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Why is there a need for a head of state?

Dahlen          4 August 2015 10:18 AM

It's a bit strange that in nominally republican states there is a position in the political hierarchy which gets listed alongside monarchs and dictators when you inquire about the rulers of various states. At a first glance, it looks like some sort of monarchical leftover as if people can't conceive of a ruling body that doesn't have a single most powerful position. An exception would be Switzerland, where the head of state is represented by a Federal Council of 7 people. Worst of all, voters with a poor understanding of politics don't know the prerogatives of the presidential office, and the candidates play along by making electoral promises that are obviously not theirs to make (an effect seen at its worst in non-presidential republics). It seems like the people would be more than happy to vote for a king with absolute powers, as long as they can tell the king what to do. Is it an inherent feature of hierarchies, or is it human nature to gravitate around just one Great Leader?

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melian 5 August 2015 07:07 AM

I was trying to think of cases besides Switzerland when a country did not have a single head of state. The only other example I remember is the Roman Republic which was headed by two consuls. However, in times of emergency Romans would often appoint a single dictator. Perhaps, the main reason Switzerland is different is that it stayed out of war longer than any other country and did not have any real emergencies to deal with. Having a single head of state speeds the decision making process and in emergencies the speed is crucial.

Another disadvantage to having several heads of state is dilution of responsibility. Typically, in representative democracies voters have very low opinion of their parliaments and yet most incumbents get reelected. When responsibility for government is shared among many, voters prefer to think that the person they personally voted for is exceptional and attribute policy failures to other MPs.

Interestingly, Switzerland is also different in this respect. Though it has its parliament, it is very close to being a direct democracy and most important decisions are decided by general referendum. So the dilution of responsibility is less of an issue there.


Silent Cal 5 August 2015 10:19 AM

Interestingly, it's not only governments that show this tendency. Corporations, non-profits, and even recreational clubs appoint single leaders. This also tends to happen fractally, with leaders assigned for subgroups (teams) and subtasks (projects).

The arguments I can think of for this are
a) speed. Communication takes time, and you may sometimes not have it. Though it seems like a small council could achieve comparable results if you make them live in the same building.

b) coherence. Multilateral compromises may sometimes induce inefficiency. This doesn't seem necessarily true, but it's easy to imagine cases where pursuing any of several competing visions wholeheartedly would be better than anything in the middle. It could well be that this is empirically the case.

c) responsibility. This is probably most important for smaller, less important organizations; for these, it's useful to have someone who is almost unconditionally at fault when something bad happens, as they will then always have incentive to prevent it. It's a way of inducing heroic responsibility and avoiding cases where everyone plays their role but the system crashes anyway because the roles aren't right.

See also Arrow's impossibility theorem, where dictatorship lets you get all the desiderata for a decision-making system (except non-dictatorship). An individual leader has no weird game-theoretic incentive to do things like strategically misrepresent their opinion.


ChristianKl 7 August 2015 05:12 AM

If you look at corporations most corporations have a single person as their CEO. The same seems to be true for many forms of organisations. It works better when there's one person at the center.