Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2011

Comparative Democratic Institutions and Constitutional Engineering

Lecturer: Professor John Huber,
Department of Political Science,
Columbia University, USA

Main discipline: Political Science

Dates: 25 - 29 July 2011
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants


A vast number of important political debates around the world today concern the nature of formal institutional arrangements that governments should use to make policy decisions.  The most visible recent examples are efforts to draft new constitutions for Iraq, the European Union, and now Egypt and Tunisia.  But debates about institutional reform are ongoing at all levels of government, from the municipal to the supranational, and in all types of countries, from fledging democracies to the most mature ones.  It is no mystery why debates over the details of democratic institutional arrangements are pervasive, on going, and intense. Even small changes in policymaking rules can have a large impact on who wins and who loses substantive policy battles, as well as on the effectiveness of democratic governance.

This course focuses on the comparative study of democratic political processes, and in particular to the role that formal institutional arrangements play in shaping strategic political behavior.  In part I, the course examines the major themes in the comparative institutions literature, such as the impact of electoral laws on party systems, presidential versus parliamentary government, majoritarian and representational approaches in parliamentary systems, federalism, the design of judicial systems, etc. In part II, we examine how the nature of democratic institutions influences various types of outcomes, including political stability, political accountability, and economic policy.The goal is not to advocate for particular types of institutional arrangements base. Instead, a core theme of the course is that the choice among any set of institutional arrangements involve normative tradeoffs. Understanding how to conceptualize these tradeoffs systematically, and how to assess them empirically, will be a core objective of the course.

The goal is not to advocate for particular types of institutional arrangements base.  Instead, a core theme of the course is that the choice among any set of institutional arrangements involve normative tradeoffs.  Understanding how to conceptualize these tradeoffs systematically, and how to assess them empirically, will be a core objective of the course.

Books needed for the course:
- Participants is strongly encouraged to obtain and read these books in advance of the lectures.

  • John Huber and Charles Shipan, Deliberate Discretion? The institutional foundations of bureaucratic autonomy, Cambridge University Press 2002
  • Gary Cox, Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World’s Electoral Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1997


Lecture 1: Conceptual foundations in the study of democratic politics.

This lecture will provide basic background on analytic concepts in the comparative study of institutions.  These include cooperation and coordination problems, commitment problems, majority rule instability, agenda models, and principal agent models.  


  • Riker, “Implications from the disequilibrium of majority rule for the study of institutions.” American Political Science Review, Vol. 74, No. 2. (Jun., 1980), pp. 432-446.
  • Shepsle, Kenneth A. and Mark S. Bonchak, Analyzing Politics: Rationality, Behavior and Institutions, (chapters 5, 8, 9)
  • Bender, Glazer and Hammond, "Theories of Delegation," Annual Review of Political Science 2001, Vol. 4 Issue 1, p. 235


Lecture 2: Political parties in the democratic process 

What are political parties and why do they form? What are the relevant differences in party systems and what creates them?  What are the relevant institutional elements of electoral laws, how do they work, and what are the consequences of choosing one type of electoral law over another.


  • Aldrich, John H. 1995. Why Parties?  The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Chapters 1 & 2.
  • Cox, Gary W., and Mathew D. McCubbins. 1993. Legislative Leviathan: Party Government in the House. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Chapters 4 & 5.
  • Gary Cox, Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World’s Electoral Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1997, chapters 1-5, 10.


Lecture 3: Institutions and the connection between voters and parties 

What are the factors that influence individual voting decisions, including the decision to participate in elections and the choice of which party or candidate to support?  How is the answer to this question mediated by formal institutional arrangements that establish the ground rules for democratic competition?


  • Bartels, Larry M. 2010. The Study of Electoral Behavior. In The Oxford Handbook of American Elections and Political Behavior, edited by J. E. Leighley. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Huber, John D., and Piero Stanig. 2009. Individual income and voting for redistribution across democracies. Working Paper, Columbia University.
  • De La O, Ana L. , and Jonathan A.  Rodden. 2008. Does Religion Distract the Poor?: Income and Issue Voting Around the World. Comparative Political Studies 41 (4):437-476.
  • Fumagalli, Eileen, and Gaia Narciso. 2008. Political Institutions, Voter Turnout and Policy Outcomes. 
  • Huber, Kernell and Leoni, “Institutional Context, Cognitive Resources and Party Attachments Across Democracies” Political Analysis (2005) 13: 365-386.


Lecture 4: Executive-legislative relations

What are the relevant differences in the separation (or not) of legislative and executive powers, and how do these differences influence policy bargaining? 


  • Huber, John "The Vote of Confidence in Parliamentary Democracies," APSR, 1996
  • Martin and Vanberg “Coalition Policymaking and Legislative Review.” American Political Science Review 99 (2005): 93-106
  • Tsebelis, G "Veto players and law production in parliamentary democracies: An empirical analysis," APSR 1999 v.93(3)
  • Laver and Shepsle ,  "Coalitions and Cabinet Government " The American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 3. (Sep., 1990), pp. 873-890.


Lecture 5: Federalism and decentralization

What are the different ways to institutionalize decentralization and how do they matter?


  • Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy, ch. 10
  • Rodden, Jonathan, Hamilton's Paradox: The promise and peril of fiscal federalism (chapter 4)
  • Weingast, Barry R. "The Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market-Preserving Federalism and Economic Development," Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, 11(1):1-31. (1995)
  • Oates, "An Essay on Fiscal Federalism," Journal of Economic Literature, 37(3), p. 1120 (1999)


Lecture 6: Delegation to bureaucracies and judges

How do institutional arrangements influence the degree to which politicians delegate policymaking authority to bureaucrats and judges, and how does this matter? 


