Constraining Elites: The Self-Enforcing Constitution of the Patricians of Venice
By Daniel J. Smith and Rania A. Al-Bawwab
Published Online (2016)
Abstract: Can elites with access to governing institutions be constitutionally constrained? Effective constitutional constraints must be self-enforcing. This represents a substantial barrier to economic development, especially when elites control governing institutions. This paper analyzes how late Middle Age and Renaissance era Venice achieved economic prosperity despite being ruled by elite patricians. We argue that Venetian constitutional constraints, including the dispersion of power, complicated electoral procedures, term limits, and oaths of office, were self-enforcing because of mechanisms that incentivized elites to monitor and constrain one another.
Introduction: Venice was ruled by a large group of elite patricians. With a large group of elites, Venetian patricians would have had low incentives to be informed and faced high monitoring costs. Without mechanisms to incentivize patricians to be informed and to deter the shirking of constitutional monitoring and enforcement, a large group of elites would not be a stable equilibrium.
Instead, a dominant coalition of a small group of elites would have been expected to emerge. Yet, a dominant coalition did not emerge in Venice until the late Renaissance period. To achieve sustained economic prosperity with a large group of elites, Venice must have had institutional mechanisms that incentivized patricians to make informed votes, prevent the formation of special interest groups, and to deter shirking among the patricians.