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Political Theory

Break it and see: norms of good governance and the wobbly protection of public opinion

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Events around the world (on this please see Freedom in the World 2017) are teaching us at least two astounding lessons. The first is that in liberal constitutional democracies good governance is far more dependent on norms, particularly constitutional conventions, than formal rules. This has serious implications. The second lesson is that when certain political actors choose to ignore the norms of good governance …and the details vary depending on the context…it is not at all clear that anything can stop them. Let’s take these two issues one by one.

Norms, conventions, formal rules

In his classic work, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution the great English jurist, A.V. Dicey, introduced a distinction between what he called constitutional laws and the conventions of the constitution. Constitutional law, he pointed out, consists of rules that the courts will enforce. But there are other constitutional rules:

The other set of rules consist of conventions, understandings, habits, or practices which, though they may regulate the conduct of other officials, are not in reality laws at all since they are not enforced by the Courts. This proportion of constitutional law may, for the sake of distinction, be termed the ‘conventions of the constitution’, or constitutional morality.

#7 from 2016: Joseph de Maistre’s prophecy: Is violence unavoidably human?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2016. This post was originally published on August 4, 2016.  

These days, every day brings news of a fresh outrage somewhere in the world. As the body count grows, empathy fatigue has set in. And the perpetrators of violence must have come to the same conclusion because they are finding ever more imaginative ways to kill innocents and stupefy the rest of us. The question is: is the ubiquity of violence a passing phase in a world that is allegedly getting more civilized? Or is violence simply a part of fundamental human nature? Each day, as the news alerts on my iPhone bring fresh news of horrific killings somewhere in the world, as I get really, really fed up with it all, someone has been coming to my mind. His name is Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), a conservative political philosopher that I studied in graduate school several seasons ago now, and one whose ideas have stayed with me. Last weekend, I went to re-read one of his classic texts: Considerations on France (1796).

The work was a reaction, a fierce and uncompromising one at that, to the French Revolution, much like Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. But, as often happens with the leading figures in the history of political thought, a particular historical event prompted reflections on the nature of man and the judicious organization of political communities.

Joseph de Maistre’s prophecy: Is violence unavoidably human?

Sina Odugbemi's picture
These days, every day brings news of a fresh outrage somewhere in the world. As the body count grows, empathy fatigue has set in. And the perpetrators of violence must have come to the same conclusion because they are finding ever more imaginative ways to kill innocents and stupefy the rest of us. The question is: is the ubiquity of violence a passing phase in a world that is allegedly getting more civilized? Or is violence simply a part of fundamental human nature? Each day, as the news alerts on my iPhone bring fresh news of horrific killings somewhere in the world, as I get really, really fed up with it all, someone has been coming to my mind. His name is Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), a conservative political philosopher that I studied in graduate school several seasons ago now, and one whose ideas have stayed with me. Last weekend, I went to re-read one of his classic texts: Considerations on France (1796).

The work was a reaction, a fierce and uncompromising one at that, to the French Revolution, much like Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. But, as often happens with the leading figures in the history of political thought, a particular historical event prompted reflections on the nature of man and the judicious organization of political communities. My copy of the work is part of the series that I consider the best in the field: The Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. This particular one contains a magisterial introduction by the great Isaiah Berlin. Here is how Berlin sums him up:
 

What made Maistre so fascinating to his own generation was that he forced them to look at the seamy side of things. He forced them out of bland optimism…Maistre’s contribution is a violent antidote to the over-blown, over-optimistic and altogether too superficial social doctrines of the eighteenth century. Maistre earns our gratitude as a prophet of the most violent, the most destructive forces which have threatened and still threaten the liberty and the ideals of normal human beings. (p. xxxiii)

Quote of the Week: Philip Tetlock

Sina Odugbemi's picture
“Any good political psychologist should have the moral and historical imagination to see how he or she could become almost any ideological creature that has existed, or does exist on the planet. That includes Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists, Isil … There but for the grace of God.”
 

- Philip Tetlock, a Canadian-American political science writer, currently serving as the Annenberg University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is cross-appointed at the Wharton School of Business and the School of Arts and Sciences.  His research explores a variety of topics, including: the challenges of assessing "good judgment" in both laboratory and real-world settings and the criteria that social scientists use in judging judgment and drawing normative conclusions about bias and error.

