Are Parliamentary systems better?

Matt Yglesias writes:

As a general matter, I tend to think parliamentary systems as seen in Britain or Canada are superior to our method of government.  A system like that puts less formal restraint on the head of government in terms of his ability to act, but also makes it much easier to dump a head of government whose policies have failed and whose leadership is widely considered inept.

Totally maybe.  Parliamentary systems do work better for small countries with well-educated populations.  Accountability is higher, and voters enforce some discipline upon government.  The openness of the economy imposes other constraints.  See this paper.

But when the country is large and diverse, I see more reason to favor the American Constitution or in general a more pluralistic system.  Why trust voters as the major source of constraint, and what do "the voters" want in any case?  Furthermore the American system offers a decent chance of divided government and thus greater limits on the executive.  Parliamentary systems often allow the Prime Minister and cabinet to manipulate the legislature by offering intra-party perks and promotions.  There is plenty of gerrymandering, and bringing down a government is an extreme option which is not very easy to exercise in political equilibrium.  If nothing else the rebelling party faces the danger of many of its members — including the rebels — being kicked out in a new election.  Elections can be called at strategic times, and so on.  The Prime Minister is hardly a captive of the voters or the legislature.

Federalism is another issue.  If so much of policy is decided in decentralized fashion, as it must be in a large nation, maybe the federal/national part of those policies should be decided on grounds in rough concordance with a federalistic system.  That will mean a division of powers.  I also worry that as the nation becomes big enough, and states matter more, that there is not enough party unity to sustain a Parliamentary system.

When the executive and legislature are unified, as under a Parliamentary system, the Supreme Court, or its equivalent, will be weaker.  No one will trust a hand-picked court, with no major obstacles to confirmation, with so much power.  Yet weakening judicial review in America would worry me; it also also one step toward eliminating a written constitution altogether.

A final question is whether the USA — the country most likely to use nuclear weapons — needs a President with a certain amount of autonomy and secrecy for a fixed time period.  In general I favor a constrained executive, but that one is harder to call.  Can you imagine a Parliament debating nuclear strategy?


I fear that you do not understand Mr. Yglesias. It appears to me that his main criterion for evaluating governmental systems is the extent to which he expects that they will tend to lead to implementation of his preferred policies.

More (though perhaps overstated) here.

"When the executive and legislature are unified, as under a Parliamentary system, the Supreme Court, or its equivalent, will be weaker."

Is the Supreme Court of Canada really weaker than the U.S. one? I mean, it might be, but I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that it is.

Elections can be called at strategic times, and so on. The Prime Minister is hardly a captive of the voters or the legislature.

My favourite example -- because of WWII, the British had no national elections between 1935 and 1945. And when they finally had elections afterwards, the Conservatives lost in a landslide, suggesting that if they had been having elections all along, the composition of the so-called National Government (headed by Empire-booster Churchill) might have been rather different.

Of course, that's not an intrinsic feature of parliamentary systems, since you could require regular elections. And as far as replacing apparently discredited leaders goes, the way parliamentary systems do so may not be particularly democratic (it's generally the Party that decides, not the people as a whole), but it works whether you're having elections or not.

It's important not to confuse "the government" and "parliament" in a Westminster-style system. Americans often make this mistake. Members of the government, and cabinet, need not be members of parliament (frequently they are not). Votes in parliament do not have legislative force (as votes of the house do in the U.S.), they are simply expressions of confidence in the government. CES Franks put it best: "the parliamentary system means government in and with, but not by, parliament. The innovation of an elected representative assembly as the means by which government is controlled, and through which governments change, is the fundamental contribution of Britain to political theory and practice" (The Parliament of Canada, 10).

That being said:

1. Nuclear strategy is obviously something that would be debated internally by the government, not in open parliament.

2. Ease of dumping a leader depends on party rules -- in UK it is done by the caucus (if I recall), in Canada only by the entire party. The nice thing that can happen, though, is when a leader or cabinet minister fails to be reelected in his/her riding. This creates an attractive Schumpeterian circulation of elites. Depends upon first-past-the-post though, proportional representation insulates powerful members of the party from this sort of electoral test.

3. The Supreme Court in Canada is, in principle, weaker, since the constitution is simply an act of parliament. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it acts with greater self-restraint than the U.S. Supreme Court. If you look at "hot button" issues like abortion, the Canadian Supreme Court has played approximately the same role as the U.S. one. Anyhow, there's no structural reason you couldn't have an adversarial appointment process in a parliamentary system, it's just that most countries choose not to, precisely to avoid the sort of degradation of the institution that one sees in the U.S.

