Identity and off-diagonals

How permanent winning coalitions destroy democratic governance

Originally published in Public Choice

The growing preoccupation with identity within public discourse raises important questions concerning its effects on democratic governance. Building on the work of James M. Buchanan, we hope to show that (1) the logic of identity politics raises costs to political cooperation, (2) the phenomenon of identity politics flows from the larger rents associated with the identity group formation and (3) that the rent race has deleterious consequences, i.e., the subversion of democratic governance. The incentives of coalitions to define themselves along identity-related lines threatens democratic governance by enabling the formation of permanent winning coalitions. Without the ability to move between groups and take part in democratic governance, individuals who compose the permanent losing coalitions may choose to defect entirely, immersing the system in tribal violence.

Therefore, our analysis of the constitution-making process has little relevance for a society that is characterized by a sharp cleavage of the population into distinguishable social classes or separate racial, religious, or ethnic groupings sufficient to encourage the formation of predictable political coalitions and in which one of these coalitions has a clearly advantageous position at the constitutional stage (Buchanan and Tullock [1962] 1999, p. 81).

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