Democracy and dissent : the challenge of international rule making

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But the international arena that was meant to provide a means of weathering such challenges and failed to do so, itself offers no democratic means of accountability.

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On the contrary, the co-mingling of international venues, old and new, together with the co-mingling of old and new instruments for disseminating rules, creates an impenetrable jungle of acronyms. Citizens in democratic countries often do not know where salient rules have been made or who the rule makers are. Other procedural protections that are crucial for democracies have also been lost. Citizens are poorly informed about what procedures have been followed in making the rules, have little or no opportunity to influence the making of the rules, and lack the means to protest effectively if they disagree with them or to find remedies if they damage their own interests.

In democratic theory the citizen is king and the rule makers are subjects.

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When rule making fails, there is no redress. For citizens, faith in the democratic protections offered by their own societies is shaken; so too is their faith in international rule making. The twin challenges can be seen as twin deficits — a democratic deficit combined with an effectiveness deficit.

They are not new but they have become more evident and are going to become more, not less, important in future. They need to be corrected. It is time therefore to think again about the principles of design in international rule making. An emphasis on process means looking at the procedures institutions and authorities employ in order to formulate the rules and achieve their objectives. It also means looking at how different actors behave in the different settings in which rules are made and applied. It means examining the different ways in which the authority of the different actors in rule making is grounded.

Both perspectives involve empirical analysis. Both also involve normative analysis. In the context of post war international rule making it is a debate that started at the time that the post war architecture was originally established during the Second World War. Its salience continues. The two perspectives provide a unifying theme for much of the discussion that follows.

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They provide a common thread from the early post war history to current questions about the choice of venues and choice of instruments in international rule making. They link the discussion of the reasons for failures in rule making to the discussion of the reasons for the lack of respect for democratic norms. The first framework is that provided by theories of multi-level governance. The second framework is drawn from what is known as diffusion theory. The first framework, multi-level governance, focuses on forms and spheres of authority in the modern world. It is discussed from a different perspective by Easton In making the rules for the international financial system, governments have had the use of an extensive range of different organisational forms with different spheres of authority.

Nevertheless, the financial crisis has shown that the current system of international rule making is still prone to failure. In addition, far from helping to pinpoint democratic responsibility, multiple spheres of authority and multiple actors often help to conceal where the real power lies and who the real decision takers are. The analysis in this book therefore also utilises a second framework that focuses on processes rather than form. In this application the adoption of a new international rule or regulation is treated as another kind of innovation.

For a description of the sources see Hooghe and Marks However, rules and regulations are particularly about changing behaviour and additional criteria are also apposite. Either definition can be used.

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It is a stage dominated by experts and bureaucratic elites and by reasoning that reflects their professional disciplines. The experts form not only communities of knowledge but also communities of practice. The second stage is the adoption or endorsement of the proposed rules. It is a stage still dominated by governments and involves a different type of reasoning that reflects their own strategic calculations in deciding whether or not to endorse a proposed rule and, if so, in what form.

The third stage is the acceptance of the rules.


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This is the stage where electorates and citizens are the central actors in democratic societies. In their own reasoning they may well be distrustful of what both governments and experts have to say.

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The experts focusing on the content of rules will keep an eye on what governments may be willing to endorse and adopt. Governments in their turn, in endorsing the proposed rules, may keep an eye on what their electorates may accept. Despite the simplifications, the distinctions nevertheless have hugely important advantages for both empirical and normative analysis. The two perspectives are discussed in greater detail later in the book.

They are not mutually exclusive. Each offers important insights into why international rule making may fail and why there is a lack of consistency with democratic norms. It is important that the analytic perspective provides for both. In addition, the use of the two frameworks provides for an interdisciplinary approach.

As a result they also lead to quite different prescriptions about the remedies for each. In their pioneering case study of the diffusion of hybrid corn in Iowa in the s, the laboratory scientists developed the hybrid seed, the seed company salesmen and farm agencies endorsed its superior qualities and the farmers were the accepters.

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Benvenisti and Hirsch note that the distinction between rational choice and sociological analysis constitutes one of the major dividing lines in social sciences scholarship. For example, a task may be misassigned to the wrong kind of organisation, or there may be a misalignment between the spheres of authority of an organisation and the scale of collective good to be provided, or a mismatching between the substance of a measure and the legal form in which it is conveyed for implementation.

By contrast, in the diffusion framework the issues centre on the first stage of rule making.

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It is the epistemic elites who play a determining role both in framing the problem to be solved and in putting forward proposals on the substantive content of rules that purport to meet the problem. The advantages of epistemic elites centre on the use of technocratic, evidence-oriented venues. The disadvantages crystallise around the shortcomings of consensus between experts and peer approval as validation for evidence-based rule making.


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  • There are extremely strong theoretical reasons for thinking that like-minded groups are especially vulnerable to certain kinds of cognitive failings. The new venues try to avoid a sterile type of political contestation. However, a different type of contestation is necessary for assurance that the proposed rules are indeed evidence based.

    Without procedures and institutions that enable the substance of the rules to be challenged, rule making can go fundamentally wrong. The two accounts of failure are therefore quite different. The account offered by the diffusion framework centres on cognitive failure among the elites — failure that stems from the methods elites employ in going about making the rules.

    Failings in the original substantive choices made by the experts will not be corrected by changing the forms of organisation, reassigning roles, redefining spheres of authority or by altering the nature of the instruments through which the rules are conveyed. The attention of governments is largely centred on the strategic issues of whether or not to accept the proposed rules. These strategic interests, such as which other governments are likely to accept the rule and to what extent they can be counted on to implement any agreement, are different in their focus from the type of challenge and contest needed in arriving at the substance of the proposed rules.

    For the architects of the post war international institutions, the problem for democracies was the simple absence of international rules of behaviour. The problem is different now that international rule making has been restored. According to the multi-level governance framework, democratic rule making involves a combination of traditional forms of political authority, organised vertically, with newer forms of authority organised horizontally.

    Governments with their traditional instruments of authority can act simultaneously at more than one level of decision taking. They can incorporate the preferences of their own voters at whatever level they choose to act — whether international, national or sub-national. At the same time the networks of the many other actors, in addition to governments, who are involved in rule making at all levels of government provide a form of decentralised governance.