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Forthcoming in Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky, eds.

, Informal
Institutions and Democracy: Lessons from Latin America. Forthcoming,
Johns Hopkins Press.


Do Informal Rules Make Democracy Work?

Accounting for Accountability in Argentina

Susan C. Stokes
Voters Informal Decision-Rules and Democracy

Political rules may be written down or they may not be. And the punishment that

is triggered when rules are violated may happen in officially sanctioned channels or it

may not be. This is the essence of the distinction between formal and informal

institutions that Helmke and Levitsky make in this volume. But there are other

dimensions on which rules vary. They may, for instance, be either explicitly understood

by those who follow them, or they may be only implicitly understood. When rules are

implicit, even people following them quite closely frequently cannot render a formalized

account of them. Consider the difference between the rules of a game and the rules of a

language. The rules of chess are explicit; to be able to play one has to know the rules. If

I dont know, say, that the rook may move an unlimited number of spaces in horizontal or

vertical straight lines, whereas a king may move only one space but in any direction, I

cannot play the game. But if I do know these rules, I can both make them explicit and

play by them.

The rules governing the speaking of a language are quite different. We learn to

follow these rules well before we learn what the rules are if indeed we ever learn what

they are. A quite average five-year-old will utter many sentences of his or her native

(first, early-acquired) language in ways that conform to the formalized grammatical rules

of that language, whereas even a highly intelligent adult speaker of the same language

will have great difficulty explaining these rules unless he or she has been trained to do

so. 1

One might object that grammatical rules do not govern, but simply describe, behavior. Yet these rules in
fact are as prescriptive and descriptive; the point of their formalization is to police peoples usage, which is
prone to stray from the rules.

I call rules that can be rendered explicit by those following them game rules. I

call rules that are implicit and difficult to formalize by those using them grammatical


Two central premises of this chapter are (1) that the way people vote in elections

is rule-governed that the phrase voters decision-rules is to be taken seriously and (2)

that voters decision-rules are grammatical. They are rules, and not simple responses to

physiological or material incentives; they are diffused through social mechanisms and not

merely thought up by individuals; they are not normally rendered explicit, at least not in a

formalized version, by people who use them; and, to varying degrees depending on the

rule, they are violated at the risk of social and even, sometimes, physical and material


Much is at stake for democracies in the informal and grammatical decision-rules

that voters adopt. Consider five rules, each of which has a large political science

literature behind it, claiming that it is the rule that voters use.

If the economy grows by at least x percent on an incumbents watch, vote for the

incumbent; otherwise, vote for an opposition party (retrospective sociotropic


If my salary grows by at least x percent on the incumbents watch, vote for the

incumbent; otherwise vote for an opposition party (retrospective egocentric rule).

Vote for political party that my father voted for (socialization rule).

Compare the distance between all parties programs and my own ideal point and

vote for the one that minimizes this distance (spatial rule).

If the candidate who minimizes this distance has no chance of winning, vote for

the next best one who has a chance of beating the candidate whom I most desire

to keep out of office (strategic rule).

Consider the extreme statements of competing parties in order to identify the one

on my side and vote for that party (directional rule).

Count the number of people from my ethnic group on parties lists and vote for

the one with the largest number (ethnic rule).

Compare the value of the private goods proffered to me during the campaign and

vote for the candidate whose gifts have the highest value (clientelism rule).

These decision-rules, when adopted by large numbers of voters, have major and

varying implications for how well democracy works. At least in theory, retrospective

voting can induce accountability if it is sociotropic, but not if it is egocentric (Ferejohn

1986). Spatial, strategic, and directional decision-rules hold out some hope for

responsiveness. 2 In turn egocentric and socialization voting cut governments loose from

both responsiveness and accountability. Clientelistic decision-rules allow voters to hold

politicians accountable (Kitcshelt 2000) although in a paltry way but they also allow

politicians to hold voters accountable (Stokes 2005). 3

Skepticism that voters decision-rules are in fact informal rules or institutions in

the sense used in this volume may arise from doubt that violation of voting rules

I mean by accountability the ability and tendency of voters to turn out of office governments and
politicians who, at the end of their term, are deemed by voters to have performed below a threshold that
voters set. I mean by responsiveness a tendency for governments and politicians to adopt policies preferred
by (a majority of) their constituents. Democratic theorists often hold that accountability causes
responsiveness but responsiveness can be achieved through other mechanisms as well.
On sociotropic and egocentric rules, see Ferejohn 1986. On socialization voting, see Campbell et al.,
1964. On spatial voting, see Downs 1957. On strategic voting, see Cox 1997. On directional voting, see
Rabinowitz and McDonald 1989. On ethnic voting, see Chandra 2004. On clientelistic voting, see Stokes

provokes social disapproval or sanctions. In one image, voting is carried out by lonely

voters who make up their minds in isolation, with no communication (let alone sanctions)

among voters. Assuming the ballot is secret, furthermore, peoples actual votes are

