Social Change, Public Policy and Law


                            Social Change, Public Policy and Law






Public administration practices and public policies are inevitably rooted in the philosophical assumptions that animate a particular society’s legal structures. The thesis of this paper is that certain constitutive decisions—particularly decisions allocating authority for public and private decision-making—will increase or decrease the liklihood that social and cultural changes will be managed with a minimum of social and political disruption. Using the United States as an example, the paper will make explicit 1) the nature of those constitutive or constitutional decisions; 2) the evidence for their utility in managing social change and mitigating violence; and 3) the parallels between the past experience of the United States and the emerging realities of globalization in the 21st Century. 




































                                    Social Change, Public Policy and Law





                                                Sheila Suess Kennedy

                                  Associate Professor, Law & Public Policy

                                  School of Public & Environmental Affairs

                             Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis    


801 West Michigan Street  #4061

                                                Indianapolis, IN 46202



                                                   (317) 274-2895







                                    Paper prepared for Research Symposium

                        “Public Finance/Budgeting and Government Reform”

                                    Fudan University, Shanghai, China

                                                     June 2, 2007








                     * Please do not cite without author’s prior  approval 












The goal of civilized societies is to achieve and maintain a just peace; that is, to create institutions that allow citizens to settle even their deepest differences without violence or the potential for revolution or insurrection that all too often accompanies the disenfranchizing of dissenting voices. For most of human history, those goals were national or regional in scope; however, as the pace of cultural change accelerates in our increasingly globalized world, the challenge for government units of all sizes—subnational to pan-national—will be to manage cultural change and conflict with the least amount of disruption to operation of the government involved, and the least amount of civil discord in the relevant populations.


This paper uses the experience of the United States to examine liberal democratic values from the standpoint of their ability to maintain order and manage social change. My thesis is that just institutions, as justice is understood in the classic liberal political tradition, have the greatest liklihood of achieving national and international stability and peace in a world that is not only diverse, but increasingly interrelated and interdependent.


In a global economy, where markets and technology encourage communication and interaction among previously insular populations, there are as many opportunities for increased friction as there are for increased understanding. The challenge of the twenty-first century will be to maintain social stability in the face of accelerating change. I will argue that the best way to do so is by establishing institutions that protect basic civil liberties and human rights while respecting, to the maximum extent possible, the sometimes bewildering array of cultural and normative imperatives that comprise the global village.


To frame an issue is to make a value judgment. By using the American experience with liberal democratic theory as a paradigm for this discussion, I am making the following assumptions, all of which are open to debate:


1) Self-determination and a significant degree of autonomy are personal, ethnic and national goods.  That is, protecting the ability of individuals, cultures and states to determine and pursue their own ends is desirable.


2) Absence of insurrection within, and warfare among, nations and eradication of violence between peoples is desirable.


3) Peace achieved through the exercise of authoritarianism, or through the domination of some by others, is neither desirable nor sustainable. That is, while suppression of violence through the exercise of power may be preferable to war and insurrection, it is both less desirable and less likely to endure than a peace that respects the basic human rights of individuals, groups and countries. 


4) Increased contact among nations and peoples is inescapable, due to technology and a growing world marketplace. Isolation is no longer a viable option, and social change is an inevitable consequence of our increased interrelationships.


5) Maintenance of social diversity is a good. Enforced uniformity and cultural genocide are to be avoided. Futhermore, in the face of new integrative and transportation technologies, totalitarian regimes can no longer be maintained over time.


6) As a result of increased contact, potential for conflict will increase. It

will become more difficult to balance respect for autonomy and diversity against 

economic and political pressure for increased integration of global financial, cultural and social institutions.


7) Supra-national forums and authorities will continue to be established, in order to deal with various aspects of global economic and personal relationships, and their effectiveness in mediating conflict will depend upon whether they are perceived as legitimate and effective by those over whom they assert jurisdiction.


If these assumptions are correct, the American experience may prove instructive. The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world; the forging of a stable political community has occurred in the face of vast differences and continuing tensions among multiple religious, ethnic and racial groups.  While there is considerable room for improvement, and substantial basis for criticism, the United States may nevertheless offer a template for achievement of a stable and just order and the peaceful management of social change. This is not because the liberal democratic worldview is necessarily morally superior to others (any discussion of morality is beyond the purview of this paper), but because it has proved to be a practical and useful mechanism for mediating claims among competing worldviews.


In this paper, I will define the fundamental elements of liberal democratic theory, discuss its operation in the context of the American historical experience, and consider what its application to global governance might look like.



