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Some thought it would be relevant for me to cross-post this from my personal blog. Original link in https://whynotparliamentarism.com/f/the-effective-altruist-case-for-parliamentarism 


Back in 2013, Benjamin Todd of 80000 hours  wrote "a framework for strategically selecting a cause". The idea that not all causes are equally worthy of being pursued is straightforward enough, but rarely followed. As Todd writes, people usually pick a cause based on personal passion. Sometimes this personal involvement is even encouraged by the general public. Having a direct involvement with a cause tends to make someone seem more trustworthy.

Todd proposes, instead a deliberately more rational approach to see if a cause is worth pursuing according to effective altruist principles. The summary is well worth reproducing in its entirety:


In summary, we think you should look for the best overall combination of the following three factors, the names of which we took from GiveWell Labs:


  1. Important: If we make more progress on this cause, the world will be made a better place. By ‘world made a better place’ we mean that lots of people will be made better off in important ways. Causes can also be important indirectly, because progress on them lets us make progress on other important causes or provides valuable information about which causes are best.
  2. Tractable: There are definite interventions to make progress within this cause, with strong evidence behind them For instance, there are definite opportunities for progress, backed by widely accepted theory, randomised control trials or a track record of success.
  3. Uncrowded: If we add more resources to the cause, we can expect more promising interventions to be carried out. Uncrowded causes are often undervalued or neglected by society. There may be a shortage of important actors within the cause.


We think you can assess causes by:


  • Assessing these factors and their subfactors by asking experts and gathering other relevant data (e.g. data about how many people are affected by a problem, how many people are working on the cause).
  • Drawing on cost-effectiveness and benefit-cost analyses prepared by the Copenhagen Consensus, JPAL and other academic research.
  • Using the results of GiveWell Labs, which aims to assess causes from the perspective of a donor (with the caveat that the best areas to lead your career within are likely to be different from the best areas to donate to).


By following that framework, we can see that promotion of parliamentarism is a great cause for effective altruists to pursue. It is important - few things are more important. As I argue on the book, parliamentarism causes all sorts of outcomes which unambiguously make the world a better place. In terms of GDP growth alone, McManus and Ozkan estimate that it translates into a benefit of around 0.6 to 1.2 percentage points higher yearly GDP growth. That is huge.

It is tractable: there are "definite interventions to make progress with this cause, with strong evidence". The most impactful intervention is also extremely straightforward and technically simple as far as policy and institutional changes go: make a constitution become parliamentary by ensuring that a collectively responsible executive serves at the pleasure of a representative assembly. If that seems too transformative*, there are other smaller yet definite interventions which makes a country more parliamentary. Requirements of confirmation by assemblies for executive appointments, requirements of confirmation for dismissals, limitations to veto power, limitations to treaty power, creation of independent agencies more responsive to parliaments than to presidents, adoption of parliamentary models of governance (such as the council manager system) in other levels of government, the possibilities are numerous. 

Uncrowded: I wish it was not so clear that it is extremely uncrowded. I have been researching this issue, and the only blog in the English language I am aware of which is dedicated to parliamentarism is this one. If you believe my arguments are poor, this is yet another reason to make your own contribution for this unexplored terrain. Some of the most brilliant researchers upon which I relied to write the book are shy in their promotion of parliamentarism. I wish they would speak more loudly about this. Their relative silence seems comparable to a situation where climate scientists saw what was happening to the climate but hardly ever talked about the causes.



