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Transactions Costs and Coalition Stability under Majority Rule


  • Ronald N. Johnson
  • Gary D. Libecap


In this paper we examine the discrepancy between theoretical predictions of unstable majorities and observed stability. Minimum winning coalitions divide program benefits among their members, creating incentives for those left out to entice defection by offering rewards to those who leave and form a different coalition. New coalitions emerge, leading to cyclical majorities, short-term programs, and highly skewed distributions of program benefits. Empirical evidence, however, reveals much more program continuity and equal allocations than the theory suggests. We offer additional evidence of broad, stable sharing in many programs enacted by Congress by describing interstate distributions from the Federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF). The allocation formula for the HTF was initiated in 1916, but despite wide divergence across the states in growth of various economic factors over the rest of the twentieth century there were comparatively limited HTF allocation adjustments. We also examine overall federal expenditure and tax shares among the states from 1975 to 1997 and show that there has been a similar continuity in the interstate distribution of federal funds and taxes. To understand this observed stability and use of relatively egalitarian sharing rules, we emphasize the desire of politicians to minimize the high transactions costs of negotiating and enforcing political coalitions. Politicians have incentive to prevent unraveling of political agreements in order to avoid the costs of searching for new coalition partners, reaching agreement on the nature and distribution of program benefits and costs, and verifying compliance. Moreover, legislators seek to protect constituent benefits accruing from long-term programs that would be lost if coalitions unraveled. Accordingly, we argue that politicians assemble greater than minimum-sized coalitions to build broad political support for their legislative programs, offering benefits to a larger constituency in exchange for additional votes. Considerable negotiation over the distribution of program benefits and costs may be required, so that once agreements are reached, politicians will be loath to consider a major reallocation that could undermine the coalition.

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  • Ronald N. Johnson & Gary D. Libecap, 2001. "Transactions Costs and Coalition Stability under Majority Rule," ICER Working Papers 04-2002, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
  • Handle: RePEc:icr:wpicer:04-2002

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Armelle Mazé & Claude Ménard, 2010. "Private ordering, collective action, and the self-enforcing range of contracts," European Journal of Law and Economics, Springer, vol. 29(1), pages 131-153, February.
    2. Fleck, Robert K., 2013. "Why did the electorate swing between parties during the Great Depression?," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 50(4), pages 599-619.
    3. Maze, Armelle, 2006. "Multilateral reputation mechanisms and contract law in agriculture : complement or substitutes," 2006 Annual meeting, July 23-26, Long Beach, CA 21285, American Agricultural Economics Association (New Name 2008: Agricultural and Applied Economics Association).
    4. John Joseph Wallis & Barry R. Weingast, 2005. "Equilibrium Impotence: Why the States and Not the American National Government Financed Economic Development in the Antebellum Era," NBER Working Papers 11397, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Armelle Mazé & Claude Ménard, 2010. "Private Ordering, Collective Action, and the Self-Enforcing Range of Contracts. The Case of French Livestock Industry," Université Paris1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (Post-Print and Working Papers) halshs-00624288, HAL.

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    JEL classification:

    • K0 - Law and Economics - - General
    • H0 - Public Economics - - General
    • D7 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making


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