Interview with Thomas Apolte (Professor at the University of Münster)

The European Public Choice Society has its annual conference in Braga (Portugal) in the week of the 11th of April. To give you an idea of what is hot and happening in the field of political economy, Joes is interviewing attendants of the conference. For this interview, he spoke with Thomas Apolte, who is writing a paper on why the franchise was extended in the West.

Joes: “Can you tell me about the paper you are presenting at the conference here?”

Thomas: “The paper was written because I was interested in the question of why some democracies are more sustainable than others. Then you see they are grouped geographically and culturally. And I wanted to know what the background to this is, because it is too easy for me to just say ‘it’s culture’, or ‘some Western culture’. So it is my question why it is in Western Europe that we see countries that evolved into the most stable democracies.

I had the idea that it is not just a ‘demand’ for democracy from the people, or just a ‘supply’ from the elite, because democracy may be more productive economically. My hypothesis is that it was the circumstances: elites could credibly commit to democratic institutions already through previously existing institutions. This way they, and others could credibly commit to not overthrowing the new democratic order or property rights. Such useful institutions, like parliaments and an independent judiciary, had already developed which were in a way predecessors to democratic rule, but without the universal franchise.”

Joes: “What I find interesting about your paper is that we often seem to have this notion that democracy, constitutions and independent judiciaries emerged simultaneously. It is interesting you try to introduce the historical developments in the right order to better understand how these developments occurred and interacted.

I was also wondering if you look at Albertus and Menaldo’s work, Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy, they put your story sort of upside down. You argue that credible commitment to property rights of the current elite is a requirement for democracy, and that is part of a positive story of democratization. Their work argues something similar, but for them, this maintains the inequalities that emerged under autocracy, it appears much more negative. How do you look at this?”

Thomas: “Although I cannot say too much about Latin America, I think the economic institutions in the West were such, that the elites could be quite certain that their wealth would not be confiscated after democratization. The median voter was not inclined to want to do that as much as perhaps in Latin America, because everybody was benefiting from economic growth because of the economic institutions in the West.”

Joes: “So it is all contingency?”

Thomas: “True. So I dug a little deeper into the historical contingencies. But you always encounter more questions than you had before.”

Joes: “A challenge with the kind of questions you ask, is that so much is contingent, that it is hard to delineate your questions and answers. How do you delineate your question?”

Thomas: “In this case, I take the institutions we find at the beginning of the 19th century in European countries as a given. Then I compare those to other societies and try to think about what could lead to different institutional outcomes, such as democracy and property rights. And my answer is that there were commitment devices already for elites, so they could trust that democratization would not lead to the confiscation of their property.”

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