The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

Demos 21: Should the People Control Public Spending?

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On Monday, November 22, 2021, Demos21, a year-long series of lectures, roundtables and workshops organized by AUP’s Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS), hosted its fourth event of the academic year. Guest speakers Carlo Burelli (University of Genova) and Enrico Biale (University of Piemonte Orientale) discussed their forthcoming paper “Should the People Control Public Spending? A Normative Assessment of Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendments.” The hybrid event saw audience members attend both in-person in the Center’s conference hall and online.  

The speakers began by discussing the historical context of their investigations, noting that the last few decades have, in certain Western countries, been marked by balanced budget constitutional amendments (BBCAs), which mandate that states do not spend more than their income. These constitutional amendments have had a distinct impact on public policy, ushering in an era of reduced public expenditure. Burelli and Biale particularly emphasized Germany, Austria, Spain, France and Italy in their presentation.  

In the first part of the talk, the speakers introduced an empirical overview of BBCAs and argued that such policies had become ubiquitous. They then introduced the tension between the idea that BBCAs could embody democratic ideals by protecting citizens’ interests and the idea that they undermine democracy by moving important policy developments outside of public control. They went on to analyze arguments both in favor of and against BBCAs. In certain circumstances, BBCAs can function as a moderating influence in unstable situations by ensuring that a democratic system responds to both the short-term interests and long-term needs of citizens; in others, they may in fact result in instability, lessened democratic control, and social inequality.  

Burelli and Biale were ultimately sympathetic to the critical view, concluding that BBCAs, while potentially justified in certain contexts, bring with them high democratic costs. The discussion referenced in particular the work of JM Buchanan, John Rawls, and David Harvey. Following the presentation, audience members both online and in Paris raised questions on topics such as populism, the importance of regionality, and the paper’s place within various theoretical waves in critiques of neoliberalism.

For more information about upcoming Demos21 events, see the CCDS webpages.