MPIfG Working Paper 98/2,
Interdependence and Democratic Legitimation
by Fritz W. Scharpf
Fritz W. Scharpf is director at the Max
Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne
The premise of the Bellagio Project on Democracy has been
that, in recent decades, Western democracies have come to suffer a decline of
political "trust" or "confidence" in, or popular "satisfaction"
with, the "performance" of their representative institutions, and that
this decline needs to be taken seriously as a potential threat to the viability
of democratic government (Putnam 1998). The terms used also suggest that the
project starts from an implicit principal-agent model in which
citizens-as-principals have come to be dissatisfied with the performance of
their political agents. If we assume that this is empirically true, and that the
change does reflect a deterioration of perceived performance, rather than the
rising (or increasingly conflicting) expectations of citizen-principals, there
still are two fundamentally different working hypotheses from which one might
begin the search for an explanation. Growing dissatisfaction could be caused by
factors that have reduced the fidelity of agents -- i.e., their
willingness to act in the interest of their principals. But it also could be
caused by factors that have constrained the objective capacity of agents
to achieve the outcomes expected by principals. Whereas the project as a whole
is exploring the first of these working hypotheses, my own paper will focus on a
particular type of capacity constraints: growing international economic
interdependence. In doing so, I will not review the empirical evidence regarding
changes in the levels of popular satisfaction, except to note the high degree of
variance among countries (Newton, 1998; Katzenstein 1998). Instead, I will
examine the analytical and normative arguments that could link economic
internationalization to citizen satisfaction, and ultimately to the democratic
legitimacy of national political systems. I will argue that one should indeed
expect such links to exist, but that their effect on legitimacy will be strongly
mediated by the characteristics of national political discourses.
Interdependence as a Challenge to Democratic
From the Athenian city state to the modern nation state,
democratic self-government has been defined by reference to the
territorially-based constituencies of local, regional, and national governments.
It is true that self-governing associations with a geographically dispersed
membership and with internal structures and procedures of a democratic character
do exist. Examples that come to mind are professional associations, labor unions,
some clubs, and perhaps some non-governmental organizations like Amnesty
International or Greenpeace. However, the governing powers which such
associations are able to exercise over their membership are either very limited,
depending essentially on voluntary compliance, or they are exercised "in
the shadow of the state", on whose laws and enforcement machinery they must
rely when voluntary compliance is not forthcoming. The monopoly of legitimate
coercion, at any rate, on which the problem-solving capacity of democratic
self-government continues to depend, has only been achieved within territorially
But if democratic self-government is defined by reference
to territorially limited constituencies, it must be vulnerable to increasing
military, economic, technical, ecological and communicative interdependence
among territorial units. Under such conditions, choices within a given unit will
create, and suffer from, external effects. Spill-outs may reduce the
effectiveness of domestic choices, and spill-ins may produce domestic outcomes
that have not been chosen internally. In the following sections, I will explore
the reasons why the lack of congruence between the constituencies of democratic
governments and the populations that are affected by governing decisions may be
considered a major problem for democratic legitimacy.
Input- and Output-Oriented Democratic Legitimacy
Democracy is a concept with a variety of meanings, but
when we speak of "democratic legitimacy," the reference must be to
arguments that can be used to justify the exercise of governing authority
-- i.e., of the authority to adopt collectively binding decisions, to implement
these with resources taken from the members of the collectivity, and ultimately
by resort to the state's monopoly of legitimate coercion. Legitimating arguments,
then, must be arguments that are able to establish a moral duty to obey
these collectively binding decisions even if they conflict with individual
preferences. In the modern period,
the concept of democracy has become the major foundation of such legitimating
arguments. Their basic appeal was most succinctly expressed, in Abraham
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, by reference to the triple identity of the governed
("government of the people"), the governors ("government
by the people") and the beneficiaries of government ("government
for the people"). But why should Lincoln's formula create a moral duty to
obey acts of government?
Leaving aside for the moment the first element that
defines the collectivity that is to be self-governing ("government of
the people"), the formula points to two analytically distinct
dimensions of democratic legitimation, one input-oriented, the other one
output-oriented (Scharpf 1970). In the input dimension, "government by the
people" implies that collectively binding decisions should originate from
the authentic expression of the preferences of the constituency in question.
Government, in other words, is meant to be self-government, and
compliance can be expected because the laws are self-determined, rather than
imposed by an exogenous will. In the output dimension, "government for
the people" implies that collectively binding decisions should serve
the common interest of the constituency. Obedience is justified because
collective fate control is increased when the powers of government can be
employed to deal with those problems that the members of the collectivity cannot
solve either individually, or through market interactions, or through voluntary
However, by using the singular term for describing the
plural originators and beneficiaries of democratic government, both of Lincoln's
criteria avoid the critical question of how the exercise of governing authority,
and the duty to obey its commands, should be legitimated if "the
people" is not considered either an organic unity or an aggregate of
homogeneous individuals, but an association of individuals and groups whose
preferences may diverge and whose interests may conflict with each other. Within
a purely input-oriented frame of reference, there are two possible responses to
this problem. The first postulates that government should be consensual,
based on the widest possible agreement among the individuals and groups affected,
whereas the other one seeks to justify decisions based on the expressed
preferences of a majority of the membership (Lijphart 1984; 1991).
From an input perspective, consensual democracy has
first-rate credentials, resting ultimately on the Roman-law maxim of volenti
non fit iniuria (meaning that if you have consented you cannot claim damages).
