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Identity and off-diagonals: how permanent winning coalitions destroy democratic governance

Abstract

The growing preoccupation with identity within public discourse raises important questions concerning its effects on democratic governance. Building on the work of James M. Buchanan, we hope to show that (1) the logic of identity politics raises costs to political cooperation, (2) the phenomenon of identity politics flows from the larger rents associated with the identity group formation and (3) that the rent race has deleterious consequences, i.e., the subversion of democratic governance. The incentives of coalitions to define themselves along identity-related lines threatens democratic governance by enabling the formation of permanent winning coalitions. Without the ability to move between groups and take part in democratic governance, individuals who compose the permanent losing coalitions may choose to defect entirely, immersing the system in tribal violence.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Elinor Ostrom (2010, pp. 664–665) makes a similar argument in which she states that rather than “nudging”, she is concerned with enhancing the individual capabilities of agents and asking whether institutions are helping or hindering individuals in their innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness and cooperation within and between groups.

  2. 2.

    It is important to note that the analysis is not game-theoretic, the competing coalitions are not making decisions simultaneously. Rather, the framework concerns the decision calculus when either coalition A has the majority or coalition B has the majority regarding policy decisions.

  3. 3.

    The generality principle is defined by Buchanan and Congleton (1998, p. xi) as a rule that ensures that “political actions apply to all persons independently of membership in a dominant coalition or an effective interest group. The generality principle is violated to the extent that political action is overtly discriminatory in the sense that the effects, positive or negative, depend on personalized identification”.

  4. 4.

    It is important to remember that the relative valuations to each coalition of the excludable government services remain symmetrical.

  5. 5.

    Pie-in-the-sky promises are not credible. Rabushka and Shepsle (1972, p. 82) quote Sartori (1966, p. 158), who asserts that “Somebody is always prepared to offer more for less, and the bluff cannot be seen”, which clearly is not the case. Competing coalitions may engage in outbidding, but the more comprehensive and extreme the promises become, the less credible they are to coalition members.

  6. 6.

    Stable ideological or religious coalitions certainly are possible because they might include more individuals with similar policy interests. However, in order for our theory to apply, the winning ideological or religious coalition must be sufficiently “different” (socially distant or polarized) from the losers so as to reduce defection or infiltration between the groups. In other words, the costs of a Protestant becoming a Catholic (as in the case of Ireland) or the costs of switching membership from the Whites to the Bolshevik Reds (as in the case of the Red terror in Russia) must be high enough so as to inhibit switching sides and subsequent rent dissipation.

  7. 7.

    This analysis is somewhat similar to that of Hardin (1995, pp. 50–52) in which a Prisoner’s Dilemma game, after the effective mobilization of large political coalitions, can tip into a coordination game. While Buchanan and Congleton simply utilize a payoff matrix rather than a 2 × 2 game, the notion of tipping into a “new” scenario is helpful here.

  8. 8.

    Esteban and Ray (2011) do find that polarization is an important factor in a broad range of violent conflicts, but they argue that their finding is contingent on whether the goods over which conflict arises are relatively more or less public or private in nature. Public good conflict entails more polarization, and private good conflict implies more fractionalization. That observation is not necessarily in conflict with the analysis of this paper as their assumption that different groups prefer different combinations of public goods is not functionally distinct from excludable private goods.

  9. 9.

    Collier and Hoeffler (2004) find that while polarization is insignificant with respect to predicting civil war, they do find that the existence of one dominant ethnic group doubles the risk of conflict.

  10. 10.

    Buchanan’s willingness to challenge the conventional manner in which economists model human decision-making is a consistent theme throughout his work, see his “What Should Economists Do” (Buchanan 1964) as well as his Cost and Choice (Buchanan [1969] 1999).

  11. 11.

    This conception contrasts sharply with the politics of identity and attempts to build coalitions along fixed or fundamental aspects of identity. While Buchanan ([1978] 1999) does not specifically address the politics of identity in “Natural and Artifactual Man”, he does express reservations about emphasizing the non-voluntary and natural characteristics of man, those same characteristics to which political entrepreneurs may turn in attempts to shore up coalition instability.

  12. 12.

    Of course, any number of rules might limit the tyranny of a stable majority, including a constitutional takings clause similar to that in the US Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, a system of civil law, a bill of rights, or even a diverse set of publicly funded educational institutions. Those are, however, merely stop-gap solutions that do not address the root cause: broad government discretion that facilitates the threat of a stable majority.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Institute for Humane Studies and the Mercatus Center as well as helpful comments from two anonymous referees as well as those from Rosolino Candela and Ennio Piano.

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Correspondence to Peter J. Boettke.

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Boettke, P.J., Thompson, H.A. Identity and off-diagonals: how permanent winning coalitions destroy democratic governance. Public Choice (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-019-00683-7

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Keywords

  • Permanent winning coalitions
  • Artifactual man
  • Democracy
  • Identity economics
  • Identity politics

JEL Classification

  • B53
  • D72
  • P16