a political system without checks and balances as a way of insulating politicians from these influences. In consequence, voters may dismantle checks and balances, implicitly accepting a certain amount of politician rent or politicians’ pet policies that they do not like, in order to ensure redistribution when they believe that the rich elite can influence politics through non-electoral means.

They provide examples from Venezuela and Ecuador to illustrate their ideas. The basic idea, restated, is that the poor get to elect the pols, but the rich get to bribe them, so the poor may prefer pols too rich to bribe.

Note that their model is a steady-state one; it includes nothing about effects such as the country falling apart as megalomaniac Prez’s ruin the economy. Nonetheless, that process is slow enough, and deltas from the current state are what count, so voters might, in a prisoners-dilemma sort of way, choose to ignore that problem.

This has eerie echoes of Hobbes (which the paper fails to cite, tsk tsk, young folk nowadays):

The difference between these three kinds of Commonwealth consisteth not in the difference of power, but in the difference of convenience or aptitude to produce the peace and security of the people; for which end they were instituted. And to compare monarchy with the other two, we may observe: first, that whosoever beareth the person of the people, or is one of that assembly that bears it, beareth also his own natural person. And though he be careful in his politic person to procure the common interest, yet he is more, or no less, careful to procure the private good of himself, his family, kindred and friends; and for the most part, if the public interest chance to cross the private, he prefers the private: for the passions of men are commonly more potent than their reason. From whence it follows that where the public and private interest are most closely united, there is the public most advanced. Now in monarchy the private interest is the same with the public. The riches, power, and honour of a monarch arise only from the riches, strength, and reputation of his subjects. For no king can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure, whose subjects are either poor, or contemptible, or too weak through want, or dissension, to maintain a war against their enemies; whereas in a democracy, or aristocracy, the public prosperity confers not so much to the private fortune of one that is corrupt, or ambitious, as doth many times a perfidious advice, a treacherous action, or a civil war.

In fact Hobbes has a somewhat different intent there, so I’m being unfair to the authors. He’s explaining why Monarchy (effectively, Presidential rule is Monarchy) is better than other forms of government. Elsewhere, he does say that if the pols are corrupt, you’re better off with only one of them. I don’t think he ever mentions the too-rich-to-bribe argument, though.

9 thoughts on “Why Do Voters Dismantle Checks and Balances?”

  1. “in reducing presidential discretion and prevent policies that are not in line with the interests of the majority of the citizens. ”

    In a system where the president has been elected by the majority of the citizens, and the “checks and balances” are being used by the minority to block actions the majority wants, you got a simple answer


  2. Hobbes said: Now in monarchy the private interest is the same with the public.

    I’m not sure this is true. Hobbes goes on to state that a monarch cannot be secure if his people are poor, which is true to some extent. But that has been the end result of quite a few monarchies and quasi-monarchical dictatorships. The issue is short-term versus long-term interests. If I am President-for-Life of $THIRD_WORLD_COUNTRY, my short term interest is in making bank while I’m in office, and allowing my army officers to get enough of a cut that they don’t overthrow me. My long term interest in this case would be to leave a country strong enough that my designated successor (who may or may not be a blood relative) can inherit my title and expect to keep it. These interests are in conflict.

    Some leaders are wise enough to let the people share in the riches they are amassing. England is a good historical example, and China’s historical concept of the Mandate of Heaven is another. But when I look at recent history, I see few examples of Presidents-for-Life actually passing their titles to designated heirs who stay in office more than 48 hours. In Haiti, “Papa Doc” Duvalier passed his title to his son “Baby Doc”, who kept the title for another ten or fifteen years. China has organized a system where the leadership turns over every ten years. The former Soviet Union had a system that worked for a few decades. In most other countries that do not maintain de facto limits on their leaders’ power, the transition from one leader to the next has generally involved either a coup or a popular uprising. Think Iraq under Saddam, or Libya under Khaddafi, or Romania under Ceausescu, or dozens of examples in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa.

    [I agree that it largely doesn’t pan out that way in real life; usually, that’s because the leader feels insecure and so wants to steal. Hobbes’ point remains true in the abstract – if you’re the absolute monarch, why steal from the country, you own it all, you’re only stealing from yourself – but it omits the time-dependent aspect.

    Libya is perhaps not a bad example. Khaddafi wasn’t exactly a great bloke, but I think that for a fair while he wasn’t personally corrupt, in the sense of salting away the country’s money in Swiss accounts. He spent on self-aggrandisement, but that is (in the terms of this post) part of the bargain. What went wrong in his case was a growing family that was corrupt, and the growing need to repress the people -W]


  3. usually, that’s because the leader feels insecure and so wants to steal

    On further reflection, I think that many of these leaders actually do have reason to feel insecure. Consider the case of a former general who becomes President via a coup. He realizes that his subordinate officers have his example to emulate, so he has to bribe his colonels (recall that this was Khaddafi’s military title) with some of the proceeds so that they don’t displace him, as I said above. Some countries went through multiple iterations of this scenario, resulting in Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings in Ghana and Sergeant Samuel Doe in Liberia.

    Countries which keep their military out of politics tend to fare better than countries where the military involves itself in politics. The US elected a fair number of generals as Presidents in the 19th century, but only one (Eisenhower, who had retired shortly before deciding to pursue the office) after passing the Posse Comitatus Act in the late 19th century, and active duty US military are prohibited from supporting political candidates while in uniform. The UK seems to have done a good job keeping military people out of politics in the last 100 years or so. China’s leaders since Mao have tended to be civilians as well. But many a third world kleptocracy has a recent history of military involvement in civilian politics.


  4. Perhaps as usual Eli was being too subtle. Venezuela and Boliva are great examples of why voters dismantle checks and balances. In both countries a populist government was blocked by a plutocratic opposition using checks and balances. THAT dear Weasel is why they got disassembled.

    The Republicans in the US are really pushing that envelope. A good example is what happened after they abused the independent prosecutor law going after Clinton. That check and balance got thrown down the memory hole.

    These guys need rent a clue


  5. I say it’s time to ban the earworm, before it’s too late.

    Before they can crawl into your ear and blow your mind out.


  6. Empirically, I don’t think Hobbes’ argument has worked too well, from Louis XIV to North Korea.

    [Its hard to disagree with that, viz North Korea (except – was that really personal rule, rather than Party rule?). Louis XIV is not so clear to me, but I’m not familiar with him. Wiki says “By the early 1680s Louis had greatly augmented French influence in the world. Domestically, he successfully increased the influence of the crown and its authority over the church and aristocracy, thus consolidating absolute monarchy in France.” Are you sure of your example? -W]

    Some democratic cultures have attempted to create in their leaders an interest in that leader’s historical legacy, and that would tend to tie that leader’s interest to the people’s broader interest.


  7. A long thoughtful NPR ScienceFriday program today seems on topic — first segment on antibiotic resistance from the public health side, segueing to a discussion of why politics isn’t responding.

    “In any functioning democracy this practice … would be prohibited” — on feeding antibiotics to livestock

    “Democracy has been hacked ….”

    “There is no appeal to a Supreme Court ruling except armed insurrection” — Al Gore

    http://www.trbimg.com/img-51350b3f/turbine/la-na-tt-scalias-slam-20130228-001/600 — David Horsey


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