Benjamin Todd suggests you to assess these factors by asking experts around. As I wrote in the book, there is close to a consensus among experts on the superiority of parliamentarism. I am not aware of any explicit cost-benefit analysis of the issue (and I would love to see one) but a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows the ratio is gigantic. In the book, I mention a study by Finkel et al which estimates that a US$1 million investment increases the amount of democratic change for the average country by 65%. Let us be rough but conservative and imagine that the expected amount of parliamentary change for a country in a given year is 1/1000, if we classify countries as pure presidential with a value of 0 and pure parliamentary with a value of 1. Let us also stipulate that the effectiveness is 1/10 the effectiveness that Finkel et al find for democracy**. Then a US$1 million investment would buy you around 0.65*0.001*0.1 = 0.000065 units of parliamentarism (65/1,000,000). Considering that the "average" country has a GDP of around US$400 billion**, and parliamentarism is worth around 1% of GDP per year, which I will translate into a 20% increase in the GDP level, then a US$1 million investment would have a return of 400,000,000,000*0.2*0.000065 = US$5.2 million. Those are great returns, and scalable - we may expect that a US$1 billion could translate into US$5 billion of benefits, since we are talking about affecting the government system of whole countries. And those would only be the economic gains, I did not even estimate the benefits in terms of equality, freedom, health, etc.

This is only a back of the envelope calculation and you may find it silly**** to suggest we spend billions of dollars, or even a million dollars, based on such rough estimation. But it does demonstrate the great potential that this may have, which in turn calls for greater research and more detailed cost-benefit analyses. GiveWell and the Copenhagen Consensus Center are two good candidates for trying this out.


Now the passion

While passion is a poor predictor of how worthy a cause is, it is a good predictor of how committed somebody will be to the cause. There is no use proposing causes which may have a great benefit-cost ratio if they are so objectionable or unpleasant to the person which should promote it that it would never happen. The good thing about the promotion of parliamentarism is that while it is not the most exciting topic for everyone, I would expect effective altruists to be moved by it. The most important element in this cause is persuasion through rational argumentation, something which  attracts effective altruists. 

I know I am passionate about this. I hope you have become a bit too.


*I would argue that it is only very transformative in the (positive) outcomes it promotes, not in the costs of implementation, but still.

** I would expect the promotion of parliamentarism to be more effective than the promotion of democracy. It involves far fewer actors and a movement from presidentialism to parliamentarism is less transformative than a move from authoritarianism to democracy. It is also dramatically less crowded. In any case, I am trying to be conservative.

*** I simply divided world GDP as around US$80 trillion by around 200 countries.

**** I edited this to reflect that I personally do not find it silly to promote parliamentarism at least as much as we promote so many other policies which are much less important, tract

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I think the cause of promoting parliamentarism is potentially quite promising, and something that deserves considerably more attention than it has received so far (besides the OP, I believe this post is the only post related to parliamentarism on this forum).

Unfortunately, I don't feel the OP does justice to the cause or to the arguments in its favor. And I suspect Tiago himself would agree; the more convincing case is found in his book on the subject (that direct link to the book is found on his website).

The following is an excerpt on "Parliamentarism vs. Presidentialism" (from a forthcoming book of mine) that provides a summary of some of the reasons in favor of parliamentarism, based in large part on Tiago's book:

Among modern democracies, one can broadly distinguish two different systems of government: parliamentarism and presidentialism. In a parliamentary system, the executive branch of government is appointed by — and may also be dismissed by — the legislative branch, and the ministers of the government carry a collective responsibility. In a presidential system, by contrast, the head of government, i.e. the president, is elected directly by citizens. The president has the power to appoint and dismiss ministers, and is responsible for the entire executive branch (Santos, 2020, p. 2).

A number of scholars have argued that parliamentarism has proved superior to presidentialism across a wide range of important metrics. In the words of political scientist and diplomat Tiago Santos, “political science analysis of the different systems is close to a consensus on the superiority of parliamentarism, economic models almost unanimously point in the same direction, and empirical evidence supports it” (Santos, 2020, p. xii).

In particular, countries with parliamentary systems are generally better at protecting individual liberties, including freedom of the press, and income inequality is 12-24 percent higher in presidential countries compared to parliamentarist ones (McManus & Ozkan, 2018; Santos, 2020, p. 1, p. 11). Parliamentary systems also appear to have significantly lower levels of political polarization (Casal Bértoa & Rama, 2021), and to be more stable, more peaceful, and less prone to coups (Santos, 2020, p. 1, ch. 1), all of which seem desirable features in relation to the proxy aims of securing cooperation, improving our values, and increasing our overall capacity to reduce suffering [and to achieve other altruistic aims].

