Return to first part of this paper
Revised 30 May 1997
Explaining Coups. With this thought in mind, I began to compare all third world countries to find out which ones had experienced coups and military rule, and then to see if we could figure out what were the variables most likely to predict this scenario. At the same time, reversing the question, what are the conditions likely to prevent successful coups and lead to the survival of representative governance? A small-scale quantitative study led to the results reported in Riggs (1993).
No doubt, my survey was both impressionistic and amateurish. My codings should be revised by anyone doing a follow-up study. Nevertheless, I found that institutional differences explained coups more than cultural, environmental, demographic, economic, or any other variables that I could identify. The greatest institutional variance involved the kind of political system that existed when a coup took place.
Sometimes coups replaced a monarchy, repeating the Thai scenario. Since the number of absolute monarchies has dwindled, this is no longer statistically important. Much more often, coups substitute the leaders of a new coup group for the discredited leaders of an earlier one -- that happened in Thailand quite often after 1932, as it often has elsewhere. One general conclusion, therefore, is that bureaucratic domination (rule by military officers) is an inherently unstable form of government but, as often as not, its collapse merely leads to a repeat performance. Bureaucrats as rulers also welcome external assistance designed to improve administrative performance -- it also enhances their grip on power.
I also found that all democratic regimes in the new states are quite fragile. Whether they were established at the dawn of independence by agreement with a collapsing imperial power, or after a period of domestic authoritarianism under military domination, governance based on representative institutions in these countries is unlikely to last. During crises, they cannot cope effectively with acute problems: a group of military officers, supported by civil servants and by deeply disaffected popular forces, often seize power.
The institutional design of these democracies correlates with the success of military coups (Riggs, 1993). Most surprisingly to me, all third world regimes that adopted the American separation-of-powers system experienced at least one catastrophic breakdown, i.e. suspension of the constitution, abolition of the legislature, and rule by appointed officials, led by military officers. Strikingly, the only presidentialist regime never to experience such a breakdown -- even during major crises such as a great civil war, depression, and foreign wars -- was the United States. Because the U.S. is highly industrialized and has had its constitution for over two centuries, we might have predicted this difference.
However, the significance of this finding really hit me only when I realized that third world regimes following parliamentary models often survived, though certainly not always. Confirmation of the tendency of parliamentary regimes to outlive presidentialist ones has subsequently received confirmation in a recent and more rigorous statistical analysis by Przeworski et al, (1996). See also Linz, (1990a/b). To explain this pattern, we need to explain the American exception -- at least, that was my conclusion.
Admittedly, the relative viability of parliamentarist vs. presidentialist regimes is a controversial finding rejected by most American Political Scientists. Although they may well be aware of the catastrophic history of other presidentialist regimes, it is easy enough to attribute their failures to economic, cultural or social differences and to avoid looking at the institutional factors. Consider, also, that viability is not the same as effectiveness -- to say that a system survives longer is not to say that it is better. Just as we may expect higher performance from a very complicated car but longer life from a simpler one, so the fusion of power under parliamentarism may enable such regimes to last longer than a more complex and otherwise preferable system based on the separation of powers.
Interestingly, the regimes that lasted longest and were able to avoid coups were not democracies -- rather, they were single party authoritarianisms. A Communist Party that could dominate its elected assembly to maintain its centralized control could also manage its appointed officials, including its military officers, so as to avoid a bureaucratic revolt. In the long run, no doubt, we may expect communist regimes to collapse, but this can be explained by intra-party demoralization attributable to inefficient administration by a powerless bureaucracy rather than a coup d'etat organized by a powerful bureaucracy, or even by a popular revolution -- for some further thoughts on the implications of bureaucratic powerlessness, see Riggs (1997a, pp.99-101; 1997b, pp.21, 26). Here, instead, let me try to explain the American paradox - - if the separation-of-powers produces internally conflicted regimes likely to succumb to military rule during a time of severe crisis, how can we explain the long-term survival of such a system in the U.S.?
