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|How democracy was achieved|
A review of Roger Congleton, Perfecting Parliament: Constitutional Reform and the Origins of Western Democracy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2011, pp. 658
University of Ulster, School of Economics
Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim, BT37 0QB, UK
In ‘Perfecting Parliament’ Roger Congleton applies the rational choice framework to explain two attributes of the democratization of the West from the medieval times to the early twentieth century, first the shift of policy making authority from the king to the parliament and second the extension of voting rights to previously disenfranchised groups of the population. This review essay sets out the themes of the book, and relates the book to the democratization of classical Athens and democratization from the last quarter of the 20th century.
JEL Classification: D7 N4
Key words: Democracy, Democratization, Ancient Athens, Constitutional exchange; Franchise extension; Democracy and development
*Tel: +44 (0) 28 90368273, fax: + 44(0) 28 0366847, e-mail: G.Tridimas@ulster.ac.uk
How democracy was achieved
You can never have a revolution to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution
(G.K.Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, 1909)
In modern free societies, democracy is the basis of policymaking and law enforcement. In the current political climate, politicians always profess to act democratically. Even in autocratic regimes, rulers often feel obliged to make claims that citizens of their countries are not denied democratic freedoms. However, if we take a long view of history and judge the political lives of our ancestors by modern standards, autocracy, that is, absence of rule by the people, was the norm. It has only been in the last two hundred years that people in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan, collectively known as “the West”, have come to live under regimes where those who govern do so after winning competitive elections. Also political liberalization during the 19th and early 20th centuries coincided with unprecedented economic growth that vastly improved the well-being of the same people who experienced democratic politics. However, the advance of democracy has not been smooth; the 20th century inter-war period witnessed a reverse to authoritarianism, and, despite the progress to democracy after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, great swathes of humanity remain ruled by autocrats.
Roger Congleton offers illuminating answers to the question of how liberal democracy arose. In scholarship that combines economic theory, political science and history, he builds a theory of constitutional negotiation, which he uses to explain the transformation of king–dominated medieval government to modern liberal parliamentary democracy as it prevailed in the early 20th century. He divides the democratization of the West into two fundamental elements: first, the shift of policy making authority from the king to the parliament; second, the extension of voting rights to previously disenfranchised groups of the population, so that the parliament came to represent the citizenry rather than the aristocratic elites. He shows that the two moves were generated by mechanisms that operated independently of one other and constructs a systematic account of how the shift to democracy was accomplished.
Such arguments and related hypotheses will surely be discussed at length and will be tested empirically for a long time to come. In the present essay, after reviewing Congleton’s theory of how the West democratized (section 2), I shall also investigate how, if at all, the theory fits the introduction of democracy in ancient Athens (section 3) and is consistent with (section 4) the recent democratic transition, that is, democratization before and after the time period covered by his book. In section 5 I offer some concluding comments.
2. Congleton’s theory of the democratic transformation
The book is in three parts, namely, formal economic theory, chapters 2 – 8; a constitutional, political and economic history account, chapters 9 – 18; and a statistical-evidence part with a social-science overview, Chapters 19 – 20. The first part weaves together previously published work of Congleton to present a political-economy explanation of the existence and architecture of territorial governments.
Chapters 2 – 4 show that such governments are based on the “king and council” template, remain relative stable over time, and display institutional conservatism. In the king-and-council scheme, responsibilities for deciding policies are divided between a single person, the king (or chief executive) and a committee or council that is the progenitor of the modern parliament and makes important decisions by voting, and tends to be governed by rules rather than making arbitrary decisions.
Chapter 5 observes that the authority to make policy is multi-dimensional, because decisions on different policy issues are separable, and control of policy can be divided between the king and the originally aristocratic parliament. The initial assignments of policymaking authority are regarded as “political property rights”. When authority is shifted among policymakers, a “market for power” is created through which policymaking and procedures for selecting policy makers can be peacefully and lawfully reformed. Just as trade in ordinary markets results in mutual benefits for the trading parties, so do constitutional bargains that divide power over policy making. When technology changes, ideology shifts, external threats beckon, or genetic shocks occur (a new sovereign with talents and tastes different from those of his predecessor ascends to the throne), mutually beneficial trades in policymaking authority between the king and the parliament take place. Using a spatial decision framework, Chapter 6 develops a model of constitution bargains where the king may trade parliament’s approval for higher revenue for the royal household in exchange for more parliamentary authority (veto power to agenda setting) in other policy areas.
