Comparative government and politics provides an introduction to the wide, diverse world of governments and political practices that currently exist in modern times. Although the course focuses on specific countries, it also emphasizes an understanding of conceptual tools and methods that form a framework for comparing almost any governments that exist today. Additionally, it requires students to go beyond individual political systems to consider international forces that affect all people in the world, often in very different ways. Six countries form the core of the course: Great Britain, Russia, China, Mexico, Iran, and Nigeria.
The countries are chosen to reflect regional variations, but more importantly, to illustrate how important concepts operate both similarly and differently in different types of political systems: “advanced” democracies, communist and post-communist countries, and newly industrialized and less developed nations. In addition to the six core countries, we study other countries around the world that reflect the specificities of the class taking the course. We also look at France, as the ASG is located in France, and make comparisons with the USA as all of you are either taking US Government this year or took it last year.
WHAT IS POLITICS? Some people love politics. They may relish the excitement of political events, such as elections, as they would an exciting athletic contest (such as a Soccer World Cup). Others are fascinated with politics because they care about the issues and their consequences for people in their own communities or around the world. On the other hand, there are those who hate politics, either because it sets groups and individuals against each other, or because it involves abuse of power, deceit, manipulation, treachery, and violence.
Finally, there are those who are indifferent to politics, who perhaps find it boring because it has little to do with the things that matter most to them. Politics has many faces and can be a force for good as well as evil. This course is about the comparative study of politics. In order to make political comparisons, we need to understand what is meant by politics as well as what it means to study it comparatively. Politics has to do with human decisions, and political science is the study of such decisions.
Political decisions are public and authoritative. Politics always involves and has consequences for many human beings. Political decisions always take place within some community that we may call a political system. Yet, not all social decisions are public. Most of what happens within families, among friends, or within voluntary associations belongs to the private sphere. Societies vary greatly in the scope of the public versus the private sphere. In totalitarian societies, the public sphere is very large and private life very limited.
Examples within the last 100 years have been Italy under Mussolini, Germany under Hitler, The USSR under Stalin, China under Mao Zedong and Cuba under Castro. In other societies, the private domain may almost crowd out the public one. To complicate things even more, the boundaries between the public and private spheres get redrawn all the time. A couple of decades ago, the private lives of U. S. presidents or members of the British royal family were considered private matters, not to be discussed in public and certainly not by politicians. In recent years, this seems to have changed.
There was a time in British history when certain religious beliefs were in considered treasonous (a threat to the ruling monarch, and therefore a public, political, threat). People who held such beliefs could be executed, as was Thomas More under King Henry VIII. Nowadays, most modern democracies consider religious beliefs to be private matters, though other societies may not. Yet, all societies maintain some distinction between public and private affairs. And although politics may be influenced by what happens in the private domain, it has directly to do only with those decisions that are public.
Politics is authoritative. Authority means formal power that individuals or groups have, leading to the people with authority expecting that their decisions will be carried out and respected. In some cases, force (coercion) may be applied to ensure that decisions are implemented or carried out. Those who have political authority normally have access to force and to monetary resources so that they can enforce their decisions. Authority does not have to be backed up by coercion, but in politics it often is. Nowadays, in most advanced democracies religious authorities, such as the Pope, have few coercive powers.
They can only persuade, but rarely compel, their followers. On the other hand, tax authorities, such as the Internal Revenue Service in the United States, can typically not only tell people to pay taxes, but also compel them to do so. By politics we thus refer to the activities associated with the control of public decisions among a given people and in a given territory, where this control may be backed up by authoritative and coercive means. Politics refers to the use of these authoritative and coercive means- who gets to use them and for what purposes. GOVERNMENTS AND THE STATE OF NATURE
Authority and coercive control are typically exercised by governments. Governments are organizations of individuals who are legally empowered to make binding decisions on behalf of a particular community. Governments thus have authoritative and coercive powers. Governments do many things. They wage war or encourage peace, cultivate or restrict international trade, open their borders to the exchange of ideas and art or close them, tax their populations heavily or lightly and through different means, allocate resources for education, health, and welfare, or leave such matters to others.
Governments may take many different forms, and they may be more or less ambitious or expansive. In the nineteenth century, most Western countries had very limited governments built on the model of the night watchman state: governments that provided basic law and order, defense, and protection of property rights, but little else (though education was also becoming a major government concern). Twentieth-century political development produced two much more expansive types of governments. One was the police state seen in many authoritarian societies, particularly under communism or fascism. The econd is the welfare state, with programs of social welfare assistance, unemployment benefits, accident and sickness insurance, old age pensions, public education, and the like. Welfare state policies differ greatly from country to country. Welfare policies in the United States stress equality of opportunity through public education. In contrast, many Western European countries have given priority to social security and health programs over education. As government expenditures have grown to between one-third and one-half of the GDP in most industrialized democracies, problems have arisen.
As we shall see, the government’s role in providing welfare services has become more contested. The regulatory state that had developed alongside the welfare state has also come in for criticism and reassessment, and many economic sectors have been deregulated. This debate over the welfare state and the regulatory state is far from new. For centuries, political philosophers have debated whether government is a force for good or evil. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, philosophers talked about a state of nature, the condition that people would be in if no government existed.
At any rate, these philosophers used their ideas of a state of nature to identify an ideal social contract (agreement) on which societies could build. We therefore often refer to them as social contract theorists. We shall be looking at the idea of a social contract in more detail later. Among the social contract philosophers whose reflections on the state of nature have become highly influential are Britons Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The contrast between Hobbes and Rousseau is most striking.
Hobbes thought of the state of nature as mercilessly inhospitable, a situation of eternal conflict of all against all, and a source of barbarism and continuous fear. Referring to the state of nature, he pessimistically argued that “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. ” For Rousseau, on the other hand, the state of nature represented humanity before its fall from grace, without all the corruptions that governments have introduced. “Man is born free,” Rousseau observed in The Social Contract, “and yet everywhere he is in chains. ” Rousseau saw governments as the source of power and inequality.
Finally, John Locke, whose ideas have been particularly important for the development of Western democracies, took a position in between those of Hobbes and Rousseau. While for Hobbes, the main task for government was to protect against violence and war, Locke saw the state’s main role as protecting property and commerce and promoting economic growth. This it would do, in his view, by establishing and enforcing property rights and rules of economic exchange. And whereas Hobbes thought government needed to be a Leviathan, a benevolent (or kindly) dictator to whom the citizens would yield all their power, Locke promoted a limited government.
Cite this Comparative Politics Student Notes 1
Comparative Politics Student Notes 1. (2016, Oct 14). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/comparative-politics-student-notes-1/