Representation and Consent: Why They Arose in Europe and Not Elsewhere
Posted: 13 May 2016
Date Written: May 2016
Medieval Western Europeans developed two practices that are the bedrock of modern democracy: representative government and the consent of the governed. Why did this happen in Europe and not elsewhere? I ask what the literature has to say about this question, focusing on the role of political ideas, on economic development, and on warfare. I consider Europe in comparison with the Byzantine Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate, and Song Dynasty China. I argue that ultimately Europe's different path may have been an accident. It was produced by Western Europe's experience of outside invasion that replaced the Western Roman Empire with a set of small, fragmented polities in which rulers were relatively weak. Small size meant low transaction costs for maintaining assemblies. The relatively weak position of rulers meant that consent of the governed was necessary. I also suggest how these conclusions should influence our understanding of democracy today.
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