Democracy and the Transition to Programmatic Politics  
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

After a long detour, we return to our discussion of the transition away from patronage politics.

Martin Shefter’s thesis about the transition to programmatic politics, which we discussed here and here, is about how patronage politics may be undermined by the entry of new political parties in a democracy. But shouldn’t democracy, and more generally the nature of political institutions, influence the incentive to use patronage politics? Perhaps democratization would change the incentives or ability of politicians to use patronage?

There are several ideas in the literature about whether and how democracy may reduce patronage. One of these follows from our earlier discussion here in the context of Robert Bates’s seminal book Markets and States in Tropical Africa. Politicians often prefer to curry favor through patronage, which can be targeted, to providing public goods, which cannot. If democratic institutions restrict the extent to which such targeting is possible, they will naturally tilt the balance towards providing public goods in order to win support.

Another specific mechanism has been developed in the interesting paper by Alessandro Lizzeri and Nicola Persico “Why Did the Elites Extend the Suffrage?”. They argue that the trade-off between public goods and patronage depends on political institutions and in particular on the extent of the voting franchise. If voting rights are narrowly distributed, for example as they were in Britain prior to the 1867 Second Reform Act, then in order to win a politician has to only attract relatively few people’s support. Patronage, which can be targeted specifically to these people, is then both feasible and effective. When voting rights are expanded, however, it gets more and more costly to provide patronage to win elections. Instead, the option of providing public goods more broadly in order to appease a larger segment of the population becomes increasingly attractive.

Lizzeri and Persico not only show that democracy will be associated with a reduction in patronage but also that, through this effect, non-democratic elites may in fact prefer to create democracy to maintain a narrow voting franchise. This is because, with a narrow franchise, it is politically rational for a politician to rely on patronage to win elections. But the same is true for competing politicians, who can promise patronage. The resulting competition would then resemble a prisoner’s dilemma — politicians outcompeting each other in promising patronage to a narrow group. Think of it this way: if a politician tries to win an election by offering public goods, another one can do better by offering patronage, which is more effective and cheaper. Because such prisoner’s dilemmas are costly to the participants, the elite politicians themselves may be better off when the voting franchise is extended and the patronage option is off the table. (Lizzeri and Persico’s is in turn an alternative but complementary theory to ours, developed in the paper “Why Did the West Extend the Franchise?” and in greater detail in our book Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy; we’ll return to these ideas soon).

Of course the creation of democracy does not necessarily remove patronage politics. Political machines can adapt. But Lizzeri and Persico provide a solid reason to believe that there is one important mechanism which pushes democracy away from patronage politics.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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