walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: January 31, 2012
What is Governance?

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.

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  • William Woody

    “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.”

    I’m suddenly reminded of the Churchill quote:

    “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    I would also suggest that part of the reason why governments seem at odds or inefficient is because in part governments serve as a means to signal and impose otherwise unspoken cultural assumptions on a people: its why, for example, we have the strange contradictions in the treatment of men verses women in divorce proceedings and child custody battles–because this represents a conflict between our cultural values that all people be treated equally regardless of gender verses our cultural belief in “women and children first”.

    And if you focus your attention solely on the U.S. Congress to the ignorance of State, County, City, School Board, and other various semi-sovereign regions within the United States, you may miss the bigger picture–one that suggests a trend towards centralization of power in Washington D.C. rather than simply an increase in micro-management, since some of Congress’s “micro-management” is the imposition of rules that were once handled regionally or locally.

  • CG

    Fukuyama, read Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies for the best discussion on the flaws of democracy.

    • ltlee

      Right on. Democracy is a commons, not a market.

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  • Anthony

    As a development model, concept “What is Governance” provides ideas comparatively speaking that juxtaposes liberal democracies and authoritarian Asian governments. WBI indices also provide beginning taxonomy furthering Fukuyama’s exploration. I anticipate project’s continuing insights.

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  • Tacitus

    What unit of measurement of governance quality allows for a head-to-head comparison of the US with other nations (taking into account the unusually decentralized structure of US governance)? If you haven’t already answered that question, how can you assert that the quality of governance in the US “tends to be low”? And if, as this posting suggests, you feel no need to lay out any justification for this assertion, then I have deep suspicions about the objectivity of the project.

  • Paul

    Conceptualizing what goods the state provides, and whether it can provide these on an anonymous basis as public goods, rather than as private goods to supporters, is surely part of this (see North, Wallis and Weingast). China barely has a coherent budgeting process and the Ministry of Finance only gained de jure oversight in the early 2000s. The Market Preserving Federalism argument rests on assumptions that are not borne out, rent seeking is endemic … . What does the state provide? You mention that “even” the CCP could not restrain the ministry of railways. Other than HR policy within the party, it can barely govern itself, let alone reduce the discretion of state agents sufficient to provide what residents of developed nations would recognize as the goods of governance.

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  • Adam Garfinkle

    Ultimately, you’re pointing to an Isaiah Berlin-type problem: incommensurate values shoved together under the assumption that they are not incommensurate. Too much democracy is terrible for governance quality, but “enough” democracy is necessary in a society with an egalitarian ethos to ensure a general sense of basic fairness and individual dignity. The latter is at least as important in our culture as efficiency in government. But these are incommensurate values; they cannot be measured off or traded against one another. Seems to me.

  • reflectionephemeral

    Is it that “the quality of governance in the US tends to be low” or is it that the rhetoric of the Southern Strategy creates the distrust?

    We were debating this at Bernard Finel’s website the other day.

    It seems to me that the point of the resentment is the resentment. As Pat Buchanan wrote in his 1971 memo to Richard Nixon, working to heighten whites’ resentment about “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party” would “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.” In 1971, that was a tactical gambit. Today, it’s the alpha and the omega of Republican rhetoric, policy proposals, and legislative effort.

    There didn’t appear to be all too much antigovernment resentment during the Bush Jr. presidency, as the GOP pushed for Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, the executive’s asserted power to wiretap and to detain & torture US citizens without charges or a warrant, surpluses turned into deficits, the right in Raich v Gonzales to imprison folks for activity legal under state law, and the invasion for bogus reasons & failed occupation of an arbitrarily selected Middle Eastern country.

    The cause of the receptivity to the talking points is the right wing’s efforts to gear up the resentment machine, which then trickles into the public consciousness (to some measure because the media is not very good at reporting the news). It’s not the result of anything that the government has done.

  • Jeff

    I am confused about how Americans’ distrust of bureaucracy supposedly leads to micromanagement. Isn’t it far more likely that the penchant among bureaucracies to try to micromanage leads to the distrust rather than the other way around? This post seems to get the cause and effect here completely backwards.