(presumably) opaque; hence they cannot be punished for voting for one party and not

another. If ones vote cannot be known, presumably nor can ones method of deciding

how to vote. To the extent that they are voluntary and unenforceable, voters decision

rules are not informal rules or institutions as the concept is used in this volume.

But the image of the lonely voter is overdrawn. Parents talk about politics and

elections to children and with one another in the presence of children; in these ways,

peoples party sympathies and ways of thinking about politics are nurtured in childhood

and early adulthood. During campaigns, people deliberate informally about the quality of

candidates, the performance of incumbents, and the strategies posed by alternatives.

Especially when decision-rules clash, informal deliberations over them can become

frequent and heated. An acquaintance of mine recounted numerous conversations with

fellow members of her dog-walking group about whether to support an ideologically

proximate (to them) candidate in a Democratic primary or switch strategically to a less-

sympathetic Democrat in order to keep a particularly odious Republican out of the

Massachusetts governors office. According to some theories, voters choose which party

to vote for as a means of expressing their political identities: expressions have to be

expressed communicated to other people: to family members, co-workers, and other

acquaintances (Schuessler 2000).

Whether they are expressing themselves or working out problems of strategy,

voters who engage in such informal deliberations also try to persuade one another. And

when they fail they aim social sanctions at one another they get angry and indignant,

and, in extreme cases, cut off social intercourse with those whom they have failed to

persuade, if only temporarily.

Sanctions for violating an electoral decision-rule can go beyond unpleasant

interactions. Its worth noting in this connection that the secret ballot is not an absolute

impediment to knowing, or forming good inferences about, how individuals vote.

Clientelist parties insert themselves deeply into the social networks of neighborhoods and

civic associations, and garner extensive information about the likely votes of individual

members and neighbors. It is difficult for many voters to dissimulate their voting

decisions. A Peronist party operative reported in an interview that he could tell how his

neighbors had voted by whether or not, the day after the election, they cant look me in

the eye. 4 When parties can make good inferences about individuals votes, then client-

voters who breaking the rule vote for the party that gave out the most valuable gifts run

the risk of sanctions, especially the loss of future favors and gifts. Suggesting a

grim-trigger strategy in response to defections, another Peronist explained how she dealt

with people in her neighborhood to whom she had given bags of food or clothing but who

then voted for another party. Theyre dead. They died forever. 5

In Helmke and Levitskys usage, informal institutions generate (or encapsulate)

expected, patterned actions. Regarding democratic responsiveness and accountability,

expectations are crucial. If informal institutions and informal rules are to help achieve

responsive government, they must accurately describe not just what people do but what

Interview conducted in Crdoba, Argentina, by Valeria Brusco, Marcelo Nazareno, and the author,
January 2003.
Interview conducted in Crdoba, Argentina, by Valeria Brusco, Marcelo Nazareno, and the author,
January 2003.

they expect others to do. Without these expectations the rules are eviscerated. Consider

the retrospective sociotropic rule. If a voter uses this rule as a method of enforcing

accountability, she must have certain expectations about the motives and actions of

officeholders. If she doesnt think that anticipation of the next election will discipline an

office-holder, then she may interpret anything good that happens on the his watch as

fortuitous and owing to circumstances that the voter cant observe (e.g., a favorable

international economic climate). She should then pay no attention to the incumbents

apparent performance in office and focus entirely, perhaps, on whatever she can learn

about politicians characters or preferred policies during the campaign (or chose by some

other criterion).

As is true of languages, the grammatical decision-rules of voting are variable over

even fairly compact geographic spaces. Political accents, dialects, even distinct

languages can emerge within a single national territory. In this chapter I offer evidence

of cross-regional variation in electoral decision rules in contemporary Argentina.

Argentina is a new democracy in which formalized political institutions,

understood either as rules or, more traditionally, as political parties and bureaucracies and

elections, are, to put it mildly, enfeebled, (see Levitsky, 2003a, b). Popular protest and

economic distress, not constitutional rules, frequently determine the length of Argentine

presidents terms. In the last few years primary elections have been cancelled when they

threaten to produce a result opposed by those who have the power to cancel them,

whether that power comes from a command over party machinery or from physical force.

