Study Guide on Government Forms
By Suzanne
The exam questions all deal with the relative advantages and disadvantage of one or more of the following dichotomies:
Federal v. unitary
Presidential v. parliamentary
Democracy v. authoritarianism
Specific questions:
• In what ways does the form of government matter? Discuss the impact of governmental performance of democracy vs. authoritarianism, and federalism vs. unitary government. Be sure to specify the dimensions of performance you are considering.
• What are the strengths and weaknesses that the literature has identified regarding presidential vs. parliamentary forms of government?
• Can one say that either presidentialism or parliamentarianism is a superior governing form?
Federal versus unitary

Exam questions:
What are the advantages and disadvantages of federalism as a regime type?
In what ways does the form of government matter? Discuss the impact of governmental performance of democracy vs. authoritarianism, and federalism vs. unitary government. Be sure to specify the dimensions of performance you are considering.
The only author from our assigned readings who spoke to the federal v. unitary question was Beramendi (2007). In brief, he argues that while past literature, which tended to be normative or modeled (rational-choice style) but not empirical, sang federalism’s praise for both political and economic performance. However, as the research has gotten more empirical in recent years, very little of that praise has been borne out. There is some evidence that with the right combination of fiscal autonomy and accountability at the unit level (i.e. the level of the sub-national units that make up the federation), the economy performs better. That’s about it.
Unfortunately, Beramendi doesn’t even go into much detail about what the supposed benefits of federalism are.
It would be really hard to answer a question solely on federal v. unitary government, because there’s not a lot you can say.
Specific notes from Beramendi:
Basic definition: In a federal system, the central government and the constituent units each have constitutionally established powers to interact directly with citizens; the units have standing to bargain with the center. Each level of government has final say over a certain range of issues.
Federalism makes a difference, but the “federal illusion” that it makes for better democracies, better integration of ethnic/communal divides, and better markets has been questioned by more recent scholarship, which has undertaken to study the reality of federalism rather than normative ideas about it.
The research needs to shift to the “theorization of the processes through which federalism produces different outcomes”.
DeTocqueville thought federalism combined the best of what a large country can do (mainly defense) and what a small country can do (community well-being).
Federalism and ethnic integration: some find higher levels of autonomy for ethnic groups makes secession more likely, but other research finds the opposite, that federations contain ethnic tension and prevent splintering.
Some say that federalism combined with democracy (and democracy’s full competitiveness) make integration harder.
In the economic realm, in the past economists of different camps (welfare economists and Public Choice theorists) both favored federalism because it allowed a better fit between policies and local needs, and it facilitated experimentation (for market-leery welfare economists); and it restrains the predatory nature of the central government because voters and “factors” can vote with their feet to another jurisdiction (for government-leery Public Choice theorists). There is growing evidence that fiscal autonomy (if combined with accountability) does seem to relate to better economic performance--lower deficits, lower inflation, and better growth. However, in developing economies, federalism is associated with mismanagement, market failures, and overspending.
The major tension is how to balance the benefits of economies of scale at the national (“central”) level with the local advantages in dealing with local issues. Different federations handle this differently.
Federalism sets up competition between the regional units and the center--each level will try to take credit and minimize political costs for goods provided to citizens. The trick in institutional design is to empower the center enough to prevent the units from, for example, incurring high debt that will be bailed out by the center, while preventing the central government from, for example, mandating social programs be carried out by the regional units without transferring necessary funding.
Two dimensions of variation in federal set-up:
Fiscal (autonomy and accountability--how much the units are responsible for, and absorb the consequences of, their own spending)
Organization of shared rule--the strength of the national executive, the unity of parties up and down levels, the powers of the second legislative chamber (in which the units are represented). Economists favor stronger executives for efficient national policy that doesn’t get sucked into “vested local interests,” but over-powerful executives obviously defeat the purpose of decentralization. Integrated political parties help prevent passing the buck between levels (e.g., units overspending and getting bailed out by the center).
The problem of endogeneity raises further questions about any impacts of federalism. Whatever differences there may be between federal and unitary systems may not be because of their being federal or unitary.
Steve Silvia’s points from class:
The argument that federalism is better for the market is still out there strongly--”market-preserving federalism”--because having subnational political units means subnational autonomy and fiscal accountability. Argument comes from a free-market, anti-interventionist framework. Federalism allows a firm to pick up and go somewhere else within your own country. This disciplines the federal units from having the state sector take over the economy. Competition between subnational units to capture business. Another side of it--question of experimentation--if you have federalism, you can have gov’t experimentation at sub level. This, according to the argument, leads to a stronger economy.
Presidential versus parliamentary
Specific questions:
• What are the strengths and weaknesses that the literature has identified regarding presidential vs. parliamentary forms of government?
• Can one say that either presidentialism or parliamentarianism is a superior governing form?