Its weakness lies in the output dimension since, in the face of divergent or
conflicting preferences, the search for consensus may prevent the adoption of
any effective solution. Hence output-oriented concepts tend to favor majoritarian
democracy because of its greater problem-solving efficiency (Buchanan/ Tullock
1962), but must then try to assure that majoritarian policies will indeed serve
the public interest. I will return to that point shortly.
Within a purely input-oriented frame of reference, the
justification of majority rule is more demanding than is often assumed.
As I have tried to show elsewhere (Scharpf 1997a, chapter 7), it must ultimately
presuppose preferences of the majority that will somehow include the welfare of
the minority as an argument -- an assumption that must rule out not only the
possibility of hostile majorities (think of Nazi Germany or Bosnia) but also the
"bloody-minded" pursuit of rational self-interest. At bottom,
therefore, notions of democracy that rely exclusively on the "will of the
people" as a source of political legitimacy must assume conditions of a
strong collective identity, and a pervasive sense of common fate and common
destiny, that overrides concerns based on divergent preferences and interests.
Only if these Rousseauian assumptions are fulfilled, is it indeed possible to
treat the preferences of the majority as a true expression of the volonté générale
which the minority, being mistaken, would be wrong to oppose.
But in light of the totalitarian potential of the
Rousseauian tradition (Talmon 1955), and of pervasive misgivings about the
cognitive and normative shortcomings of "populist democracy" (Sartori
1965; Riker 1982), modern democratic theory rarely derives legitimacy primarily
from the belief that "the people can do no wrong." Where
input-elements dominate, theorists take care to restrict the domain of "participative
democracy" to the micro-level of local or shop-floor decisions (Lindner
1990), to emphasize procedural safeguards against the dangers of "direct
democracy" (Luthardt 1994), or to insist that policy inputs should arise
from public debates that have the qualities of truth-oriented deliberations and
discourses (Manin 1987; Dryzek 1990; Schmalz-Bruns 1995; Habermas 1996). In
effect, the ideal of "deliberative democracy" may also be understood
as a concept that builds a bridge between input- and output-oriented
legitimating arguments by insisting on specific input procedures that will favor
qualitatively acceptable outputs by regulating "the flow of discursive
option- and will-formation in such a way that their fallible results enjoy the
presumption of being reasonable" (Habermas 1996, 301). I will return to
this point below.
In any case, however, input-oriented justifications of
majority rule are complemented everywhere by output-oriented criteria
with a negative and a positive thrust. In addition to requiring that government
should be capable of achieving effective solutions to collective-action problems,
output-oriented criteria must also define what governments should not be
allowed to do, in order to be considered "government for the people."
The emphasis here is on institutional arrangements that are meant to provide
protection against the danger that governing powers of the majority will be
abused to the detriment of minorities or individuals, and to assure that these
powers will only be used to further the common interests of the members of the
constituency, rather than the special interests of office holders and their
clienteles. These institutional arrangements include constitutional guarantees
of individual rights, an independent judiciary and other forms of "checks
and balances" as well as the mechanisms of representative democracy which,
on the one hand, provide opportunities for public debate, reflection and
criticism that are thought to discriminate against self-serving policy choices (Habermas
1962; Elster 1986) and which, on the other hand, are meant to assure the direct
or indirect accountability of office holders to the general electorate.
Countries differ greatly in the extent to which their
institutions emphasize the negative requirements of output-oriented
legitimacy by creating veto positions and electoral vulnerabilities that make it
more difficult to coordinate and employ the policy resources available to
government as a whole in coherent and effective policy choices (Tsebelis 1995).
These differences between, say, the concentration of powers in the British
"Westminster Model," and the dispersion of powers in the present
German constitution (with coalition governments, opposition veto in the federal
chamber, an activist constitutional court, and an independent central bank) are
rooted in historical experiences and path-dependent courses of institutional
evolution, and there is no reason to expect convergence (Pierson 1997).
With regard to the positive dimension of
problem-solving effectiveness, by contrast, democratic theory has generally
built on the foundations of the sovereign "Westphalian" state. It is
taken for granted, therefore, that the democratic state, like its absolutist
predecessor, is potentially omnipotent within its own territory and able to
control its external boundaries. There are physical constraints on the
internally available resources, and boundaries may be violated by military
invasions from abroad. Within these limits, however, the democratic state is as
capable as its non-democratic predecessors and competitors of taxing its
residents, of regulating their actions with the force of law, of requisitioning
their property and their services, and of requiring them to risk their lives.
Any limits on these capabilities are thought to be self-imposed -- either by
constitutional norm or by political choice. In principle, therefore, the state
has the means to achieve all normatively acceptable and politically consented
domestic purposes, and governors are rightly held politically accountable for
failing to do so.
Interdependence and the Loss of Congruence
If this now seems an unrealistic idealization, in light of
growing international interdependence, it is one that was closely approximated
in the most important relationship between the state and the capitalist economy
not so long ago. In the first three decades following the Great Depression and
the Second World War, Western democracies had finally learned to control the
cyclical crises of the economy, and they were able to meet the aspirations of
their citizens for full employment, rising mass incomes, rising levels of
education, lower inequality, and social security in times of unemployment and
sickness, and in old age. Only recently, however, has it become evident how much
this "Great Transformation" (Polanyi 1957) depended on the fact that,
after the rampant protectionism of the 1930s and the Second World War,
capitalist democracies were for a while able to control their economic
boundaries: Goods and services that did not conform to domestic regulations or
that threatened the survival of domestic producers could be excluded, the
outflow of capital could be prevented, and immigration was tightly controlled.
Under these conditions, national political processes were able to choose among a
wide range of options, and while the Scandinavian welfare states differed
greatly from the German social-market economy or from post-New-Deal America, all
were equally economically viable and legitimated by broad political support.
