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We began this book with the premise that what ultimately distinguishes strong institutions from weak ones is that the former matter more than the latter. The same institution, in two different contexts or at two different times, is stronger if it makes more of a behavioral difference in one instance than in the other. As the chapters in this volume make clear, however, it is difficult to evaluate exactly how much an institution “matters.” It is relatively simple to say that an institution is strong because, on paper, it possesses features that should make it matter – for example, it commands great things. But it is an altogether different – and, we believe, far more interesting – thing to say that an institution is strong because it actually produces an outcome that is substantially different from what we might have observed in its absence, and that it continues to produce that outcome even in the face of pressures to change it or avoid it altogether.
The third wave of democratization transformed Latin America. Across the region, regime transitions triggered a plethora of institutional reforms aimed at enhancing the stability and quality of both the new and the few long-standing democracies. Most states adopted new constitutions. Many of them extended new rights to citizens, including unprecedented social rights, such as the right to health care, housing, and a clean environment (Klug 2000; Yashar 2005; Brinks and Blass 2018). Electoral systems were redesigned – at least once – in every Latin American country except Costa Rica; judicial and central bank reforms spread across the region (Jácome and Vásquez 2008); and governments launched far-reaching decentralization initiatives and experimented with new institutions of direct or participatory democracy (Falleti 2010; Cameron, Hershberg, and Sharpe 2012; Altman 2014; Mayka 2019).
Analysts and policymakers often decry the failure of institutions to accomplish their stated purpose. Bringing together leading scholars of Latin American politics, this volume helps us understand why. The volume offers a conceptual and theoretical framework for studying weak institutions. It introduces different dimensions of institutional weakness and explores the origins and consequences of that weakness. Drawing on recent research on constitutional and electoral reform, executive-legislative relations, property rights, environmental and labor regulation, indigenous rights, squatters and street vendors, and anti-domestic violence laws in Latin America, the volume's chapters show us that politicians often design institutions that they cannot or do not want to enforce or comply with. Challenging existing theories of institutional design, the volume helps us understand the logic that drives the creation of weak institutions, as well as the conditions under which they may be transformed into institutions that matter.
This Element introduces the concept of institutional weakness, arguing that weakness or strength is a function of the extent to which an institution actually matters to social, economic or political outcomes. It then presents a typology of three forms of institutional weakness: insignificance, in which rules are complied with but do not affect the way actors behave; non-compliance, in which state elites either choose not to enforce the rules or fail to gain societal cooperation with them; and instability, in which the rules are changed at an unusually high rate. The Element then examines the sources of institutional weakness.