He has written several non-fiction books at the intersection of psychology, political science and organizational behavior, including Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction; Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?; Unmaking the West: What-if Scenarios that Rewrite World History; and Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics.  Tetlock is also co-principal investigator of The Good Judgment Project, a multi-year study of the feasibility of improving the accuracy of probability judgments of high-stakes, real-world events.

#10 from 2015: Has the governance agenda lost its mojo globally?

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2015. This post was originally posted on October 29, 2015. 
 

Romanian RevolutionWhen I started work in international development in London in the late 1990s, a more experienced colleague gave me the following insight. At some point, she said, I would either catch the bug and stay in the field or I would not and leave it to go and do something else. And it is usually some agenda within the broad field that would get you hooked, she added. She was right. I caught the bug and stayed in the field, and the agenda that excited my passion was and remains governance: efforts to improve governance systems in developing countries in order to do real and permanent good. The reason was obvious. I had moved to London from Lagos, Nigeria, having participated actively in the public affairs of the country; and I had left thoroughly convinced that unless governance improved in Nigeria there was no way that the abundance in the country would lead to improved welfare for the vast majority of its citizens. That remains my conviction.

In those days working on governance issues was exciting; for, it was like joining an army on the march, one that appeared ready to sweep everything before it. There was definite intellectual energy in the field. Practitioners had poise and confidence. Initiatives were being dreamt up by different donor agencies. Funds were pouring into the field. And we began to see a new breed of development professional: the so-called ‘governance advisers’. But behind it all, I suppose, was a powerful zeitgeist: the Berlin Wall was down, communism was on the ropes, and liberal constitutional democracy appeared to have triumphed with resounding finality.

But now, in late 2015, it all feels very different globally. In the words of the B.B. King classic: ‘The thrill is gone’. Or so it seems. And I pen these reflections because in the last month or two I have had conversations with practitioners in the field of governance from around the world in the normal course of an intellectual engagement with the issues, and the news seems uniformly depressing. I have been asked again and again: What do you think is happening to the agenda these days? First, there is a feeling that the intellectual energy behind the field is not what it used to be. Second, the commitment of leaders in international development seems to have waned. Units are being closed, initiatives wound down, budgets cut and so on. And practitioners do not seem like a powerful army on the march any longer. The old swagger appears to have vanished. In other words, the field is no longer seen as ‘hot’. Young recruits are not queuing to be a part of the field by any means necessary. They are targeting the current set of ‘hot’ issues in development.

So, what went wrong? From the conversations I have had here is a partial list of challenges:

Has the governance agenda lost its mojo globally?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Romanian RevolutionWhen I started work in international development in London in the late 1990s, a more experienced colleague gave me the following insight. At some point, she said, I would either catch the bug and stay in the field or I would not and leave it to go and do something else. And it is usually some agenda within the broad field that would get you hooked, she added. She was right. I caught the bug and stayed in the field, and the agenda that excited my passion was and remains governance: efforts to improve governance systems in developing countries in order to do real and permanent good. The reason was obvious. I had moved to London from Lagos, Nigeria, having participated actively in the public affairs of the country; and I had left thoroughly convinced that unless governance improved in Nigeria there was no way that the abundance in the country would lead to improved welfare for the vast majority of its citizens. That remains my conviction.

In those days working on governance issues was exciting; for, it was like joining an army on the march, one that appeared ready to sweep everything before it. There was definite intellectual energy in the field. Practitioners had poise and confidence. Initiatives were being dreamt up by different donor agencies. Funds were pouring into the field. And we began to see a new breed of development professional: the so-called ‘governance advisers’. But behind it all, I suppose, was a powerful zeitgeist: the Berlin Wall was down, communism was on the ropes, and liberal constitutional democracy appeared to have triumphed with resounding finality.

But now, in late 2015, it all feels very different globally. In the words of the B.B. King classic: ‘The thrill is gone’.

#8 from 2014: The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2014.
This post was originally posted on July 10, 2014

 

Can liberal constitutional democracy run the state in a manner that is both responsive and accountable to citizens without succumbing to incurable elephantiasis precisely because it is democratic? Does democratic governance inevitably lead to government as an ‘all-you-can eat- buffet’ (allegedly per Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore), and, therefore, bloat, fiscal crises and collapse? These crucial questions are taken on in an important new book by two of the leading minds around the Economist Magazine: John Micklethwait is the Editor of the Magazine, and Adrian Wooldridge is the management editor, who also writes the Schumpeter column. The book is: The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State.