And political parties have failed in one of their key functions: allocating the scarce

resource of candidacies among their members. It is not my claim here that informal

institutions can save Argentine democracy, or that they can prop up that countrys formal

institutions of democracy when the latter really collapse. Rather my claim is that

democracy functions better there (and probably in most democracies, new and old) when

informal rules enforce accountability.

The remainder of this chapter is laid out as follows. I begin by noting substantial

differences in the quality of democracy across towns, cities, and provinces in Argentina.

I then pose the question, Do these differences correspond to systematic differences in the

electoral decision-rules that voters employ across regions? Are there distinct dialects, if

you will, in the grammatical rules underlying voters choices? I draw on survey research

indicating that the answer is yes. People in regions where democracy works relatively

well display a heightened appreciation for mechanisms of accountability and, more than

people from other regions, expect others their neighbors and officeholders to follow

decision-rules that make accountability possible. People from regions where democracy

has worked less well expect their neighbors to follow voting rules that are supportive of

clientelism. I do not in this chapter offer a full account of the origin of these expectations

and rules, but I do eliminate some explanations that the literature on the transition and

consolidation of democracy suggest, and speculate about a better answer. I show that

neither the income levels of individuals nor social capital explain regional differences in

the prominence of rules of accountability. What may matter more are not traits of

individuals but of communities: their levels of social equality. I conclude by returning to

the general question of the importance of informal institutions to democracy.

Accountability and Expectations of Accountability in Argentina

Local democracy works better in some parts of Argentina than in others. 6 Some

provinces are good at maintaining balanced budgets; others are profligate spenders.

Some provinces strive to implement good public policy; in others, public assistance is

glossed as personal charity by the governor. Experts deem the Argentine federal budget

and the process by which it is written to be far more opaque than in other Latin American

countries; yet a handful of mayors have tried to bring community organizations and

individuals into the process, at least at the local level. In some cities, powerful political

and economic actors impose their will on the citizenry; in others, the political leadership

has experimented with relatively novel forms, such as the referendum, to give residents a

voice in crucial collective decisions. These comparisons allow Cleary and Stokes

(forthcoming) to posit a ranking of a set of four regions in which we conducted sample

surveys. Among these four regions, we ranked the city of Mar del Plata and the

surrounding district of General Puerreydon the highest, followed by the rest of the

provinces of Buenos Aires, Crdoba, and, finally, the province of Misiones, where case

studies of local politics find a extensive clientelism, personalism, and extreme

domination of political life by powerful economic actors. 7

Do people in Mar del Plata perceive the motivations for politicians actions, and

the constraints they are under, differently than did people, say, in Misiones? In the first

three questions listed in Table 1 we asserted that politicians sometimes behave well

See Gibson and Calvo 2000, Remmer and Wibbels 2000, UNDP 2002, Calvo and Murillo 2004, Amaral
and Stokes 2005, and Cleary and Stokes forthcoming.
The surveys were carried out in December 2001 and January 2002. We instructed the polling firm
Consultores en Polticas Pblicas, S.A., to conduct face-to-face interviews with 480 adults, aged 18 or
older, each of the four regions. To select our sample, we used multistage cluster sampling procedures,
based on census tracks.

provide good public services (Services), are efficient (Efficient), pay attention to the

opinions of constituents like the respondent (Attention) and then asked respondents to

choose among several alternative explanations for this good behavior. In each case one

option that we offered attributed good behavior to the personal qualities of politicians

(they are committed people, they care about constituents opinions), whereas the

other attributed it to mechanisms of accountability (theyre under the watch of the

courts, theyll lose the next election). Among respondents across all three provinces,

the accountability answer was in all cases the one respondents chose more frequently.

Responses to these questions differed systematically by region. The number of

respondents offering accountability responses to the questions in Table 1 is highest in our

most-democratic region and then trends downward. For example, 65% of respondents

from Mar del Plata attributed good services to institutional monitoring, while only 40%

of respondents from Misiones made such an attribution. In many cases, institutional trust

declines monotonically as the level of democracy declines.

To probe systematic differences across regions, I coded answers to Services,

Efficient, and Attention as dummy variables for an accountability answer. Thus if a

person chose the answer when municipal governments are efficient, this is because

otherwise people wont vote for them in the next election, I scored this person 1 on the

dummy variable Efficient; otherwise I scored him or her 0. I then estimated logit

regression models of these accountability answers. The results are reported in Table 2.

