The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law

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“The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law” by Barry R. Weingast uses game-theoretic models to investigate two basic puzzles. The first puzzle analyzes the connection between democratic stability and interests; interests meaning citizen versus elite values. The second puzzle looks into democratic stability in divided societies. With his model, Weingast is able to explain these circumstances.

Weingast’s game theoretic models works under some assumptions, the first being that all citizens have opinions when it comes to limits on government. Another assumption is that every individual citizen is able to classify state decisions into two groups: legitimate actions and transgressions. Individualism is important with this model since every person has different values. Next, the players are divided into two groups: the single political official known as the sovereign and the groups of citizens known as the citizenry. In order for the sovereign to stay in power, there must be enough support by the citizenry. Knowing this, the sovereign’s behavior will be affected as his own self-interests will make him respect the limits because he knows he’ll be worse off if he doesn’t. This is known as a self-enforcing limit. On the contrary, when the limits are not defended by the citizenry, the sovereign can violate them and continue to govern. Therefore, in order to prevent the breach of rights, citizens have to step up and unite.

The first model illustrates a coordination problem. The situation involves the distribution of surplus. First, the sovereign chooses whether or not to transgress the rights of his citizens. Once this choice is made, two groups of citizens, A and B, make a decision at the same time to accept or challenge the sovereign. In order to stay in power, the sovereign just needs one group’s approval. Therefore, if the groups unite, they can prevent transgressions. If they are divided, the sovereign can transgress the citizens’ rights and not have to fear removal. There are a couple equilibria that could result in this game. The sovereign could transgress and since it would be costly if a group challenges, especially alone, the group would end up acquiescing. The second equilibria would be that the sovereign decides not to transgress. As a result, the payoff would be maximized. Weingast states that this second situation exists because there is a possibility that both groups would challenge and remove the sovereign. Therefore, in this equilibria, limits on the sovereign are self-enforcing which is why he’d choose to not transgress.

In the second model, a couple of elements are added to the problem and Group A and B become more distinguished from one another. First, the sovereign could reduce one group’s rights and not the other’s. This would mean that a transgression against one group would benefit another group and the sovereign. The group with its rights reduced would be at a disadvantage if it tried to challenge, so an acquiesce would be most likely. If one group gets transgressed upon and it does not challenge the sovereign, the other group probably wouldn’t challenge if they were placed in the same situation later on. This leads to three different equilibria. If the sovereign transgresses against both groups, they will both acquiesce. If the sovereign transgresses against Group B, both groups will acquiesce. Lastly, if the sovereign transgresses against Group A, both groups will also acquiesce. Basically, this model shows that a transgression against one group will succeed when the other group does not also feel violated. The only time transgressions against both groups will succeed according to Weingast is when both groups are obedient and believe that the sovereign should be able to do whatever he pleases.

The main point of this article was to show that in order to have a true democracy, society would need to find ways to make sure that the sovereign will not transgress. As Weingast points out, the Glorious Revolution is a wonderful illustration of his model. The Tories are mistreated first (Group A) and then the Whigs (Group B). This makes them finally unite and work together to overthrow King James II (the sovereign).

Weingast gets into divided societies next and why they are so much less stable. He relates it to his model and states that “people’s natural diversity impedes coordination” (Weingast, 1997). In regards to the elite and the ordinary citizens, they can be used as Group A and B in Weingast’s model. Violating one group’s rights may uplift the other’s. In order to regulate the sovereign, both groups have to be coordinated enough to keep the sovereign in check. They would have to have a means of coordination such as a constitution or a riot. There must also be a way of punishing the sovereign if he transgresses. This leads to a rule of law where limits are put in place which citizens must then enforce. Coordination is key.

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The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law. (2019, Feb 15). Retrieved June 23, 2024 , from

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