During these "golden decades", interdependence
was slow in increasing under American-led international regimes of "embedded
liberalism" (Ruggie 1982), and it was not until the 1980s that pre-1914
levels of international integration in product and capital markets were again
reached and surpassed (Hirst/ Thompson 1995; Bairoch 1997).
Since then, however, the nation state has again lost control over its economic
boundaries. This is most obvious within the European Union, where the completion
of the internal market for goods, services, and capital is now being topped by
the creation of a monetary union. But beyond Europe as well, repeated rounds of
GATT and WTO negotiations have drastically reduced tariffs and non-tariff
barriers to trade in goods and services, and the explosive increase of
transnational money flows has eliminated any chance of maintaining protected
national capital markets.
Consumers are thus free to buy goods and services
regardless of their location of production; firms are free to produce at any
location without endangering their access to the home market; capital is free to
take advantage of profitable opportunities for investment or speculative
transactions around the globe and around the clock; and workers are free to
choose their places of work at least within the European Union. Governments
however, being held accountable for the economic and social welfare of their
constituents, must be concerned about the potential loss of jobs if demand for
nationally produced goods and services should decline, if firms should relocate
their production to other countries, if capital owners should prefer investment
opportunities offered elsewhere, if highly-skilled workers decide to emigrate,
and if taxpayers or their taxable resources should leave the national territory.
The Impact of Regulatory Competition
As a consequence of the potential mobility of economic
actors and factors there is now a much greater degree of interdependence not
only between the formerly compartmentalized national economies, but also between
national policy choices that have an effect on the economy. If one government
cuts its social security contributions, that reduces the international
competitiveness of products from other countries that have not done so; and if
one country cuts its rate of corporate taxation, that will create incentives for
firms to relocate their company headquarters. Hence it is indeed wrong to think
that only firms are in competition with each other. Economic interdependence
creates a constellation in which nation states find themselves competing with
each other for market shares in product markets, for investment capital, and for
taxable revenues, and in which that competition constrains their choices among
macroeconomic, regulatory and tax policy options.
From the perspective of democratic legitimacy, therefore,
economic interdependence between self-governing territories raises two problems:
On the one hand, the growing importance of external effects undermines the
congruence between the "people" that is being governed, and the
"people" that is supposed to govern -- choices that may be legitimated
in one country (e.g., the interest-rate policy of the German Bundesbank)
may have a direct impact on the economy of another country (e.g., unemployment
in France) where this choice was not, and would not be, democratically
legitimated. In effect, this reduces the ability of all governments to achieve
the purposes, and to solve the problems, that have high salience for their
citizens. On the other hand, the competition for mobile factors of production
and taxable assets imposes a redistributive bias on national policy choices that
will shift burdens from mobile actors and the owners of mobile capital onto
immobile actors and of the owners of immobile assets. Again, there is no reason
to expect that these policy shifts would be legitimated by corresponding shifts
in the authentic preferences of citizens in the competing countries.
At the normative level, both of these changes are widely
interpreted as a loss of democratic legitimacy, and at the empirical level they
may generate growing dissatisfaction with the government of the day, and perhaps
a more general disaffection with the democratic political system as such,
reflected in political abstention, alienation or growing support for
system-critical movements and radical political parties. The conclusion
therefore seems to be that increasing economic interdependence is indeed likely
to generate problems for democratic legitimacy at the national level. But before
I examine this conclusion more closely, it is necessary to check if
international or supranational solutions might avoid, or at least alleviate, the
problems faced at the national level.
If government within a territorially limited unit is
considered ineffective in the output dimension as well as unresponsive in the
input dimension, territorial enlargement and functional centralization would
seem to provide the logical solution to the problems of interjurisdictional
interdependence. This at any rate is the standard prescription of fiscal
federalism (Oates 1977); it is the logic behind the long-standing
recommendations to overcome the deficiencies of joint-decision making in German
federalism by merging several Länder to create larger units with fewer
externalities (Scharpf 1988); and it is of course the logic driving European
In general, centralization is justified in output-oriented
terms. But this is only plausible if it is also assumed that decisions at the
higher level are taken under majoritarian or hierarchical rules and cannot be
blocked by the veto of constituent governments. From an input-oriented
perspective, by contrast, centralization appears problematic even within the
nation state, where competencies would be exercised by a central government with
clear democratic legitimacy. If citizen preferences differ, and if policies must
be uniform, centralization will necessarily reduce the goodness of fit between
preferences and policy choices (Buchanan/ Tullock 1962, chapter 6).
It is at the supranational level, however, where the centralizing solutions that
are justified by output-oriented arguments become truly problematic. In the
following sections, I will discuss these problems by reference to the European
The Preconditions of Majority Rule
Governing systems that are able to overrule dissenting
interests need to be legitimated, and before it is meaningful to talk about
either input- or output-oriented legitimation arguments with regard to the
European polity, it is now necessary to discuss a precondition which is usually
taken for granted in a national context: the definition of the constituency that
is ready to be governed by majority rule. In Lincoln's triad, this refers to
"government of the people" that I skipped above - and that
Giovanni Sartori (1965, 26) found to pose "insoluble problems of
interpretation". The difficulties are well illustrated by the examples of
some countries (like Canada, Belgium, the former Czechoslovakia, or Bosnia)
where ethnic, linguistic or religious divisions seem to undermine the legitimacy
of majority rule, and of some other countries (like Switzerland, the Netherlands,
or the United States) where cleavages of a similar nature do not have nearly the
same delegitimating effects. Regardless of the main criterion of sameness or
difference, however, it seems obvious that a "we identity" (Elias
1987) that is shared by the members of the constituency is a logically necessary
precondition of democratic legitimacy.