Chapters 7 and 8 examine the extension of the franchise, the second component of democratization. Suffrage laws for selecting political representatives are remarkably stable for a simple reason: At any point in time, other things being equal, the median–decisive voter is satisfied with the existing law defining voting rights, for it allows him to be pivotal in determining policy. Similarly, those elected to office are reluctant to change the parameters of a system that has brought them the benefits of office. When the ideological norms held by the median voter shift in favour of extending the right to vote, widespread expansion of suffrage follows. Such changes in norms occurred as a result of personal experiences, inspiration from new ideas, and convictions of those who were already enfranchised. Furthermore, in practice, the cost of organizing interest groups fell with industrialization and the increase in urbanization. Campaigns for change were then orchestrated by interest groups pursuing franchise reform, by political groups expecting to gain the support of newly enfranchised voters, and industrialists and workers who were under-represented in the medieval parliaments. In particular, following the industrial revolution, workers could bargain for voting rights in exchange for industrial peace and a broader tax base.
Chapter 9 – 12 of Part II describe how from the 18th century onwards western European societies became more secular (even though the population continued to be deeply religious) and more liberal as a result of discoveries of new lands, technological changes that increased the efficient scale of production, trade expansion, greater scientific knowledge, and wider consumer choice. These chapters also document the ascent of liberal ideas about limited government, tolerance, natural rights, equality before the law, and gradual rejection of the importance of birth privileges. Taking full advantage of technological progress was possible after reforming medieval laws and regulations controlling economic and political life. Economic and political reforms did not occur spontaneously or through revolution but through formal changes in the law that reflected changes in political and legal theories and the economic interests of those with the authority to reform long-standing laws. Restrictions on farmland ownership were liberalised, as were internal and external trade, slavery was abolished, publicly funded education was introduced, and suffrage was extended. To some extent, the latter came as a result of economic growth that allowed more citizens to satisfy wealth and tax payments qualifications; but more importantly it came as the result of ideological shifts and pragmatic considerations by liberal politicians who expected a larger number of supporters from newly qualified middle-class voters. Over the course of the 19th century, policymaking authority gradually shifted away from the aristocratic chamber of parliament towards the elected chamber, as the cumulative result of a series of minor liberal reforms that reduced the control of the sovereign. At the same time, new debates emerged regarding qualifications for voting, size of voting districts, voting rules, partisan interests, weighted voting, and women’s suffrage.
Chapters 12–18 of the historical narrative chart the constitutional histories of three contemporary constitutional monarchies, the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands, and three republics Germany, Japan and USA. Despite obvious and significant differences, the constitutional developments of the six countries share several common trends that fit well the hypotheses advanced in the first part of the book. In all countries, the fabric of the king-and-council template was retained, parliaments gradually acquired more control over policy making (as a result of opportunistic bargaining between the parliaments and the sovereigns), and the right to vote was slowly extended from a very small percentage of the population to what is now known as universal suffrage. In England, starting with the Magna Charta of 1215, the parliament became the dominant institution well before universal suffrage was obtained. In Germany, on the contrary, suffrage expanded more rapidly than power shifted to parliament, while with the World War I defeat hereditary monarchy was abolished and a republic was established, which was subsequently overthrown by the chancellorship of Adolph Hitler in 1933. Constitutional reform in the Netherlands took the form of moving from the republic of the provinces (1581) to kingdom (1815) and then gradually to parliamentary democracy. Japanese political liberalisation started in earnest towards the end of the 19th century but parliamentary democracy ended in the 1930s after a resurgence of conservatism and domestic political violence. Industrialization was a catalyst for the transition to liberal reform in the European countries but not for the USA, where liberalisation of colonial governments preceded the 1776 war of independence from Britain. As a corollary, the case studies show that constitutional reform towards parliamentary democracy was neither an entirely European phenomenon nor irreversible once started.
Chapter 19 of Part III presents statistical evidence supporting the validity of the theoretical model of constitutional reform developed in Part I. Although the regression equations are not structural equations of the models studied, they are motivated and informed by the analytical framework developed. The chapter first discusses the problems of measuring economic, institutional, and political variables during the 19th century; it then plots several diagrams correlating the time profile of real per capita GDP and political variables; finally, it reports Granger-type causality tests. It is found that causality between economic growth and democratic liberalization is bidirectional as predicted by the theoretical analysis. Congleton concludes that the political and economic ‘revolutions’ of the 19th century were not revolutions (in the sense of a single abrupt break from the past), but the consequence of a series of reforms, and that constitutional and economic liberalisation are jointly determined rather than causally related.
