Is Britain governed better than America?

It’s a question I often wonder when listening to one of my favourite American podcasts, such as Freakonomics or Planet Money. So often the problems they talk about are ones that Britain has either cracked, circumvented or found much better ways of ameliorating. Even when it comes to deploying market forces – such as the paucity of internet suppliers available to homes in much of the US – Britain often comes out as being well ahead.

Of course, by their very nature, the stories that make it into podcasts are the unusual, the extreme and the difficult. So I’m well aware that the selection of stories means the impression I get from them may not be a fair one of America as a whole.

But it echoes my experience reading Nudge. It’s a great book in many ways and has been hugely influential, with some very smart work in Britain inspired by it.

Yet look through the practical examples of behavioural economics in action on a large scale to improve economies and societies and you could just as well say the main lesson of the book isn’t ‘understand behavioural economics’ but rather ‘copy the Europeans’. Time and again the examples of clever thinking being applied to crack a long-running American problem are things Europeans have been doing for years.

All of which makes Francis Fukuyama’s piece in the latest Foreign Affairs very interesting. For he looks at how America’s political system works compared to others and his conclusion is that yes, Britain is governed better.

The politicians are not necessarily better, but the political system is much better:

Democracies must balance the need to allow full opportunities for political participation for all, on the one hand, and the need to get things done, on the other…

The delegation of powers to different political actors enables them to block action by the whole body. The U.S. political system has far more of these checks and balances, or what political scientists call “veto points,” than other contemporary democracies, raising the costs of collective action and in some cases make it impossible altogether. In earlier periods of U.S. history, when one party or another was dominant, this system served to moderate the will of the majority and force it to pay greater attention to minorities than it otherwise might have. But in the more evenly balanced, highly competitive party system that has arisen since the 1980s, it has become a formula for gridlock.

By contrast, the so-called Westminster system, which evolved in England in the years following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, is one of the most decisive in the democratic world because, in its pure form, it has very few veto points. British citizens have one large, formal check on government, their ability to periodically elect Parliament. (The tradition of free media in the United Kingdom is another important informal check.) In all other respects, however, the system concentrates, rather than diffuses, power. The pure Westminster system has only a single, all-powerful legislative chamber — no separate presidency, no powerful upper house, no written constitution and therefore no judicial review, and no federalism or constitutionally mandated devolution of powers to localities. It has a plurality voting system that, along with strong party discipline, tends to produce a two-party system and strong parliamentary majorities. The British equivalent of the cloture rule requires only a simple majority of the members of Parliament to be present to call the question; American-style filibustering is not allowed. The parliamentary majority chooses a government with strong executive powers, and when it makes a legislative decision, it generally cannot be stymied by courts, states, municipalities, or other bodies. This is why the British system is often described as a “democratic dictatorship.”

For all its concentrated powers, the Westminster system nonetheless remains fundamentally democratic, because if voters don’t like the government it produces, they can vote it out of office.

From the British perspective, the British system doesn’t look quite so rosy and the centralisation of power comes with many drawbacks.

However, devolving power and increasing accountability does not require introducing the sort of multiple veto opportunities that so often bring American governance grinding to a halt. Successful political reform in Britain can still do much to improve our system without introducing the faults of the American one.

Francis Fukuyama’s full piece (currently outside the paywall) is well worth a read.

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