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Building a New Imperial State: The Strategic Foundations of Separation of Powers in America

by Sean Gailmard, University of California, Berkeley

To the framers of the US Constitution, separation of powers was a bulwark of liberty. Ironically, this hallmark of American government was not the rational design of the framers, but rather of the very Crown that the Americans rebelled against. This is my argument in Building a New Imperial State: The Strategic Foundations of Separation of Powers in America (forthcoming, APSR). The English Crown, like all early modern imperial crowns, faced significant problems in controlling imperial governors in far-flung empires. In parts of English North America, this meant that governors could extract vast rents from middle class colonial settlers. In turn, this could jeopardize economic investment by settlers, and in turn the Crown’s interest in customs revenue and a powerful overseas empire. How could the Crown control these extractive governors? One way, I argue, was by turning political control over to colonial settlers, who could control the governor from below better than the crown could from above. Separation of powers therefore resulted as an economical solution to the Crown’s principal-agent problems with governors. Economic structure in other New World imperial domains led to different principal-agent problems between crowns and governors, and different institutions as a result. Overall, this research shows that principal-agent problems had a profound effect on New World political institutions.

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American Political Science Review  /  First View