They show that older people were more skeptical of the characters of politicians and

more likely to ascribe good behavior to mechanisms of accountability. Women were

more likely to ascribe good government to the characters of politicians, men to their fear

of losing votes. Most important for our purposes, respondents in Buenos Aires, Crdoba,

and Misiones were generally less likely to offer accountability responses than were

respondents from Mar del Plata. 8 They were significantly less likely than were people

from elsewhere to say that governments provide services when they are under the watch

of the courts, the congress, and the press; somewhat less likely to say that efficient

governments are ones that fear losing office; and significantly more likely to say that

politicians who pay attention want to be reelected.

The regional effect on expectations of accountability was sometimes quite strong.

To give a sense of how much of a difference region makes in institutional trust, consider

a typical respondent in our sample, one with an average household income, education

level, and quality of housing, and who lived in a city of average size. Simulations show

that if she lived in Mar del Plata, this typical respondent had a 68% chance of saying that

governments provide good services because theyre monitored. But if she lived in

Misiones the chance dropped to 41%. 9

Expectations of accountability, when they do occur in Argentina, focus on both

formal institutions and on informal rules and behaviors. In some settings people believed

that politicians performed well when under the watchful eye of the courts or other

branches of government. But they also believed in informal rules of accountability.

The models in Table 2 include dummy variables for respondents who lived in all three regions other than
Mar del Plata. Negative signs on the Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and Misiones dummies indicate that people
in these provinces were less likely than others to offer accountability answers to the question.
Here and later I generated the simulations using the Clarify program (Tomz, Wittenberg, and King, 2001,
and King, Tomz, and Wittenberg, 2000). Clarify draws simulations of parameters of statistical models (in
this case, logit regressions) from their sampling distribution and then converts these simulated parameters
into expected values, such as expected probabilities of an answer to a survey question, given hypothetical
values of explanatory variables. Clarify software and documentation are available from Gary Kings
website at For this simulation we held household income, education level, quality
of housing, age, and population size of the respondents community at their sample means, and assumed a
female Peronist supporter.

In more-democratic regions the belief was more widespread that the anticipation of the

future retrospective judgment of voters (Manin, 1997) or that anticipation of the

moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed

(Madison 1788), could induce governments to be efficient. The electoral connection

involves several informal rules and the expectation that other people will follow these

rules. For it to hold voters must expect other voters to use appropriate criteria in deciding

how to vote. Consider again the question, When municipal governments work

efficiently, is this because they are staffed by good, committed people, or because they

know that if they dont work well people wont vote for them later? To answer

because they know that if they dont work well people wont vote for them later,

respondents had to believe that other voters do consider the incumbent governments

efficiency when they decide how to vote. They must expect other voters to use

retrospective criteria and not to be bought off by the small, individualized inducements of

clientelism, which tend to come at the cost of efficiency and of the provision of public

goods (see Estvez et al., 2001, and Medina and Stokes, 2002).

My survey provides more direct evidence that the expectation that ones

neighbors would follow retrospective and not clientelist decision-rules in deciding how to

vote was more widespread in Argentinas higher-performing democratic regions than in

its lower-performing regions. We asked survey respondents questions about how they

vote and how they expected other people in their neighborhood to vote (see Table 3).

Table 4 reports logit regression estimations. In the first two models, the dependent

variables are dummies for people who said that their neighbors used clientelistic

decision-rules, rules that would not support accountability: that they responded to

handouts (Handout) or favors (Favor), not a partys program or its concern for everyone,

when deciding how to vote. The negative coefficient on dummies for Mar del Plata

indicate that respondents from that city perceived their neighbors as less clientelistic than

did respondents from other cities and towns. People from Mar del Plata were also less

likely to be the targets of clientelistic mobilization. The dependent variable in the third

model (Gift) is a dummy for people who reported that they had received a handout from a

party operative in the last campaign. The negative sign on the Mar del Plata coefficient

shows that people there were less likely to have received such handouts, leaving them

freer, presumably, to take performance into account.

In one way Mar del Plata residents were less prone to accountability than people

from elsewhere. We asked whether people in the respondents neighborhood paid

attention to how well a party performed in the past versus how good its proposal was for

the future (Past). People in Mar del Plata viewed their neighbors as more prospective

than did those from elsewhere (as indicated by the negative sign on the coefficient

relating the Mar-del-Plata dummy to Past in model 4). As Fearon (1999) explains,

retrospective and prospective considerations can interfere with one another when voters

attempt to use their vote to induce politicians to be responsive

Yet the central finding thus far is that people who live in regions where

democracy functions fairly well, in a national context where democracy more often

performs badly, differ from people from other cities and towns in that they are more

likely to abide by informal rules of politics that support accountability, and they are more

likely to expect their neighbors also to abide by these rules. They also show a stronger

appreciation of formal institutions that support democratic accountability.