I think it would improve the American system to make it easier to recall *legislators* rather than the executive. For instance, a fruitful reform would be to make Senators, instead of serving a six year term, to be appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the state legislatures. This would devolve power and make the Senate a more sensible body.

The United States has more frequent congressional elections than most parliamentary countries which have a two-party (or two-an-a-half party) system, though less frequent than countries with multi-party systems.

Removal or replacement of the executive in a parliamentary system depends on the judgement of the majority party, not the voters, though fear of voter disapproval will influence MPs choices. However, in a parliamentary system, one can end up with a head of government who has never been subject to voter approval - the Brits are quite likely to end up with PM Brown for quite a while before they get to vote on Mr. Brown. Such a situation has happened only once in the United States' history (Ford).

The United States is the country most likely to use the nuclear weapon? Really? Did you forget North Korea?

At least they don't have to worry about parliamentary vs. presidential government.

Our very instability is what makes us very stable.

Wasn't Bertulesconi the 1st to complete a term since WWII???

We get to throw the bums out every 2 years.

Besides, which side controls the financial power? IIRC, it wouldn't be the parliament.

Someone made a point on another blog awhile ago, when Kofi came hat-in-hand- Blair, Chiraq, made the decision, here, the UN has to testify in front of Congress for appropriations.

Is the Supreme Court of Canada really weaker than the U.S. one? I mean, it might be, but I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that it is.

I don't have any evidence, but as a Canadian I'd say that the Supreme Court of Canada is weaker. At the very least it doesn't have nearly the clout that the U.S. court does.

I agree that Tyler mixes up aspects of different Parlimentary systems. In systems with proportional representation gerrymandering would be pretty pontless for example. Also there are ways of avoiding strategic use of the timing of elections. In Germany for exapmple it is quite difficult to calll a new election before the old parliament's term is up while in Sweden a parliament elected in a non-ordinary election only serves until the next regular election.

I can't agree with waht Josepth Heath is saying either. Votes in parliament certainly have legal force in all parliementary systems I know of. In practice the outcome of the vote is often a foregone conclusion once the goverment has presented its bill but formally it is the parliament that makes the law.

Parliamentary versus presidential systems of government is not a straight either/or question but is much more nuanced and has to take into account other aspects of the political culture. Without trying I think the Australian example is one of the best forms of political governance in the world. It was not by design though it relied upon copying aspects of the US, British and Swiss systems and it is still a work in progress. This is not to say that it is perfect and that mistakes are not made but the system has less shortcomings than in all other democracies.

The parliamentary system allows a greater choice of potential members for the top leadership position compared to a presidential system. The gene pool is larger for a greater range of choice. Australia outperforms the U.S. as an example in this field. In the last two presidential elections in the U.S. they have had candidates who would not rank as well as the candidates thrown up in parliamentary systems. Leaders and potential leaders in a parliamentary system are always under scrutiny and assessed by their peers who have an interest in choosing the best, most electable candidate.

Also leaders who become incompetent or deranged can be more easily removed than under a presidential system

A written Constitution which can only be changed with the consent of the people and the states will provide a brake on executive power and guarantee greater freedoms than would political arrangements which can be easily modified by whatever majority is in power at any particular time.

The federal structure of government decentralises power amongst competing centers. In a continental sized nation, local conditions can be more adequately accounted for. The existence of the states is a strong countervailing power to centralist governments. The federal government can do many things to influence policies across the board and can be brutal with the states but the federal government cannot kill the states because of that constitutional protection. .

The division of powers between the two houses also provides a brake on executive power and the potential for tyranny of the majority from the single house. Australia has this advantage over Britain and New Zealand. Having one house, the Senate, voted on a state basis provides a greater participation and ownership in the entire structure of the nation than it does in a country like Canada where there is no elected upper house on a state basis. They have greater fights in their federation as power in the federal sphere is cemented in the lower house where the big provinces dominate in terms of representation. In Australia this arrangement ensures that all federal governments are aware of any state issues and biases so that they can take them into account in formulating policy and keeping all the voters no matter where they live regionally involved.

Preferential voting in the House of Representatives ensures that the electorate in total has chosen their least disliked government. It means that a better signal is given to the elected members of Parliament. On the other hand, a first past the post system as in the United Kingdom, a government can be formed with a substantial majority with only the vote of about a third of electorate. Our preferential voting system also has had the benefit of providing stable government majorities in the lower house generally throughout our history. We have not had the uncertain political complications of countries that have relied upon multiple coalitions of small parties. This house also has the huge advantage of being elected on local electorates rather than on party political lists as in many European countries. The electorate therefore has a greater say in what happens and political parties are generally disciplined to choose candidates that actually reflect the values of their electorates not their party machines.