                                                 The Liberal Paradigm 


Liberalism has been defined as “a principle of political organization that accords individuals the freedom to navigate a course of their own design, constituted by self-elected plans and purposes.” (Beiner 1996)  William Galston has suggested that liberal societies are characterized by a strategy that minimizes coercion (Galston 1991), and Ronald Dworkin has defined liberal constitutionalism as “a system that establishes legal rights [to self determination] that the dominant legislature does not have the power to override.” (Dworkin 1995:2) 


Liberal theory accords to individuals the broadest moral authority over their own lives consistent with the maintenance of public order. So long as individuals do not act in ways that harm the persons or property of others, they are to be free of state coercion[1]. Liberalism thus rests upon a view of the world that separates—as many cultures do not—the public from the private. Liberal theory distinguishes between the communal and the personal; with respect to communal behaviors, it further distinguishes between public activities that are governmental, and communal actions taken through voluntary associations (not-for-profits, or NGOs), which are considered private. Although the historic distinction between public and private is being substantially eroded by current practices of government subcontracting (Kennedy 2000; Jensen and Kennedy, 2006), the distinction remains a bedrock of liberal democratic theory. The most doctrinaire libertarians would limit the role of government to the conduct of activities requiring the use of state coercive powers: controlling crime, waging war, levying taxes, enforcing private agreements (Boaz 1997). They would leave other activities of a communal nature to civil society, which is composed of churches, mosques, synagogues, arts organizations, private charities and a multiplicity of other voluntary associations and nonprofit corporations (Tocqueville 1835,1956; Putnam 2000). 


Having defined spheres of human activity in this way, liberalism (at least initially) fostered a definition of justice based upon a concept of “negative” liberty, a conception that accorded great importance to personal liberty and individual autonomy, which were in turn defined as the right to be free of governmental constraint. That economic or personal factors might operate to constrain autonomy as dramatically as any government edict was seen as unfortunate, but beside the point. The point was to limit the exercise of state power.   


This original understanding has been criticized as representing a cramped view of human rights and so strict a libertarian paradigm no longer describes American political reality. However, the importance of negative liberty and the high priority assigned to limitations on government power continue to inform liberal public policy.[2] Legislative bodies in the United States have constantly struggled against the limits imposed on government in the American system, and in many cases, so-called “positive rights” which were not included in the original U.S. Constitution have subsequently been extended by statute.[3] 


A negative approach to the exercise of public power posits government as a neutral arbiter among citizens who are legal equals. There are many problems with such a “neutral” system, not least the fact that it does not address systemic inequalities, and does not recognize nor compensate for the absence of a level playing field. Indeed, there are many justice issues that simply fall outside the paradigm of negative liberty as conceived by the liberal state.  An even more fundamental problem is that neutrality is not experienced as neutral by those who hold comprehensive doctrines, whether those doctrines are religious or political. For such “seamless garment” believers, no system that fails to recognize the supremacy and impose the mandates of their own belief system can ever be legitimate.


Within the western liberal tradition, communitarians, like the socialists and communists before them, complain that a neutral state that places process above substance and sees individual moral choice as a private rather than public concern, fails to meet the universal and human need for meaning. They contend that liberal theory suffers from an “impoverished vision of citizenship and community” (Sandel 1996). Communitarians and other critics of liberalism take issue with the most fundamental commitment of liberal democracies: that persons should be free to govern themselves, free to set and pursue their own ends, in accordance with their own values. They argue that freedom, properly understood, is “freedom to do the right thing” and that political community, in order to be experienced and sustained as a true community, must insist upon a shared telos, an agreement on moral ends (Mulhall & Smith 1992; Sandel 1996). In this view, it is more important that those ends be the correct ones than it is that they be freely chosen.[4] 


Whatever the merits of the communitarians’ argument, however, and whatever the deficiencies of liberal democratic regimes, a system of government neutrality and negative rights has one overriding virtue: it makes the use of power to enforce conformity largely illegitimate, and thereby minimizes conflict between citizens who hold different values. That is, by “privatizing” hegemonic belief systems and restricting government activity to those matters which must be addressed communally, liberal systems minimize—although they certainly do not eliminate—political struggles for control over the mechanisms of state power.  Furthermore, because liberal systems require those with contending views on matters that are properly governmental to participate in public debate in order to persuade their fellow citizens, they operate to moderate more extreme positions.


