Executive Constraints and Institutional Robustness
Political institutions in democracies are organized in a modular structure which is known as checks and balances or executive constraints. This project argues that a main purpose of this design is to provide system robustness. Based on this view it develops a canonical theoretical model to explore the role of executive constraints in a world of imperfect electoral accountability and policy risk. Limiting discretion in the executive can reduce downside risks by preventing harmful policies. However, this prevention worsens selection and dynamic incentives for the executive creating a trade-off for voters. This trade-off is resolved in favor of executive constraints in two worst case scenarios: (i) incentives and selection of politicians both work poorly and (ii) there is high downside policy risk. Evidence suggests that such worst-case scenarios could be strong arguments for the adoption of executive constraints.
The newest version of this paper can be downloaded here. An older Barcelona GSE working paper version of the article is available here.
In our work on this article was partly motivated by work in biology and engineering and the article brings ideas from these fields into the social sciences. The idea that a modular design, like in a flight computer, increases robustness given the modular design of democratic systems. However, the "modules" in political institutions are people who anticipate the action of other modules and the translation from engineering and biology to the social sciences was therefore not immediate.
It is tempting to call for strongman politics at times of huge policy problems, political polarization and institutional blockades. But we argue that a key pillar of democracies are checks and balances and these become important exactly when electoral incentives fail. Tendencies in several countries of undermining or dismantling these checks and balances could have immediate benefits but they could also open the possibility of system failures like armed violence or economic decline.