The American Exception. The exceptionalist argument claims that America is so different from other countries --geographically, culturally, economically, socially, religiously, historically --that it cannot be compared (Lipset, 1996) However, every country in the world is unique in some respects that distinguish it from every other country. To explain differences, we need to identify relevant variables that apply to different countries, starting with those that are easiest to identify and where more or less plausible cause/effect sequences can be found -- for example size permits geographic comparisons between large and small countries; demographic distinctions involve population statistics; degrees of ethnic homogeneity/heterogeneity may be compared. Most of the "exceptional" features of a country do not permit such comparisons.
Among the variables that can be compared, one that struck me as most promising involves the relation between elected assemblies and heads of government in democracies. In single party dictatorships, both the head of government and the assembly are dominated by the ruling party which makes such regimes undemocratic and irrelevant to this analysis. In some democracies, the head of government is accountable to parliament and can be discharged by a vote of no confidence, but in others s/he is elected for a fixed term and cannot be discharged by such a vote. Following conventional usage, the former system is parliamentarist, and the latter is presidentialist. Note that, to reduce ambiguity, I use "parliamentary" to characterize the elected assembly in parliamentarist regimes; and "presidential" for properties of the president in presidentialist systems. Unfortunately, these terms are so ambiguous that misunderstandings are hard to avoid -- I once offered some neologisms to simplify the discussion but encountered so much resistance I subsequently abandoned the idea (Riggs, 1969).
It is important to distinguish between whole systems and the parts of a system, especially the most notable part which gives its name to the system. No doubt, there are many variations within each system type, and some rules help them more than others. However, a rule, like proportional representation, that may strengthen parliamentarist regimes can well undermine presidentialist ones. This means, of course, that one cannot evaluate the value of any given rule without reference to the type of system in which it is applied. This notion underlines the importance of my earlier comments about the applicability of specific American practices to countries where they might be exported, as also to the relevance of foreign experience to the U.S. -- a point illustrated below in my comments on the Pendleton Act.
The most significant variable to be accounted for when we try to explain America's exceptional durability hit me when I discovered that parliamentarist regimes tend to last longer than presidentialist regimes. To explain the American exception, we need to find significant differences between our presidentialist regime and others that follow the same separation-of-powers rule. The most important difference that I could find arises from the fact that the American system remains oligarchic, and hence easier to manage, than the other presidentialist regimes where more democratic (equalitarian) rules for the party system and elections have evolved. These include proportional representation with multi-member electoral districts and compulsory voting. As I mentioned above, such rules do not seriously jeopardize parliamentarist regimes but they threaten the survivability of presidentialist systems. Evidence for this unconventional and disturbing finding can be found in Riggs (1986, 1988 and 1994c) and I shall say no more about it here except to point out that because even the scholars who are most critical of the American constitutional system base their comparisons on parliamentary regimes rather than on other presidentialist systems: see, for example, Hardin, 1989; Linz, 1990a,b; Robinson, 1985; and Sundquist, 1992.
Instead, let me focus on another difference that involves the structure of a country's bureaucracy and its administrative system. Let me start by asking why American appointed officials, headed by military officers, have never seized power in the U.S. Is this not the most striking difference between the American experience and that of other presidentialist (separation-of-powers) constitutional systems?
Power and Performance. To explain the American exception we need to consider two variables: bureaucratic power and performance. In general, these variables are positively correlated: the more powerful a bureaucracy, the greater its capacity to administer. By contrast, a powerless bureaucracy, under single-party domination, is administratively incompetent, which is why a communist regime must ultimately fail (Riggs, 1997b).
However, there is a ceiling in this relationship. Beyond a certain level, when bureaucratic power becomes politically dominant -- as it does, by definition, in a bureaucratic polity -- the lack of effective controls by non- bureaucratic institutions destroys its administrative capacity. Corruption, laziness, and ignorance ultimately destroy any dominant bureaucracy that cannot be effectively controlled by other institutions, in which legislative power based on free elections is decisive (Riggs, 1973).
