Personal Notes

Comparative Politics Class – Why political institutions don’t matter that much.


I am currently working on a paper for a comparative politics class – and in it I wrestle with the broader question of why certain states so easily achieve remarkable policy change – and others continue to flounder.
There are the well -worn perspectives that perhaps it all boils down to the quality, maturity and strength of a country’s institutions. From this perspective, the older, more stable political systems with tried and tested – resilient – institutions are more well positioned to deliver progressive legislation and place impressive policy reform into motion.
It’s an interesting perspective – and instinctively, it makes sense. If you take a rudimentary look around, and contrast say Mozambican institutions that are relatively new and fragile – when contrasted with say France, on the other hand whose constitutional history spans across the decades. It seems commonsensical to conclude that the older, the more mature a country is – the better quality of legislation and the more progressive such countries are likely to be:
Several examples bear this point of view out: France on the one hand, has managed to create progressive legislation in the fields of energy, on various social issues and boasts one of the world’s most progressive social protection systems.
Yet, as with any other theoretical perspective – this view is not infallible. At the beginning of this century, South Africa was a fragile, new democracy with untested new institutions and a constitution fresh out of the oven and a court wet around the ears mandated to safeguard that same constitution.
Nonetheless, despite it’s immaturity and lack of experience, South Africa managed to progress to be one of the most liberal and progressive constitutional systems – affording its citizens an advanced set of rights to allow for same sex unions among other aspects. Whereas, taking the example of France – similar legislation has been somewhat less progressive. French same sex couples enjoy markedly less rights in contrast to their South African counterparts.
The question then is how does this occur? How does a new, fragile institutional framework as academic wonks call it, produce an inconsistently progressive legislation?
It boils down not to the availability or strength of institutions – but it rather has more to do with incentives. And not just incentives, but it is a result of how compatible incentives are of institutions – and of a given policy reform. It does not matter how strong institutions are – all that matters is whether institutions have incentives to implement a reform that are compatible with advocacy groups calling for a given reform. This is how South Africa, a young democracy mages to have such a liberal approach to certain social issues, where an older democracy like France seems to flounder. The incentives to reform are too disparate and irreconcilable.
This should have implications on how we perceive calls for change – it is not a function of power and institutions – but of incentives and motivation.

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