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Political engineering is a concept in political science that deals with the designing of political institutions in a society and often involves the use of paper decrees, in the form of laws, referendums, ordinances, or otherwise, to try and achieve some desired effect within a society.[1]

The criteria and constraints used in such design vary depending on the optimization methods used.[1] Usually democratic political systems have not been deemed suitable as subjects of political engineering methods.[2][3] Political engineering, using suboptimal methods or criteria, can sometimes yield disastrous results as in the case of attempting to engineer a previously democratic country's political landscape by such methods as, for example, a coup d'état. The Greek military junta of 1967-1974 used political engineering utilizing a coup d'état to dissolve the democratic system of Greece with catastrophic results. Political engineering can also be employed to design alternative voting procedures in a democratic system.[4]

In the social arena the counterpart of political engineering is social engineering.


The term social engineering is commonly used as a slang term to refer to an individual act of manipulation (or possibly fraud). However, the term is often misused with its denotation mutated. The correct term for such manipulation is political engineering.

For various reasons, the term has been imbued with negative connotations. However, virtually all law and governance has the effect of changing behavior and can be considered "political engineering" to some extent. Prohibitions on murder, rape, suicide and littering are all policies aimed at discouraging undesirable behaviors. In British and Canadian jurisprudence, changing public attitudes about a behavior is accepted as one of the key functions of laws prohibiting it. Governments also influence behavior more subtly through incentives and disincentives built into economic policy and tax policy, for instance, and have done so for centuries.

In practice, whether any specific policy is labeled as "political engineering" is often a question of intent. The term is most often used by libertarians, free-market thinkers, and traditionalists as an accusation against anyone who proposes to use law, tax policy, or other kinds of state influence to change existing power relationships: for instance, between men and women, or between different ethnic groups. Political conservatives in the United States have accused their opponents of social engineering through the promotion of political correctness, insofar as it may change social attitudes by defining "acceptable" and "unacceptable" language or acts. The right has itself been accused of social engineering due to its promotion of Abstinence-only sex education, the English-only movement, Sodomy laws and state sponsored school prayer.

Further reading

  • Benjamin Reilly, Democracy and Diversity: Political Engineering in the Asia-Pacific, 2006.
  • _________, Democracy in Divided Societies. Electocal Engineering for Conflict Management, 2001.
  • Giovanni Sartori, Comparative Constitutional Engineering, 2nd Ed. 1997.

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Political Engineering: The Design of Institutions, Dr. Jeffrey R. Lax, Department of Politics, New York University Quote: "The product of such analysis, which is reflected in the title of this course, is normative: To design institutions that meet certain “engineering” specifications and, therefore, may be superior to institutions that, because they arose more haphazardly, may not satisfy these specifications. Like engineering in the natural sciences, which translates theory (e.g., from physics) into practical design (e.g., a bridge), engineering in the social sciences translates rational-choice analysis into the design of better political-economicsocial institutions." and "Informed answers to these questions require that we set forth criteria—the specifications of the engineer—for evaluating institutions. In this course, we will invoke such criteria as efficiency, equitability, freedom from certain paradoxes, etc. Particular emphasis will be placed on making institutions as invulnerable as possible to manipulation, which will be subjected to theoretical analysis and illustrated through a series of case studies"
  2. ^ Specimen of Political engineering: The Pioneer, 2002 Quote: "The ISI's political department has long been known to indulge in "political engineering" (a decent-sounding nomenclature for the dirty tricks it indulges in) having sent former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the gallows and helped overthrow both Ms Benazir Bhutto and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and bring General Musharraf to power in a bloodless coup."
  3. ^ Political Engineering of Parties and Party Systems, Benjamin Reilly Ph.D. Quote: "Because political parties in theory represent the political expression of underlying societal cleavages (Lipset and Rokkan 1967), parties and party systems have not usually been thought to be amenable to overt political engineering. While some authoritarian states have attempted to control the development of their party system (eg the mandated ‘two-party’ or ‘threeparty’ systems that existed under military rule in Nigeria and Indonesia respectively, or 1 For what is still the best discussion of ethnic parties and party systems, see Horowitz 1985. 2 See, for example, Sartori 1994, Diamond 1999, Reynolds 2002. 3 the ‘no-party’ system that currently exists in Uganda), most democracies allow parties to develop freely. Because of this, parties are generally understood to remain beyond the reach of formal political engineering in most circumstances. Recent years, however, have seen some ambitious attempts to influence the development of party systems in a range of ethnically-diverse countries such as Indonesia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Papua New Guinea. In the discussion of these and other cases which follows, this paper presents an initial survey of some the different institutional and political strategies for encouraging the development of broad, crossregional or multi-ethnic parties and party systems that have been used around the world."
  4. ^ Preferential voting and political engineering: a comparative study. Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, The, March, 1997 by Reilly, Ben


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