In the input dimension, we-identity is necessary to
justify "my trust in the benevolence (and perhaps even solidarity) of my
fellow citizens" (Offe 1998, 17) --which implies that the welfare of the
minority must also be an argument in the preference function of the majority. In
the output dimension, identity is necessary to define the membership in the
community whose "common interests" are thought to justify governmental
action even if it should entail individual sacrifices. In neither dimension is
it possible to name a single set of necessary and sufficient criteria for what
constitutes an effective we identity -- common language, culture, religion,
history or institutions play important but differing roles. There is also no
reason to assume that only one specific type of collectivity may be invested
with the characteristics of collective identity. Individuals may identify with
different units of reference -- religious, partisan, territorial, local,
regional, national, European, etc. -- in different contexts or for different
purposes. Moreover, collective identifications may differ greatly in their
intensities, and thus may permit rather different levels of sacrifices and
involuntary redistribution to be legitimated.
But while the willingness to accept sacrifices for the
purpose of solidaristic redistribution seems remarkably high at the level of
established nation states (Hicks/ Swank 1992), it also seems clear that no
political unit above the national level has as yet developed a we identity of
comparable intensity. This is true even of the European Union, which has gone
further than any other supranational or international organization toward
establishing institutions that resemble constitutional democracies at the
national level. But even if further institutional reforms invested the directly
elected European Parliament with the full range of competencies of a national
parliament, there is no reason to think that its majority decisions could
legitimate salient sacrifices imposed on a dissenting minority. The reason is
succinctly expressed by Joseph Weiler (1996: 523) in an article that criticizes
the exclusive focus on ethnic identities, but nevertheless acknowledges that
"democracy does not exist in a vacuum. It is
premised on the existence of a polity with members -- the Demos -- by whom and
for whom democratic discourse with its many variants takes place. The
authority and legitimacy of a majority to compel a minority exists only within
political boundaries defined by a Demos. Simply put, if there is no Demos,
there can be no operating democracy."
To drive the point home, Weiler then constructs a counterfactual:
"... imagine an Anschluss between Germany and Denmark. Try and
tell the Danes that they should not worry, since they will have full
representation in the Bundestag. Their shrieks of grief will be shrill not
simply because they will be condemned, as Danes, to permanent minorityship (that
may be true of the German Greens too), but because the way nationality, in
this way of thinking, enmeshes with democracy is that even majority rule is
only legitimate within a Demos, when Danes rule Danes."
Turning to Europe, he then concludes that "it is a matter of empirical
observation that there is no European Demos -- not a people not a nation."
It is hard to see how this conclusion could be denied, and with each territorial
expansion, the hope that the multiple peoples of Europe would soon develop a
common political identity, and a common space of political communication and
policy-oriented discourse, has receded further into the future. This is not
meant to discourage efforts that could advance political integration.
For the time being, however, the European Union cannot yet rely on the
foundation of a collective identity that would be strong enough to legitimate
The Limits of Supranational Legitimacy
If Europe cannot yet be a majoritarian democracy, that places severe limitations
on its capability to act in the face of politically salient disagreement. As it
is, the European Union is relying, for the legitimation of its policy output, on
a combination of hierarchical and consensual decision processes. Hierarchical
authority is most clearly exemplified by the competencies of the European
Central Bank which, under the rules adopted in the Maastricht Treaty, was
constructed to be even more independent from political inputs and political
accountability than is the German Bundesbank (which it will replace as
the author of monetary-policy choices for the members of the European Monetary
Union). But whereas the formal independence of the ECB, and the scope of its
hierarchical authority, were legitimated by the explicit and highly politicized
decisions of national governments and parliaments, much less political attention
had accompanied the expansion of the judicial authority of the European Court of
Justice (Weiler 1982). Nevertheless, the authority of the Court, together with
the active use of independent enforcement powers granted to the European
Commission, have been used to define and enlarge the reach of "negative
integration" -- meaning the legal rules that restrict the capacity of
national governments to interfere with the free movement of goods, services,
capital and workers throughout the internal European market (Scharpf 1996). The
most important extension was achieved through the application of European
competition law to service-public areas such as telecommunications, air,
road and rail transport, and energy supply which before had been considered
exempt from full market competition in practically all European countries (S.
Schmidt 1998). But even though this may have strained the authority of the law
to its limits, the legitimacy of judicial law-making has not been seriously
By contrast, European policy processes of "positive integration" --
meaning the active regulation of the economy -- depend on broad political
agreement. It would be wrong to equate this with the classical model of
intergovernmental negotiations. The European Parliament is rapidly approaching
the point where its veto cannot be overruled in most important fields of
European legislation, and the practical importance of the European Commission's
monopoly of legislative initiative (in addition to its unilateral enforcement
powers) can hardly be overestimated. Nevertheless, national governments
represented in the Council of Ministers are ultimately decisive for the adoption
of European legislation, and even though decisions by qualified majority are
possible in an increasing number of policy areas, the requirements are set so
high that small groups of governments with similar interests cannot be overruled.
In fact most decisions in the Council are adopted by broad consensus.
But if European legislation thus avoids the threat to political legitimacy
that would arise if substantial interests could be overruled by self-interested
majorities, one of two consequences is likely to occur: Either policy choices
will be blocked by disagreements among national governments, or the burden of
legitimating European policy solutions is shifted back to the political systems
of member states. In both cases, the outcome will add to the difficulties of
democratic legitimation at the national level -- either because problem-solving
deficits will persist, or because policy choices must be accepted that may, on
the input side, not conform to the authentic preferences of national
constituencies or that may, on the output side, not be optimal solutions if
judged by criteria of the national interest. Since there are indeed areas where
EU policy-making processes are highly effective, and others where the
problem-solving capacity of the Union is very low (Scharpf 1997b), both types of
legitimacy problems must in fact be dealt with at the national level. I will
begin with an examination of the input-oriented problems that will arise at the
national level precisely when European policy processes are successful in
producing effective policy outputs.
