07 March, 2010

Institutional Entrepreneurs

I have been posting about electoral reform in Ireland. It seems like this is suddenly on the agenda in a way it has not been before. There also seems to be a generally higher interest in the topic of institutional change, with various people arguing that if we make their favoured changes to the constitutional setup then we can greatly improve politics in this country.

Now, is all this institutional reform chit-chat in Ireland a good or a bad thing? Looking at institutions and trying to improve them is always wise. It seems in Ireland, though, that a great many people are slipping into thinking that the country's problems could be solved by tinkering with various aspects of the institutional set up – as though changing the electoral system, or adopting a presidential constitution, or having ministers who weren't TDs, and so on would somehow magically lead to radically different political decisions being made. This is almost like a software developer's approach to politics, treating it as an engineering problem.

I think institutional change is dangerous, if reforms are implemented without being fully thought through. Given the hare-brained and almost crankish nature of many reforms I've seen proposed lately this is a real danger. Furthermore, many people overstate the ability of institutional change to transform the workings of politics. Ultimately it does not matter so much how we vote in governments if the electorate keeps voting in the same people.

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