#139 [EN] Bo Rothstein – Does a good government require more than just democracy?

Bo Rothstein is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of Quality of Government (QoG). He was for most of his career professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, with a brief tenure at the University of Oxford. In 2004, he founded, together with Sören Holmberg, the Quality of Government Institute, which has since become the world’s main research centre studying how political institutions of high quality can be created and maintained.

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Index (with timestamps):

(02:40) Introduction in English

(06:26) Why is democracy not enough to ensure quality of government (QoG)? | The case of new democracies: clientelism, nepotism, use of state funds for the party, particularistic policies | Vicious circle of low QoG (the case of South Africa

(18:30) How can we define QoG? | Impartiality. Robert Dahl’s theory of democracy | The importance of a meritocratic bureaucracy and long-term planning. | Book: Organizing Leviathan, by Carl Dahlström and Victor Lapuente | Acemoglu and Robinson’s concept of “inclusive institutions”

(27:04) How QoG influences government legitimacy | A future paper by Jan Teorell | Relationship between low QoG and the rise in Populism. Cas Mudde’s thesis. | Mark Lilla on the success of Donald Trump

(34:15) The puzzle of China’s rise (guest’s paper) | Is it a matter of culture? | Is condemnation of corruption universal or dependent on culture?

(47:07) What outcomes is QoG more important for? | The effect of low QoG on social trust (guest’s paper). | Book (analysing social capital in Italy): Moral Basis of a Backward Society by Edward C. Banfield | Quality of governance in the private sector

(01:00:15) How can we improve democracy’s ability to enhance QoG? The role of transparency. | Book: Democracy for Realists, by Christopher H. Achen and Larry Bartels | Guest’s latest book: Controlling Corruption


My guest in this episode is Bo Rothstein, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of Quality of Government (QoG). He was for most of his career professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, with a brief tenure at the University of Oxford. In 2004, he founded, together with Sören Holmberg, the Quality of Government Institute, which has since become the world’s main research centre studying how political institutions of high quality can be created and maintained.

This was a fascinating conversation. We started by discussing the puzzle of why democracy is not enough to ensure good governance. This happens, according to Rothstein and other authors, because these two dimensions of the political system are very different in nature. Democracy refers to the input side of politics (how political power is accessed), whereas QoG refers to the output side, that is, the way that political power is exercised. So while democracy may enable voters to select politicians and policies that adequately reflect their concerns, that is not, by itself, sufficient to guarantee that those policies will be enacted effectively and without improper behavior. 

This led us to the question of how to define QoG? One of the most influential definitions in the field was proposed by Rothstein himself, together with Jan Teorell, and defines QoG as having to do with the extent to which the government operates impartially. This concept is closely related to (absence of) corruption, but is broader than that. In practice, for a state to act impartially means that the use of public authority is not influenced by anything from bribes, political affiliation, personal connections, or prejudices based on factors such as race, ethnicity, or gender.

Rothstein’s idea is clearly persuasive (and he will explain it better than I). But other authors have proposed alternative definitions, which we also discussed. One of them is that of state capacity. Some authors point out that it is not enough that public officials act in a proper way. In order to be able to implement public policies, the state also needs resources, such as infrastructures, adequate information and a body of qualified and motivated civil servants. Other authors, such as Francis Fukuyama, emphasize the importance of bureaucratic autonomy, that is the extent to which civil servants are protected from pressures exerted by politicians. And there are many other related definitions, such as the idea of inclusive institutions by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (which we also discussed), or the definition proposed by the World Bank which goes farther (perhaps too far), encompassing the capacity of the state to implement “sound” policies. 

It was a fascinating conversation, in which we covered a lot of ground on the topic of QoG. We discussed the practical effects of bad governance for citizens, the link between low QoG and populism, the puzzle of China’s rise (despite its authoritarian nature and less than impartial government), whether condemnation of corruption is a human universal or depends on culture, the effect of QoG on social capital and the relation between QoG and the quality of governance in the private sector, among others. In the end, I asked my guest how we can improve democracy’s ability to enhance QoG. And he has, as you will see, a very clear-cut recipe for this. Hope you enjoy our conversation — até ao próximo episódio.


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Esta conversa foi editada por: Hugo Oliveira


Bio: Bo Rothstein is a Swedish political scientist whose research focuses on the quality of government. Rothstein held the August Röhss Chair in Political Science at the University of Gothenborg from December 1994 to June 2021. Bo Rothstein took is Ph.D. in Political Science at Lund University in 1986 and was from 1986 and until 1993 assistant and (in 1992) associate professor (docent) at the Department of Government at Uppsala University. In 1993 he became Professor at the Swedish Institute for Working Life Research in Stockholm and took up his current position at University of Gothenburg in 1994. In 2016 he was appointed to a Chair in Government and Public Policy at University of Oxford, from which he resigned for returning to University of Gothenburg in 2018. Together with Prof. Sören Holmberg he started the Quality of Government Institute at the department in 2004. Among his main publications in English are Just Institutions Matter: The Moral and Political Logic of the Universal Welfare and Social Traps and the Problem of Trust, both with Cambridge University Press. The Quality of Government: The Political Logic of Corruption, Inequality and Social Trust was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011, Good Government: The Relevance of Political Science (ed. together with Sören Holmberg) published by Edward Elgar Press in 2013. His latest book is Making Sense of Corruption (together with Aiysha Varraich) published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. Rothstein is a contributor to the public debate and has published more than 300 op-ed articles mostly in Swedish newspapers but also internationally.

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