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Christopher Kam and Adlai Newson, The Economic Origins of Political Parties

Michael C. Munger
p. 115-118
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Christopher Kam and Adlai Newson, The Economic Origins of Political Parties, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021, 98 pages, 978-1108828420

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1One of my grad school professors, Kenneth Shepsle, was always miffed at the way that Public Choice scholars would hijack the notion of rationality, and call it “economics”. He would stand in his office doorway, smoking his pipe (yes, this was a long time ago), and loudly announce, “You know, you economists have no authorized monopoly on the idea that rational agents optimize! In fact, optimization in political science is older than your sad little discipline in the first place!”

2Shepsle’s claim was not that warlords were the first to optimize, but rather that the political science work of Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Hobbes predated the use of the rational motivation assumption by economists by centuries.

3More recently, I have noticed that the use of “economics” has been hijacked going in the other direction, where “political economists” in more standard research contexts have named almost anything that has to do with the use of resources or inequality an “economic” problem. The book by Kam and Newson illustrates this tendency: their claim is to investigate the “economic” origins of political parties, when in fact their charter is simply to explain the emergence of parties as an institution that solves collective action problems and advantages the team that uses resources in the optimal fashion.

4Further, the book is about the origin of political parties in England, not in democracies generally or even in Europe more broadly. So, having registered an initial crotchet about the marketing (it’s never clear the authors get to choose the title in any case), let us consider the claims that Kam and Newson make about the origins of political parties in England as a solution to the political collective action problem faced by office seekers.

5The argument is narrow, but then what is to be explained is narrow. Still, the question is one that has occupied many scholars, and the range of answers to versions of John Aldrich’s famous question “Why Parties?” is broad (Aldrich, 1995). Their answer is careful, and for the most part persuasive, arguing that the causal force was the onset of contested elections (beginning with the Second Reform Act of 1867, described in Chapter 2), followed by an arms race for economic resources (Chapter 3), and the formation of “slates” to solve the collective action problem (Chapter 4)

6The interesting theoretical step is the author’s focus in Chapter 2 on the change from a kind of “sport team loyalty” / clientelism to “competition” based on programmatic appeals and policy platforms. I’m simplifying the argument, but that’s a useful summary: where once well-known local gentry would stand for election, and call in favors or appeal to relationships, the systematizing of competition led candidates to associate with, and “stand for election,” under a party brand name. Since candidates were not obliged to do this, at least at first, the party needed to promise some rewards or resources in exchange for a willingness to being bound under party control and forfeiting independence on selecting the “planks” on which one could stand.

7The nice thing about this approach is that it organically links what seem to be separate questions: (1) why did contests start to be contested, even in districts where this had never been true, and (2) what led candidates to give up their independence and associate themselves with parties? The thesis of the authors is that what changed is the “average and marginal costs involved in mounting election campaigns” caused by an evolution in “the socioeconomic context in which these campaigns took place and the collective action problems that candidates confronted in organizing them.” (2)

8There is a puzzle, something to be explained if the account is to work. A coherent “programmatic” or platform-based strategy is a brand name for a party, but can be a handicap for individual party members. This becomes a greater obstacle as elections become actively contested, because both/all candidates in a given district or constituency can work to deliver the party message. The puzzle is why candidates are willing to pay the increased cost of this competition, except in those constituencies where a victory is at least plausible, and preferably is assured.

9This leads to conflicts:

  • The party is seeking a majority in the Parliament, but the candidate is seeking a victory in one constituency. The party needs programmatic coherence, where the candidate needs flexibility.

  • The party needs representatives to educate voters on the party program in all districts, but candidates are only likely to be willing to pay the costs of such education in party strongholds, where by definition such education may be less useful, or entirely unnecessary.

10The explanation for the increases in contestation and programmatic coherence has many moving parts, but one interesting “comparative statics” result is the effects of the changes in marginal cost of an effective challenge. Dramatic declines in the costs of printing broadsides, pamphlets, and other means of mass communication, combined with improved literacy rates in many constituencies, have both of the effects the authors need for their explanation to work: (1) printed material makes programmatic messages easier to communicate effectively, and (2) the ability of a challenger to use such media disproportionately benefits the competitor, rather than the incumbent. Thus, an exogenous change in media technology goes a long way toward explaining the difference in focus on program, and degree of contestation.

11Such an argument has another useful feature: while it is expensive, and difficult, to establish the institutions that make programmatic contestation possible, once such an arrangement is in place it becomes cheaper to attract challengers, since the costs of running are much lower, and the (relative) costs of bribery, clientelism, and patronage are sharply elevated.

12As I said at the outset, this may seem like a small point, in the grand scheme of positive political theory. But the conclusion reached here is quite different from the conventional wisdom (Cox, 1987; Kitschelt and Wilkinson, 2007), which held that the changes were largely endogenous, and if not planned then consistent with an “efficient” process of evolution. Kam and Newson show that substantial portions of the evolution were exogenous, in effect the product of changes in climate and marginal cost conditions to which adaptive responses then adjusted.

13To be fair, Kam and Newson make no claim that the two points of view are mutually exclusive. Rather, they point out that there is an additional rational choice explanation, based on the standard method of comparative statics and equilibrium conditions of marginal cost, that has not been given sufficient attention.

14The authors use the case of the southern U.S. parties, as described by Valdimer Key (1949), as an illustration of the moving parts of their theoretical contribution. Key seems to argue that the parties in the American south never faced any potent competition, and as a result were never animated to organize as efficient seekers of electoral victory. Under these conditions—quite similar to those in England before 1867—the southern U.S. parties never “developed beyond a set of transitory factions that by their nature could neither transmit nor receive programmatic demands.” (1)

15The parties in England, by contrast, moved toward sharply contested elections in the late 19th century, as a result of the Second (1867) and Third (1884) Reform Acts. Once on the path toward competitive elections in most districts, strong advantages accrued to developing national, partisan connections, and the economies of scale in programmatic competition forced parties to have clearer, more coherent national platforms or be left behind.

16I expect that this account will appeal to those of us who (like me) are fond of historical transformations motivated by changes in relative prices. Historians, on the other hand are likely to find the explanation overly simplistic. The reason the book succeeds is that it is an additional plausible explanation about large forces operating in tandem with the historical descriptions already elaborated in the large existing literature.

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Aldrich, John H. 1995. Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cox, Gary W. 2005. The Efficient Secret. The Cabinet and the Development of Political Parties in Victorian England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Key, Valdimer O. 1949. Southern Politics. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Kitschelt, Herbert and Steven I. Wilkinson (eds). 2007. Patrons, Clients and Policies. Patterns of Democratic Accountability and Political Competition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Michael C. Munger, « Christopher Kam and Adlai Newson, The Economic Origins of Political Parties »Œconomia, 13-1 | 2023, 115-118.

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Michael C. Munger, « Christopher Kam and Adlai Newson, The Economic Origins of Political Parties »Œconomia [En ligne], 13-1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 14 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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