[Ryan Goodman is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. You can also find him on Twitter:@rgoodlaw]
Katerina Linos’s book, The Democratic Foundations of Policy Diffusion, bears the hallmarks of great scholarship. She tells us something new, important, and counterintuitive about international law. And she predicates her theories on multiple, rigorous and innovative empirical methods. I thus share the praise that has been heaped on Linos’s impressive book by the other OJ commentators from yesterday and today. Indeed, I have drawn upon and cited drafts of the book manuscript in my own work; included excerpts of Linos’s earlier research in a textbook that I co-edit; and blurbed the back of the book with immense praise.
Against this backdrop, I want to interrogate a specific part of the book—the chapter on the United States—and, in particular, Linos’s theoretical account of her political opinion experiments. Indeed, this is the key part of the book that tries to get “inside the minds” of individuals and understand the mechanisms for influencing their policy preferences.
The experiments ask a representative sample of the US population whether they support a social policy. Linos then compares that baseline group with groups that were told either that Canada had adopted the policy, that most western states had adopted the policy, that the UN recommended the policy, or that US experts recommended the policy. She also compares whether particular subjects—Republicans versus Democrats or highly informed versus poorly informed individuals—responded differently to the different prompts. In one experiment the social policy is universal health care, and in another experiment the policy is paid maternity leave.
According to Linos, the experiments suggest that foreign and international models provide a source of information for members of the electorate to determine whether their political representatives are proposing good social policies (an information-deficit theory). Does the data fit this theoretical explanation best? Are the data equally consistent with alternative theories that emphasize social and psychological conformity as a mechanism that explains the influence of foreign and international models on individual preferences?
Let’s start with three of the most interesting and important empirical findings in the chapter:
1. US citizens respond much more favorably to governmental policies—including ones that explicitly require tax increases—if they are told that other western states have already adopted the social policy or told that the United Nations recommends it.
2. Republicans respond more favorably than Democrats when informed that the UN recommends a social policy or that most western states have adopted the policy.
Note: This finding appears to compare shifts in support among Republicans who disfavor a social policy with shifts among Democrats who disfavor the policy. This comparison may involve systematic bias. The type of individual who self-identifies as Republican and favors core parts of the Republican Party platform is very different from the type of individual who self-identifies as Democrat and opposes core parts of the Democratic Party platform. Indeed, the former might be considered conformists and the latter non-conformists. And Linos’s findings show that the former are more likely to follow global trends and the international “mainstream.” Accordingly, the key explanation may boil down to a social conformity mechanism.
3. In important cases, individuals who are poorly informed about a social policy respond more favorably than well-informed individuals when told that other western states have already adopted the social policy or that the United Nations has recommended it.
I want to focus in detail on the third finding, and contend that it should be significantly qualified. (more…)