Universalism through Common Access: An Alternative Model of Distributive Majoritarian Politics

By Buchanan, James M.; Yoon, Yong J. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Universalism through Common Access: An Alternative Model of Distributive Majoritarian Politics


Buchanan, James M., Yoon, Yong J., Political Research Quarterly


The rational-choice logic of majority rule embodies discriminatory distribution of burdens and benefits as between members of majority and minority coalitions. Empirical observation, however, suggests universality or near-universality, even in programs that are potentially discriminatory. Attempts have been made to explain the anomaly, but the basic issues have not been resolved. Weingast and others have argued that working legislatures will implicitly adopt quasi-unanimity rules or conventions. We present an alternative model of distributive majoritarian politics. The distinctive feature is "common access." If democratic politics is modeled, not in terms of a monolithic decision structure, but instead as a setting where differing and separate decision authorities are granted access to the general taxable capacity, collective action can be analyzed in the logic of common resource usage. Our model allows for universality, even with pork-barrel spending, without resort to institutionalized rules or informal conventions.

"Democracy," generically understood, embodies majority rule as a central feature, both in the electoral selection of agents and in the processes through which these agents generate outcomes in legislative assemblies. The basic rational-choice logic of majority rule embodies discriminatory separation between majorities and minorities and, unless constitutional constraints are interposed, this logic implies differentiation among levels of benefits and harms accruing to or imposed on those impacted by collective action.

Empirical observation of patterns of outcomes generated by legislatures suggests, however, that the discrimination derived from rational-choice models does not seem descriptive. Even in settings where discriminatorily targeted spending programs financed from general tax sources are constitutionally permissible, observation suggests that special benefit programs are often extended to all or nearly all constituencies rather than only to those whose agents secure membership in some effective majority coalition. These patterns appear to embody universality or near-universality in the positions accorded to participating agents, or interests, in working legislatures.

How is the anomaly between the implications of the analytical models and the observed reality to be explained? Several papers published in the late 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s have addressed this question.' In a 1979 paper, which was followed by a series of elaborations of the analysis with several coauthors (Weingast and Shepsle 1981; Weingast, Shepsle, and Johnsen 1981), Barry Weingast demonstrated that the expected value of collective action to any legislator must incorporate a reckoning on prospects of membership in losing minorities as well as winning majorities. Because individual legislators are uncertain about securing membership in any coalition, the expected value of participating in straightforward majoritarian discrimination may be less than the expected value forthcoming under implicit adoption of a rule or convention that embodies umbrella-like inclusion of all legislative interests in any action. (Anticipation of the possibility of majoritarian cycling may, of course, enter into such a reckoning.) The initial Weingast argument suggests that, essentially, legislatures will implicitly impose unanimity or near-unanimity rules upon themselves.

There are two problems with this suggested reconciliation between analysis and observation. First, why would potential members of an effective majority coalition, once formed, generate results that might emerge under the operation of unanimity or near-unanimity rules, despite the constitutional embodiment of majority rule? And, perhaps more importantly, if such a generalized constraint is imposed implicitly, why would programs be enacted that are economically inefficient? The apparent derivation of universalism from extension of the basic rational-choice model to rules or conventions raises the further anomaly reflected in presumably inefficient pork-barrel legislation (see Niou and Ordeshook 1985).

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Universalism through Common Access: An Alternative Model of Distributive Majoritarian Politics
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