Linos Book Symposium: Comments by David Zaring

by David Zaring

[David Zaring is Assistant Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School]

Why does almost every country in the developed world have maternity leave, or government supported retirement programs? Katerina Linos knows the – always surprising to me, but repeatedly tested by political scientists – fact that countries adopt the policies of their similar, often nearby, neighbors. In The Democratic Foundations Of Policy Diffusion, she argues that there is good news underlying this trend of cross-border adoption. Rather than being a function of bureaucrats forcing, say Swiss health care models down the throats of American citizens, she shows that, across countries, and even among Americans themselves, 1) citizens prefer policies that are proposed with evidence of foreign and international organization endorsement; and 2) politicians invoke this sort of evidence when trying to mobilize support for their programs.

This might strike your average American, who, if she is anything like me, is hardly maximally cosmopolitan, as implausible. How many voters, let alone the median American voters political scientists think about the most, care about how they do things in Canada, or can be bothered to find out? Will they really choose the suite of policies proposed by the leader who does the best job invoking the recommendations of the United Nations on the campaign trail?

Linos makes a persuasive case that even in America her theory about policy diffusion holds true, partly because her argument proceeds not just from the evidence she gathers, but from two bedrock principles of social science. The first is related to that median voter proposition. Political scientists have become very skeptical of great man histories of the world. Americans, on this reading, are unlikely to support radical reform of the health care because the president really wanted them to do it, or because particularly persuasive norm entrepreneurs, be they in academia, the American Medical Association, or in European health agencies, assured elites that it would be a good idea. But that is how policy diffusion would work if it wasn’t supported by democratic foundations. Paired with evidence of the invocation of foreign practices in American politics, why wouldn’t we assume that rational American voters choose to do things the French way because they wanted to do so?

The second bedrock social science proposition at work here, I think, turns on competition. Social scientists often posit the existence of markets in everything. Voters will always test the job their government is doing for them against the alternatives. Sometimes, those alternatives come from the other party. But isn’t it plausible to think that they might be interested in the alternatives provided in other countries as well?

The plausibility of the story went a long way towards convincing me, but there are some other implications and cavils worth noting:

  • I view this as an (already!) seminal contribution to how comparative law and the transplant process works. But the book has important prescriptions for international law as well, as Linos shows in her conclusion. For one thing, it justifies the efforts to pass global conventions, even nonbinding ones pointing to best practices: endorsements from international organizations can leverage political support for world-bettering policies. Second, where some view international law as rather undemocratic, the story here suggests the opposite –that the international law widely adopted is likely to be the sort of law that motivates the support of democratic majorities across the world. I note that these two propositions are in mild tension with one another.
  • The evidence that Linos presents that politicians invoke foreign practice when deliberating whether to adopt those practices at home is interesting, but I worry that the denominator is unclear. Just because Congress discusses France when debating health care doesn’t meant that they voted on French practice and its persuasiveness to their constituents. They may have done so because they were promised a road-building project, because when they aren’t publicly debating the issue they are listening to the whisperings of foreign elites at conferences in Munich, or for other, not clearly observed reasons.
  • Is there anything necessarily political about this comparative effect? Linos suggests that voters like to hear what they are doing in Germany because German policy adoption is a costly signal. I wonder if this is different than decisions about renovating kitchens. Do voter/homeowners do that because their neighbors are doing so wholesale as well – or even upon news that that’s what the Germans are doing? I wonder because it tells us whether Linos has illustrated a process of policy diffusion, or just one of diffusion itself, as exemplified by cross-border policy adoption.
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