In a recent three-part essay, the Niskanen Center’s Brink Lindsey acknowledges all that the modern market system has done to incentivize innovation and coordinate the production and distribution of goods and services. He is concerned, though, that the economists who have assumed leadership of the free-market intellectual movement sometimes take the existence of markets themselves for granted. He adds a vital qualification:
A well-functioning market system is neither self-executing nor self-sustaining. To achieve what they are capable of, markets need to be embedded in and supplemented by supportive legal, political, and social institutions.
The idea that institutions are important to the proper functioning of a market economy is hardly new. Harold Demsetz’s work on property rights and Douglass North’s writings on institutions and transaction costs are well-known landmarks in the literature. The question of quality of government (QoG) is a somewhat narrower, but still broad question within the study of economic institutions. Bo Rothstein’s 2011 book on QoG provides an excellent overview of the literature and many original contributions.
The scope of this commentary is much less ambitious than any of these classic works. As a “statistical portrait,” it is more descriptive and exploratory than a rigorous exercise in hypothesis testing. Still, by highlighting some key relationships, I hope to point the way to potentially fruitful topics for further research. And even with these disclaimers, the findings reported here shed light on important questions regarding the relationship of QoG to democracy, personal freedom, and the satisfaction of basic human needs.