- Handy Gadgets for Institutional Design
This is a wonderful book.1 I say so on the book's back jacket, and I reiterate that at the start of this commentary. It’s a book that could have only been written by someone with a lawyer’s eye for detail; but it's also a book that could only have been written by someone with a sophisticated political philosopher’s appreciation of the deeper purposes of the standard architecture of democratic governance. The intersection of those sets is populated about as sparsely as the Korean DMZ, and for roughly the same reason—you risk getting shot at from both sides.
The book is a collection of previously published essays, genuinely recrafted for this purpose. While they still read largely as a series of free-standing explorations of first one set of mechanisms and then another, that is precisely Vermeule’s point. His thought is simply that there are a lot of little tricks of the trade—the ‘handy gadgets’ of my title—that institutional designers can use to enhance the democratic quality of political institutions. In this respect, Vermeule stands in sharp contrast to political scientists and constitutional designers of the sort who plied their trade all over Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, who focus instead on the ‘big questions’: presidentialism versus parliamentarianism, unitary versus federal government, proportional representation versus first-past-the-post electoral rules, and so on.2
Vermeule does not deny the importance of those ‘basic’ constitutional choices. He simply supposes that, by and large and beyond such once-in-several-lifetime opportunities as presented by the collapse of communism, those basic constitutional choices have already been made and must now be taken as given. The task of the institutional designer in more ordinary times is simply to try to find ways of tweaking those arrangements in more democratic directions.
Vermeule’s strategy is to look for seemingly much more modest institutional add-ons that can be bolted onto our basic institutions of democracy, whatever we have chosen at that more basic level, which will make those institutions operate in more democratic ways. These little tricks can contribute hugely to making political decision-making more impartial, accountable, transparent and deliberative—his standards of democratic quality.3
For the most part, then, it really does not matter that chapters are somewhat disjointed. Vermeule’s aim is mostly just to illustrate that there is a rich variety of such tools available. But while that is of course an important first step, I do rather wish Vermeule had gone on to say more about interactions among these various mechanisms, whether and when they can be deployed successfully and in what combinations. The need for this discussion is foreshadowed in Vermeule’s introduction; and there is a short but useful discussion about how submajority and absolute majority rules can be used in tandem, the former ensuring accountability while the latter precludes ‘bad accountability’ to narrow sectional interests alone.4 But the larger task of tracing out the interactions among the various mechanisms Vermeule discusses is only barely begun by the time of his book's all-too-brief four-page conclusion.
While on larger structural issues, I should also register one more general worry. Vermeule would like to present these as being mechanisms that are universally adaptable to democratic institutions, whatever their basic design. I am unsure. Take for example his discussion of how a veil of uncertainty might induce impartiality. I suppose we can all agree that it is a contribution to democratic quality to require politicians to put their own personal investments into blind trusts, so they cannot know whether or how their decisions while in office will further their own private economic interests. But would making elected officials uncertain which electorate they were representing count as a contribution to democratic quality? Well, it would on some democratic designs (where representatives are supposed to be pursuing the public good rather than constituency advantage) but not on others (where representatives are supposed to be serving the interests of, and accountable to, specific electorates).
Finally, Vermeule might be more attentive to unintended consequences. The...