In all democracies, these controlling institutions are representative, centering on an elected assembly and a responsible head of government. However, I believe the fusion of powers in a parliamentarist regime enables it to manage a more powerful bureaucracy than any presidentialist (separation-of- powers) system. This is simply because the the unity of authority principle inherent in any cabinet (parliamentarist) system of government permits more effective control over a bureaucracy than does the separation-of-powers (presidentialist) principle. From the bureaucratic perspective, disunity at the top often confuses and frustrates officials, undermining their morale and ability to coordinate their work. This is scarcely a new idea -- see, for example, Rosenbloom (1983), Kaufman, (1981) and Newland, (1987). Nevertheless, the deeper implications of this structure were not appreciated, even by John Rohr whose superb analysis of the implications of a separation-of-powers constitutional framework for American public administration suffers from its lack of comparisons, especially with other presidentialist regimes (Rohr, 1986).
Disunity at the top has major costs. Conflict between branches (magnified by clashes between the components of each branch) hampers effective administration. It also blocks policy-making, as we know from the frequent gridlocks which occur even in the United States where, I believe, our oligarchic practices make political decision making easier than in other presidentialist regimes. Study of the experience of these regimes reveals that their inability to shape policies and control their bureaucracies lies at the root of the problem of maintaining their democratic institutions.
They cannot empower their bureaucracies enough to ensure competent public administration without, at the same time, making them so powerful that they can overthrow the regime when serious crises arise. The separation-of-powers principle also hampers their ability to make good public policy decisions and to make optimal use of the bureaucratic resources they have available to them. By contrast, most parliamentarist regimes are able to maintain sufficient control over their bureaucracies (military and civil) to permit them to be powerful enough to administer well. Coping effectively with the increasingly complex problems of a modern industrialized society also moderates popular disaffection with government and reduces the pressures for revolutionary change or bureaucratic intervention.
To explain the American exception, therefore, we need to understand how its bureaucracy has been kept weak enough not to be able to seize power, but strong enough to administer reasonably well. Part of the answer to this puzzle can be found by explaining the survival of representative governance in America, a feat mentioned above where I attribute it to the maintenance of oligarchic principles of political representation. Since this is an essential part of the equation, it needs to be understood but I cannot discuss it further here -- see Riggs (1986 and 1994c).
Instead, let me focus on two basic variables that affect both bureaucratic power and performance. Although other variables are involved, two strike me as crucial: experience and coordination. Long-term experience in public service gives appointed officials specialized knowledge about how to solve difficult problems and it also enhances their power potential. Rotation of assignments among different agencies and levels of governance from the center to the periphery enables officials to coordinate their work more effectively than when they have worked only in one specialized field, and it also increases their capacity to exercise power. A more detailed discussion of bureaucratic power can be found in Riggs, (1991b).
Mandarinates. The Administrative Class in Great Britain is a familiar example of a bureaucratic system that combines long-term experience and position rotation. Its members are recruited by tough entrance examinations given only to graduates of the most prestigious universities. Their subsequent careers enable them to advance, step by step, from junior to senior posts rotating between the center and localities and different ministries. Finally, as senior undersecretaries, they become distinguished generalists and advisers to the cabinet -- coordinators and policy experts. Although easily lampooned, as in the BBC series, "Yes, Minister," permanent undersecretaries can facilitate policy formation by a government much better than any collection of short-term patronage appointees, or specialists familiar with only one type of government service. A close-to-home example of such a system can also be found in Canada, as described by Campbell and Szablowski, (1979).
The basic principles involved in this type of bureaucracy are not new. They were invented about two thousand years ago in China and evolved into that country's famous "mandarinate." It helped maintain the stability and integrity of long-term Chinese dynasties. When the British learned that it was difficult to maintain effective control over their distant empire in India, they borrowed the Chinese design which they had observed closely from their "factory" in Canton. Only later, after they became increasingly impatient with the problems generated by the patronage system they had used to govern England did they decide to import the mandarin system from India where it had been elaborated in their Indian Civil Service. Similar reforms were carried out in virtually all other parliamentary governments, but they could not be implemented in the United States. Instead, we have developed a distinctive type of public bureaucracy that combines short-term patronage appointees with long-term officials who specialize in particular subject fields and staff services. Had we adopted the mandarin principle in our bureaucracy, I believe it would have led to the collapse of presidentialist democracy in this country.