Our only assigned reading that addresses this is Samuels in the “Separation of Powers” article (2007) (in which the presidential model is the one with “separation” whereas a parliamentary system is “fused”). Reviewing recent empirical research (and contributing some of his own), he does not clearly conclude that one system is superior to the other. Similar to Beramendi’s conclusion on federalism, Samuels’ overall thesis is that the institutional form does make a difference although what difference is unclear.
Overview of differences between the two systems:
A president is separately selected, but a prime minister (PM) is selected based on allocation of seats in parliament
Pres’ and legislators’ terms are fixed; PM’s and parliamentarians’ depend on mutual confidence
Pres system separates lawmaking and execution
Pres controls the cabinet where a PM does not (or not as much)

Decision making
We expect presidentialism to be “less decisive and more resolute” so policy change should be more difficult, slower, less dramatic, and more costly. (He never defines what “resolute” means.) Research reveals that the “success rate” of passage of legislation is higher for prime ministers than presidents the larger the ideological gap between the executive and the legislature (the “pivotal legislator”). (This is taken as confirmation of the “less decisive/more resolute” hypothesis but I’m not quite sure how.)
This finding contradicts the (older) notion that a presidential system gives the executive more power because s/he can use the bully pulpit without being thrown out on a no-confidence vote (this is “separation of survival”). In other words, the unilateral powers of the president are not enough to overcome the power of a separate legislature to thwart the president’s agenda.
A presidential system allows more potential for executive-legislative deadlock (that’s probably the “less decisive” part) because in a parliamentary system the parliament can throw out the PM on a no-confidence vote if the two are at odds with each other.
There is some research to confirm that coalitions are less stable in a presidential system because the president’s total control over the cabinet makes any cabinet roles less meaningful.
Prime ministers tend to appoint partisan cabinets (i.e. political party figures rather than non-partisan technocrats or interest group representatives). However, if a president relies on a legislative strategy (rather than unilateral decree), s/he too is likely to fill administrative agencies with partisans.
Samuels argues that the control over the cabinet is an extremely important source of presidential power, since the legislature does not control it.
Regime crises
Regime collapse is more common in presidential systems. This may be because in parliamentary systems, the requirement of mutual confidence (i.e., the ability of either to call for new elections) forces the legislature and executive to negotiate their differences. One study found that whether the president had majority support in the legislature was a factor in whether there was regime crisis (i.e. street protests seeking the president’s resignation). Similarly, Samuels finds that the size of the president’s party in the legislature is negatively correlated to regime collapse.
Voters attribute more responsibility to incumbents in direct elections (i.e., presidential) than indirect ones (i.e., parliamentary/prime minister), which may be read as a stronger accountability mechanism.
My summary: Presidential systems may have more accountability, but parliamentary systems are likely to have less gridlock, more coalition stability, and less likelihood of regime crisis or collapse. The problems with presidential systems seem to stem from situations where the president lacks majority support in the legislature.
Steve Silvia’s points from class:
Parliamentary systems keep more dignity around the head of state (which is separate from head of gov’t in a parliamentary system); head of gov’t is more in the rough-and-tumble.
There is more ability to execute in a parliamentary system--but is gridlock good or bad? If you’re in the minority, it’s good.

