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Should the United States Switch to a Parliamentary System?

Updated: Mar 15

Compared to its peers, the American system of government is somewhat unusual. It’s presidential, meaning executive power is vested in the president as head of government, who is distinct from the legislature. The judiciary also exists as an independent third power.


In contrast, many European and Western countries have parliamentary systems, in which executive power is vested in the legislature. The prime minister is the head of government, but is elected by the legislature and usually serves for as long as they have majority support in parliament. In some cases, the judiciary may be dependent on the legislature for its powers. Parliamentary systems place all or almost all power into the legislature, directly or indirectly. 


Given the political dysfunction in the United States, alternative democratic systems are worth considering. Two common objections to presidential systems point to (1) conflict between the president and legislature causing dysfunction and (2) the rigidity of the system because of fixed terms. On the other hand, parliamentary systems often de-emphasize separation of powers and do not allow the public to directly elect the head of government.


While these difficult tradeoffs are fairly subjective, economic performance gives a more objective comparison measure between presidential and parliamentary systems. Some empirical evidence indicates that parliamentary democracies, as compared to presidential systems, are associated with better economic performance. Importantly, there is evidence of a causal effect. Empirical evidence shows that authoritarian regimes reforming into parliamentary democracies experience better economic performance than authoritarian regimes reforming into presidential democracies. It also shows that presidential systems reforming into parliamentary systems experience economic benefits.


There are several reasons why parliamentary systems may perform better economically than presidential systems. 


For one, parliamentary systems may be more coordinated and better able to act decisively. Because actors in parliamentary systems have a clear chain of dependence back to the legislature, it is easier to achieve consensus. In contrast, in a presidential system like the United States, where the judiciary, the legislature and the president all have independent power, the components of the government are more free to not cooperate with each other.


Because parliamentary systems tend to emphasize parties over individual politicians compared to presidential systems, there may be less conflict between parties and their politicians. Compare the trouble the Democratic Party has had with Senators Manchin and Sinema against the parliamentary system of the UK, where members of parliament may be expelled from their parliamentary party for not complying with the weekly instructions parties issue on how to vote in Parliament.


Parliamentary systems may also force the government to be more accountable to the public. In parliamentary systems, heads of government generally do not serve for fixed terms, but for however long they command a majority in the legislature. While unpopular presidents may continue to serve out their fixed term of office, in parliamentary systems, unpopular prime ministers who no longer command a majority in the legislature can be replaced by the legislature. Therefore, a parliamentary head of government has to craft and maintain policies that appeal to a broad segment of the legislature and population.


While parliamentary systems can also suffer from severe issues, it is worth considering if some of our American political dysfunction comes from our system of government. Our political attitudes are affected and shaped by our political institutions and rules. If our current political system has led to the current polarization and political breakdown, perhaps another form of democracy can be a path out.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources


Gerring, John, et al. “Are Parliamentary Systems Better?” Comparative Political Studies, vol. 42, no. 3, 9 Dec. 2008, pp. 327–359, www.bu.edu/sthacker/files/2012/01/Are-Parliamentary-Systems-Better.pdf, https://doi.org/10.1177/001041400832557. Accessed 17 Apr. 2019.


McManus, Richard, and F. Gulcin Ozkan. “Who Does Better for the Economy? Presidents versus Parliamentary Democracies.” Public Choice, vol. 176, no. 3-4, 2 May 2018, pp. 361–387, www.york.ac.uk/media/economics/documents/discussionpapers/2017/1703.pdf, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-018-0552-2.


Persson, Torsten. NBER WORKING PAPER SERIES FORMS of DEMOCRACY, POLICY and ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. 2005.

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