However, because our oligarchic form of presidentialist democracy had become well established by 1883 when the Pendleton Act creating career services was enacted, bureaucratic domination would probably not have been achieved by means of a violent coup d'etat. Instead, career mandarins would have gained power by gradual non-violent means because no government based on the separation of powers can effectively manage a mandarin bureaucracy. Mandarinates are intrinsically powerful because of their long-term experience in diverse fields of administration. A White House Office fully staffed by mandarins could easily dominate a President -- heavy reliance on transients selected by and loyal to the chief executive are needed to avoid that outcome. Moreover, mandarins assigned to Congressional Committees could probably control their policies.
A mandarinate, therefore, is too powerful to be controlled by any constitutional regime based on the separation-of-powers. The two 20th century examples -- e.g. South Korea and South Vietnam -- fell victims to bureaucratic domination soon after they were created. By contrast, the countries under American military administration after World War II that were permitted to restore parliamentary governance -- Japan and Germany -- already had mandarinates but the new regimes were able to control them. This helps explain why, in both countries -- despite the near total destruction caused by World War II -- governmentally supported economic growth has proceeded so rapidly that they have become industrial superpowers.
Patronage. In order to understand the unique form of bureaucracy found in America today we need to learn more about how patronage systems work. They prevail to the present day in almost all other presidentialist regimes, and survived in the U.S. until passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883. Actually, all modern states were born with patronage bureaucracies. During the nineteenth century, most parliamentary regimes were able to replace them with mandarin-type systems. However, no presidentialist regime could make (or could afford to make) this transformation.
To understand how the U.S. experience differed from that of other presidentialist regimes, we need to consider two different forms of patronage. The original and still the most widespread form of patronage involves long- lasting appointments filled without assurances of tenure. This is what we had during the first 30 years or so of our existence until rotation in office was institutionalized by Andrew Jackson, as Leonard White has explained (1954, pp.5, 12-13). During most of the 19th century, a different type of patronage system based on short-term patronage appointments became the norm in America. This kind of rotation system which relies on transients (in-and-outers) continues to prevail in the United States at top levels of the bureaucracy.
It is hard for us to recognize or talk about the normal kind of patronage system (the one that prevailed in the U.S. during our first decades) because we lack a convenient term for the concept of patronage appointees who are able to keep their jobs indefinitely. The word, retainer, identifies such people quite well, but we use it mainly for family retainers, or perhaps officials in old-line monarchies. However, republics also have retainers, including the United States.
Leonard White was speaking about retainers when he wrote of the patronage appointees from Washington's time up to Jackson's that "permanent and continued employment during good behavior was taken for granted" (White 1951, p.369). Remnants of the retainer system can still be found in the U.S., especially in many local governments. I shall use this word to distinguish between retainers who were able to retain their posts when new presidents took office by contrast with transients, i.e., officials who are in-and-outers. Both are patronage appointees and most presidentialist regimes still rely mainly on retainers rather than transients to staff their bureaucracies.
Initially, retainers were non-threatening to presidentialist regimes. So long as the functions of government were relatively simple, they could easily be learned or improvised "on-the-job" and experience paid off so it was clearly expedient to retain "work horses" who could pull the barges of state. Having experienced officials became increasingly important as the problems generated by industrialization became more complicated.
This means that as entrenched retainers became more indispensable to presidentialist regimes, their propensity to organize informally to protect their jobs made them more and more powerful. They never established trade unions since, without job security, anyone seeking to organize a union could easily be discharged. However, they could easily resist changes that threatened their perquisites, such as international projects to install a civil service system (Ruffing-Hilliard, 1991). More dramatically, secret cabals and cliques, especially among military officers, could become the incubators of successful coups. By contrast, in America, the replacement of retainers by transients undermined the capacity of patronage appointees to seize power. A classic description of transients in the American bureaucracy can be found in Heclo, (1978), but without a comparative framework, the political significance of this kind of patronage system is not discussed.
Growing Complexity. As the industrial revolution and globalization transformed the tasks of government, making them more complex and interdependent, the risks of government failure during times of crisis increased. During such crises, secret cabals of public officials, led by military officers, could and did seize power in many countries, most often in those with presidentialist constitutions. Maladministration in relation to the growing difficulties of public administration in countries unable to provide integrated political leadership fed mounting public anger against governmental incompetence. It also drove the bureaucratic backlash that, I believe, periodically brought military groups to power by means of a coup d'etat in 90% of all presidentialist regimes.
