Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Melissa Schwartzberg's "Counting the Many"

Melissa Schwartzberg is an associate professor in the Department of Politics at New York University, specializing in political theory. Her research centers on the historical origins and normative consequences of rules governing democratic decision-making. She has a particular interest in ancient Greek political thought and institutional design.

Schwartzberg applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Counting the Many: The Origins and Limits of Supermajority Rule, and reported the following:
Counting the Many is divided into two parts. Part I traces the original use of supermajority voting rules as an alternative to unanimity rule; whereas under unanimity rules (as for papal elections prior to 1179), any ill-intentioned or wrong voter could veto the decision of the whole, supermajority rule accommodated fallibility. Part II then examines supermajority rule in its modern guise as a remedy for the putative deficiencies of majority rule: the risks that bare majorities will destabilize institutions, fail to seek consensus, and abuse minorities.

Page 99 marks a transition between the two parts, appearing in the final pages of the first. It comes at the end of chapter 4, which takes up eighteenth-century debates in France over supermajority rule. The core insight for institutional design that emerges from the historical discussion is that both majority and supermajority rule are superior to unanimous decision-making. Both trump unanimity because of the problem that one fallible person can veto a decision, and because of the risk that lone holdouts will be coerced into altering their votes. In the section of chapter 4 that includes page 99, I address contemporary examples in which supermajority rule might substitute for unanimity. I begin by considering the implications of dropping the vote threshold for criminal juries, and then turn to international organizations’ use of “qualified majority rules” (as supermajority rules, often accompanied by weighted voting, are usually called in that context).

On page 99, I argue that in the international realm, supermajority rules tend to mimic unanimity rules, although the power to veto is typically distributed unequally among members. I suggest that in international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, “qualified majority rule combines supermajority threshold with unequal voting weights, ensuring that powerful actors preserve a capacity to veto decisions.” The IMF requires an 85 percent majority for most important decisions; as of January 23, 2014, the United States possessed 16.75% of the total votes, guaranteeing it an effective veto. Beyond formal voting, decision making both within IMF bodies and by other international institutions (particularly within the European Union) often relies on consensus. Though consensus-building may entail deliberation and enable the body to speak univocally, it may, like unanimity, also entail coercion and the concealment of dissent.
Learn more about the book and author at Melissa Schwartzberg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue