Essentials of Comparative Politics
In order to understand what comparative politics is, the definition of politics must also be made clear. Politics exist wherever an organization does, sometimes even if the organization is not formally constructed. Thus, any relations within organization that involve a struggle for power are referred to as politics. In the political science realm, the type of politics being observed is that conducted in political institutions -- such as sub-national, national or supra-national governments -- where the power exerted is over the general public. Power is defined as the ability to influence others.
Comparative politics uses these two concepts and adds in a third: comparison. Simply put, it is the comparative study of politics and political power. The politics of different political institutions are compared so as to help us understand the dynamics behind political power, test our hypotheses concerning political power and verify our assumptions. For instance, why are some governments stable while others are not? Why do some governments stubbornly remain non-democratic?
This last question is in fact a central topic, and the debate over going to war in Iraq revolved around it. Comparative politics suggests several approaches for investigating this question, springing from two basic reasoning tools. Inductive reasoning refers to the process by which a hypothesis is obtained following the study of a case. Deductive reasoning, on the other hand, has the opposite directionality, whereby hypotheses are generated and then tested with cases. Although both methods have their validity, both are also quite complicated and have their shortcomings, due to the nature of political science.
First, as is the case with political science, variables cannot be controlled for, as they are based on an analysis of the real world where all variables, causes and effects are intermingled in a complex web that is difficult, if not impossible, to untangle. Second, as there are around 200 countries, each with varying characteristics and intricacies that make comparison difficult, sample sizes are often deemed inadequate for accurate results. Consider the fact that in the natural sciences, for instance, a large number of similar cases -- at least hundreds and most often thousands -- are contrasted to yield the most accurate results. 200 countries with varying cultures, regimes, economic outputs, inputs and other characteristics make such systematic study difficult. This brings us to the third problem, as how each characteristic of a country is measured depends often on the method used to access it. In some countries, access to archives is nigh on impossible, and in others different methods of analysis (assuming the records can be obtained) yield very different results. Furthermore, individual scientists are highly unlikely to do the comparative field research themselves, and usually tend to use data and databases compiled by others. The methodological contrasts between how each dataset was compiled makes comparison more complex. Fourth and last, issues of bias play a role in complicating study of the field. This bias revolves specifically around the selection of cases -- given their highly limited number -- as language barriers, political barriers or plain personal interest motivate the selection of one case over the other despite the fact that the one discarded may be more appropriate. Due to all the problems above, the relationship between variables of study is most often concluded to correlational (if that) rather than causational, as causation is too difficult to determine.
Although the above may cause skepticism about the validity of political science as a whole, the fact that it, along with comparative politics, makes for difficult study is also what engendered a push towards an increasingly scientific approach in these fields. This has, however, also sparked a debate concerning its nature as a real science. Comparative politics, as conducted by, among others, Niccolò Machievelli, Karl Marx and Max Weber was an odd blend of ideology and academic inquiry, and by the twentieth century, although a formal field, approximated a sort of Euro-centric journalism rather than a comparative study of states and political institutions. As comparative politics modernized, especially after the two world wars and during the rise of the Cold War, systematic study became a reality to cope with the complexity of the field, but the idealistic grain that was there in the past remained: capitalism and democracy were upheld as the goal. This idealism is written down in modernization theory, a theoretical field of comparative politics, whereby it is stated that societal development will lead ultimately to a political organization akin to that of a capitalist democracy with similar values and characteristics. According to this line of reasoning, Western countries were the most advanced and third world countries needed to be guided along this path and diversions caused by alternative political systems (such as communism) needed to be averted. Thus, field research for comparative study, funded by Western governments and private grants, became the norm. Collected data was then processed with statistical methods and computer technology, along with a shift away from legislations and constitutions towards individual behavior. This is known as the behavioral revolution. Political behavior and incentives became the center of study and through such study it was hoped that theories could be obtained and generalized that would explain political motivation across countries. Although modernization theory and behavioralism are quite different, as the former hypothesizes about a country’s development and the latter provides a method of approach to politics, they are both a manifestation of the increasing scientization of the field of comparative politics.
This was not, however, without drawbacks, as critics argued that the scientific obsession had misled political scientists away from knowledge, but rather incentivized methodological complexity and technical jargon that detracted from the validity of the discipline. Additionally, critics also pointed at its ideological nature, complaining that comparativists were attempting to direct a Westernized type of modernization rather than attempting to comprehend the world.