International Problem-Solving and National Preferences
In order to clarify the implications of internationally agreed policy solutions
for national democracy, I will refer to a highly simplified model of
intergovernmental negotiations (Figure 1). Assume three countries, A, B, and C,
facing a problem that none of them could solve nationally, but that could be
solved through international cooperation requiring the agreement of all three
countries. While all of them dislike the status quo (located at SQ = 0), each
prefers a different one of three feasible coordinated solutions, located (in
unidimensional and interval-scaled utility space) at points A=1, B=3, and C=5,
respectively. Assume also that these "ideal points" are determined, ex
ante and in strictly input-oriented procedures, by the citizens (i.e., the
median voter) in each country. However, if we should further assume that
negotiators from each country are strictly bound by these expressed preferences,
it is clear that none of the cooperative solutions could find the agreement of
all three countries, and that the undesired status quo would continue. Thus, if
negotiations are to serve any purpose at all, the negotiating governments must
be allowed to agree to solutions that do not match the ex ante
preferences of their constituents -- provided that the solution chosen must
increase the welfare of the country (i.e., reduce the distance from the
country's ideal point) in comparison to the status quo.
Figure 1: Negotiations in Single-Issue Space
If only the ex-ante positions of each country are considered, the only
generally acceptable solution would be located at point A, which represents the lowest-common-denominator
outcome. It satisfies the preferences of the most "conservative"
country A and is still preferred to the status quo by B and C. The famous Coase
Theorem tells us, however, that negotiations could do better. In the absence of
transaction costs, they should be able to achieve an overall welfare maximum (Coase
1960). If distances from each country's ideal point are interpreted as welfare
losses, Figure 2 shows that this welfare maximum (i.e. the minimum of aggregate
losses) is located at point B, rather than at point A. But since solution B
would, by itself, be less attractive to country A than the status quo, its veto
would need to be bought off by side payments -- say, one unit each from
countries B and C, which these could well afford to pay from the gains which
they will achieve if the agreed-on solution is located at B, rather than at A.
Figure 2: Welfare Losses in Negotiated Agreements
So far, so good. For each country, this outcome is the best that it can
reasonably expect to reach in a world in which solutions cannot be unilaterally
imposed but do depend on the voluntary agreement of all parties involved.
In that sense, the output-oriented legitimacy of the negotiated outcome would be
fully assured. But what about input-legitimacy? In order to appreciate the
difficulties here it is useful to consider the preconditions that must be
created in order to make Coasian outcomes possible in the real as distinguished
from the model world.
In order to achieve the welfare-maximizing outcome, the parties must somehow
overcome the "Negotiators' Dilemma" (Lax/Sebenius 1986; Scharpf 1997a,
chapter 6) which arises from the simultaneous presence of common interests (in
finding the best overall solution) and competitive interests (in maximizing the
distributive share of one's own side). This implies that all aspects of the
constellation -- available policy options, their likely effects, and the
valuation of these effects by all parties involved -- would have to become
transparent to all of them. Moreover, the parties would need to agree on a
normative rule for distributing the costs and the gains of cooperation. These
are extremely demanding preconditions, depending to a large degree on the
development of mutual trust, or at least mutual understanding, among the
negotiators directly involved. If
they are not met, the Negotiators' Dilemma will induce self-serving negotiating
strategies that will produce inferior outcomes or frustrate agreement altogether.
With regard to input-oriented legitimacy, this analysis seems to lead to two
dismal conclusions. First, it is clear that negotiations cannot reach their
optimal outcome (i.e., the outcome maximizing total welfare for the
group of countries as a whole) without systematically departing from ex-ante
citizen preferences in most or all countries. Second, and more important
here, the specific reasons for these departures cannot be fully communicated to
the constituencies in each country. If it is assumed that mutual understanding
and mutual trust among negotiators is an essential precondition for optimal
negotiated solutions, it follows that intergovernmental negotiations are
unlikely to succeed in the glare of total publicity, and if that is so, there
will be an inevitable communication gap between the international and national
levels of this two-level game (Putnam 1988).
It is this systematic gap which poses the most serious threat to democratic
legitimacy. Where it exists, the opposition in each country cannot only claim
that the outcome achieved does not conform to ex ante citizen preferences,
but also that the national interest was sold short by incompetent or illoyal
negotiators. Governments, on the
other hand, arguing that this was the best that could be obtained under the
circumstances, would have to refer to inside information about feasible options,
and to informed guesses about the true preferences and outside options of the
other governments -- none of which could be fully scrutinized and verified in
public or parliamentary debates.
Moreover, given the difficulties of re-negotiation, governments can no longer
afford to respond to criticisms and suggestions raised in public debate, even if
the outcomes need to be approved by parliament, or by referendum. Instead,
agreements must be presented as a fait accompli that confronts the
democratic sovereign with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition whose rejection will
cause the collapse of the cooperative international effort. Also, given the
joint responsibility of all negotiating governments, no single government could
in truth be held politically accountable for the ultimate outcome.
If that is so, intergovernmental negotiations will indeed disable the
institutional mechanisms that connect government action to the expressed
preferences of constituents or to the scrutiny of parliaments, political parties,
and public debate.