Proportional voting in the Senate here gives small alternative parties a say in the electoral system. As long as they get enough votes for a quota, minority groups can actively participate at the highest levels of our electoral system. Having proportional voting here does not impact on the requirement of building a stable government in the lower house.

The great advantage of compulsory voting is that it brings the major sides into the middle ground to try and get the swinging voters. Voluntary voting makes parties strive to be divisive and stir up their natural supporters to get out and vote. This reduces the extremes in our political society.

Though there are always exceptions, Australian politics traditionally has had strong economic interests and groups strongly favoring one side or the other. The huge advantage of this is that each side can carry out significant economic reforms primarily on the sectors that to not support them electorally. The ALP reformed the financial sector which the Liberal Party never achieved and also the agricultural marketing arrangements which the Country Party/National Party would never undertake. Conversely a conservative government can undertake major reforms of workplace relations at the expense of the union movement and thence the ALP. Alternating governments have achieved significant economic and structural reforms which we have not seen achieved in European countries for example where there are significant overlaps between the parties and the different interest groups. As an example many European countries have union movements that are split along political or sectarian lines and both sides of politics achieve support from the unions inhibiting dramatic changes to interest group pressures in this area.

Australia unlike the United States has an independent commission responsible for running elections and also drawing up electoral boundaries. Though not perfect the long history of precedents of at least making electorates geographically contiguous areas reduces the scope for gerrymandering that reaches its extreme in U.S. House of Reps. boundaries. Responsibility for the running of the elections also reduces the scope for Florida type problems as faced by the U.S. in the 2000 presidential elections.

1. "the American system offers a decent chance of divided government and thus greater limits on the executive." ??? As GeorgeII is now being constrained??

2. In a Parliamentary system, the PM & the Cabinet are all MPs. Therefore they have to face daily questions & scrutiny. The US president is de facto a supreme monarch: never questioned, never having to defend his policies before legislators. His advisers & servants -- the Cabinet -- may be summoned before legislators, but the monarch himself is above all this.

3. The US is the only DC with an American-style Presidential system. All other DCs have variations on the Parliamentary model. Equally only the Latin American LDCs have a US-style Presidential system. Elsewhere LDCs have Parliamentary systems. So the real issue is _America_ vs the rest.

What happens in the American system -- would it happen in a Parliamentary system where the head of govt is also a member of the legislature? _No_ PM would have the absolute unrestricted power, for example, to declare certain people untermenschen with no possibility of habeas corpus.

Via Rantburg:

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned late Wednesday after his government lost a crucial parliamentary vote on foreign policy. The president will now begin talks with political leaders to discuss a way forward. Sabina Castelfranco reports for VOA from Rome. Romano Prodi's center-left government had been in power only nine months ...

"Parliamentary systems often allow the Prime Minister and cabinet to manipulate the legislature by offering intra-party perks and promotions."

Like many folks who comment on this issue, you are assuming that parliamentary government means single-party majority government. Of course, it does not. And coalitions are a far more effective way of keeping one party and the head of government in check than is US-style "divided government." Moreover, it is not the case that PMs always have the kind of sway over their own parties that you imply.

"There is plenty of gerrymandering, and bringing down a government is an extreme option which is not very easy to exercise in political equilibrium."

Where is this gerrymandering you are speaking of? No one lets politicians draw district lines the way the US does! Besides, any use of political criteria to draw district lines (and there are such in the UK, for example, even if they are nothing of the scale that we have here in the US) is a feature of the electoral system (first past the post) and not of parliamentary or presidential government.

"Federalism is another issue."

Indeed. Germany, Canada, and Australia are all parliamentary and federal. Australia's institutions--and arguably also its society--are most similar to the USA, except for the variable of parliamentary rather than presidential government. And then there is India, as Ganesh already mentioned.

Both forms have severe flaws, and I am not sure what the correct answer is. I think the Indian parliamentary system works, and I don't think a Presidential system is viable there. It helps that the supreme court is as effective as it is (I would say the US supreme court is arguably the worst there can be since it is so political).

The biggest problem I have with the US system is the two party system. To me, it is impossible to divide politics into an either or.

The Us Supreme Court is the leading one worldwide.The abortion law in germany was copied by the bundestag.Then the Supreme Court of the FRG striked it down partially

I was alluding to was your skepticism of drastic changes (and not to limited government ). American Conservatism (which is inspired among many by Edmund Burke ) was cautious about putting too much faith in revolutions, it is cognizant of human fallibility and values epistemological modesty.

Sorry missed 3 typos. 3rd - And the other chamber, the Senate could be appointed as outlined in the original constitution. The States in turn would be responsible for a proportional share of Federal revenues. Direct Taxation by the Federal Government would be revoked.

Comments for this post are closed