Unstable Gradual Change

By Thomas Giacoletto

In their Explaining Institutional Change, James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen try to explain the way institutional change gradually takes place in the long run. They argue that change often occurs when “problems of rule interpretation and enforcement open up space for actors to implement existing rules in new ways.” This would, for example, happen with the emergence of new phenomena which are not described in the previous rules; what ‘threat to the nation’ meant when a country’s constitution was drafted probably is very different than what is now a threat. However, whether this reinterpretation is possible depends on the discretion actors have towards a particular rule. Furthermore, although change can gradually take place, only an actual change in the rule (and not in the interpretation) will have a stable effect.

An interesting example of rule interpretation that prevents change has recently been over the news with the death of the Supreme Court of the United States Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia was originalist in his interpretation of the constitution, which means that “when you consult the text, you give it the meaning it had when it was adopted, not some later modern meaning” (Scalia, 2012). Because of this interpretation, he did not believe that existing rules have to adapt to the “new reality” that Mahoney and Thelen describe as a driver for change.

On the other side, however, they explain that change in the enforcement of a rule can lead to change: a local police officer can choose not to enforce a law on a local level because it is not practical, or simply ridiculous. However, this type of change is extremely fragile as the officer can be fired (not to have the law respected), and the change implemented might not remain if another officer is appointed. An actual change in the law is the only way stability can be insured with the new institution. The way constitutional courts (and supreme courts as they also can rule laws as anti-constitutional) read and interpret the texts is therefore very important for institutional change.

Corruption and statemaking

By Thomas Giacoletto

In Bringing the State Back In, Charles Tilly explains how the need to wage war lead to the the creation of modern nation states in Europe. He explains that different states had to develop different bureaucracies (and therefore institutional frameworks) to be able to extract enough resources to have an effective army. More populated and richer states therefore had a larger pool of resources to extract from while other states had to create a “bulkier” bureaucracy and a “more extensive” fiscal apparatus (182).

Tilly does not only point at the amount of resources that are available for extraction, but also at how good states were at extracting. In order to grasp all the resources they could, states had to create an institutional framework that was bulky enough to tackle the issues of citizen’s unwillingness to pay and corruption (tax-collectors who would accept bribes for example). Indeed, states’ abilities to extract the resources they needed depended on their population’s willingness to pay. In order to ensure payment, they only had two options, namely: offering protection to their citizens, and setting up institutions that would disincentivise any refusal to contribute.

Tilly focuses on the former, however it is a strategy which is likely to allow free riding, and corruption. Indeed, people know that the state cannot afford not to provide protection to a part of the population because they did not pay their taxes (or because they bribed their local tax-collector as it would probably also be dangerous for the rest of the population which would then doubt their protection. The state therefore could not only rely on the protection it gives its population in order to extract the resources it needed. States were incentivised to create institutional frameworks that strengthened bureaucracy and prevented these type of practices had to be put in place to force the population to pay.

Maybe considering corruption as a gap in the institutional framework that has to be fixed would help countries strengthen their bureaucracies and improve their extraction possibilities.

Niche parties in Europe

By Thomas Giacoletto

There are different approaches to historical analysis, and they all bring different aspects of the studied phenomenon to light. This post will illustrate two of them, taking as an example the emergence of niche parties in Europe.

Steinmo (2008) and other historical institutionalists would, for example, ask: ‘how did electoral institutions, and the party systems that they created, influence the formation of niche parties in France after the second World War?’ This approach focuses on institutions to explain behavioural change over time, and would, for this example, help us understand how the electoral institutions shaped political actors’ behaviour. The conclusion of this study would illustrate the incentives electoral institutions create, and how these have changed over time; previously not giving incentives for the creation of niche parties, and doing it now. The main issue with this approach is that it would only give indications about the exact context of the study. This means that there is no generalisation possible, and that another country (for example) would have to be studied in such detail in order to draw conclusions.

Bates ea. (1998), on the other hand, would use their analytic narrative method in order to both use the context, and come up with “explicit and formal lines of reasoning” through the use of combined historical method and game theory. They would ask: ‘are electoral systems that give centrifugal incentives, more likely to generate niche parties?’ Their study would clearly explore the historical context of the emergence of niche parties (using documents…) and design a game that would seek to explain the actions of actors as responses to incentives given by the electoral system. With the outcome of their study, they would have modelled individual’s reactions to particular incentives given by the institutional structure.

The analytic narrative method might lead to less information to be collected about the case and the context, but it seems more useful if you want to be able to explain behavioural patterns. Furthermore, it seems to help us understand more about how individuals behave than the other method.