Parliamentary systems are also associated with “better corruption control, bureaucratic quality, rule of law, …, infant mortality, and literacy” (Santos, 2020, p. 47; Gerring et al., 2009). In terms of more general measures, parliamentarism is associated with higher scores on the UN Development Program’s Inequality-Adjusted Development Index; for instance, not a single presidential country is in the top 20 of this index (Santos, 2020, p. 11).

Evidence pertaining to corporations and local governance likewise supports the overall effectiveness of parliamentary models over presidential ones. In terms of corporate governance, most corporations choose a structure similar to parliamentarism, whereas virtually none opt for a presidentialist structure, which suggests that parliamentarist structures have considerable advantages for effective and adaptive governance (Santos, 2020, 1.2.2). At the level of local government, it turns out that cities that opt for more parliamentary structures, such as by electing a city council that appoints a council manager, tend to do better on various measures compared to cities that opt for a more presidential structure, such as a “strong mayor” model in which a city mayor and council are elected separately. For instance, cities with the council manager model tend to have less corruption and less conflict among senior officials (Carr, 2015; Nelson & Afonso, 2019; Santos, 2020, 1.2.3).

What might account for this apparent superiority of parliamentarist structures compared to presidentialist ones? Political theorists have pointed to a number of mechanisms. Santos argues that the difference can be thought of as a general algorithmic difference: parliamentarist systems implement a decision algorithm that is generally better suited for making good decisions (Santos, 2021). In more specific terms, parliamentary systems only have popular elections for the legislature, whose members become the sole representatives of the people, whereas presidential systems both elect the legislature and a president as representatives of the people. And since presidential systems have no mechanism for aligning the majority of the legislature with the head of government, the president is likely to diverge in significant ways from a majority of the legislature on key political issues. In addition, parliamentary systems can more easily replace incompetent leaders, and they likewise tend to have less concentration of power compared to presidential systems, in which the president has all of the executive power (Linz, 1990; Santos, 2020, 1.1.1).

If there is indeed such a strong case in favor of opting for parliamentarism over presidentialism, across so many relevant measures, should we not expect parliamentarism to be more popular? First, parliamentarism arguably is quite popular, especially among political scientists, as hinted by Santos above, and as evidenced by an elaborate literature defending its superiority compared to presidentialism (see e.g. Linz & Valenzuela, 1994; Riggs, 1997; Selinger, 2019; Santos, 2020).

Second, it is not surprising if parliamentarism has a difficult time gaining widespread popularity, in part because the case for parliamentarism can sound vaguely technical and boring, and in part because any vision to advance parliamentarist change is unlikely to stir our primal political motivations. It fails to inspire a struggle against a political outgroup — there is no clear “anti-parliamentarist” coalition to oppose — and hence being in favor of parliamentarism fails to signal any clear partisan loyalties, just as it fails to be a signal of altruistic traits.

Perhaps also see this interview with Tiago. [Edited to add links to some of the studies.]

Thanks, Magnus. You're right, the argument involves many more elements which I did not explore in the post. I really like your summary and would invite all others to read the book (which is pretty short, and available for free as a pdf at whynotparliamentarism.com)

I'm sure this is addressed in the book I haven't read, but I wonder how much of this is confounded by former British rule. That is, if you factor out parliamentary systems that were established after a legacy of British rule, would it still be the case that parliaments are better?

I'm guess the argument is "yes' but I'm not sure and am somewhat suspicious that some of these effects could be cultural ones that just happen to come along with parliaments, making parliamentarism an effect rather than a cause.

Tiago writes the following in response to a similar comment made on Overcoming Bias:

That is a common hypothesis, which is why studies usually include legal origins as a control. Others do not need to do it, because they used a fixed effects approach such that any invariant characteristic such as colonizer will be automatically controlled for. But endogeneity might always be an issue, which is why the book also deals with theory, and auxiliary evidence from companies and municipalities. I think you would like it!

As Tiago notes, the evidence goes beyond just national governments; the first chapter of his book has sections on national governments, corporations, and local government, and the latter two are not subject to this confounder. And as Hanson writes in his review of the book, one may argue that the evidence from cities (i.e. local governance) is most convincing:

Finally, and to me most persuasive, there is evidence on U.S. cities ...

