17.50 | Fall 2022 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Comparative Politics


Week 2

  • Map test [8 min]
  • Compare and contrast of Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, Hobbes, and Hume [12 min]
  • Discussion of Dahl: Is it desirable not to have a state? Workable? [15 min]
  • Discussion of expectations for papers and breakout groups [15 min]

Week 3

  • Breakout groups
    • You will be divided into groups and will do readings based on your group. Make sure to come to recitation having read and digested all the readings.
    • Breakout groups on what the state should do, and how. For groups C–F, articulate clearly what the nature of the public good or public service is that you believe the state should provide. Then review how it can best be provided to minimize the likelihood of state abuse.
    • Bear in mind that the audience for your presentations is your fellow students, not me or the TA. You want them to come away from your presentation with a sense of the big questions related to your topic and what alternatives there might be. Remember that they will not have done any of the readings that your group did, so you will need to summarize and explain that material. I suggest that you use the blackboard to write the definition of the public good ahead of time so people can see it as you begin, and perhaps an outline of the points you will cover.
    • If your group does not agree, don’t try to force consensus. Instead, use the disagreement to refine the pros and cons of different approaches, and then note that you didn’t all agree on how these pros and cons netted out.
    • In all cases, assume that your state will make and enforce binding decisions for a population of around six million people, about four and a half million of whom are adults.
    • The TA will overexplain the task, but ask plenty of questions before you begin your discussions and if you get stuck.


  • Group A: Lessons from Athens. The institutions invented in the ancient Greek world approximately 2,500 years ago were distinctive in providing direct citizen control of government. You should focus here on the notion of authoritative bodies (essentially, state agencies) being staffed by randomly selected groups of citizens and the citizenry meeting regularly to vote on decisions. Are these feasible in modern societies, either at the national or local level, and for certain spheres of policy? What are the pros and cons of applying them?
    • Dahl, Robert A. “The First Transformation: To the Democratic City­-State.” Chapter 1 in Democracy and Its Critics. Yale University Press, 1991. ISBN: ‎9780300049381. [Preview with Google Books]
    • Selections from Aristotle’s The Constitution of Athens, Parts 42–69.
    • Ober, Josiah. “Learning from Athens.” Boston Review, March 1, 2006. 
  • Group B: The use of referenda in modern societies. Focus here on the idea of the citizenry meeting regularly (in person or virtually) to vote directly on policy decisions. Are these feasible in modern societies. If so, for what spheres of policy or types of decisions? What are the pros and cons of applying them?
  • Group C: External defense. What sort of institutions are required and desirable for the defense of your country in a modern context. For instance, does “defense” include power projection abroad for national advantage? Protections of allies? Ensuring access to strategic resources and trade routes? Conquest and other wars of choice abroad? Then think about provision of this good: the value of a draft versus an all-volunteer army versus reliance on (foreign) mercenaries versus a small constabulary force backed by citizen-militias, etc. 
  • Group D: Justice and punishment. Begin from first principles: how should the state punish infractions? You should feel free to consider alternative approaches to deterrence and punishment in general that rely on community shaming, community service, etc. Note that you may wish to apply the notion of “restorative justice” to certain types of crimes and certain types of communities—for instance, involuntary homicide, fraud, or sexual misconduct between individuals who know each other. Whatever you decide, make sure you clearly articulate the fundamental options for the class.
  • Group E: Law enforcement. Think about the role of policing, including the role of ordinary citizens: their obligations to assist the police (e.g., whether they are required to furnish information about crimes, report criminal activity they witness, or answer a posse comitatus summons), and the tradeoffs involved in citizen oversight of policing. Should there be a professional police force at all? If so, who should lead it?
  • Group F: Redistribution. Make sure to articulate whether and why the state should be in the business of redistribution. Consider whether there should be any conditionality associated with transfers and, if so, what sort? (For instance, recipients of government assistance must do X.) If you believe the state should ensure some sort of welfare provision to disadvantaged citizens, discuss how such transfers can be made so that the state feels smaller or less intrusive. Be sure to articulate clearly for your classmates what the different options suggested by the readings are.