It is true that the need to discipline domestic preference formation has
always been an obstacle to demands for a "democratic foreign policy"
-- except under hegemonic conditions when one government is able to impose
domestically generated preferences on its external partners. What is new is that
with increasing transnational interdependence the same compulsion is now
manifest in ever larger areas of what used to be purely domestic policy choices.
In effect therefore, the more policy choices are moved from the national level
to the level of intergovernmental negotiations, the more the institutions that
are meant to assure input-oriented influence and accountability are losing their
Legitimate Democracy without Omnipotence
Thus we seem to face a veritable dilemma. As interdependence increases, the
nation state finds its former range of policy options exogenously constrained,
and some previously legitimated policy choices will now become less effective,
more costly, or downright unfeasible -- which must be counted as a loss of
democratic self-determination even if new options are also added to the policy
repertoire. It is true, however, that constraints do not rule out choice, and
that it may indeed be possible to achieve the former (or newly consented) policy
objectives through the choice of new policy instruments (Scharpf
1999). In that case, output-oriented legitimacy may still be maintained. But the
new policy instruments must be adopted either in domestic choice processes that
are extremely sensitive to international constraints or in processes of
negotiations at the international level. In both cases, the increase in output
effectiveness seems to have a high price in terms of input-oriented legitimacy.
The Inevitable Corruption of Input Legitimacy?
In the input dimension, conventional notions of "popular sovereignty,"
and expectations that governments should carry out the "will of the
people," are directly challenged by the increasing importance of external
economic and institutional constraints. Ever more frequently, policy choices
that would be both domestically popular and economically feasible must be
avoided out of respect for the legal constraints of GATT rules and European law,
or as a consequence of decisions by the WTO, the European Commission, or the
European Court of Justice. Conversely, policy choices that would be both legally
permissible and domestically popular must be ruled out because they could have
disastrous consequences for the international competitiveness of national
producers, for the confidence of investors, or for the stability of the national
currency in global money markets.
As external legal and economic constraints multiply under conditions of
growing international interdependence, the role of experts and of specialized
knowledge will increase to an extent that may render the role of authentic but
untutored popular preferences and demands practically insignificant. All this is
even more true if solutions can only be achieved through international
negotiations. In short, popular approval and popular demand are becoming less
and less sufficient for assuring, or even for justifying, corresponding policy
choices. As a consequence, input-oriented legitimating arguments will become
less plausible, and government at the national level must increasingly depend on
output-oriented legitimation arguments alone.
In fact, much of this is happening already. As more and more domestic policy
areas have become internationally interdependent, governments are increasingly
tempted to invoke Bismarck's Primat der Außenpolitik -- meaning that
foreign policy should override domestic political considerations -- to immunize
policy choices with an international dimension against the demands and
criticisms of domestic public opinion, political parties, parliaments and other
democratic input processes. To the extent that they succeed, the remaining
legitimating arguments take on a paternalistic and technocratic character,
insisting that under difficult circumstances and in a dangerous environment the
government is doing the best it can to promote and defend the national interest,
and that any demands for more direct participation and control could only make a
difficult job even more difficult. When that is accepted, partisan controversies
and political attention at the national level are likely to be diverted in two
directions - personalities and scandals on the one side, and policy outcomes
(rather than policy choices) on the other side. Elections will then be
either about candidates and their personal qualities and deficiencies, or they
will be about the performance of the stock market, the level of unemployment,
the rate of inflation, the size of the public-sector deficit, or even natural
disasters like floods and earthquakes, without regard for the question of
whether the government was in any way responsible for these outcomes. In other
words, input-oriented politics in general, and political accountability in
particular, will lose their connection to, and their disciplining effect on,
Toward Internationally Embedded Policy Discourses?
The question is whether this could be otherwise. A positive answer does require
a reconsideration of the role that input-oriented mechanisms could and should
play in the democratic process. I begin by returning to the discussion of
intergovernmental negotiations. The input-oriented objections presented above
are fully compelling only when they are raised against negotiated solutions for problems
that could just as well have been dealt with at the national level. In
German federalism, we have indeed identified instances of Überverflechtung
in which the practice of joint-decision making went far beyond the "objective"
need for coordination in the face of important interdependencies (Scharpf 1988),
and the same may be true in some European policy areas as well. But as economic
interdependencies increase, these instances will become rarer, and the
input-oriented critique of intergovernmental negotiations will be weakened. With
regard to problems that cannot be solved at home, within the boundaries and with
the means of the nation state, the relevant criterion for judging solutions cannot
be conformity to the solipsistic preferences of citizens of that state. For
any country that is not a hegemon, the interests of necessary partners in a
cooperative solution must be considered as well. Preferences formulated within a
national frame of reference are relevant for defining the "ideal points"
of a country's negotiators. But it is not reasonable to expect that negotiated outcomes
should conform to any one of these national aspirations. Instead, the most that
one could legitimately ask for, within a national frame of reference, is that
the outcome should be better than the "best alternative to negotiated
agreement" (BATNA), and that it should come as close to nationally defined
aspirations as is possible, given the bargaining constellation and the BATNA
positions of the other countries.
For democratic theory, this implies that it can no longer treat popular
preferences as being exogenously given. In order to be normatively relevant,
they must relate to policy outcomes that could be considered feasible within
the international context in which the choice must be made. As a consequence,
"democratic decisionism" (Greven 1998) and the assumptions of
omnipotence associated with "popular sovereignty" are no longer
theoretically viable options. Within the context of input-oriented theories,
these requirements are met by concepts of "discursive" or "deliberative
democracy" which insist on procedures of "will formation" that
are supposed to lead to "reasonable" conclusions (Habermas 1996).