Chapter 20 compares and contrasts the theory of constitutional bargains developed in the book with other theories of the rise of western democracy, and in particular, “big-bang” approaches, in which democratic governance emerges as a result of a violent revolution or alternatively a peaceful constitutional convention (or some combination of the two), and evolutionary or reform theories, in which political developments are one of many areas of change through time. Contrary to popular myths and romantic views of historical episodes, it was not revolutions that established contemporary democracy and representative government. Revolutions, which more often than not are accompanied by widespread violence, do not lead to democratic reforms, since successful revolutionary leaders are more likely to keep control and continue the revolutionary organization’s hierarchical decision making, secrecy, and discipline, rather than grant voting rights. Congleton’s analysis differs from other economic accounts by emphasising the role of both economic interests and liberal ideologies, with interest groups organized around narrow liberal ideas in education, trade and voting rights instrumental in a long series of reforms that produced liberal democracies and open economic systems.
Congleton’s book is a huge intellectual enterprise covering vast territories of research carried out with rigour and gusto. Drawing on the familiar spatial decision making framework, he offers an innovative model of the market for power over budgets and public policies to explain how constitutional reforms are adopted. His modelling of franchise extension stresses the importance of ideological objectives and the reduction of the cost of organizing political interest groups that are able to push for the realization of their objectives. His case studies of comparative constitutional histories along with his empirical results shed light on the debate surrounding the link between development and democracy. Some further discussion of Congleton’s hypotheses is warranted.
Empirical work has confirmed the casual observation that democracy and development are positively correlated. Research has investigated how factors such as size of real per capita income, education, ethnic fractionalization, hierarchical state religions, trade openness, income inequality, legacy of institutions established by colonial powers, legal origins (whether dominated by common law or civil law systems), geography (which includes non-human factors such as climate, soil fertility, disease and mineral wealth), trust, and democracy are related. There is, however, controversy about causality. Two opposing views have been expressed.
The modernization, or democratic transition, theory1 claims that political development in the long run is a consequence of overall development. Economic development is driven by higher production volumes, which also generate more complex transactions, and, as income increases, so does demand for democracy, urbanization, education and other attributes of modernity such as administrative efficiency, transparency and so on. Neither the economy nor the society can any longer be run by the edicts of autocratic rulers and democracy is established.
On the other hand, the primacy of institutions view2 argues that both income and democracy are determined by political institutions that structure power relations. Countries that choose different institutions at different “critical junctures” travel along different long-run paths of economic and political development.3
Like the primacy of institutions view, Congleton treats institutions that divide authority about policymaking as endogenous, that is, they are chosen by rational actors. In his statistical work he does not undertake a detailed multiple regression analysis of the kind carried out by the empirical research. Instead, he runs temporal causality tests for five of the countries investigated (Japan is left out because of lack of data) with mid-19th to early 20th century data, and concludes that democracy and income are jointly determined. This finding indicates that economic and political liberalization are the outcome of other similar variables and is consistent with his fundamental hypothesis that “both are induced by trends in technology and ideological developments that produce new constitutional gains from exchange and compromise” (p.587), an argument further supported by the narrative of each country studied.
Congleton’s argument that political change and liberalization came about as the outcome of constitutional negotiations, and was gradual and peaceful, goes against that of Acemoglu and Robinson (2000) that the elites extended suffrage rights to the disenfranchised poor majority because that was the only credible way to redistribute wealth and hold back the threat of revolution.4 On this account and despite several differences, Congleton’s focus on negotiation is closer to the spirit of explanations of franchise extension that call attention to peaceful political exchanges. Lizzeri and Persico (2004) emphasize trading voting rights for more public goods and intra-elite divisions. Specifically, an external economic shock causes divergent interests within the elite and drives part of the enfranchised elite to extend the franchise voluntarily to previously disenfranchised groups in order to increase the provision of public goods that will directly increase its welfare.5 Engerman and Sokoloff (2006) propose yet another explanation for the extension of the franchise in the Americas based on factor endowments that does not involve revolutionary threats. Territories facing labour scarcity, typically USA “frontier” states, could attract immigrants by offering them, amongst other inducements, full political rights including the suffrage. On the other hand, in countries with soil suitable for production in large plantations or abundant mineral wealth, as in Latin America, small settler elites could more easily exploit the resources and deny political rights to the large native populations.