Political reform: the puzzling argument for reducing the size of Dáil Éireann

A recurrent proposal in the ongoing debate about institutional reform in Ireland is that the number of members of Dáil Éireann be reduced from the current level of 166.  Perhaps this particular proposal receives prominence because it’s relatively easily understood, and is seen by some as a satisfyingly visible response to widespread alienation from politicians and politics as practised in Ireland. It receives additional and weighty support from the most recent (and much more wide-ranging) article in the Irish Times series on political and economic renewal, by UCD Professor David Farrell which you can read here.

While appreciating that it’s perhaps unfair to evaluate any one such proposal in isolation from the broader set of ideas with which it’s typically linked, I’m genuinely puzzled as to why it seems to have such immediate resonance and support, beyond the generalised antipathy towards elected politicians, an antipathy which some of them seem willing to enable, by competing to support a culling of their present –and future–numbers.

Let me explain why I think the reasoning behind this sort of proposal is problematic, with a nod towards a little naive economics argument towards the end.

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Political Science Fights Back

There is a consensus that the practitioners and discipline of economics have been key beneficiaries of the financial and fiscal crises.  The views of leading economists as to where we are and what we should do are widely sought across the media and within government. A conference organised at TCD earlier this week on the issue of political reform was part of a deliberate effort by political scientists to demonstrate the relevance of their discipline and the Irish Times has been publishing opinion pieces and articles drawing on the conference . Earlier in the week UCD’s John Coakley argued that informal institutions (in the form of political culture) have significantly shaped (and restricted) the state’s capacities. Today’s piece by Neil Collins of UCC argues that there has been a striking neglect of the potential of formal institutions in shaping effective governance. He concludes that ‘It is time for a rebalancing of academic attention from the economic to the political agenda.’

As an outsider to both disciplines it is striking that both have a good deal to say about the way that institutions matter in shaping both expectations and capacity for action. I am led to think that if a rebalancing is required then it might be towards thinking more about the way that formal and informal institutions limit what can be achieved (and deliver unintended consquences), but that a better understanding of those limits might support modest reform proposals which more effectively link the specification of desirable outcomes to the mechanisms through such outcomes might be reasonably be expected to be achieved.