A General Empirical Law of Public Budgets: A Comparative Analysis


  • We appreciate comments from Didier Sornette and Dave Karpf on earlier versions of this article. Thanks, too, to Jim Stimson and Scott Robinson for their tolerance of multiple drafts of this manuscript. Some of the data used here were originally collected by Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones, with the support of National Science Foundation grant number SBR 9320922, and were distributed through the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the University of Washington or the Department of Political Science at Penn State University.

Bryan D. Jones is the J. J. “Jake” Pickle Regents Chair in Congressional Studies, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station A1800, Austin, TX 78712-0119 (bdjones@austin.utexas.edu). Frank R. Baumgartner is the Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 358 Hamilton Hall, Campus Box 3265, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3265 (Frankb@unc.edu). Christian Breunig is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto, Sidney Smith Hall, Room 3018, 100 St. George Street, Toronto, Ontario M5S 3G3, Canada (c.breunig@utoronto.ca). Christopher Wlezien is Professor of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122-6089 (Wlezien@temple.edu). Stuart Soroka is Associate Professor of Political Science, McGill University, 855 Sherbrooke St. West, Montreal, QC H3A 2T7, Canada (stuart.soroka@mcgill.ca). Martial Foucault is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Montreal, CP 6128 Succ. centre-ville, Montreal H3C3J7, Canada (martial.foucault@umontreal.ca). Abel François is Assistant Professor of Economics, Telecom ParisTech (ESS) and University of Strasbourg (LARGE), 47 avenue de la Foret Noire, F67082 Strasbourg cedex, France (abel.francois@telecom-paristech.fr). Christoffer Green-Pedersen is Professor of Political Science, University of Aarhus, Bartholins Allé 7, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark (cgp@ps.au.dk). Chris Koski is Assistant Professor of Political Science, James Madison University, MSC 7705, Harrisonburg, VA 22807 (koskicj@jmu.edu). Peter John is Hallsworth Chair of Governance, Institute for Political and Economic Governance, School of Social Sciences, Humanities Bridge St., University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, United Kingdom (peter.john@manchester.ac.uk). Peter B. Mortensen is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Aarhus, Bartholins Allé 7, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark (Peter@ps.au.dk). Frédéric Varone is Professor of Political Science, University of Geneva, 40 Bvd du Pont d'Arve, CH-1211 Geneva, Switzerland (frederic.varone@unige.ch). Stefaan Walgrave is Professor of Political Science, University of Antwerp, Sint-jacobsstraat 2, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium (Stefaan.walgrave@ua.ac.be).


We examine regularities and differences in public budgeting in comparative perspective. Budgets quantify collective political decisions made in response to incoming information, the preferences of decision makers, and the institutions that structure how decisions are made. We first establish that the distribution of budget changes in many Western democracies follows a non-Gaussian distribution, the power function. This implies that budgets are highly incremental, yet occasionally are punctuated by large changes. This pattern holds regardless of the type of political system—parliamentary or presidential—and for level of government. By studying the power function's exponents we find systematic differences for budgetary increases versus decreases (the former are more punctuated) in most systems, and for levels of government (local governments are less punctuated). Finally, we show that differences among countries in the coefficients of the general budget law correspond to differences in formal institutional structures. While the general form of the law is probably dictated by the fundamental operations of human and organizational information processing, differences in the magnitudes of the law's basic parameters are country- and institution-specific.