I want to make one correction to an assertion I made in my last blog post. In it, I said that delivery of services like education and health care is something that “states accomplish, and not the institutions that check them.”
This is a big overstatement. The checking institutions actually play a big role in improving the delivery of services and controlling corruption. Courts are often used to force executive branches to carry out mandated tasks, and of course to prosecute corrupt officials. Democratic accountability, free media, and open information are critical in disciplining corruption and keeping on pressure to improve performance. Much of the international donor community has been promoting mechanisms to increase transparency and accountability in governments as the primary route towards good governance. The Open Government Initiative developed by my colleague Jeremy Weinstein is another worthy effort in this direction. Clearly, the more information that’s out there about corruption and bad governance, the more people are likely to mobilize around pressuring executives to fix things.
I was trying to make a different and more complex point. There is no question that greater transparency and accountability, as well as strict application of the law, are critical to improving the performance of governments. However, without basic capacity, no amount of transparency and accountability will produce good services. If you look around the world at all of the great bureaucratic traditions—Germany, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, etc.—not one of them became great because of democratic accountability. In fact, many great bureaucracies were created by authoritarian regimes that needed efficient services, primarily for the sake of national survival. This was true of American state-building as well in the Progressive Era–something that I will have to address in a later post.
Moreover, democratic accountability is a double-edged sword. We of course want bureaucracies to be broadly responsive to public needs, rather than serving their own interests, or those of the elites that appoint them. On the other hand, there is a permanent tension between accountability and bureaucratic autonomy based on expertise and merit. Democratic accountability produces its own forms of corruption, as when politicians mobilize voters clientelistically. In clientelistic systems politicians don’t just set policy and appoint heads of agencies, they choose personnel throughout the bureaucracy. Politicians representing, in theory, the public will, often make populistic choices at odds with long-term public interest. This is why executive branches have to be shielded from day-to-day legislative oversight. The need for bureaucratic autonomy is why we don’t turn monetary policy or military strategy over to our elected representatives for management. Most Americans seem to recognize (at least implicitly) the importance of expertise and autonomy; surveys like General Social Survey tend to show that the most respected parts of the US government are actually the least democratic: the Supreme Court, the military, the Centers for Disease Control, etc. By contrast, the part of the government most immediately accountable to public opinion, the House of Representatives, is the least respected of all.
So the checking institutions (law and accountability) have to do their job to force executives to serve the public will. But checks by themselves do not produce the expertise and enforcement power needed to govern effectively. I argued last year in the Financial Times that the American system has too many checks, when compared to other democratic systems, and has been steadily accumulating more as time goes on. Vetocracies can stop bad things from happening, but they also don’t provide for much by way of effective collective action.