The authors argue that there have been three and half revolutions in governance in the West, and each one is linked to an emblematic political thinker/economist. The first revolution was the rise of the nation-state, and the paradigmatic thinker is Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. The second revolution was the rise of the ‘liberal state’, and the focus thinker here is John Stuart Mill. (Objection from a Bentham scholar: the authors do not do justice to the role of Jeremy Bentham).  The third revolution was the rise of the welfare state, and the authors discuss the ideas and efforts of Beatrice Webb.  According to the authors, these first three revolutions in governance were completely successful. The fourth revolution, the effort to roll back the bloated welfare state – the focus here is the economic thought of Milton Friedman – was only partially successful. The authors argue, I believe, that this revolution needs to be completed.

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
 

Thanks to Urbanization, Tomorrow's Megalopolises Will Be in Africa and Asia
Foreign Policy
Tokyo will still be the world’s largest city in 2030, but it will have many more contenders on its heels. According to a fascinating new report from the United Nations, the globe will have 41 “mega-cities” -- defined as those with 10 million or more inhabitants -- up from 28 now. Although the world’s largest urban centers have historically been concentrated in the developed world, fast-paced urbanization in Africa and Asia means that the megalopolises of tomorrow will be found in the developing world. By 2030, Asia and Africa will host nine of the world’s 10 largest cities, according to the report.

Mobilizing Private Investment for Post-2015 Sustainable Development
Brookings
The sustainable development goals are likely to have a more ambitious scope than the Millennium Development Goals. Accordingly, they will need a more ambitious financing for development strategy that can mobilize much more public, private, and “blended” finance.  Very rough estimates indicate that at least $1 trillion of additional annual investment is required in developing and emerging economies.  At first glance this might appear to be a large number, but it represents only approximately 10 percent of extra investment above current levels. It is clear that official development assistance, on its own, would be incapable of meeting financing needs, even if the target to provide 0.7 percent of gross national income were to be achieved by all developed countries. But official development assistance (ODA) could, through leverage and catalytic support, help mobilize substantially more private capital. 
 

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Can liberal constitutional democracy run the state in a manner that is both responsive and accountable to citizens without succumbing to incurable elephantiasis precisely because it is democratic? Does democratic governance inevitably lead to government as an ‘all-you-can eat- buffet’ (allegedly per Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore), and, therefore, bloat, fiscal crises and collapse? These crucial questions are taken on in an important new book by two of the leading minds around the Economist Magazine: John Micklethwait is the Editor of the Magazine, and Adrian Wooldridge is the management editor, who also writes the Schumpeter column. The book is: The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State.

The authors argue that there have been three and half revolutions in governance in the West, and each one is linked to an emblematic political thinker/economist. The first revolution was the rise of the nation-state, and the paradigmatic thinker is Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. The second revolution was the rise of the ‘liberal state’, and the focus thinker here is John Stuart Mill. (Objection from a Bentham scholar: the authors do not do justice to the role of Jeremy Bentham).  The third revolution was the rise of the welfare state, and the authors discuss the ideas and efforts of Beatrice Webb.  According to the authors, these first three revolutions in governance were completely successful. The fourth revolution, the effort to roll back the bloated welfare state – the focus here is the economic thought of Milton Friedman – was only partially successful. The authors argue, I believe, that this revolution needs to be completed.
 

Which is a Threat to Your Mental Health, Nationalism or Patriotism?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Current tensions in different regions of the world have re-introduced old political concepts to dinner table, water cooler, or coffee break conversations, often with vaporous imprecision. I refer to nationalism and patriotism.  Which one is a good thing? Is nationalism dangerous while patriotism is good?

For instance, I was reading a column by Philip Stephens of the Financial Times only last week (See ‘The perils of Asia’s nationalist power game’) and he wrote this:

What’s wrong with nationalism, a friend in Tokyo asked me the other day? Well, there is much to be said for patriotism. As for nationalism, the answer is found in the bloody pages of European history.

That got me thinking: is it the case that nationalism is bad and patriotism is good?

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