Why, we may well ask, did such a fate not also strike the United States? A good answer starts with the Jacksonian revolution which, according to Leonard White, introduced "rotation into the federal system" although it did not introduce the spoils (i.e. patronage) system (White, 1954, pp. 4-5). Succeeding presidents became ever more corrupt and partisan in their appointments so that the abuse of power and public complaints mounted. However, transients lack the time and motivation to organize cabals to seize power. Knowing how soon they will become unemployed, they focus on using current connections to facilitate their employment outside of government after they leave public office.
In the United States the patronage system, because of rotation, became increasingly corrupt and incompetent while, concurrently, the new problems generated by industrialization compelled the government to adopt increasingly complicated policies. It became increasingly apparent to members of Congress that a fundamental reform in the civil service was needed. After a long struggle, this led to the enactment of the Pendleton Act in 1883 (Van Riper, 1958). Although only an ordinary act of Congress, this law has major constitutional consequences -- to me, it has become a fundamental part of our para-constitution (Riggs 1986).
This Act introduced a new and uniquely American kind of bureaucrat, someone who was neither a mandarin nor a retainer, i.e., someone evaluated by training and experience to occupy a particular position rather than a youth recruited for a life-long career service with upward mobility assured. Congressional responsiveness to local constituencies was reflected in a provision of the Act that required the nation-wide distribution of appointments, a shrewd move, based on the West Point precedent, that assured patronage for all members of Congress while blocking the appointment of Ivy League graduates, the sons of affluent Easterners who could, indeed, have established a mandarinate had the British model been followed, as originally proposed. Although opposition to elitism was often mentioned as a reason for the American rejection of the mandarin model, its political consequences for the survival of democracy in America were profound.
The American adaptation of the mandarin system brought into existence a new kind of civil servant. Our lack of a comparative framework is reflected in the fact that we have no specific term for our own unique invention. Civil servant is a generic term that includes mandarins so it is not specific enough to characterize the distinctively American type of civil servant. The word "functionary" is often used in a pejorative sense to refer to a kind of bureaucrat trapped by repetitive office routines so we cannot borrow it. However, we might avoid the pejorative connotations of this word by using functionist instead to refer to the distinctively American type of career official who is recruited and promoted to work in a specific functional domain.
Gradually, after 1883, more and more posts in the American public services were staffed by functionists and, for the most part, American Public Administration schools and theories are dedicated to the training of future functionists -- they focus their attention on the problems functionists will face as government officials. This focus excludes military officers, who already had well established training programs before the Pendleton Act. It also excludes the transients whose continuing appointment for high level posts in the American bureaucracy largely explains the inherent political weakness of our bureaucracy. Reliance on functionists also means that basic policy areas -- agriculture, engineering, transportation, communications, health, education, etc. -- cannot be a focus of Public Administration training because, simultaneously, professional schools in these functional areas have emerged in all the state universities where, of course, the opportunity to train professionals for long-term public service became increasingly important.
In time, many functionists became professionals in the sense of this word intended by Wilson, (1989). Their bureau-centric orientations combined with loyalty to the externally generated norms of their professional associations and schools meant that they would not be interested in the formation of bureaucracy-wide informal organizations. Assurances of tenure meant they lacked the motivation of retainers to organize informally to defend their long-term interests. It also meant that most functionists in government service do not identify themselves as bureaucrats or public administrators -- they prefer to think of themselves as engineers, agriculturists, public health doctors, etc., choosing professions that link them with their private-sector counterparts and associations.
After subtracting the main stream professions, what was left over for Public Administration was a bunch of staff services -- personnel, finance, public relations, organization and methods -- the bread and butter of our field. As ASPA has discovered, it is quite difficult, in this environment, to find many people who identify themselves with the "profession" of Public Administration -- more attractive identities are available to them in the main-line professions, or in the sub-fields identified as staff services, each of which, I think, has associations with more members than ASPA can attract under the broad rubric of public administration professionals.