Week 4

  • Class discussion of six questions using buzz groups
    • Explanation of task [5 min]
    • What qualities should rulers have? (Start by brainstorming a list, then identifying tradeoffs among these attributes, and then prioritizing certain qualities.) [7 min + 3 min of reporting]
    • Review qualities that leaders should have based on what other groups have done. [3 min]
    • What systems of recruitment, selection, and training are most likely to produce leaders with these qualities? [10 min]
    • Does popular election produce leaders with these qualities? [10 min]
    • Can you design a system that would reliably produce leaders with these qualities? [10 min]

Week 5

  • Discussion of Lijphart


Lijphart, Arend. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780300078930. [Preview with Google Books]

Week 7

  • Breakout groups
    • Detailed discussion of Rao, et al. [35 min]
    • Buzz groups: You are the largest landowners in your county/village of 10,000 people, collectively owning about half of the arable land. The progressive national government has announced that in one week it will send an agricultural inspector who will (a) measure all landholdings in preparation for potential land reform legislation, (b) encourage smallholders in the community to form a cooperative, and (c) help landless villagers form a farmers’ union. What do you do? [20 min]


Rao, Vijayendra, Kripa Ananthpur and Kabir Malik. “The Anatomy of Failure: An Ethnography of a Randomized Trial to Deepen Democracy in Rural India.” World Development 99 (2017): 481–97.

Week 8

  • Discussion of readings
  • The nature and extent of corruption in China

Week 9

  • Why is national identity valuable? Is it stronger when linked to race, ethnicity, language, religion, or shared cultural practices? If it is desirable, should the government promote it?
  • National identity and ethnic minorities in China

Week 10

  • Prepare for class debate over immigration-related policies in Compostela 
    • Should “assimilation” or “integration” be the goal for immigrants and refugees?
    • What government policies would best advance the goal you support?
    • [Note: In each case, you will be assigned to argue for one side or the other, whether or not you actually agree with it.]
  • Use an aging app to see what you and your group might look like at 60 years old

Week 11

  • Discussion of readings
  • Economic policy choices in China

Week 12

  • Discussion of Rodrik, et al. and de Soto (what is “dead capital”)
    • What does de Soto presume about the state’s role? How realistic is this assumption?
    • Discussion of Rodrik (2009)
    • China as an exception to the question of property rights?


Rodrik, Dani, Arvind Subramanian, and Francesco Trebbi. “Institutions Rule: The Primacy of Institutions over Geography and Integration in Economic Development.” Journal of Economic Growth 9, no. 2 (2004): 131–65.

de Soto, Hernando. “The Five Mysteries of Capital,” “The Mystery of Missing Information,” and “By Way of Conclusion.” Chapters 1, 2, and 7 in The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. Basic Books, 2003. ISBN: ‎9780465016150. [Preview with Google Books]

Rodrik, Dani. “Industrial Policy: Don’t Ask Why, Ask How.” (PDF) Middle East Development Journal, Demo Issue (2008): 1–29.

Week 13

  • Political support, opposition, and control in China
  • You are a member of the Civic Front of Kumar, a country ruled by an unpopular dictator whose secret police do atrocious things to his opponents. The Civic Front seeks to replace Kumar’s regime with a liberal democracy. Most of its leaders are in prison or in exile, though some (like you) are underground. What do you do?

Week 14

  • Discussion of readings
  • Discussion of China’s social credit score


Diamond, Larry. “Liberation Technology.” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 3 (2010): 69–83.

Morozov, Evgeny. “Liberation Technology: Whither Internet Control?Journal of Democracy 22, no. 2 (2011): 62–74.

Little, Andrew T. “Communication Technology and Protest.” Journal of Politics 78, no. 1 (2016): 152–66.

Bahrani, Yasmine. “What Is It like to Live in a Modern Surveillance State? Look to Dubai,” Washington Post, September 10, 2019.

Farrow, Ronan. “How Democracies Spy on Their Citizens.” The New Yorker, April 18, 2022. 

Satariano, Adam, and Paul Mozur. “Russia Is Censoring the Internet, with Coercion and Black Boxes,” New York Times, October 23, 2021.

Marr, Bernard. “Chinese Social Credit Score: Utopian Big Data Bliss or Black Mirror on Steroids?Forbes, January 21, 2019.

Week 15

  • Discussion of readings
  • Review of pop quiz


Mounk, Yascha. “The Undemocratic Dilemma.” Journal of Democracy 29, no. 2 (2018): 98–112.

Svolik, Milan W. “Polarization versus Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 3 (2019): 20–32.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2022
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments