Linos Book Symposium: Comments by Rachel Brewster

by Rachel Brewster

[Rachel Brewster is Professor of Law at Duke Law]

There is much to admire in Katerina Linos’ new book, The Democratic Foundations of Policy Diffusion: How Health, Family and Employment Laws Spread Across Countries.  Linos elegantly integrates a disparate set of literatures – international relations, domestic politics, and transnational diffusion – to construct a powerful and persuasive account of the transmission of social policy between states.  The book is a remarkable achievement.  It uses sophisticated statistical models as well as case studies and polling data to establish the causal argument at the core of the book:  that democratic voters are a crucial part of the diffusion process.

Linos’ approach is a significant departure from the standard diffusion story, which models diffusion as an elitist, technocratic model.  The conventional account posits that high-level policy officials will evaluate the social policies of a diverse group of nations and select the policy that is best suited to their national conditions (or the officials’ political or professional goals).  This expertise-based account predicts that policies will trend across countries as states based on elite connections–potentially over the preferences of the national population.

Linos offers a fundamentally different understanding of the diffusion process.  She argues that domestic democratic majorities are not irrelevant to the spread of social policies, but a central part of the process.  Rather than being an elite policy story, the politics of diffusion is a voter-centric one.  This makes a significant difference in the pattern of outcomes we should observe.  Because voters have limited policy information and limited willingness to investigate competing policy claims, voters focus their attention on the policies of their large and wealthy neighbors.  Thus diffusion policies should be somewhat “lumpy” with dominant regional templates.  Policies recommended by international institutions – even non-binding resolutions or recommendations – are also identifiable to voters and can produce more uniform policies transnationally.  In addition to making different predictions, the voter-centric model also put a different light on the democratic-deficit critique.  Linos persuasively demonstrates that politics of diffusion is a majoritarian process and not a minority-dominated imposition of elite views.

To my eye, the most intriguing elements of Linos’ work relate to what diffusion models inform our understanding of the influence of international law on national politics.  In this sense, the book offers a wealth of new insights and possibilities.  Linos’s work goes to the heart of how states form national preferences and the role of international law in this process.  It is a truism in rationalist approaches to international law that a state will obey international rules when it is in the state’s interests to do so.  These state interests are thought to be quite stable and based on promoting the state’s position (power, wealth, prestige) in the international system.  The dominance of national interests is generally viewed as a constraint on the power of international law:  international rules gain traction only to the extent that they are consistent with the nation’s independently formed preferences.  More constructivist approaches to international law maintain that international law can (and should) influence national preferences, yet these accounts are often aspirational and based on elite models of persuasion.

Linos’ analysis highlights how fluid state preferences can be.  Voters, not just national leaders, observe other nation’s policies and international policy models.  Without the intermediation of national governments, majorities within a state can develop their own preferences and thereby shift national-level preferences.   International resolutions or recommendations can provide information to votes that can bring national policies into conformity with international models.  This is a radically different understanding of national preferences than the standard rationalist model.  The voter-centric diffusion model is still rationalist but is based on the information-bound rationality of voters.  Because international institutions are a credible source of policy information in the domestic political arena, international law can shape national preferences in some policy areas.  Exciting stuff.

Linos’ analysis raises interesting questions and possibilities about the role of international law in national politics and state preferences.  Below, I focus on three implications of Linos’ work to international legal studies.

First, does the voter-centric model indicate that global policy preferences are converging, or should we expect more of a regional silos model?  This is a partly a question about the relative informational value of neighboring states versus international institutions. If international institutions are critical, then the model seems to predict a trend towards more uniform policies.  However, if the large and wealthy neighboring states are critical variables, then we might expect a more regional model.  Different “global neighborhoods” may be on different social policy tracks that lead to global policy divergence over the longer term.

Second, what does this model say about the normative content of international law, at least in social policy?  The voter-centric diffusion model is arguably a hegemonic understanding of “good” policy.  A few large, wealthy, and powerful states determine what the best social policy is for their population.  Neighboring states and international institutions then often accept these states’ decisions as credible statements of good policy.  In terms of content, does the prevalence of regional models indicate that powerful states have a dominant role in setting global social policy (albeit through consensual means) in addition to global economic and security policy?  In addition, are these actually “good” policies for the adopting states in objective terms?  Would an expertise-based model (even with democratic deficit concerns) produce better outcomes in terms of local welfare?

Third, to what extent does this research on social policy carry over to economic policy?  We could imagine that some areas of economic policy would suffer from the same low-information conditions that social policy does.  For instance, monetary and banking policy can be complicated policy areas and voters may have a hard time independently evaluating competing policy programs.  In these situations, we might expect that voters rely on the models of their wealthy neighbors and international institutions.  Yet at least in monetary policy, we do not appear to be observing such a pattern.  The low inflation and tight money policies supported by Germany and the IMF are highly contested in Europe.  Does the diffusion model work differently outside of social policy?

Again, Linos’ book is an important work that provides a host of new insights on the functioning of international law and national policy.  Readers from a wide range of intellectual traditions will find it relevant to their research.

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