    • tlesher

      I was confused by this as well, until I figured out that Congress and the bureaucracy are two different things, that the bureaucracy is just trying to do its job, that Congress intervenes so it can’t, and because it can’t Congress intervenes some more in a vicious downward spiral. At least I think that’s what Fukuyama is saying.

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  • peter38a

    May I suggest a different start? Who is to govern what? To answer the latter and because I’m feeling lucky, how about if I just make it quick and dirty? The basic, basic secular man is “corralled” by the division of powers of the US Constitution, the First Ten Amendments of said document, further refinement is given by the Declaration of Independence with “…the pursuit of happiness” and lastly, and very satisfyingly for me, the last fourteen words in the poem Ulysses… “…but strong in will, To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

    A human cannot “sense” very accurately the hot and cold pools of air in a room but if one puts out any number of thermometers and then going back, reads and draws the registering numbers on a plan of the room you have made the “invisible,” visible. Visible enough. I suggest my definition, rough though it might be, provides enough visibility to suggest a different beginning for the exploration of governance. Any takers?

    Once you have established the basic “person” your educational and public policy vectors will be more viable and possibly the meaning of governance will be more informed. What say you Dr. Fukuyama?

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  • ScottA

    Makes me wonder if governance is generally more effective at the local level – closer ties between bureaucrats and citizens, greater ability to harmonize what the latter wants with what the former does, more potential to stop changes that people wind up hating, etc.

    Seems to me that distrust of bureaucracy occurs because federal programs are over-ambitious (no sense of their limitations) and of necessity rely on support from either thin national majorities or the particularistic support of interested groups. Results in “national” programs that sound pointless to nearly everyone (creating an East-coast high speed rail network because Joe Biden really likes to ride trains, for example). This is not good for effective governance.

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  • MarkE

    Separating the concepts of quality of government, from the rule of law, or democratic accountability is an unwarranted over-simplification and a foundational flaw of your argument. In the natural course of things, quality bureaucracy requires continuity. Continuity requires sustained control. Sustained control leads to lack of responsiveness to environmental factors, and, in the eyes of many, corruption and autocracy.

    The authors of the US Constitution were very suspicious of sustained control of the government and created obstacles to sustained control. The result has been frequent interruptions of governmental control which may be mistaken for poor governmental quality. Despite the Constitutional obstacles Thomas Jefferson was skeptical that the obstacles were inadequate to the task. Jefferson predicted that violent revolutions would be occasionally necessary, perhaps as often as every 20 years. So far this hasn’t been the case for the US or most other modern democracies. On the other hand violent revolutions are frequently seen in non-democratic states that do not have rule of law.

    Although our government looks awkward and frequently incompetent in the short-run, in the long-run it appears to be highly competent. Although you may think the current position of the United States is luck or a temporary aberration, to me that seems a little too simple. To me it seems that the short-run lack of continuity of control leads to
    environmental responsiveness and greater long-run adaptability to change.

    While China may seem to be a viable alternative to our government, I see it as another puffed-up third Reich, Imperial Japan, or USSR. China is governed by an old-boys system. It is great at copying and stealing intellectual property, but doesn’t seem to be able to come with any new ideas. It doesn’t have the rule of law or democracy and will soon pay the price peacefully or otherwise.

  • a nissen

    I am having trouble with the big words and convoluted abstractions, but from where I sit, truth is again about to be stranger than fiction.

    The case is being made that the U. S. executive and high powered elites are already outside ” the rule of law.”

    If this case is anywhere near true, “democracy” is in fact, not just in theory, already separable from “THE rule of law” as constitutionally defined by the democracy.

    As to generic “rule of law” distinct from “THE rule of law,” the situation in the U.S. makes precluding escape from any generic “rule of law” never more pie in the sky.

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  • Nagesh K Ojha

    Sir, accountability and governance or rule of law and democracy, whatever you have in that project, India provides the worst examples as well as contradictions. Thus, without including India, it is difficult to conceptualize and measure governance. Second, it is the most astonishing fact that why America glorifies Indian ‘political system’ when it is neither liberal nor substantive democracy, even there is a strong doubt in writing that it is an electoral democracy where one can elect but doesn’t have any representation.

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