Constitutional Separation of Powers vs. Parliamentary Government

In this interesting recent op ed in Canada’s National Post , my George Mason colleague Frank Buckley argues that parliamentary systems of government are less likely to become dysfunctional than separation of powers systems such as that of the United States:

Before Standard and Poor’s downgraded U.S. public debt, Barack Obama mused that the American system of separation of powers might not be all that it is cracked up to be. It results in gridlock, and had raised the specter that Congress would fail to raise the debt ceiling. “We did not have a AAA political system to match our AAA credit rating,” Obama noted….

By contrast, the Canadian system of government has never seemed more attractive, if one judges these things by their results. Notwithstanding its generous social-welfare safety net, Canada is ranked as economically more free than the United States by the conservatives at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, which puts Canada in sixth, and the U.S. in 10th place, in the group’s most recent international survey. On per capita government spending, the two countries are tied, and on corporate taxes Canada is way ahead. On public debt levels, it’s no contest….

Getting legislation passed or repealed in America is like waiting for three cherries to line up in a Las Vegas slot machine. Absent a supermajority in Congress to override a presidential veto, one needs the simultaneous concurrence of the president, Senate and House.

In a parliamentary system, however, one needs only one cherry. In Canada, neither the governor-general nor the senate has a veto power. All that matters is the House of Commons, dominated by the prime minister’s party.

An American separation of powers might nevertheless be thought better able to screen off bad laws, which might more easily be enacted in a parliamentary regime. The flip side is that bad laws, once enacted, can more easily be reversed when a government doesn’t face the gridlock of the separation of powers.

So which is more valuable: Pre-enactment screening or ex post reversibility? I’d suggest the latter, for one important kind of legislation: “Experience laws,” whose effects cannot be judged without the benefit of hindsight. Then, reversibility trumps ex ante screening — not that there’s much of the latter in Washington. And when you get down to it, just about all laws are experience laws.

Frank makes a good case. But I remain unpersuaded. It is indeed true that Canada’s government has performed better than the United States over the last decade, which has enabled Canada to (slightly) surpass the US on the Heritage Foundation’s measure of economic freedom in recent years, and to establish a much better fiscal position. On the other hand, that same Heritage rating had the US ahead of Canada for many years before the late 2000s (as was also true in the rival Cato/Fraser Institute index). During much of that period, Canada also had much worse fiscal problems, higher taxes, and higher per capita government spending than the United States. And obviously the US had a separation of powers system and Canada a parliamentary system in those days too.

The recent reversal is a result of Canada’s impressive economic reforms since 1996 and the massive growth of American government under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. That growth did not occur because of “gridlock,” but because Congress and the president successfully enacted major new laws greatly increasing spending and regulation. It would be dangerous to generalize from this relatively brief period, or even from the US and Canadian experience as a whole. Studies that compare the records of many countries, such as Persson and Tabellini’s Economic Effects of Constitutions show that, controlling for other variables, presidential separation of powers systems have smaller public sectors than parliamentary systems.

Frank’s argument that post-enactment reversal is more valuable than preenactment screening in preventing bad laws overlooks the problem of institutionalization. Once a bad law is enacted, interest group pressures and inertia often make it difficult to repeal – even in a parliamentary system. Moreover, widespread political ignorance ensures that voters often don’t even realize that a law is having bad effects or even that it exists at all. That is one of the reasons why so many European governments are experiencing severe fiscal crises caused by overspending – despite the fact that nearly all of them have parliamentary governments. Even if most “bad” laws are “experience laws,” it is also true that many such laws have been tried elsewhere previously. Opponents can rely on that experience without having to first try out the bad law themselves.

Frank also contends that parliamentary systems will distribute government spending more equitably than separation of powers systems:

A party leader who seeks support across the country must have the interest of the country as a whole in mind. If he concentrates government spending in one region only, he will lose support in other regions. That’s why strong a prime minister and a Parliament of nobodies better serves the country than the separation of powers and earmark-seeking Congressmen, like the late John Murtha of Pennsylvania (of the John Murtha Airport, John Murtha Center, etc.).

Porkbarrel spending for local projects is a genuine problem in the US. But the same is true in many parliamentary systems. In the latter, parties often include narrow interest groups who get compensated for their support with government spending grants. It’s far from clear that the problem of fiscal favoritism for narrow interest groups or particular regions is less severe under a parliamentary system than in the US. Western Canadians have long complained about the concentration of federal grants in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.

This is not to suggest that the US system is ideal or that all other nations should copy it. There are a variety of reasons why a nation might prefer a parliamentary system to presidentialism. For example, a powerful presidency that concentrates executive authority in one person’s hands might be a bad idea for a nation with deep ethnic divisions or one with a long tradition of authoritarianism. Obviously, people who want high levels of government spending and regulation also have good reason to prefer parliamentary systems – a point made by many American liberals going back to Woodrow Wilson in the late 19th century. However, the available evidence suggests that separation of powers is an important constraint on the growth of government and that parliamentary systems are not, on average, better at preventing fiscal crises.