Linos Book Symposium: Comments by Anu Bradford

by Anu Bradford

[Anu Bradford is Professor of Law at Columbia Law School]

Katerina Linos’ book provides a novel, intriguing and highly compelling theoretical and empirical account for how and why foreign models diffuse across borders. Voters have limited information and patience to evaluate policy proposals their government advance. Benchmarking these proposals against policies that international organizations have endorsed, or that large, culturally proximate, and successful countries have adopted, provides a powerful and low-cost way of convincing the general public of the expected success of the policy. This explains why international models shape public policy and explain legislative outcomes in democracies.

The book offers a distinctly fresh perspective on the contested relevance of international organizations (IOs). These institutions’ power to convey a clear message of what is competent and mainstream, and the use of that message to gain an electoral advantage domestically, heightens their influence in a way that has thus far not been understood.  This contribution is therefore likely to have a significant and lasting impact in the discussions of international law and institutions.

Linos’ decision to test her theory on health and family policies, which are politically contested and fiscally significant, makes her book all the more interesting. This choice allows for a particularly original look at the influence of international law, which rarely focuses on social policy questions. Governments have tried to shape the family decisions on women’s employment and the fertility patterns for decades, the book notes. Their desire to do so will likely only increase with the looming demographic crises across the developed world, which calls for increasing women’s participation in the labor force while also heightening the need to grow the size of their families.

The empirical discussion of family policy diffusion across OECD countries (Chapter 6) and as well as the quantitative and qualitative study of family policy developments in Greece and Spain (Chapter 7) offer a strong and often surprising support for her thesis. Looking at the evidence from 18 OECD countries over 25 years, Linos shows how international organizations and cross-country influences explain domestic regulatory choices and spending patterns in the field of family policy. The diffusion of maternity leaves has been particularly striking, which is explained by the existence of strong and coherent international models. Family benefits have diffused considerably less in large part due to the lack of such benchmarks. This pattern—uniform maternity leave policies and differential family benefit policies—is confirmed in her study on the adoption of maternity leaves and family benefits in Greece and Spain.

The book emphasizes the relative success of the International Labor Organization (ILO) over the EU in promoting family policies and highlights the power of soft law over hard law to diffuse successfully.  The ILO’s greater success in promoting maternity leaves compared to that of the EU—which is vested with the ability to generate hard law and pursue legal action against reluctant emulators— serves as one indicator of this.

However, an alternative reading of Linos’ work could be that of irrelevance of the binding versus non-binding distinction when measuring the influence of international norms. What matters is not the legal form but the identity of the entity that endorses the model.  What also matters is the decree of consensus, which allows for a unitary, specific and simple model to emerge. Of course, non-binding conventions are easier to formulate in substantively deep and specific terms whereas binding norms tend to invite more reservations, reducing their “emulation value.”  But in the end, the non-binding form of an international model seems to have only indirect explanatory power whereas the precision, simplicity and incontestability seem to matter more in predicting diffusion patterns.

The book provides a solid account for why the ILO was more influential than the EU in shaping maternity leave policies across the OECD countries. One additional reason for why an international organization might at times offer a more neutral and hence more widely accepted model for diffusion could be the EU-sceptic platform of some political parties in Europe. A Euro-sceptic party is more likely to highlight the ILO’s adoption of the model as the association of the proposed policy with the EU would only serve to alienate the voters from the proposal. In other words, the diffusion of EU models may at times be hindered by voters’ more complicated relationship to the EU as a whole, including the extensive and mixed (positive and negative) coverage of the EU in the media. There is no such “anti-ILO platform,” which could impede the diffusion of the models promoted by the ILO.

The book shows how successful policies diffuse through democracy.  But is the reverse true? Does the media coverage of policy failures in large, (otherwise) successful, and culturally proximate countries dissuade governments from adopting these same policies in their own countries? And is this because the negative international models have turned the voters against these policies? Thus, do governments refrain from experimenting with a policy if their large and proximate neighbors failed when doing so, even if their technocrats concluded that the differences between countries (or avoidance of some implementation failures as a result of learning) would lead to a different outcome?

A related question is whether the theory’s explanatory power holds when the interest group dynamics are reversed and when it is unclear that voters directly benefit from a proposed reform. For example, the looming demographic crisis as well as the ongoing financial crisis have increased the pressure to cut back the various entitlement programs across Europe. The governments in crisis-struck countries such as Greece and Spain are likely to be forced to reduce the social costs of hiring and hence dilute the existing protections of workers. These are distinctly difficult policies to sell to the voters. Could the news coverage that reports an improved fiscal state and higher growth rate of a large and culturally proximate country that has reduced entitlements persuade voters to support these painful reforms? And would a EU or an OECD recommendation that advocates such policies have a similar effect?

What would be different about this scenario is that the international benchmarks would be used to promote policies that are at least initially highly unpopular among the general electorate. At the same time, employers would support them, as would those who contribute to the country’s tax base the most and draw on the entitlements the least.  This would be an interesting further test of Linos’ theory as, in the end, one of the most counterintuitive and powerful findings of the book is the idea that international models can matter more than the familiar domestic forces that we have conventionally associated with the policy change domestically.

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