Whats Trust Got to do with It? Expectations of Accountability in Mar del Plata

Social scientists have emphasized in recent years the importance of trust, and of

the institutions that promote trust, in making social relations work smoothly, both market

relations (see especially North, 1990) and relations between citizens and representatives

(see Putnam, 1993, Levi, 1997, and Ferejohn, 1999). Are people from more-democratic

regions of Argentina particularly trusting?

We asked a series of questions designed to measure levels of interpersonal trust.

By trust I mean As belief that B will act in As interest, even though B would stand to

gain in some way by not so acting and even though A cannot directly monitor Bs

relevant actions (Cleary and Stokes forthcoming). Table 5 reports questions that explore

levels of interpersonal trust: whether respondents trust their neighbors and whether they

view other people in the abstract as trustworthy. Respondents across the three provinces

were quite trusting of their neighbors, saying by a margin of three to one that they would

trust a neighbor to care for their home while they were away. But they displayed

widespread distrust of abstract others, with majorities agreeing that most people will take

advantage of you when they can and that a minority of people is trustworthy. Several

studies indicate that Argentines came to trust each other less and less over the first two

decades of renewed democracy. The percentage responding in the World Values Survey

that one could trust other people fell from 26% in 1984 to 18% in 1995 (Mussetta


If democracy worked unusually well in some regions of Argentina this was not

because people there were more trusting in a generalized sense than were people in other

regions. Consider the question, Thinking about the locality or barrio where you live, if

you were to go on a trip, do you have any neighbors whom you could trust to care for

your house while you were away? (variable name, Neighbor). To discern the factors

influencing peoples answers, I estimated logit regression models (not shown) where the

dependent variable was a dummy that took the value of 1 when a person said they would

leave their house in the care of a neighbor, 0 when they said they would not. Information

about a persons income and the quality of their housing, and about the size of the city or

town they live in would help us predict their answer to this question. (People with

relatively high incomes, who lived in high-quality housing, and who were from smaller

towns and cities are more likely to trust their neighbors.) But knowing the region where

the person lived would not help us predict the answer.

Market trust. Expectations of accountability among residents of regions where

democracy worked unusually well focused on politics, and did not extend to commercial

relations. Our survey asked, Considering now merchants who act honestly, is this

because (1) they are honest people, (2) if they werent, they know they could be fined, or

(3) they could lose clients? Among all respondents, 45% answered because they are

honorable, 8% because they know they could be fined, and 45% because they could

lose customers. One can think of people who answered they know they may be fined

as believing in formal, legal institutions of commercial accountability, and those who

answered they could lose customers as believing in informal rules there is no law that

says that customers must abandon merchants whom they discover to be dishonest, and no

sanction for failing to abandon them, but we would expect many customers to do just

this. Such beliefs (as well as formal legal institutions) help reduce transaction costs and

smooth the functioning of market economies (North, 1990). But whats important for our

purposes is that residents of Buenos Aires (including Mar del Plata) were significantly

less likely to believe in either a formal or an informal institution of market accountability

than were people from Crdoba and Misiones.

In sum, not greater interpersonal trust, nor a generalized belief in rules enforcing

accountability, but a belief specific to political relations, is what distinguished peoples

expectations in more-democratic regions from those of people in less-democratic regions.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Roots of Accountability

The question that immediately suggests itself is, Do these informal (and formal)

rules, and the expectations that others will follow them, in fact cause democracy to

function better? Perhaps, instead, the causal sequence is reversed, and relatively lively

local democracy causes beliefs in these informal rules? Why does democracy function

relatively well in some settings, and are informal rules of accountability really the cause?

Although I wont in this chapter offer a full answer to these questions in the Argentine

case, I offer some preliminary thoughts.

Notice first some explanations that we can reject. One line of thinking, proposed

most prominently by Robert Putnam (1993), focuses on a political culture of trust. Some

regions in a country may develop a relatively rich associational life, a greater reservoir of

personal trust, and hence larger supplies of social capital. According to Putnam,

democracy works better in the North than in the South of Italy because the civic

community in the former is marked by an active, public-spirited citizenry, by

egalitarian political relations, by a social fabric of trust and cooperation, whereas the

South is cursed with vertically structured politics, a social life of fragmentation and

isolation, and a culture of distrust (:15, emphasis mine). Social trust in the polity acts

like market trust in the economy, allowing people to achieve higher levels of efficiency.

