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“A Perversity Only the British Could Have Devised”

Such is Shashi Tharoor’s painfully accurate term for the Westminster System of democracy. As Matt Yglesias pays tribute to the late Juan Linz – who provided some of the best scholarly foundations for Parliament over President – it’s hard not to remember the failures of Indian politics in assessing the weakness of a parliamentary system.

Two caveats: this debate has been subjected to substantial academic research, theoretical and otherwise. My knowledge of modern political science is very limited and so it’s very unlikely I’m adding anything new. Still, very few popular publications even consider this topic, so I’m glad Yglesias brought it up. Another, more important if obvious, point is that institution trumps implementation. That is, a better system can perhaps grease the wheels of effective governance, but can never replace a more deeply seeded reverence to democratic institutions like accountability and citizenship.

Parliaments’ first weakness is an unnecessary complexity. Outside of French style unions between President and Prime Minister, the parliamentary system has the useless baggage of a President. This isn’t crucial to the system in any way, but already sets the tone for wasteful governance and can be devastatingly abused as evidenced by Indira Gandhi (who Jackie Kennedy rightly called “a bitch”) and her domination of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

Ironically, over the “Third Wave of Democracy”, some liberal scholars eagerly urged African countries on the cusp of democracy to favor a parliamentary system as they believed presidential authority lent itself to dictatorship. Of course, if the world’s largest democracy is any proof, parliamentary systems are – if anything – more prone to authoritarian impulse. President Obama can shutdown the government, but he may not call a State of Emergency authorizing rule by decree. But I’m not asking New Zealand or Austria to abdicate the Westminster System in favor of our (clearly superior) program. Small, central republics can easily achieve governance and efficiency within the confines of a parliamentary system.

I have four general criticisms of parliamentary systems and one specific to America. In general:

  • Students of American history are very familiar with the importance of a separate and independent Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary. A parliamentary system does not wholly murder the division between Executive and Legislature, but – as Shashi Tharoor says – it is a perversity to vote for a legislature not to legislate but in order to form the executive. When only two branches own government, it’s harder for an independent judiciary to execute its task: at least without firm constitutional provisions.
  • Secretaries are talented, ministers are not. Under most forms of parliament, the executive branch is staffed with politicians. The United Kingdom gets a third rate fool in the form of George Osborne for Finance Minister. While I’m not arguing Tim Geithner is a gift from god, we sure as hell wouldn’t have someone who graduated “Modern History”* with a shitty 2:1 as our fiscal captain. But people like Geithner, Paulson, and Lew would never win an election. So where parliaments should have bureaucrats they have politicians. Though the Upper House is in principle designed to avoid this pitfall, public choice concerns generally own.
  • Uncertainty abounds. Parliamentary rule is all or nothing. If the leading party has a majority, there is no room for dissent and the Prime Minister can act (almost) by fiat. If the leading party has a plurality, it is forever in mercy of small, unreliable coalition partners who are bestowed with an outsized voice relative to their national popularity. Small countries like the United Kingdom and much else of Europe are the exception.
  • Parliament cannot have a (real) bicameral legislature. Many populist American Revolutionaries wanted a unicameral legislature. That would have been a disaster. In most times – indeed, even today – the deliberative body that is the Senate is a force for good in political life. While parliaments are granted nominal bicameral bodies (Rajya Sabha, House of Lords, etc.) they are more or less ceremonial, like the head of state. This deprived us of an important component of modern governance.

(*I’m not saying history majors can’t make great economists. Paul Krugman and even Dani Rodrik are good examples of people with somewhat non-traditional undergraduate experiences that become brilliant economists. However, if your undergrad degree in Modern History – with crappy grades – is just part of the Oxford political machine and you spent your days trashing parties with the Bullingdon Club, there’s a good chance you have the brains and wit of a blue blooded politician, not a thinker).

Yglesias notes that a benefit of Parliament is its ability to quickly call an election where needed. American politics are too big and important for this. In Australia campaigning starts just over months shy of the election. In America, the electoral cycle is effectively never ending. You could, of course, argue that I am citing cause when in fact our long elections are the effect of presidential systems. However, looking at elections in presidencies across the world, America still remains the outlier.

Fact of the matter is when you are choosing the Leader of the Free World – by and far the world’s most consequential person – elections become a big deal. There is no way our system can handle the political heat of a parliamentary demand on election.

In fact, parliamentary structure would exacerbate what I think damns American politics: the two-term presidency. I’ve argued before that we should learn from our Confederate history that one, six-year term would be politically superior allowing the president to govern without worries of reelection.

Ultimately, Yglesias may be right that for fledging countries across the world it may be better to copy the Canadians. But as far as our politics go, parliament would only make things worse.

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7 comments
  1. “Secretaries are talented, ministers are not.”

    Sometimes you don’t want talented people, you want politicians. Imagine how different the last 5 years would have been if the United States had a Treasury Secretary who was a career politician constantly trying to unseat Barack Obama, while most of the high level officials under him are career civil servaints. Much better, imho.

    • Yes, true, but in a Presidential system you always have the option of career politicians entering civil service (Clinton Kerry etc.) It’s just much harder with a Parliament. Possible, done, but harder.

  2. The genius of the American system is that it was designed to thwart politicians, not enable them. Power is dispersed, and set so that ‘faction counters faction’. The current ‘shutdown’ is a feature, not a bug, as the Founding Fathers saw it. They feared power, so they constrained it.

  3. ShardPhoenix said:

    “Parliament cannot have a (real) bicameral legislature.”

    Doesn’t the Australian system (where the Senate has a major influence) contradict this?

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