I’m beginning a new project at Stanford/CDDRL called “The Governance Project.” The intention is to focus on conceptualizing and measuring governance, and applying those measures to two specific countries, China and the United States.
The beginning point of the project is definition of governance that excludes the degree to which governments are either democratic or subject to a rule of law that constrains the executive. The reason for this is simple: it seems obvious to me that countries can be better or worse governed regardless of whether they are liberal democracies or not. Singapore is not Zimbabwe, despite the fact that neither is democratic. Separating the quality of the state from either the rule of law or democratic accountability is one of the foundational ideas in The Origins of Political Order.
The reason I want to make this separation is to then be able to empirically evaluate the relationship of governance to democracy and the rule of law. We Americans tend to believe that democracy is an intrinsic part of good governance and that more democracy means better quality government. This view is also embedded in many efforts by the World Bank, DfID, and USAID to promote good governance through the promotion of greater transparency, grass roots organization, and democratic accountability in general. Many existing governance measures like the World Bank Institute’s Worldwide Governance Indicators include “Voice and Accountability” (a.k.a. democracy) and Rule of Law; the union of the two is implicit in terms like “democratic governance.”
However, this postulated relationship remains just a theory that remains subject to more empirical testing. One can think of many ways in which greater democratic participation actually weakens the quality of governance. One case happened in the United States when Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828, as a result of the broadening of the franchise in many states in that period. Jackson argued (1) that since his party won the election, he should get to appoint federal officials; and (2) that there was no job in the US government that was so difficult that any ordinary American couldn’t do it. This was the beginning of the patronage system in the US, in which the federal bureaucracy was controlled by the two political parties and in which jobs turned over with every election cycle. This began to end when President Garfield was assassinated by a frustrated office-seeker, which led to the Pendleton Act in 1883 and the establishment of the first US Civil Service Commission. For the first time, bureaucratic appointments began to rely on examinations and professional credentials, something the Chinese had come up with more than 2100 years earlier. Many of the Progressive Era reforms aimed at stopping patronage and clientelism on both a federal and municipal level involved shielding civil servants from political influence, and hence less democracy.
I have no doubt that more democratic accountability will improve governance in many poor countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. East Asia is different, however, insofar as it has a very long tradition of relatively high-quality centralized bureaucratic government. This begins with Shang Yang’s reforms in the early state of Qin, and continues to this day in the extraordinary record of the Chinese Communist Party in bringing China through one of the most complex economic transformations one can imagine. Many East Asians today wonder whether rapid democratization will in fact help or hurt the quality of governance there. What they don’t have is either democratic accountability or rule of law.
Conversely, I would argue that the quality of governance in the US tends to be low precisely because of a continuing tradition of Jacksonian populism. Americans with their democratic roots generally do not trust elite bureaucrats to the extent that the French, Germans, British, or Japanese have in years past. This distrust leads to micromanagement by Congress through proliferating rules and complex, self-contradictory legislative mandates which make poor quality governance a self-fulfilling prophecy. The US is thus caught in a low-level equilibrium trap, in which a hobbled bureaucracy validates everyone’s view that the government can’t do anything competently. The origins of this, as Martin Shefter pointed out many years ago, is due to the fact that democracy preceded bureaucratic consolidation in contrast to European democracies that arose out of aristocratic regimes.
This is not to say that I think the quality of governance is better in China than in the US. The Chinese government’s lack of accountability allows it to make fast decisions and put massive infrastructure projects in place rapidly. But more often than not this comes at the expense of the rights of ordinary citizens who are in response reacting with often violent social protest. The high-speed rail accident last summer, which the authorities tried immediately to cover up, reveals a very dysfunctional Railway Ministry that even the CCP has not been able to control. China’s apparently good record today contains many time bombs that will go off in the future. I believe that, down the road, China will have to permit downwards accountability–a.k.a. democracy–precisely if it is to maintain good governance. But in the short run, the relationship is not so clear.
I discuss these issues at greater length in a paper on authoritarian government in Asia for the Journal of Democracy, and a draft discussion paper on how to define and measure governance for The Governance Project.