A trusting society secretes a well-functioning democracy.

In Argentina, as we have seen, people in places where democracy worked

relatively well did not trust people in general, or their neighbors, or merchants, or

politicians, more than in other regions where democracy worked less well. They werent

particularly prone to entrust their homes to their neighbors, but they did trust their fellow

voters to punish politicians who underperformed, and they trusted their fellow voters not

to be bought off by handouts. And they didnt trust politicians except in the convoluted

sense of trusting them to follow their own interest in staying in office and out of jail. A

final piece of evidence that social capital is not the key to our story is that people in

more-democratic regions do not seem to have created more social capital than did people

elsewhere. We asked a range of questions about respondents involvement in

organizations and about whether and how frequently they attended meetings. These

measures of social capital failed to predict adherence to rules of accountability; nor were

people from more-democratic regions more involved in associational life than were

people from less-democratic ones.

Another venerable line of research links the emergence and consolidation of

democracy with economic development. Higher incomes are supposed to imbue people

with longer time horizons, and make them less conflict-prone and more tolerant of others

opinions all of which are in turn supposed to promote democracy (see especially Lipset,

1958, 1960). Among people who answered our surveys we observed no straightforward

effect of income, education, or the quality of housing on beliefs that might promote

democracy. Just as important, whatever effects peoples household incomes or

educational levels or quality of housing might have had, they did not reduce the effect of

region on expectations of accountability. Comparing a resident of Mar del Plata with a

resident of a Misiones city or town of the same size as Mar del Plata, both with the same

level of income, the Mar del Plata resident is considerably more likely to abide by, and

expect others to abide by, informal rules that support accountability.

In contrast, income and development, not as traits of individuals but as structural

traits of communities, may help explain differences in the quality of local democracy in

Argentina. Regions and cities vary in their levels of development and in their class

structures. Scholars in comparative politics have contended that equality promotes

democracy (see especially Boix, 2003, Acemoglu and Robinson, 2002; this idea also

appears in places in Lipset, 1958). When the gap between rich and poor is relatively

narrow, the rich may view the poor as less `beyond the pale (Lipset 1958:83) and

hence more readily incorporated into civic life; and social equality may make the poor

look less threatening to the wealthy, because they are less prone to pursue strongly

redistributive measures (Boix 2003). Applied to our context, one could imagine that a

community that is not socially polarized would also be one in which people would be

relatively ready to expect others to follow courses of action appropriate to sustaining

democratic accountability. It is tantalizing to note, along these lines, that a higher

percentage of self-reported incomes in Mar del Plata than in any of our three other

regions were concentrated in the middle of the range (300-700 pesos per month; 44%

reported this as their household income in Mar del Plata, whereas only 33% did in

Misiones, and the other two sampling regions fell in between). It is also tantalizing to

note that, when asked to place themselves in the lower, middle, or upper class, a larger

percentage of people in Mar del Plata chose middle class than in any of the other

regions. Yet these comparisons could be misleading: they involve comparing income

distribution in a single city with income distribution across whole provinces. 10

My hunch is that beliefs in accountability are both a cause and a consequence of

well functioning democracy, and that both structural factors and good luck are often at

play. Imagine that a city happens, for no structural reason, to generate a set of judges and

lawyers who aggressively prosecute corruption and waste in city government. Citizens

who observed politicians being held accountable should display a growing belief that

politicians can be held accountable. Because they hold this belief, they are gradually

willing to concede more power and resources to city government. Local government

does more for people, and its own structures are strengthened, including those that

strengthen accountability. A virtuous cycle is underway. At the same time structural

factors, such as development and equality, are likely to further strengthen both the reality

of, and expectations of, local democracy.