As usual, the studies of variation across nations have a small N problem; if you try to include too many controls, you run out of data. In contrast, for firms N is huge, but one worries that their problems are too different, as boards of directors are rarely elected directly by shareholders. But the problem of city [governance] seems close enough to nations, and there N is large. For example, in this study N = 12,238.

See e.g. the studies on local governance cited above: Carr, 2015; Nelson & Afonso, 2019.

In addition to Magnus' points, I don't think the cultural argument does it. It is much less well specified. Some people take issue that I define parliamentarism in the book as "executive subordination to the legislature" as too vague (I think it is clear enough, naturally). But if that is risking being too vague, culture is far more. In a sense,  culture has globalized dramatically around the world - language, art, form of dress, food, family size, etc. You will probably argue that those are not the aspects that matter, but then shouldn't it be the claim that culture is what matters to specify what aspects matter?

Some would say that the aspects that matter are issues like trust, low corruption, respect of property rights, etc. But are there any cultures which do not value those things, which claim they are outright undesirable? I don't think there are.   Instead, all cultures value those goods and would like to achieve them. If all do value those traits at least in abstract, does it make sense to call them cultural? 

Unfortunately, their achievement of those traits is not conditional only on their desire to do so, but on the underlying incentives in the society. If you live in an "extractive society", behaving like the most trusting Scandinavian person might not make you advance a lot. 

A good parallel might be price controls (which are, incidentally, much more prevalent in presiential countries). In countries which do not implement price controls, prices achieve their equilibrium and business is trusted. But where countries do implement price controls, parallel markets are created, businesses are accused of cheating and of being excessively greed, trust is undermined. Many lament that the problem is that businesses are more greedy in the latter type of country than in the former. But the incentives are doing the real work.

Lastly, I would note that studies do control for long-term cultural aspects when they control for the region/country. One could argue that it is the shifting culture that promotes both parliamentarism and good outcomes, but the hypothesis seems to rely on increasingly ad hoc explanations, with the problem of being not very well specified already. When we add the evidence from e.g., American cities which have by and large the same culture, I find it hard to accept the hypothesis. At the very least, I think the burden should lie on the cultural hypothesis instead of parliamentarism.

Thanks for your reply. Helps make a case that parliaments do something above and beyond the culture/tradition in which they are situated.

That said, I do want to respond to one thing you said:

Some would say that the aspects that matter are issues like trust, low corruption, respect of property rights, etc. But are there any cultures which do not value those things, which claim they are outright undesirable? I don't think there are.

Up until 2 days ago I likely would have shared this sentiment, but I was talking with someone who grew up in Romania and as he put it some of these are not so obvious. For example, although corruption was rampant, no one thought of it that way. Instead it was framed as a gifting custom and seen as normal to provide gifts to those providing services to you (doctors, teachers, government officials, etc.) because you want to show your respect and ensure good service. No one thought of this as bribery, so it seemed like they were already low corruption. And it's easy to imagine folks balking at the idea that it is corruption; how dare, they might say, you come in and disturb our local gift giving tradition!

That makes it quite easy for me to imagine similar stories for things like trust, property rights, etc.: a local equilibrium can become justified and then no one will think a thing is undesirable, or even necessarily realize that something undesirable is going on (in fact, locally it seems quite desirable!).

Thanks. Yes, you are right that there are some differences like you said, and they can have some importance my point should have been more nuanced. To paraphrase/quote from memory author Huey Li (who wrote a great book related to this theme, "Dividing the Rulers"), constitutions can affect cultures in years, cultures will affect constitutions in centuries.

Also, I'm not sure I would attach that much weight to that story for a general sense of how unsatisfied the Romanians are with the level of corruption in their country. And with respect to property rights, trust, I think we can imagine how people might in abstract argue that they "prefer" societies with less of it, but in reality I do find it hard to imagine people preferring to live in societies where they have no security that their stuff will be with them tomorrow, or whether they can trust others to do what they said they would.  

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