The external links of American functionists with a private sector profession also permits many of them to become non-partisan transients, entering and leaving government service in professional roles, including those of university professors. In sum, the development of a functionist bureaucracy enabled the American government to enjoy the services of increasingly specialized long-termers without taking the risk that they might form cabals to control or oust the government. We felt so secure about the permanence of our presidentialist (separation-of-powers) constitutional system that we never think about the possibility of a coup d'etat. The spread of functionism in America also meant that the quality of public administration in specific niches could improve radically, giving us an illusion of administrative prowess. The fact that the system makes inter-program coordination or meta- policy development so difficult came to be viewed as a challenge that we ought to be able to solve rather than as an inescapable liability inherent in the formula that permits our fragile constitutional system to survive. We also learned to see subgovernments as regrettable accidents but not as deep-rooted manifestations of this basic system. We view bureaucratic politics as an intra-systemic game or problem, but not as something exceptional in a global perspective -- see, for example, Rourke, (1991) and Seidman, (1980).
Conclusion. Because the risk of bureaucratic revolts was eliminated in America, it is not even discussed in our text-books on Public Administration. We assumed that all bureaucracies could be essentially "non- political" instruments of public policy, subservient to the basic political choices made by some kind of representative government. Our myth of a dichotomy between politics and administration permitted us to distance ourselves from political questions and also from Political Science as a discipline. It also allowed us to ignore the growing prevalence in the third world of bureaucratic polities, regimes in which appointed officials, led by military officers, were in fact politically dominant. We tended, instead, to overlook the political role of all public bureaucracies, a point I made 30 years ago (Riggs, 1963).
Our current emphasis on "development management" points to parallels in business administration where politics is viewed as irrelevant. This focus enables us, in our schools and departments of Public Administration, to assume that we have some kind of universally relevant and valuable expertise that can be applied everywhere, in any system of governance. By ignoring problems of military administration and our own continuing reliance on patronage in public office for top level appointees, we can focus on the management and role of functionists, especially in the staff services, as equivalent to the whole field of Public Administration. There are exceptions to this generalization, but it remains essentially true.
As a special attraction, we are still led to believe that our approach to the study of Public Administration will generate some interesting foreign assignments for our graduates and attract more students from abroad, thereby also increasing the number of faculty positions in our schools. Such dreams powered the euphoria of the 60's when American universities were also expanding rapidly and, of course, they also validated the establishment of the Comparative Administration Group and informed the core of our ethnocentric complacency. Although we have now moved beyond those simplifications in many ways, I believe that much of our ethnocentrism remains.
Ultimately, I think, we can only overcome this ethnocentrism by learning to view our own American system of public administration in a comparative context. That will enable us to understand the uniqueness of such historical experiences as the the Jacksonian Revolution and the Pendleton Act. When we become more aware of the basic ways in which our system of governance differs from that of other presidentialist regimes -- as well, of course, as of all parliamentarist systems -- we will also learn what is unique about it and which of our practices can be usefully exported and which are only relevant at home. We will also discover, I think, that some of the reforms we would most like to carry out at home will undermine the viability of our system of government. International comparisons will help us understand the constitutional risks inherent in many such reforms.
In my current work, I have elaborated on many of these matters, pointing to their constitutional implications (Riggs, 1986, 1994a, b and c, 1995a and b, 1996, and 1997a to f). Although I cannot say more about them here, let me close by urging SICA members to accept the proposition that their knowledge of foreign systems of government can be used to help us all gain a deeper understanding of American public administration. Moreover, if the Americanists in ASPA will recognize how victimized we have been by an approach that excludes foreign comparisons -- especially comparisons with regimes that follow our own separation-of-powers presidentialist model -- they will achieve a deeper understanding of our own system. Such an understanding will, I believe, enable us to work more effectively for better public administration at home and also help us understand what we can and cannot usefully do overseas.
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See related papers by Riggs:
FRED W. RIGGS,
Political Science Department, University of Hawaii
2424 Maile Way, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, U.S.A.
Phone: (808) 956-8123; Fax: (808) 956-6877
e-mail: FREDR@HAWAII.EDU; Web Page: http://www2.hawaii.edu/~fredr/