Conclusions: Informal Institutions and Democracy

When democracy works well, when it achieves the effects that make it better than

other systems of government, this is because formal institutions, informal institutions,

and informal rules of behavior interact in felicitous ways. The new institutionalism in

comparative politics may have underestimated the importance of informal institutions and

I did study the effect of the proportion of poor people in a municipality, measured either as the proportion
of houses that are substandard, or as the proportion of people in a municipality with unsatisfied basic
needs, on the beliefs and expectations discussed in this paper. Unfortunately these data come from the
1991 census, and hence are not very reliable measures of poverty rates in 2001-02, when we conducted the
survey. Whats more, poverty rates are a very uncertain measure of the distribution of income: two
communities with identical poverty rates may have very different Gini indexes, for example. With both
caveats, the effect of poverty rates was the reverse of what we might have expected: the higher the poverty
rate in his community, the more likely a person was (all else equal) to offer accountability responses to
various questions. Furthermore, poverty rates did not make regional effects disappear; indeed poverty rates
if anything brought out these regional effects more strongly.

informal rules, whether they are more like the rules of a game or the rules of grammar,

for democratic outcomes. Comparativists have tended to conceive of institutions as

creating incentives that map straightforwardly onto outcomes. A better way to think

about the mapping of formal institutions on outcomes is that their effect is often

conditional on informal institutions and rules, and these informal institutions and rules

are variables that need to be unpacked empirically. As Helmke and Levitsky note, the

role of informal rules on democracy goes beyond one of filling the gaps left by formal

institutions. In fact, formal institutions in some instances will not work at all in the way

they were meant to unless the appropriate informal rules are in place.

Weve seen a lot of evidence from Argentina that certain informal rules covary, at

least, with good democratic outcomes. What seems to have mattered for a relatively

lively local democracy is not that people trust politicians or other people in the simple

sense of expecting them to promote ones interests if unconstrained. Expectations of

accountability, rather than trust, were the informal rules that helped support local

democracy in Argentina.


Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson

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Table 1 Responses to Questions about Institutional Trust and Trust in Politicians by

Mar Buenos Crdoba Misiones Total

del Aires

When governments provide good

services to the people, is this because
they are under the watch of the 65% 56% 48% 40% 52%
courts, congress, or the press (311) (268) (232) (192) (1003)
because they are good, committed 30% 40% 40% 53% 41%
people (142) (192) (194) (256) (784)

no answer 6% 4% 11% 7% 7%
(27) (20) (54) (32) (133)


When governments function efficiently,

is this because
they know if they dont, people wont 71% 75% 68% 67% 70%
vote for them in the next election (340) (362) (326) (321) (1349)
the people governing are good, 24% 22% 26% 29% 25%
committed people (116) (106) (125) (140) (487)
no answer 5% 3% 6% 4% 4%
(24) (12) (29) (19) (84)


When politicians really pay attention to

people like you, is this because
they want to be reelected 85% 80% 78% 78% 81%
(410) (386) (375) (375) (1546)
they really care 11% 17% 16% 18% 16%
(55) (83) (76) (87) (301)
no answer 3% 2% 6% 4% 4%
(15) (11) (29) (18) (73)

Table 2 Logit Models of Accountability Responses to Questions about Politicians

(1) (2) (3)

Dependent Service Efficient Attention
Model Logit Logit Logit
Income -0.057 0.005 -0.105
(0.043) (0.038) (0.054)
Education 0.041 -0.073 -0.060
(0.037) (0.038) (0.043)
Housing -0.006 -0.065 0.018
(0.076) (0.089) (0.094)
Gender -0.318 -0.014 -0.062
(0.102) (0.103) (0.119)
Age -0.013 -0.017 -0.006
(0.004) (0.004) (0.004)
Peronist -0.230 0.049 -0.420
supporter (0.116) (0.127) (0.150)
Radical -0.058 -0.036 0.045
supporter (0.144) (0.142) (0.226)
Log 0.006 0.040 0.031
Population (0.037) (0.046) (0.046)
Buenos Aires -0.408 0.081 -0.438
(0.184) (0.190) (0.214)
Crdoba -0.618 -0.115 -0.313
(0.187) (0.224) (0.255)
Misiones -1.080 -0.384 -0.517
(0.229) (0.222) (0.247)
Constant 1.605 1.881 2.664
(0.528) (0.697) (0.742)
The models reported were estimates that drew on five datasets with imputed values for
missing data. To generate the imputed datasets I used the Amelia program described in
King et al. (2001) and implemented in Honaker et al. (2001).

Explanation of variables:

Service: Dummy for response, Governments provide good services when theyre under
the watch of the courts, congress, and the press.

Efficient: Dummy for response, When municipal governments are efficient, this is
because they know otherwise people wont vote for them.

Attention: Dummy for response, When politicians pay attention to people like me, this
is because they want to be reelected.

Income: Self-reported by respondent, 9-level scale of family income.

Education: 9-level scale, from no formal education to university.

Housing: Assessed by interviewer, 5-level scale (1=poorest quality, 5=highest quality),

based on assessment of building materials, flooring, and presence or absence of consumer

Gender: male=0, female=1.

