Throwing Sand into the Political System

Project: Research project

Project Details


In a seminal paper published on American Economic Review in 2004 (hereafter MT), Eric Maskin (Nobel Laureate 2007) and Jean Tirole (Nobel Laureate 2014) asked the question of what determine the optimal accountability of government officials. A less accountable government official is one who can occupy the office for longer without facing reelection. MT’s first-pass answer to this intriguing question is that, while accountability allows the voters to screen and discipline their officials, it also induces those officials to pander to public opinion and put too little weight on minority welfare. When the latter concerns loom large, it is better to leave government officials unaccountable.

MT’s answer is not without its difficulty. Promising government officials reappointment regardless of what they do is not the only way to stop them from pandering to public opinion—denying them reappointment regardless of what they do can do the trick too! So why the former but not the latter? MT acknowledged that there are indeed factors (such as risk aversion on the part of the voters) that will even favor the latter, but argued that there are also factors that favor the former.

This study revisits MT’s question, but provides a very di↵erent answer. Our starting point is that time changes, and the society changes with it. Over the last 200 years of so, we increasingly found cruelty intolerable, gender inequality despicable, and racial discrimination reprehensible. Many international treaties on the conduct of war are observed not because they can be e↵ectively enforced, but rather because our preferences have drifted so far that any blatant violations of these codes of conduct will be so loathed in history. Likewise, the franchise is continuously being extended in America, not because the Founding Fathers’ original meaning of “all men” included women and Blacks (no, it did not), but because ignoring the original meaning is the only way to accommodate the society’s ever-evolving preference without triggering a constitutional crisis.

The society understands that, and understands that its ever-evolving preference hurts its ability to elicit honest advices from experts. It hence elects representatives and commits to allow them to occupy the offices for a long time. Engaging experts indirectly through these representatives can be better than engaging them directly by the society itself. The necessary cost of this mechanism is that, representatives who have been in the offices for a long time eventually become “too conservative” from the view of the society, in the sense that they fail to “keep up with the times”. The optimal design balances this conservatism cost against the benefits from engaging experts.

This project plans to formalize and go beyond this idea. Interesting questions we shall ask include: Is the society better o↵ (1) electing a representative who represents the current zeitgeist but will eventually become “too conservative”, or (2) electing a representative who is “ahead of his time”? Should a faster-evolving society throw more or less sand into its political system in the sense of making its representatives less accountable? What about a more or less educated society?
StatusNot started
Effective start/end date1/01/2531/12/26


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