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24 May 05.

I like the filibuster rule. It basically says that laws pass on a majority rule, but if somebody really wants it, they can spend political clout and force a 2/3 majority vote. One could formalize this somehow, giving each Senator two `force supermajority vote' points per session or something, but as it is, the informal system seems to be generally not-broken.

But you don't read blogs for opinion and speculation, you read them for academic literature review. From the academic perspective, the interesting thing about the whole system is that the Congress sets its own rules---including the rules by which rules are set. How can this be stable?

First, the reader will not be surprised to hear that every new majority rewrites the rules to favor itself. My former fellow student, Mr. KR of La Cañada Flintridge, CA, found a single, lone rule which favors the minority and has persisted through the decades---the Motion to Recommit rule in the House of Representatives. Mr. KR's paper with Mr. RK of Pasadena, CA is here; think of it as a 'procedural thriller' without the 'thriller' part. Part of how this minority-favoring rule managed to persist is by restraint on the part of the minority parties, who try not to use this power often enough to bring it to attention. From there, all I could get from an admittedly brief skimming of the paper is that it's survived through assorted random political randomness.

The next pick from my mental database (i.e., this is not a thorough lit review; readers are free to leave other references in the comments) is "Choosing How to Choose: Self-Stable Majority Rules and Constitutions", by Salvador Barberà and Matthew O. Jackson [citation and link below].

The paper is looking for a stable rulemaking rule. Most societies have a rule for day-to-day work and a rule for rulemaking; the question is how those rulemaking rules are written. By page two of the paper, they state what we've all worked out by reading this week's news about filibusters and Senate rule amending: "...having a 2/3 majority rule which can be amended by a 1/2 vote is inherently unstable."

Our authors have difficulty finding conditions guaranteeing stability. First, they try to find self-stable rules, where one voting rule (like a majority or a 2/3 vote) covers both day-to-day work and amendment. Not surprisingly, they find that it's easy to construct societies where no such rule is stable.

And so, we resort to a two-tier system, where the rulemaking rule differs from the day-to-day rule--a setup which already reads like a constitution. Then a majority rulemaking rule is always stable, and other rules, like the 2/3 majority, is only stable "when the distribution of [preferences] is not too skewed." That is, with an evenly divided Senate, we could maybe have gotten this to work, but with a lopsided balance of power (i.e., now), such rulemaking rules become tenuous.

Now, this paper is not the final say in the matter. It makes a variety of assumptions that readers may not like, like the Rawlsian veil of ignorance in writing the constitution, and the usual pivotal-voter stories that nobody believes. But if you don't like this one, Mr. Jackson himself has a couple of other setups you can take for a spin, and there are many more to be had.

The two papers contrast nicely because formal stability, in which equations balance out, is very different from stability in which people make deals in Capitol Hill bars. Because of this, a country can comfortably live with a formally unstable constitution for a long time (perhaps forever), as it slowly changes over the course of sporadic little modifications, perhaps repeating history and perhaps moving to new constructs. The equilibrium may be that the only stable rulemaking rule is a 51% majority, but the political reality means that we probably won't see equilibrium in our lifetimes.

As for the filibuster rule, it is my opinion that a society where 51% of the people can pass whatever law they want regardless of how onerous it may be (kill all gays, tax the top 1% into poverty) is not a society which the majority would be happy with; mechanisms to allow a minority to prevail in what it considers to be truly dire circumstances will always find support. Even if the filibuster is eliminated, new supermajority rules can readily evolve in the future to take its place.

AUTHOR={Salvador Barber{\`a} and Matthew O. Jackson},
TITLE={Choosing How to Choose: Self-Stable Majority Rules and Constitutions},
INSTITUTION={Unitat de Fonaments de l'An{\`a}lisi Econ{\`o}mica (UAB) and
Institut d'An{\`a}lisi Econ{\`o}mica (CSIC)},
NOTE={available here},

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on Tuesday, May 24th, Andy said

This is only tangentially related, but I think the following WSJ op-ed really illustrates how people work around the rules and the power of incentives. Basically, there is a huge pork payoff coming down the road in 2016 -- because the CBO only budgets out 10 years in the future, so it counts as "no-cost" for this year's predictions.

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