Part 1 describes what “democratic accountability theory” is.
“Accountability” has a generalized positive connotation. Surely it is better when power is held accountable than when it is unaccountable or arbitrary. Scratching the surface, however, various considerations make it evident that the appeal of “electoral accountability” is illusory.
- First, an “accountable government” is presumably self-evidently superior to an “unaccountable government” whose mandate is permanent and therefore cannot be replaced. But the charm of accountability seems less clear when the alternative is a different “unaccountable” government – a government whose mandate is temporary and cannot be renewed. If elections are the only method of accountability then such a limited mandate government is not accountable either. Accountability, it turns out, is not about replacing government any more than it is about permanent government. For some reason, a government must be re-electable to be “accountable”. It is the ability to award the prize of re-election that makes a government electorally accountable. If a prize cannot be awarded, or cannot be withdrawn, the spell of accountability is nullified.
- Secondly, accountability is purely retrospective. The politicians have had their time in office and are now either rewarded or punished for past actions. This is a radical retreat not only from the naive (Schumpeter’s “classical”) theory of elections which relied in addition to the retrospective rewards-based argument on the prospective virtue-based argument (“the voters will select people who are competent and trustworthy”), but also from the Schumpeterian theory. Schumpeter explicitly draws the analogy between voting and making a purchasing selection (e.g., “what businessmen do not understand is that exactly as they are dealing in oil so [politicians are] dealing in votes”). The analogy is imperfect but it does imply, like the naive theory, application of both prospective and retrospective considerations: on the one hand the buyer tries to assess the quality of the items for sale before the purchase, and on the other hand the seller is interested in repeat business and so has the incentive to keep his customers happy.
One implication of a theory whose main emphasis is on retrospection is that the question of how an official attained power matters little. “Accountability” is supposed to guide anyone in power toward the Good as long as they stand for elections at some not too distant point in the future. The leaders of a coup, say, are accountable – and therefore democratic – if they hold “free and fair” elections within a few years of taking power.
- Thirdly, if some sort of a prize that may or may not be awarded to a government officials at the end of their term is required in order to make them accountable, then many possible prizes besides re-election could be considered. It is certainly possible to imagine a system where at the end of each term government officials are graded, by popular vote or by some other mechanism, and have some just desserts – either positive or negative – bestowed or inflicted upon them. Anything from monetary rewards or fines to statues and jail time can be considered. It is quite unclear why these would not serve as effective media for accountability. The existence of anti-bribery laws, for example, implies that monetary motivations have high potential in motivating government official to make their decisions in accordance with the interests of those awarding them cash.
- Finally, the whole rewards-based argument for electoralism is entirely unconvincing. That is, not only isn’t it clear why re-election should be seen as the only accountability-inducing prize, it is quite unclear how re-election could serve as a prize for high-quality government policy at all. Empirically the idea that the public is able to effectively assess the quality of past policy is highly unrealistic. It is based on some sort of a spectator sport analogy: like, say, elite sprinters who can run faster than most anyone in the audience, elected politicians are unique for their ability to craft policy better than most any voter. However, like the viewers of a sprint who can all see which one of the sprinters runs the fastest, the voters can easily see who actually governs best.
Even in the case of running, there is much more to selecting the “best” in the field than meets the eye (increasingly sophisticated drug tests, for example), but when it comes to selecting politicians, retrospection by itself gives very limited information about quality. Voters are at the mercy of the politicians themselves and their allies or opponents in the media when they gather information upon which they have to base their selection. Coming up with a realistic estimate of the quality of government policy is much too difficult and expensive to justify the effort. “Electoral accountability” rests therefore upon the slogans and manipulation of mass politics rather than on informed and considered choices.
Beyond these epistemic barriers, proposing re-election as an accountability-inducing prize creates another problem – coming up with a psychological model which would be consistent with the supposed advantages of the electoral system. If the electoral system is such that the elected are induced to use their power in accordance with the interests of the people rather than for personal profit, then it is not clear what the allure of being elected is. It seems paradoxical to assume that an elected official give up their opportunity to, say, enrich themselves and their associates, only for the (uncertain) privilege of getting re-elected for another term, in which they will also not be able to enrich themselves because they would be concerned about being re-elected yet again. At some point of this chain of postponed gratification the politician needs a real prize – a prize that is not just another chance of convincing the public that they should be re-elected.
It could be, of course, that public service itself is the prize. This would contradict accepted dogma about people being self-serving, but dogma is always flexible in hands of the propagandist. However, if this is the case then the elected politician would pursue it whether or not re-election is offered.
The only remaining possibility, it seems, is that politicians are after the offices alone. According to this rationalization, they do not care about serving the public, but their main profit from service is not setting policy in accordance with their interests, but simply being elected again and again for office. Under this model, the elected politicians do not want to risk their main objective – simply being in high office – by pursuing minor objectives, such as distributing society’s resources in a way that would materially benefit their political backers. It is possible that this carefully contrived model is what “accountability” theorists have in mind. Schmitter and Karl may allude to that when they talk about “professional politicians who orient their careers around the desire to fill key offices.” Like other aspects of their model, they seem content not to scrutinize this issue too closely.
Accountability theory rose from the ashes of explicitly elitist theories in the vein of the Schumpeterian theory. As elitist theories became increasingly unfashionable during the last quarter of the previous century mystification became a convenient alternative. What accountability theory lacks in coherence it more than makes up for in superficial respectability and agreeability to established power. It serves those “variety of needs – psychological, socio-economic, political, propagandistic – that transcend the need of pedants for scientific cogency”. Having attained conventional status in intellectual circles, there is no reason to expect accountability theory to lose any of its charm until public opinion forcefully rejects it. In the same way that the civil rights struggle managed to sway public opinion against the oligarchical mindset of elitist theories, present-day democratic political activism should aim to delegitimate the false pretenses of the accepted political science that has grown since.