Sunday, March 2, 2008

Who's The Boss?

I'm always tickled when political scientists' research makes the news. Foreign Policy reports on a study by Steven Fish and Matthew Kroenig arguing that powerful legislatures make for more resilient democracies.

"In a groundbreaking new study, Fish and Kroenig rank the power of 158 national legislatures around the world, based on a survey completed by more than 700 country experts. The strength of parliaments and congresses is measured using four groups of factors: influence over the executive (such as powers of impeachment), autonomy (such as whether the executive can dissolve parliament), vested powers (such as the power to declare war), and the capability to get things done (such as having the resources to hire staff).

They find that... weak legislatures often cannot keep executives in check, especially when autocratic leaders come to power. 'This decade, the great enemies of democracy are presidents,' says Fish, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley."
Presumably this helps explain why the Kenyan opposition was prepared for civil war in order to affirm its Presidential win, despite its majority in the weak Kenyan legislature. However, one wonders about the dependent variable in the study. BY "enemy of democracy" do they mean the tendency of one branch or the other towards authoritarian policies? Or do they mean political instability? Two very different things which I expect often trade off one another.

Case in point: due to our system of checks and balances, the US is in 40th place according to the study. Certainly the US Presidency's greater power (for example the veto) has facilitated some violations of civil liberties by the executive branch. Yet the US remains incredibly stable in the face of this: no bloodletting along Kenyan lines is occurring between red and blue neighborhoods, for example. Is stability the enemy of human rights? If Americans have so much respect for our resilient institutions that we won't take to the streets after election fraud, CIA wire-tapping, and an admission by the executive branch that torture may be used on detainees, one wonders about whether "democratic resilience" is a public good.

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