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  • The Interaction of Democratic Mechanisms
  • Adrian Vermeule (bio)

I am grateful to the editors for arranging the illuminating commentaries on Mechanisms of Democracy1 (“Mechanisms”). And thanks above all to the commentators themselves, who have, for the most part, sympathetically grasped the spirit of the book’s project, suggesting corrections, improvements and extensions that I wish I had thought of myself. In what follows, I will attempt to consolidate the progress that their remarks have made, and to indicate directions for further progress. En passant, I will pin down some remaining points of disagreement, but only where those points illuminate larger questions.

At the retail level, the contributions comment on particular democratic mechanisms discussed in the book. In Section III, I will offer brief reactions at the retail level. At the wholesale level, however, the contributions suggest a larger theme: the interaction of democratic mechanisms in institutional design. That theme breaks down into two parts, involving both a demand-side analysis and a supply-side analysis of the interaction of democratic mechanisms. I will consider this Janus-faced theme in Sections I and II.

I. Interaction: Demand-Side Issues

On the demand side, the question is whether given democratic mechanisms are desirable. That question can be asked mechanism-by-mechanism, or with reference to a set of mechanisms whose members interact in complex ways. In hindsight, my ambition to provide a full repertoire of “handy gadgets” for institutional design,2 and to analyze the relevant tradeoffs within each mechanism, led me to devote too little analysis to the interactions and tradeoffs among those mechanisms, a point acutely underscored both by Robert Goodin and by a separate review.3 So let us make some progress on interactions.

Democratic mechanisms may relate as complements or as substitutes, in the loose sense that one mechanism may either increase or decrease the net benefits of another. An example of complementarity involves the relationship between the submajority rules discussed in Chapter 3 and the absolute majority rules discussed in Chapter 4. The former, which empower minorities to place proposals on the agenda, have the effect of flushing out the views of legislative majorities, forcing a kind of transparency and hence accountability. As Goodin notes,4 and as Mechanisms discusses,5 transparency has many democratic costs as well as benefits, including “bad accountability” to interest groups who can monitor the behavior of legislators at lower cost than the median voter. So there is a risk that submajority rules will promote bad accountability.

Yet we may complement submajority rules for agenda-setting and procedural matters with absolute majority rules for voting on final outcomes. For reasons stated in detail in Chapter 4, absolute majority rules can be justified as devices for fine-tuning or optimizing accountability, promoting accountability to broad electorates or constituencies while actually reducing the risk of bad accountability. The effects of the two classes of rules “are complementary—the first promotes accountability where it is desirable, the second dilutes it where it is undesirable.”6 If the institutional designer uses a submajority rule, the benefits of using an absolute majority rule increase.

Democratic mechanisms may also relate as substitutes, such that adopting one reduces the benefits or increases the costs of adopting another. To illustrate, Chapter 1 argues for casting a partial “veil of uncertainty” over legislative processes, which makes legislation more impartial, and yet also reduces legislative activity levels; Chapter 2 notes that the U.S. Constitution does not veil the executive branch, which has the effect of increasing executive energy; and the introduction to Part II argues that neither the U.S. Constitution nor democratic principles constrain legislative delegation of lawmaking authority to the executive. The cumulative effect of these views, at least in a U.S. context, may be an executive far more active and powerful than would be desired even by democrats who subscribe to each view, taken one by one. I do not share the widespread anxiety among democrats about sweeping executive power,7 yet this is clearly an important issue.8

In a third class of cases, the institutional designer may be uncertain whether two or more mechanisms relate as complements or as substitutes. Thus, although it seems...


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