Barry Weingast, “Political Foundations of Democracy” Part I

The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law

Barry Weingast

APSR 1997

Well, it has been a while. I was out of town, and my other research project this summer has been quite time consuming. But, here is part I of the review of Barry Weingast’s The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law. This paper had too much in it to try and fit into one post.

Part I

Weingast begins with some fundamental assumption that I think are intuitively fair:

(1)   All citizens have preferences and values about the appropriate limits on government

(2)   Based on those preferences, people can classify actions of the states as either legitimate or a fundamental transgression against those rights.

(3)   A necessary condition for a citizen to support the sovereign is that he not transgress what the citizen believes to be his or her fundamental rights.

(4)   To remain in power, the sovereign must retain sufficient citizen support.

Number 1 seems ok and fits well into rational choice theory I believe. Number 2 is also ok, although I feel like sometimes people will sometimes grudgingly agree to some action that they think is a borderline transgression that at another time would be a fundamental transgression. But, a small quibble. Number 3 has the same quibble as 2. As to Number 4, I would question it, but I have read the whole paper and know that Weingast clarifies it.

Now we move into some previously examined themes: governmental actions as coordinating devices and games. That was clearly in Hardin, but also key to Myerson’s aristocratic “court” checking the autocrat. Weingast offers us a theory for democratic thinking:

“Self enforcing limits on the state result when members of a society resolve their coordination dilemmas about the appropriate limits on the state”.

How do they do that? With focal points! Hooray for focal points! But, let’s hold off on evaluating until we read some more.

Now for some games (I love these games as I can understand them quite easily…maybe my game theory is getting better)

Model 1

S is the sovereign. A is one group of people. B is another.

S has the first play. S can transgress or not transgress. There’s not really a story if S does not transgress, so let’s imagine s/he does transgress.

So, then we follow the transgress line and move to the A dot. Here, our two groups A and B play simultaneously. This means that they do NOT know what the other one is playing when they have to play! This is really important.  What are they playing? Well they can either “Acquiesce” or “Challenge”.  If both acquiesce, the sovereign’s transgression succeeds and S gets all the benefits. If both challenge, then the sovereign’s transgression fails. If A acquiesces and B challenges, the transgression still succeeds, the same if only A challenges.

But, also throw in that challenging under any circumstance incurs a uniform cost. So, A doesn’t want to challenge if B doesn’t also challenge and vice versa. Then they just incurred a cost without any chance of it paying off.

So, “as in all coordination games, how one citizen group reacts to a transgression depends on how it anticipates the other citizen group will react” (248).  I like this example. It fits well into Myerson’s theory. But it is only the launching point- on to

Model 2

We still have the same players, S, A and B.  S still moves first. S can either transgress A, transgress B, transgress A and B, or transgress no one. After S plays, A and B play acquiesce or challenge simultaneously, just like Model 1. The general outcomes are also the same. Two acquiesces means the transgression succeeds, 1 acquiesce and 1 challenge also succeeds, and only when both groups challenge is there a failure of the transgression.

But, in this game, S can be devious and transgress just 1 group. Weingast gives the example of S just transgressing B. B obviously wants A to help, but A will incur a cost by helping B. In the immediate, A really had no incentive to help B as it will not be directly harmed. But, perhaps the acquiesce play by A will embolden the sovereign to keep on trampling rights via a divide and conquer strategy! And the odds that B will want to come to the aid of A in the reverse situation is small indeed.

Thought: Can’t a focal point emerge where A and B realize that if S is allowed to successfully transgress either group individually, there is nothing to stop S from transgressing the other group later. Sure, A may not want to help B when only B is being targeted, but once a transgression against B is successful, B will almost certainly not come to the aid of A when S tries the same thing against A!?

Part II Forthcoming!


Posted on July 6, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Concerning points 2 and 3 at the beginning of your post:

    Weingast is definitely centrally concerned with these problems as well, and focuses on them in a couple of earlier papers. See especially

    Avner Greif, Paul Milgrom and Barry R. Weingast, “Coordination, Commitment, and Enforcement: The Case of the Merchant Guild.” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 102, No. 4 (Aug., 1994), pp. 745-776. Stable URL:

    The idea here is that, to maintain cooperation in a repeated game, the players must agree in each instance whether a violation of the prescribed equilibrium strategy has occurred; and if so, must carry out the prescribed “retaliation.” In a subgame perfect equilibrium, The latter is no problem as long as the former agreement can be reached. The Greif et al. paper discusses mechanisms for coordinating on a recognition of transgressions where there may be imperfect information about what has occurred or, equivalently, a fuzzy boundary separating permitted from prohibited actions.

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