Non-majoritarian institutions under political pressure

EUI, Max Weber Programme – Seminar Room 2, Badia Fiesolana

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Since the 1980s, within and beyond Europe we have witnessed widespread delegation of powers from governments directly elected by citizens to Non-Majoritarian Institutions (NMIs) that are neither directly elected nor directly managed by elected politicians (Thatcher and Stone Sweet 2002: 2). The institutional forms taken by NMIs include independent regulatory agencies tasked to oversee and facilitate competition (Thatcher 2002a; Coen and Thatcher 2005), central banks charged to conduct monetary policy (McNamara 2002), specialized constitutional courts (Stone Sweet 1989, 1992, 2000, 2002), and supranational bodies such as the European Commission (Wilks and Bartle 2002; Pollack 1997, 2003) and other international organizations (Nielson and Tierney 2003). Functional rationales for explaining delegation centered on the outcomes that these unelected bodies were expected to deliver better than elected politicians, and which included providing long-term commitments credible to investors, enhancing the efficiency of policymaking, and better dealing with highly technical areas (Levy and Spiller 1994; Majone 1996, 1997; Thatcher and Stone Sweet 2002). However, rather than technical, Pareto-efficient decisions (where some benefit and no one is made worse off), NMIs have increasingly taken political decisions with clearly distributive implications and both winners and losers. Furthermore, today, NMIs are commonly accused of having failed to deliver on their promises, having frequently led to rather unpopular outcomes (e.g., price rises, fiscal costs due to supervisory failures).

This project takes these pressing, present-day political pressures as an opportunity to take stock of two or three decades of experience since the initial delegations. It focuses on post-delegation politics, which has been studied less than the design of delegation. It asks questions related to the ‘zone of discretion’ (i.e., discretion granted, minus controls set up), looked at both synchronically and diachronically. The project addresses these questions by engaging with three perspectives offering different theoretical expectations. The first is principal-agent, the dominant framework for studying delegation (Epstein and O’Halloran 1999; McCubbins et al. 1987). In line with rational choice approaches more generally, actors’ preferences are assumed to be stable and defined ex ante; changes therefore tend to be explained by referring to external shocks, such as events unexpected at the time of the initial delegation. An alternative is offered by more sociological logics (DiMaggio and Powell 1991). Here, the reasons why NMIs were set up in the first place had more to do with appropriateness than with expected functional advantages (McNamara 2002). Accordingly, NMIs largely created for symbolic reasons may then actually lead to unexpected functional outcomes or material impacts (Wilks and Bartle 2002). Moreover, subsequent alterations tend to be more endogenous, and relate in particular to changes in trends and fashions. Still another perspective, also more focused on endogenous change, is provided by historical institutionalism (Thelen 1999; Pierson 2000; Streeck and Thelen 2005). From this viewpoint, context, traditions and history matter, both in making similar formal structures operating in different ways (Thatcher 2002a, 2002b) and in conditioning subsequent institutional change (Thatcher and Coen 2008; Thatcher 2011).

In sum, this project aims at stimulating discussion about contemporary urgent problems and more subterranean long-term dynamics, in the light of different theoretical perspectives and the contributors’ respective empirical interests and expertise, which in turn offer a wide sample of NMIs across various polities.

David Coen, Professor of Public Policy and founding Director of Global Governance Institute, University College London

Eugenia de Conceicao-Heldt, Reform Rector, Bavarian School of Public Policy at the Technical University of Munich, Chair of European and Global Governance and Founding Dean of the TUM School of Governance
Erik Jones, Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy and Director of European and Eurasian Studies, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Bernardo Rangoni, Max Weber Fellow, Law Department, EUI
Mark Thatcher, Professor of Political Science, LUISS Guido Carli and of Comparative and International Politics, LSE
Anna Tzanaki, Max Weber Fellow, Law Department, EUI
Lucia Quaglia, Professor of Political Science, University of Bologna

Contact: Bernardo Rangoni and Anna Tzanaki