Peronist: coded 1 for respondents who said, independent of how they voted, that they
liked the Peronist Party more than others, 0 otherwise.

Radical: coded 1 for respondents who said, independent of how they voted, that they
liked the Radical Party more than others, 0 otherwise.

Log population: natural log of the number of inhabitants, according to 2001 census,
residing in the municipality where the respondent lived.

Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and Misiones are dummy variables for interviewees living in
each of these regions. The base region is therefore Mar del Plata.

Table 3 Responses to Questions about Voters Decision Rules

Question Variable Accountability Non-accty No ans.

Response response

Do people sympathize with Handout Better Gave things

[most important party in program: out: 19%
neighborhood] because it has a 53% 28%
better program, or because it
gave out things during the

Do people sympathize with [this Favor Concerned Gave out 22%

party] because they believe it is about favors:
concerned about everyone, or everyone: 33%
because it has given out a favor? 45%

Gift Yes: 7% No: 92% 1%

In the last campaign, did you
receive any good from a party

Do people sympathize with [this Past managed well: good 24%

party] because it managed things 32% program:
well or because it has a good 43%

Table 4 Logit Models of Clientelistic (Non-Accountability) Responses to Questions
about Voting

(1) (2) (3) (4)

Dependent Handout Favor Gift Past
Model Logit Logit Logit Logit
Income -0.067 -0.038 -0.217 0.027
(0.042) (0.034) (0.078) (0.034)
Education 0.034 0.048 -0.221 0.095
(0.034) (0.031) (0.080) (0.031)
Housing -0.034 0.099 -0.311 -0.087
(0.079) (0.068) (0.131) (0.068)
Gender 0.021 0.005 -0.184 0.007
(0.105) (0.095) (0.195) (0.095)
Age -0.003 -0.010 -0.014 0.009
(0.004) (0.003) (0.006) (0.003)
Peronist -0.453 -0.848 0.718 -0.253
(0.137) (0.117) (0.221) (0.118)
Radical -0.661 -0.329 -0.321 -0.203
(0.176) (0.145) (0.385) (0.148)
Log 0.028 0.081 -0.096 -0.167
population (0.033) (0.032) (0.051) (0.033)
Poverty rate -0.048 0.003 0.012
(0.018) (0.016) (0.016)
Mar del -1.635 -0.705 -0.886 -0.437
Plata (0.183) (0.136) (0.398) (0.133)
Constant 0.056 -0.191 1.368 1.771
(0.426) (0.419) (0.758) (0.434)
N 1920 1920 1920 1920
The models reported drew on five datasets with imputed values for missing data. To
generate the imputed datasets I used the Amelia program described in King et al. (2001)
and implemented in Honaker et al. (2001).

Explanation of variables:

Handout: Dummy for response, People support [most important local party] because it
gave things out in the campaign [not because it has a better program.]

Favor: Dummy for response, People support this party because it has done them a favor
[not because it is concerned for everyone].

Gift: Dummy for people who said they had received a campaign handout from a party
operative during the previous (October 2001 national legislative) campaign. The modal
handout was some food.

Past: Dummy for response, People support this party because it has performed well in
the past [not because it has a good proposal for the future.]

Poverty rate: Proportion of residents living in sub-standard housing, from the 1991

The remaining independent variables are defined as in the notes to Table 2.

Table 5: Responses to Questions about Personal Trust, by Region

Mar del Buenos Crdoba Misiones Total

Plata Aires
If you go away on a trip, do
you have a neighbor whom
you could trust to care for
your house?

yes 75% 80% 75% 68% 75%

(360) (383) (359) (328) (1430)
no 25% 20% 24% 30% 25%
(113) (97) (117) (146) (473)
no answer 2% 0% 1% 1% 1%
(7) (0) (4) (6) (17)
Do you believe most people
would take advantage of you
if they had the chance?
yes 55% 53% 50% 57% 54%
(263) (254) (241) (272) (1034)
no 42% 45% 45% 37% 42%
(203) (215) (214) (178) (810)
no answer 3% 2% 5% 6% 4%
(14) (11) (25) (30) (80)

Which is closest to your way
of thinking

You can trust a majority 20% 26% 23% 18% 22%

of people (96) (123) (111) (84) (414)
You can only trust a 61% 61% 56% 59% 59%
minority (294) (291) (271) (284) (1140)
I dont trust anyone 18% 13% 20% 22% 18%
(87) (64) (95) (105) (351)
no answer 1% 0.4% 1% 2% 1%
(3) (2) (3) (7) (15)