Democratic versus authoritarian

Specific question:
• In what ways does the form of government matter? Discuss the impact of governmental performance of democracy vs. authoritarianism, and federalism vs. unitary government. Be sure to specify the dimensions of performance you are considering.
Haber (2006) examines the relationship between authoritarianism and economic growth. Despite the fact that authoritarian regimes provide less security of property rights and fewer public goods, there is not an overall difference between growth levels in authoritarian regimes v. democratic ones since 1970. However, there’s more variation in authoritarian ones--a subset grow fast, “pushing up an otherwise low average.”
His explanation:
A dictator is aided in attaining leadership by a “launching group”. The dictator then (with good reason, empirically) fears that the launching group will overthrow him. So he (I say “he” because I’m not aware of any female dictators--though I could be wrong) either tries to co-opt them, terrorize them, or establish competing groups. Each of these “solutions” generates a different property rights system.
If he terrorizes them, the government can’t function and the dictator will have to expropriate private assets in order to get resources. One of the few sectors that can escape that is resource extraction, because it requires lots of physical capital, expertise to extract the resource, and access to foreign markets (so you’ll find oil companies investing in dictator-led countries, but other industries stay away). Property rights in this scenario: virtually nil.
It’s much more common to co-opt the launching group by engaging in rent sharing among the dictator, the launching group, and private investors (who would rather pay tax to the dictator than have their property expropriated). In the short term, this generates impressive growth rates, but it’s market-distorting and therefore destined to cause economic decline in the long term. Property rights: narrow.
The third option--establishing groups to compete with the launching group--means that rents, property rights, and other economic opportunities have to be distributed pretty widely, so growth rates can be high. Democratic transitions are more likely in this scenario, which may partly explain the correlation between prosperity and democracy.
I think Haber would say that democracy is better for economic performance overall because property rights are universal (or nearly so).
The other author addressing this question is Wintrobe, and he too focuses mostly on economic outcomes though some political ones too. To Wintrobe, the “dictator’s dilemma” is that he fears the populace as a whole (rather than the launching group) because they won’t tell him what they’re thinking… or planning. The dictator deals with this by “overpaying” those who have the power to depose him, in order to obtain their loyalty, and repressing others. Different levels of repression and loyalty characterize the different types of dictatorships. This is the backdrop for his discussion of democracy v. dictatorship.
Two key hypotheses have been advanced in the past about democracy and economic or political performance:
1. Dictator as a stationary bandit--Olson’s idea is that the dictator is interested in promoting the wealth of the society he preys upon, so he acts to some extent in the public interest. According to this theory, the more “encompassing” the dictator’s interests, the more his interests will overlap with those of the population. But the reality of “encompassing” regimes (encompassing in that they concerned themselves with the lives of citizens) like Nazi Germany or Pol Pot Cambodia does not support such a benevolent view. Moreover, the theory doesn’t take into account the dictator’s use of repression when they can’t win enough support--this repression is both politically harmful and economically expensive (supporting the war/police machine).
2. Democracies tax and redistribute more than dictatorships (de Tocqueville). His idea is that the wider the franchise, the more it includes the poor and thus the more they will push for redistribution, which impairs economic growth. The flaw is this theory focuses on what democracies do but not dictatorships. A multitude of studies collectively show no consistent relationship between regime type (democracy v. dictatorship) and growth. (On a more minor point, however, they do show that disruptions such as strikes and riots have more of a dampening effect on growth in dictatorships than in democracies.) Dictatorships in theory might want to tax more in order to redistribute to the politically favored or to support the military. Empirical research shows that actually dictatorships may actually redistribute more than democracies. However, a problem is that this research lumps all non-democracies together.
Summary: Wintrobe says that while the interests of the dictator and his citizens may be more closely aligned than previously thought (as in Olson’s stationary bandit concept), they’re not that close. Economically, there is little support for the idea that democracies tax and redistribute more; in fact the reverse may be true. Future research needs to break down the different types of dictatorship.