The various approaches, criticisms and worldviews described in previous paragraphs led to a segmentation of political science as well as comparative politics. There is little to no consensus regarding the direction of the field, and uncertainty regarding which analytical and statistical methods are most fruitful prevails. This has generated various debates. The advocates of the quantitative approach -- that using statistical, mathematical and econometric models -- argue that the behavioral revolution still has some way to go. On the other hand, advocates of the qualitative approach -- that using long-term and extensive analysis of specific areas of the world -- prefer a more journalistic and descriptive method. Another disagreement revolves around a basic assumption underlying human nature. Some scholars believe that human beings are rational, and thus behave in ways that can be comprehended. To such scholars, rational choice and game theory are useful to analyze the dynamics behind politics. These frameworks hopefully make it possible to explain and predict political behavior. Qualitative scientists question this perspective, as they believe that human behavior cannot be predicted and is fundamentally erratic.
A middle ground has been sought. Quantitative scholars recognize the value of qualitative approaches, as numerical data does not always provide the full picture, nor does numerical data necessarily make it scientific, nor is qualitative data necessarily lacking rigor. On the other end of the spectrum, qualitative scholars are more often utilizing statistics and improving their methodology so that their research may provide a stepping stone for others rather than just providing unique descriptions. Thus, a combination of both the qualitative and quantitative approaches can help serve and create new models, whereby statistics, formal models and narratives are fused. As the field converges, emphasis is placed on a normative concern, that the study of politics must also be guided by the purpose of helping to improve the world, as that contributes to a meaningful study of political science and comparative politics.
As mentioned earlier, a key concept being studied in comparative politics is political institutions. These are organizations that are valued for their own sake. Institutions are so numerous that they are inevitably a part of people’s lives, and as such, due to the large amount of individual interests involved in them, are difficult to remove and/or change. For instance, democracy is an institution in quite a few countries, and is, beyond that, central to the lives of those living there. In some other countries, democracy has little presence, and inhabitants of such countries find that democracy has a much less central role in their lives. Instead, religion or cultural norms may hold greater sway over them. As such, it is inane to state that there is a specific set of institutions that can exert influence over everyone. A key aspect of comparative politics involves acknowledging not the similarities, but the differences.
Institutions are not material, although their proceedings may take place in material places. They survive by being central to the lives of people, and are shaped by the worldviews and values of those people. A threat to these institutions constitutes a threat to the people associated with it, and if damaged, changed or shattered, the people will work hard to reconstruct it as they were. This is often called the “stickiness” of institutions, because it is so difficult to get to point B from point A. This can be an advantage, as it can help secure institutions that are good for society, but it can also be a disadvantage, as it often means that even necessary change is resisted. This isn’t to say that institutions do not change, but they are inherently difficult to change.
Political institutions are numerous and many countries share the same basic ones. For example, all aspects of the law have an institution to match: creation and modification of the law (legislature), enforcement of the law (police), application of the law (courts), and so on. These institutions do not only persevere because they force compliance. This may be partly true, but research shows that a significant part of compliance with taxation involves the belief by those paying the taxes that it is a legitimate method to obtain funding for programs that are deemed necessary for society. Another way to corroborate this would be to look at countries where taxation is not institutionalized. In those places, taxes are seen as illegitimate and few people pay.
Given that institutions are the playing field of politics, this makes them a good lens through which to look at political behavior. Institutions are not only the cause of politics, but also are shaped by it. It is in part because of this that there is so much variation in institutions around the world. This textbook aims to provide a critical outlook on these institutions, showing common characteristics between them all the while being aware of their differences. In so doing, a more nuanced, complex and accurate sense of politics across countries can be gained.
Before delving into subsequent chapters, let us briefly cover a debate central to politics, namely the ultimate aim of politics and institutional arrangement. This is, briefly put, the struggle for freedom and equality. Not only are individual freedom and collective equality central to politics, but so is how these two concepts are to be reconciled. In order to reconcile them, it is first necessary to understand what they signify. Freedom refers to the ability of a person to act independently in an unrestricted manner. Equality refers to a shared material standard of individuals. Part of the debate around these two ideals revolves around the question as to whether they are mutually exclusive or not. For example, greater taxation and redistribution by governments may increase equality yet reduce personal freedom. Conversely, lesser control by governments may increase personal freedom yet enable inequality. The United States of America has a very high ratio of personal freedom to economic equality. In the Soviet Union the reverse was true. Is either acceptable? Is it necessarily the case that gains in one ideal represent losses in the other? No. Many would argue that freedom and equality, to a great extent, also strengthen each other. Individuals with material security are likelier to pursue their political rights, and individuals with political rights are much better placed to secure material stability. As previously stated, the debate concerning the balance of individual freedom and collective equality is central to politics. Other, similar and similarly important debates will be covered in this textbook.
If the purpose of institutions lies in giving us a lens through which to look at politics, then the purpose of politics is to harmonize individual freedom and collective equality. We will come back to this in subsequent chapters. The broader perspective most useful for comparative politics is skepticism, not of others alone, but also of our own beliefs and assumptions in light of conflicting evidence.
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