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OPINION || Best system of governance? Check under the hood

By Dyon A. Elliott

Over the last few weeks, with all the excitement of the monarchy and whether or not Belize should leave the monarchy behind, some Belizeans have begun to ask this question in different ways:

"If Belize changes from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, what sort of impact would that have on our economy?"

Now, before proceeding, it is important that a few things be clearly clarified so as to avoid confusion. The first is this: The conversation here, in this Res Publica360 article, strictly refers to the systems: Presidential, "Semi-Presidential," or Parliamentary.

Second, given the first point, by Extension, this conversation is, therefore, not about membership in the Commonwealth, as there is a difference between "commonwealth nations" (56 members) and the sub-classification "commonwealth realms" (15 members including Belize). That is correct. Removing the King as Belize’s head of state does not translate to us being ejected from the Commonwealth of Nations.

Finally, this article does pull a great deal from a 2017 paper. However, it must be stated early that said paper did NOT examine the "parliamentary republic" structure, wherein there is still a functional parliamentary system with a head of government being the Prime Minister and ceremonial president.

The closest system covered is the "semi-presidential" system, wherein there is some sharing of executive powers between a prime minister and a popularly elected president.

Economically Speaking, Does The Political System Matter?

Now, with those disclaimers out of the way, let's return to the heart of the matter. The aforementioned question of whether there is an economic implication for operating a presidential system versus a parliamentary structure has been revived of late. If I were to answer in the most abridged way, the answer might sound something like this: "It does not matter either way."

However, the correct answer should be even shorter. That is to say: “Like most political-economic issues, it’s complicated!”

In the realm of empirical research on the subject, there is utility in highlighting the work of McManus and Ozkan (2017). Their paper, entitled “Who does better for the economy?” Presidents versus parliamentary democracies,” empirically investigates the matter.

McManus and Ozkan (2017) find supporting evidence—as others before them—that Parliamentary Systems appear—all things being equal—to be better performers relative to their presidential counterparts. Of course, the natural question to follow is, "Why?"

We’re Asking the Wrong Question

This is where I would say that the wrong question has been asked.

For those of you who will give McManus and Ozkan (2017) and others like them a full read, I trust that you would agree with me that the real question ought not to be "Which system [presidential v. parliamentary] is better for the economy?" Instead, the salient and superior question is this:

"Regardless of the form of government (i.e., parliamentary to presidential), what are the key institutional factors and structures that would guarantee a strong economy (and overall good governance)?"

Fundamentally, this is really what McManus and Ozkan (2017)'s work make plain: That irrespective of the system, the design that works is the one that promotes vital features such as (i) inclusiveness, (ii) proper check and balances (and separation of powers) that scatters and distributes "power" to avoid over-concentration in the hands of a president, (iii) full respect for the rule of law, and (iv) free media."

These points led the duo to conclude:

"We examined a number of institutional factors within which government systems operate. We find that presidential regimes are worse for the economy in less established democracies with (i) limited participation and (ii) government-controlled media; (iii) where the rule of law is not respected; (iv) where the presidents have extensive legislative powers and in (v) the absence of judicial controls on the president, particularly in the presence of (v) electoral systems with proportional representation" (see McManus and Ozkan 2017, p. 25).

But this just makes sense! The variables cited above have always been positively affiliated with economic growth. Think, for example, as to what have always been measured on indices such as the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom.

Moral of the Story: We Need To Keep Our Eyes On The Ball

In the end, then, our focus, it would seem, should be less on whether a change in the form of government is the essential element.

Based on the evidence provided, it would appear that our sights should be more concerned with how "power" is curtailed and distributed and to whom. Looked at from this vantage point, then, the answer to the original question takes this shape:

“It would appear that the precise system of democratic governance is secondary, especially in the conversation about the economy (and good governance). Whether Belize stays as a constitutional parliamentary monarchy or transitions anywhere along the spectrum towards a type of presidential structure, the primary focus should be on (i) establishing strong checks and balances,

(ii) Strengthening separation of powers, (iii) doubling down on the tenets of limited government and the rule of law, (iv) augmenting popular sovereignty (inclusiveness in governance and closer to consensus), and (v) guaranteeing the protection of individual rights."

So, yes, Dear Society, please have fun with the debates on the political systems. But, at the same time, it is essential that we do not allow ourselves to lose sight of the bigger picture.

If I may use an analogy, the outward design of a vehicle may be aesthetically appealing and fun to look at, but every driver knows that it is what is under the hood, the state of the tires, and the skill of the driver that keeps you on the road safe and sound.

Consequently, we should be careful of spending too much time on the external and too little time "under the hood," so to speak.

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