By Request: The Case for Parliamentarism

Daniel wants to know about my preference for parliamentary systems to US-style presidential ones. My official position on this comes from the work of political scientists such as Arend Lijphart and Juan Linz. One of their main points is that parliamentary systems are less likely to result in “crisis” and breakdown. At the same time, a lot of work has come from different angles to problematize the precision of the presidential/parliamentary dichotomy. Most recently, someone sent me an article by John Carey making the case that the distinction is tending to blur in a lot of Latin American countries due to some institutional changes. So there’s that.

But beyond this political science argument, one of my big complaints with the American system of government is simply that there’s a ton of uncertainty clinging around it. For months now, everywhere you go you see articles speculating about what Barack Obama will do once he’s in office. And speculating about the consequences of Obama’s policies, but speculating about their content. And of course along with not knowing what Obama will propose, we don’t know what he’ll get through congress. This all coming at a time right after an election when you might think would be exactly the time when we would know what the political system had in store for us.

Parliamentary government offers basically two alternatives to the mysterian nature of the American system. One thing you might have is parliamentary government with a tradition of strong majorities such as you see in the United Kingdom. Here a party is expected to draw up some key policy proposals during the campaign, release them as a manifesto and a set of white papers, and then if they win the election they’re expected to go implement those ideas. While in opposition, you appoint a shadow cabinet with the expectation that if you win the shadow cabinet will take over and govern. If David Cameron becomes the next Prime Minister of the U.K., people will have a pretty clear sense on Election Day of what the Tories are putting on the table and what major policy shifts can be expected from them. That’s an idealization, of course, but the reality is much closer to the idealization than it is to the American system where everything is shrouded in mystery. Another frequent parliamentary mode is one where you have lots of coalition governments. This produces a similar aura of mystery to what you see in the United States where it’s difficult to draw a straight line from policy proposals to election outcomes to policy initiatives. But it does a much better job of ensuring a basically “centrist” policy orientation than does the United States. Formal coalition-building encourages the creation of something like consensus, followed by decisive action if consensus can be reached. The US system is more like tectonic plates along a fault a fault line — in general, you can’t do anything, but then sometimes there are huge disruptive lurches.

This doesn’t prove anything, per se, but I do think it’s telling that the conventional wisdom in the United States is basically that the process written down on paper for legislating doesn’t work for tackling major problems. Nobody thinks, for example, that a stimulus bill written by the White House and Treasury will be improved by horse-trading in congress. And everyone believes that if we have to change Social Security at some point we’ll need to do it via an independent commission. But at the same time, congress is hugely ineffectual at curtailing genuine executive branch abuses of power. Where separation of legislative and executive functions seems desirable, it doesn’t work. And where it does work, it’s not very desirable. I don’t expect us to throw the constitution out the window, but I do think it’s worth keeping in mind whenever smaller-scale institutional changes do become feasible.