J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Constitutional Correlations

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Jill Lepore reviewed some recent books about economic inequality, which has been measured for a century on the Gini scale, and what that phenomenon might say about and mean for different societies.

Toward the end of her review Lepore mentions some work by the political scientists Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz that found correlatioons between economic inequality and the political structures that different nations had established:
Stepan and Linz identified twenty-three long-standing democracies with advanced economies. Then they counted the number of veto players in each of those twenty-three governments. (A veto player is a person or body that can block a policy decision. Stepan and Linz explain, “For example, in the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are veto players because without their consent, no bill can become a law.”) More than half of the twenty-three countries Stepan and Linz studied have only one veto player; most of these countries have unicameral parliaments. A few countries have two veto players; Switzerland and Australia have three. Only the United States has four. Then they made a chart, comparing Gini indices with veto-player numbers: the more veto players in a government, the greater the nation’s economic inequality. This is only a correlation, of course, and cross-country economic comparisons are fraught, but it’s interesting.

Then they observed something more. Their twenty-three democracies included eight federal governments with both upper and lower legislative bodies. Using the number of seats and the size of the population to calculate malapportionment, they assigned a “Gini Index of Inequality of Representation” to those eight upper houses, and found that the United States had the highest score: it has the most malapportioned and the least representative upper house. These scores, too, correlated with the countries’ Gini scores for income inequality: the less representative the upper body of a national legislature, the greater the gap between the rich and the poor.
The U.S. Constitution produced our malapportioned Senate because it was designed to respond to two of the pressing concerns of 1787: the small-population states didn’t want to give up the “one state, one vote” system of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union; and the elite men at the Constitutional Convention had been spooked by the Regulator uprising in Massachusetts and didn’t trust democracy. Their design for the new federal Congress in turn led to the lesser but still significant malapportionment in the Electoral College.

Our Revolution was a step away from aristocratic government, in which hereditary monarchs and nobles had a disproportionate say on the basis of birthright. The new Senate wasn’t hereditary like the House of Lords, but it was initially designed to insulate its members from the voting population. The Seventeenth Amendment changed that. Senators’ six-year terms preserve them from facing the voters as often as other federal elected officials, but the fact that they represent states means that they can’t benefit from gerrymandering—producing more turnover in the Senate than in the House.

As for the veto players, I guess the four American ones are the House, Senate, President, and Supreme Court. The Constitution set up the first three to create “checks and balances”—a term coined by John Adams in 1787 (based on older British Whig phrases). The Supreme Court established itself as another veto player through decisions under Chief Justice John Marshall in the early 1800s.

Many other countries with legislatures also modeled on Britain’s bicameral Parliament have gradually removed veto power from their upper houses, rendering some almost symbolic. Most of those countries also have a weak or even symbolic head of state, concentrating legislative and executive powers in a prime minister. That’s how they get by with so few veto players/checks and balances—yet they remain “long-standing democracies with advanced economies.”

How much effect do those modern government structures have on economic inequality in those countries? As Lepore wrote, Stepan and Linz were finding correlations, not necessarily causes. Linz much preferred parliamentary systems over the U.S. of A.’s separation of powers, so these findings fit into his life’s work. Still, Stepan and Linz’s work makes one think about the unforeseeable consequences of laying out a constitution in the late 1700s.

1 comment:

Jordan said...

Incredibly interesting find here. I'd have to read the actual findings themselves to get a full picture, but it's something I'd love to read about thoroughly. When we think about how much our nation has changed since it's beginnings, it's pretty clear to see that the system made in the 1700s is starting to have consequences.