However, in trying to avoid the pitfalls of unrefined populism, Habermas and
others tend to insist on extremely demanding "procedural"
preconditions that would assure a very high degree of moral and intellectual
sophistication in public debates. In the tradition of "critical theory,"
these demands are not meant to be practicable - and if they could be
approximated, political discourses would be restricted to a small elite of
If we start instead from the policy-oriented "discourses" that are
in fact going on within existing Western democracies, they are indeed largely
elite affairs - conducted by politicians, spokespersons for interest groups,
prominent experts and journalists under the filtering, amplifying and distorting
conditions of the media. Discussion takes place in many specialized policy
communities with specialized publics of interested non-elites. At the same time,
specialized discussions are linked into the more general political discourse
carried on among policy generalists in governments, parliaments, political
parties, associations and the media, on issues that could potentially catch the
attention of the wider public and affect the outcomes of general elections. It
is in these interwoven patterns of communications among specialists, generalists,
and communicators that problem definitions are proposed and rejected, that
policy options are presented, criticized and justified, that political
performance is being evaluated, and that political trust and, ultimately,
legitimacy is constantly being generated, eroded or destroyed.
These communications will surely not approximate ideal debates among
philosopher-kings. What matters, however, is that they are conducted in public,
and that they allow statements to be supported and contradicted in ways that may
catch the attention of unspecified non-elites. The importance of these two
conditions - publicness and contestation - can hardly be overstated. Publicness
works as a powerful censorship mechanism (Elster 1986), allowing only
public-regarding communications to be made. It simply would not do to publicly
justify a political demand or a policy proposal in terms of what it would do for
yourself or your own group. That does not rule out self-serving communications.
In public debates, however, self-interest is forced to masquerade as public
interest - at which point the possibility of contestation allows competing
interests or public-interested critics to challenge such claims.
From the perspective of democratic theory, public discourses may serve two
critical mediating roles in the relationship between governors and the governed
(V. Schmidt 1997; 1998). On the one hand, they greatly reduce the information
costs of non-elites. Reasonably interested members of the public will have a
chance to sort out the pros and cons of policy proposals and to form an opinion
of government performance either in terms of their own self-interest or in terms
of the public interest - which then may enter into their electoral choices. For
the governors in turn, public discourse provides a sounding board for trying out
problem definitions and policy solutions, and an early warning system for issues
that might achieve electoral salience - which is critical for the mechanism of
"anticipated reactions" that links policy choices to voter reactions (Scharpf
1997a, chapter 8).
What matters for input-oriented democracy is the quality of these public
discourses. They may perform an orienting and a legitimating function if they
communicate the wider framework of ongoing policy controversies, the definition
of the situation and the political aspirations in light of which problems and
options can be meaningfully considered. For the individual citizen, such
discourses provide the context within which it is possible to make sense of what
is happening, and to respond to specific policy choices by approval, unconcern,
or active opposition. For the public as a whole, orienting discourses provide
the stimuli in response to which the electoral expression of political support
or opposition can indeed claim, and bestow, a maximum of democratic legitimacy.
But in what way would a realistic reformulation of "discursive democracy"
provide a more promising perspective on the legitimacy deficits associated with
increasing international interdependence? The answer lies in the connection
between the orienting and the legitimating function. In order to maintain
legitimacy even under conditions of international interdependence, national
policy discourses must provide orientations that are free of the suggestions of
omnipotence that still infect not only conventional notions of popular
sovereignty but also the mutual recriminations between governments and
oppositions -- where governments claim exclusive credit for everything that
seems to go well, while the opposition blames the government for everything that
seems unsatisfactory. Instead, orienting discourses should provide a realistic
picture of the country's present place and future options in an institutionally
and economically integrating world; they should reassess policy goals with a
view to their feasibility under international economic and institutional
constraints; and they should emphasize the search for policy instruments that
are still viable under these constraints.
When it is made clear, moreover, that important national goals can no longer
be achieved through purely national action, the possibility of pursuing them
through internationally coordinated or supranational action will be understood
as a gain, rather than a loss, of collective fate control. If that is
acknowledged, the national interest can no longer be defined in solipsistic
terms, and policy options must be discussed in light of the relevant decision
rules and actor constellations at the international level, and with an
empathetic understanding of the preferences, worldviews and capabilities of the
other countries involved. As a consequence, the information and communication
gap discussed above will be greatly reduced. National policy discourse will be
able to shadow more closely the real choice situations that governments must
deal with at the international level, and governments will have less opportunity
to escape from political accountability by the mere reference to external
necessities and constraints.
Is this an impossible ideal? I think not. Small European democracies have
long had much more open economies than the larger European states, let alone
Japan and the United States. As a consequence, they have never been able to
control their policy environment or to indulge in omnipotence fantasies
(Katzenstein 1984; 1985). Nevertheless, they have done very well economically
over the past decades, and some of them are also now much more successful in
coping with the challenges of economic interdependence and systems competition
than their larger, previously more self-sufficient neighbors. They also seem to
have higher levels of public trust or political satisfaction than is reported
for the larger countries that have only more recently felt the full thrust of
international economic interdependence (Katzenstein 1998).
It seems plausible, therefore, that the secret of the economic and political
success of small and open countries, like Switzerland, Austria, Denmark or the
Netherlands, lies precisely in their ability to conduct policy discourses that
are based on a realistic understanding of their own capabilities and constraints,
and to focus debates on those policy alternatives that could be feasible and
effective in an international policy environment that is characterized by high
degrees of institutional integration, economic interdependence and regulatory
competition (Visser/ Hemerijck 1997). Under these conditions, public opinion
will not proceed from solipsistic definitions of policy problems and policy
goals, and when that is assured, the existence of international constraints, and
the need for international cooperation will not be experienced as a
delegitimating disappointment, but will have been taken into account all along.
