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Break it and see: norms of good governance and the wobbly protection of public opinion

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Events around the world (on this please see Freedom in the World 2017) are teaching us at least two astounding lessons. The first is that in liberal constitutional democracies good governance is far more dependent on norms, particularly constitutional conventions, than formal rules. This has serious implications. The second lesson is that when certain political actors choose to ignore the norms of good governance …and the details vary depending on the context…it is not at all clear that anything can stop them. Let’s take these two issues one by one.

Norms, conventions, formal rules

In his classic work, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution the great English jurist, A.V. Dicey, introduced a distinction between what he called constitutional laws and the conventions of the constitution. Constitutional law, he pointed out, consists of rules that the courts will enforce. But there are other constitutional rules:

The other set of rules consist of conventions, understandings, habits, or practices which, though they may regulate the conduct of other officials, are not in reality laws at all since they are not enforced by the Courts. This proportion of constitutional law may, for the sake of distinction, be termed the ‘conventions of the constitution’, or constitutional morality.

#9 from 2012: 'Why Nations Fail': The Constitutionalists Were Right All Along

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012

Originally published on May 1, 2012

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have produced a magisterial book: ‘Why Nations Fail’. If you are interested in governance, nay, if you are interested in development, you should read it. I picked it up the week it was published and I could not put it down until it was done. That is how powerful and well-written it is. Yet it is over 500 pages long. In what follows, I am going to focus on what I liked about it and the thoughts it provoked in me as I read it.

First, I admire the simplicity and power of the thesis: what the historical evidence suggests is that nations with inclusive political and economic institutions are capable of sustained growth. Nations with extractive political and economic institutions are not. End of story. Even when an authoritarian state/regime appears to engineer economic growth for a while, it will hit a limit soon enough. Why? Human creativity, human inventiveness and necessary creative destruction of old ways of doing things cannot happen in authoritarian environments. Vested interests are able all too easily to block threatening entrants to the economy; property rights are not secure and so on. Those who control political institutions use their power to extract surpluses in often brutal ways. Key quote: