Democracy and Dissent: The Challenge of International Rule Making

May 12, 2011

Power is in the administration of everyday things, and nowhere is this epigram of Max Weber more evident than in the impenetrable jungle of international organisations. Frank Vibert's book provides a sure-footed guide to the rule-makers and rules that flourish there. It is also critical of the extent to which official, semi-official and unofficial international bodies can lack democratic accountability.

The founders of the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund had optimistic values and beliefs about how they could promote global peace and prosperity. While optimism has been lost, values and beliefs remain important. Vibert shows how rules can be framed to carry out the rule of law, apply the "laws" of economics or to advance goals such as protecting the environment and human rights. Given multiple values, there is often competition about which should have priority and which should come last.

While national governments remain formally sovereign, they are increasingly challenged by transnational developments in the economy, the environment and security. This has led to the creation of subject-specific international organisations making rules about everything from the internet to food safety. Citizens are no longer able to hold these rule-makers to account. Instead, they have become objects of organisations whose legitimacy rests on their claims to represent consensual values, expertise and the common good. Each of these claims is challengeable.

A recurring theme here is that a major threat to democracy comes from PhD-wielding authorities who form epistemic communities based on expert knowledge. The education and responsibilities of experts in fields such as public health, agronomy and maritime law create common standards for evaluating evidence and prescribing policies that are diffused through international associations and informal networks.

The higher the level of agreement, the more closed an epistemic community is to outside questioning. By contrast, the greater the disagreement, as is the case today in economics, the more open the debate. This enables elected policymakers to choose the recommendation that they find politically most congenial and to be held to account by their electorate. Like it or not, George Osborne is doing just that.

Even though (or perhaps because) Vibert is an economist who has worked in international organisations, he emphasises the need for dissenters to be able to challenge international rules. Challenges are necessary because the tendency of epistemic communities is to confine their analysis within narrow limits, privilege information that confirms their pre-existing frameworks, herd together in making recommendations and enjoy access to policymakers searching for solutions to technical problems that they do not understand.

The author makes technical recommendations to guard against expert bias: competitive evaluation; the use of confidence levels to flag the extent to which forecasts are guesstimates; more care in cause-and-effect tracing of processes; and auditing past errors in expert policy advice. These recommendations are far from the populist wish to "democratise" international institutions through self-selected forums and demonstrations. They also recognise that international organisations cannot be held electorally accountable when the governors of so many of their member states are not chosen by free elections.

Vibert's prescriptions would open up international rule-making to scrutiny by those who know enough to ask probing questions. This would not create an international community of discourse as recommended by Jurgen Habermas, but it would, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, open up a marketplace for debating a growing thicket of internationally applicable rules.

Because Vibert uses technical terminology rather than journalistic vignettes and simplifications, the readership of this book will be limited. Nonetheless, those seriously concerned with the effect of rules made by organisations that are out of sight of citizens should persevere with its analysis in order to gain a better understanding of how to make international rule-makers more accountable.

Democracy and Dissent: The Challenge of International Rule Making

By Frank Vibert

Edward Elgar

264pp, £65.00 and £19.95

ISBN 9781849809207 and 9214

Published 31 January 2011

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