Things Institutionalists Know that You Should: Why So Much Stability?

Regular readers of the blog will recall that we are drafting a semi-regular series that codifies some of the foundational tenets of new institutionalism.  This is our contribution to a similar effort that focuses on the cores lessons from the world of political behavior.  Though the list we plan to compile will be far from exhaustive, we hope to focus on some of the fundamental aspects of neo-institutionalism as well as highlight a few of our favorite studies.  This is our blog’s niche, after all Why So Much Stability?

Nate’s previous post does a nice job laying out the core concepts institutionalists theorize about (institutions, preferences and outcomes).  This is in contrast to what political scientists often label behavioralism, where the analytical focus is on two of these concepts: preferences and outcomes.  One of the more obvious limitations of behaviorism—my contribution to our blog’s “what we institutionalists know” series— is the fact that political outcomes exhibit remarkable stability over time.   This stability is apparent when we look at the macro level—the institutions themselves—as well as the micro level—things such as such as public policies.

In the study of the U.S. Congress, for example, if we were to consider only the preferences of the 535 elected lawmakers we would conclude that existing public policies are under constant threat of alteration or repeal.  That is, if every congressman voted in accordance with her exact preference, and Congressional outcomes were simply the aggregation of these preferences, the result would be constant “cycling” (where a bill preferred and passed by an initial majority is quickly repealed and replaced by a bill preferred by a subsequent majority).  Some have called this naive view of politics the “black box” approach (where changes in inputs—preferences and exogenous pressures—produce a 1:1 change in political outputs).  However, even casual political observers know that it takes quite a bit of effort to undo previous legislative agreements.  Gordon Tullock asked a seemingly simple question in an frequently cited essay: Why so much stability?  Tullock framed his question this way:  “If we look at the real world…we observe not only is there no endless cycling, but acts are passed with reasonable dispatch and then remain unchanged for very long periods of time. Thus, theory and reality seem to be not only out of contact, but actually in sharp conflict.”

Kenneth Shepsle provided the most influential answer to Tullock’s simple question.  Structure, by which Shepsle means political institutions, is what produces outcomes in equilibrium.  This, of course, is his well-known “structure-induced equilibrium” thesis.  Structure can assume a variety of forms.  In the U.S. Congress, for example, structure is created by the political parties, committees, the rules and procedures, bicameralism, separation of powers, etc.  These structures provide a complex web of constraints on the preference maximizing behavior of each individual lawmaker, thereby limiting the effects of momentary changes in preferences and thus creating what is often labeled "status quo bias."  Robert Dahl aptly summed it up this way: “individual preferences cannot fully explain collective decisions, for in addition we need to understand the mechanisms by which individual decisions are aggregated and combined into collective decisions.”

Institutional scholars know these things based on published research.  Casual political observers, by comparison, know these things implicitly (even though they may not use the same nomenclature as academic political scientists).  Consider a recent example: the efforts to “repeal” the recently enacted health care package.  As I noted in a previous post, politicians frequently run on “repealing” legislative agreements enacted by a previous majority.  The crude logic these individuals peddle is reminiscent of the behavioral “black box” approach: “if you return me and my party to power, as the new majority we will repeal the previous majority’s policies.”  If only it were that simple.  Rarely are repeal efforts successful because of the—wait for it—institutional constraints in which these politicians operate.  Institutions distribute power among governmental actors and fundamentally shape the decision-making processes; changing the preferences of governmental actors is necessary but not sufficient to produce policy change.