on the gap of institutional design and outcomes/effects

By Paul Pierson

Political In Time:History, Institutions, and Social Analysis. 2004. Princeton University Press.

Chapter 4, page 120.

Limitation 6: The Problem of actor discontinuity


Even absent major environmental change, “gaps” may emerge because the actors who inherit institutional arrangements are not the same as those who designed them. Indeed, a major ambiguity in theories of rational institutional design concerns institutional inheritors. What does actor-centered functionalism imply about the benefits of institutions to those who inherit them? Political institutions are typically long lived. Given that institutions will usually outlive the people who create them, we wish to know whether the originally “functional” aspects should be expected to remain in the interests of following generations (e.g., because those followers are much the same sort of those as the creators).


Typically, actor-centered functionalism seems to rest (although usually only implicitly) on strong assumptions about actor continuity. In the study of international relations, for instance, where there has been a great deal of actor-centered functionalist work, this assumption of actor continuity is common. Indeed, it may not be unreasonable since “states” are taken to be the main designers of international institutions—and many international relations scholars argue that the interests of states are quite sharply defined by the structure of the international system.


What, however, if there are reasons to question this premise of actor continuity—that is, to consider the possibilities that actors making initial institutional choices may well have quite distinctive preferences from those of their inheritors? This problem is only unimportant if we think that designers’ choices will be inherited by actors much like themselves. With the passage of time, however, this assumption becomes more problematic. This will be so especially in setting where the assumption of some stable overarching context that generates a stable pattern of preferences seems implausible. In the context of long—term institutional development the language of “actors” elides a huge amount—who the actors are is often ambiguous. Who, we might ask, are the “inheritors” of the American constitution’s framers? Are they “the same” in some clear analytical sense? It is not clear to me that these are answerable questions.



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