  • Huber and Shipan, Deliberate Discretion, chapters 1-4 &7
  • Shipan, “Regulatory Regimes, Agency Actions, and the Conditional Nature of Congressional Influence” (2004) APSR 98(3):  467-80
  • LaPorta et al, "Judicial Checks and Balances" Journal of Political Economy (2004)
  • Carrubba, Clifford J., Matthew Gabel and Charles Hankla, "Judicial behavior under political constraints: Evidence from the European Court of Justice"


Lecture 7: Democratic institutions and political representation

What is political representation and what influences its quality?  How do features of the democratic policy affect the extent to which different groups in society are represented, both substantively and procedurally?


  • Huber and Powell, “Congruence Between Citizens and Policymakers in Two Visions of Liberal Democracy.” World Politics, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Apr., 1994), pp. 291-326
  • Powell, G. Bingham. 2009. “The Ideological Congruence Controversy: The Impact of Alternative Measures,  Data, and Time Periods on the Effects of Election Rules.” Comparative Political Studies 42:1475–1497.
  • Golder, Matthew and Gabriella Lloyd.  2011. "Re-Evaluating the Relationship between Electoral Rules and Ideological Congruence" typescript, http://homepages.nyu.edu/~mrg217/congruence1.pdf
  • Powell and Whitten, "A Cross-National Analysis of Economic Voting: Taking Account of the Political Context" American Journal of Political Science,  Vol. 37, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 391-414
  • Anderson  and Guillory, Political institutions and satisfaction with democracy: A cross-national analysis of consensus and majoritarian systems,. American Political Science Review, 91 (1): 66-81 MAR 1997

Lecture 8: Democratic institutions and political stability

How does regime type influence democratic stability?  In addressing this question, we will consider regime stability itself.  We will also look closely at the role of electoral laws in ethnically divided societies.   Are there particular electoral laws that are more or less likely to facilitate stable democracy in divided societies?  What are the assumptions about voting that underlie such arguments are are they valid?


  • Cheibub, Jose-Antonio, Jennifer Gandhi, James Raymond Vreeland.  2010.  "Democracy and Dictatorship Revisited." Public Choice 143-67-101.
  • Epstein, David L.  Robert Bates, Jack Goldstone, Ida Kristensen and Sharyn O'Halloran.  "Democratic transitions." American Journal of Political Science 50(3): 551-69.
  • Robinson, James and Daron Acemoglu.  2006.  Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.  Chapter 2.
  • Lijphart, Arend. 2004.  "Constitutional Design for Divided Societies." Journal of Democracy  15(2): 96-109.
  • Horowitz, Donald.  2003.  "Electoral Systems: A Primer for Decision Makers."  Journal of Democracy 14(4): 115-127.
  • Huber, John. 2011.  "Measuring Ethnic Voting: The political context and the politicization of ethnicity."  Typescript: Columbia University


Lecture 9: Democratic institutions, redistribution and the welfare state

How do institutions influence incentives for redistribution?  To address this question, we will consider standard models from the political economy literature, as well as recent empirical studies of the size of the welfare state, and other forms of redistribution.


  • Milesi-Ferreti, Perotti and Rostagno, “Electoral Systems and Public Spending”  QJE 2002
  • Persson and Tabellilni, "Constitutional Rules and Fiscal Policy Outcome" AER 2004
  • Evelyn Huber, Charles Ragin, and John Stephens, “Social Democracy, Christian Democracy, Constitutional Structure, and the Welfare State,” American Journal of Sociology, 99, No. 3, 1993, pp. 711-49.
  • Huber, John D. and Piero Stanig.  2011.  "Church-state separation and redistribution."  Forthcoming , Journal of Public Economics.


Lecture 10: Democratic institutions and economic development

How do institutional factors influence economic growth?  We will address this question by looking at core reading the focus primarily on institutions that influence the stability of property rights, and on institutions that influence bureaucratic capacity.


  • Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, James A Robinson. "The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation," American Economic Review. Nashville:  Dec 2001. Vol. 91, Iss. 5.
  • Peter Evans; James E. Rauch. “Bureaucracy and Growth: A Cross-National Analysis of the Effects of "Weberian" State Structures on Economic Growth,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 64, No. 5. (Oct., 1999), pp. 748-765.
  • Glaser, la Porta, Lopez and Shleifer, “Do Institutions Cause Growth?” Journal of Economic Growth 9:271-303.
  • Roderik et al.  “Instititutions Rule; The Primacy of institutions over Geography and Integration in economic Development”  Journal of Economic Growth 9:131-65 (2004)
  • Przeworski, Adam “The Last Instance: Are Institutions a Deeper Cause of Economic Development?” forthcoming European Archives of Sociology


The Lecturer
John Huber Professor and Chair in the Department of Political Science of Columbia University. He is author of Rationalizing Parliament: Legislative Institutions and Party Politics in France, and (with Charles Shipan) Deliberate Discretion: Institutional Foundations of Bureaucratic Autonomy (which in 2003 was awarded the William Riker Prize, the Richard Fenno Prize, and the Gregory Luebbert Prize). He has also published numerous articles on comparative democratic processes in journals such as American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, World Politics, Journal of Politics, and European Journal of Political Research. His current research projects focus on institutions and ethnic politics, as well as on how institutions shape the role of religion in politics.

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Published Aug. 24, 2011 2:20 PM - Last modified Aug. 24, 2011 2:26 PM