For these countries, democratic legitimacy no longer presupposes omnipotence and
is not challenged by the realization of their interdependence.
There is no reason why the larger democracies should not also come to live
with international interdependence. But the lesson they need to learn from the
successful small and open countries is that orienting discourses do require
political leadership. They cannot merely reflect untutored popular opinions and
preferences, but must impose the discipline of Freud's "reality principle"
on policy-oriented public debate. If that is not achieved, effective
international problem solving will remain domestically vulnerable to populist
appeals to wishful thinking, nostalgia for past national grandeur,
resentment of foreign influences, or xenophobia. It is the responsibility of
policy elites to communicate the extent to which international involvement,
cooperation, and trustworthiness have become a precondition for the effective
pursuit of the national interest. If they succeed, policy discourses even in the
larger countries should be able to maintain the tenuous linkage between the
perceptions and preferences of non-elites and policy choices that are effective
under the constraints of an increasingly interdependent international
environment -- and then there would be no reason to fear that international
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1 The presumption is, of course, that
governments which, in the absence of legitimacy, could not count on voluntary
compliance but would have to rely purely on the exercise, or the threat, of
superior force, would only be able to reach comparatively low levels of
2 The general assumption is well stated by
Michael Greven who postulates: "The crucial idea, from which the legitimacy
of government in democracies derives, is the possibility of participation of all
citizens, based on the mutual recognition of their civic and political equality...
Precisely because and if this is true, democratic theory implies that the
outcome of political will-formation has a claim to recognition and legitimacy
even among those whose arguments failed in the discussion and whose preferences
were defeated in a vote." (Greven 1998, 480; my translation).
But why should the mere chance of equal participation have legitimating
force? At bottom, the argument seems to rest on the logic of the duel: you have
no reason to complain if you have fought and lost in a fair fight. Under the
conditions of modern mass democracies, this logic may indeed be relevant for
candidates for political office. It is harder to see why it should persuade
3 Representation and accountability based on
general elections have been thought to counteract the dangers of self-interested
majorities since the Federalist Papers (Cooke 1961). The argument can be
restated in in rational-choice terms, if it is first assumed that, for any
individual voter, the vote is a "low-cost decision" (Kirchgässner
1992) -- meaning that the probable effect on individual self-interest is so low
that it is reasonable to think that at least some voters will be motivated by
public-interest considerations (Brennan 1989). If that is granted, the
anticipation of a public-interest oriented swing vote creates strong incentives
for office holders to select policies that can be publicly defended as serving
common interests, rather than special interests (Scharpf 1997, chapter 8).
4 These data are often cited to suggest that,
since "globalization" is nothing new, there should also be no reason
to be concerned about its political impact. But that argument forgets that
international capitalism before 1914 and again in the 1920s was characterized by
deep economic crises. Before 1914, political democracy was underdeveloped in
most countries, and the level of political aspirations -- and hence the
potential impact of economic performance on political trust --was much lower
than it is now. In the interwar period, however, the crises of international
capitalism had serious, and in the case of Germany catastrophic, consequences
for the viability of political democracy.
5 Both the assumption and the conclusion can be
questioned: In the Jacobine tradition of French democracy, centralization is
considered desirable precisely because it imposes uniformity and hence civic
equality (V. Schmidt 1990). Conversely, centrally imposed policy might at least
in theory also provide for differentiated solutions that would fit the differing
conditions or preferences of subgroups or regions within the larger constituency
or territory. An example might be the Spanish constitution which grants
differing degrees of autonomy to different regional units. In general, however,
the empirical association between centralization and rule uniformity seems to be
6 A plausible proposal was recently promoted by
Jacques Delors. It would require European parties to nominate their own
candidates for the office of President of the European Commission in the
European elections. This would not only force governments to nominate the
winning candidate for confirmation by the European Parliament, but it would also
focus public attention in all member states on the competition for a highly
visible European office, and it would put European issues on the agenda of the
European election campaign, which so far is dominated by purely national
concerns. Moreover, this option could be realized without any change in the
treaties. So far, however, European parties do not seem to be responding.
7 However, in the face of growing political
unease, the Court and the Commission themselves have recently become more
sensitive to the limits of negative integration (Scharpf 1999).
8 The negotiated solution would not necessarily
be the one preferred by the median voter in a larger country (A+B+C), since
negotiations tend to equalize the bargaining powers of the participating
countries regardless of differences in the size of their populations.
9 The difficulties of reaching agreement are
reduced, and the approximation of Coasian outcomes is facilitated, if
negotiations are "embedded" in stable network constellations, and
conditions can be improved even more through institutional arrangements that
increase transparency, that provide for the good services of an "agenda
setter," and that may generate mutual trust through the evolution of
normative "regimes" (Scharpf 1997, chapter 6).
10 In the early years of the Federal Republic
of Germany, when Adenauer had to defend the disappointing outcome of
negotiations over the "occupation statute," he was attacked by the
leader of the opposition as being "the Chancellor of the Allies."
11 Exactly the same criticism is directed at
the effect of interstate and federal-state negotiations in the joint-decision
system of German federalism (Scharpf 1988).
12 The same argument, without democratic-theory
pretensions, supports the proposition that European integration is strengthening
national governments in relation to other national and subnational political
actors (Moravcsik 1993; 1994).
13 For an early recognition of the problem, see
Copyright © 1998 Fritz W. Scharpf
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted without
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