Liberal democrats further argue that liberalism does endorse ends: liberty, individual autonomy, equality before the law, tolerance. The American Bill of Rights has even been referred to as a moral code (Kennedy 1997). Liberal theory begins with respect for the value and uniqueness of each individual, and requires behavior consistent with that respect, notably tolerance for those who differ. Liberal political theory values a unity that can accommodate diversity (Kymlicka 1996); and affirms the belief that society is strengthened and enriched by a multiplicity of voices and a constant testing of moral and political theories. To allow the state to prescribe a particularistic moral code or to impose political uniformity would violate the conscience and insult the personhood of citizens. It would also undermine its own legitimacy, and engender resentments ultimately dangerous to continued social stability and civic peace.


Liberalism also challenges the notion that human community must be defined politically. It asserts that political communities, in common with religious communities, ethnic groups, professional or fraternal organizations, and any number of other associations that are meaningful to their members, are partial communities, and that their utility in promoting stability rests upon the fact that they provide room for competing allegiances.


“Freedom-promoting social orders are, it appears, pluralistic; societies

            of partial allegiances in which groups endlessly compete with each other

            and with the state for the allegiances of individuals, and in which individuals

            loyalties are divided among a variety of crosscutting (or only partially

            overlapping) memberships and affiliations.


            Liberalism needs community life, therefore, and it needs community life to be

            constituted in a certain way. Liberal statecraft should aim for a complex, cross-

            cutting structure of community life in which particular group-based allegiances

            are tempered by other, competing group allegiances and by a state representing a

            common, overarching, but partial, point of view that gives everyone something in

            common.” (Macedo 1996:255)


Governments are one mechanism among many for the expression of social values and communal aspirations, and liberals warn that there is substantial danger in reposing all moral authority in a coercive state. If the goal of political community is unity without uniformity and diversity without culture war, tolerance for the divergent lifestyles and diverse values of multiple communities is both a tool and an end.


Liberal democrats also make another, quite practical argument: there is no reasonable alternative to state neutrality, unless one opts to use the state’s coercive power to impose ends endorsed by the majority upon unwilling minorities, and thereby risk engendering backlash and undermining state legitimacy. John Rawls defends the liberal enterprise by positing an “overlapping consensus” of shared limited goals (Rawls 1993). The complex framework he establishes rests in part upon a central insight: every time you add a goal that government is to enforce, you introduce a new source of conflict. In the United States today, we have deep divisions over numerous such issues. The right to enjoy the proceeds of one’s own labor conflicts with taxation that redistributes money for social ends; the right of a woman to control her own body conflicts with the religious belief of many that abortion is murder; the right of government to wage war encounters the resistance of those who believe all wars—or certain wars—to be immoral. There are numerous other examples. No society or government can avoid such conflicts, no matter how respectful of individual autonomy, but liberal democracies are obliged to minimize them by restraining the state from intruding too much into the realms that have been defined as private.  The classic formulation of this principle is that with which this section began: government intervention is warranted only when one citizen threatens harm to the person or property of another (Nozick 1974). While the United States and the world’s other liberal democracies have long since moderated that simple libertarian principle, often for reasons that are sound and even more often for reasons that are specious and worrisome, I would argue that it is a formula with much to recommend it. As Marc Stier has recently described the liberal strategy for avoiding conflict,


“Neutrality about the good is, for liberals, also central to their strategy for  preserving internal peace. Liberals hold that we can reduce political and social conflict if we place certain matters beyond the bounds of political decisionmaking. Extreme and dangerous political conflict, the kind that leads to civil wars, results when governments prevent some citizens from pursuing ends of fundamental importance to them. When governments respect our rights, though, people are free to make decisions for themselves about these matters. Thus conflict about divisive issues is prevented. This strategy of avoidance is one of the prime ways in which liberals hope to keep the peace. Of course, some people may be frustrated because they cannot attain their own ends by using the power of the state to restrict what other people say and do. The liberal expectation, however, is that people would rather have their own freedom protected than interfere with the freedom of others, if only because they recongnize that an illiberal regime might at some point turn against them.” (Stier 2000:3)


                                                The American Experience


Cultures are not static; they change and are changed by historical experience.The United States is a formost example: social change and upheavel have been a constant of our history; indeed, in one case, internal conflict led to an actual civil war. It is difficult to imagine a country that could better test the thesis that liberal democratic structures tend to moderate conflict and promote stability in the face of social change. (Indeed, there is serious scholarship attributing several of the more disruptive episodes in U.S. history to one of our recurring failures to abide by our original liberal constitutional “bargain.”)  The United States is viewed, correctly, as one of the world’s most stable polities; what is sometimes overlooked is the fact that American stability has withstood a staggering amount of social and political upheaval throughout American history.


American history since the Revolutionary war has been an ongoing process of encounter—confrontation with explosive national growth and unpredictable world events, with new immigrants and their cultures, with science, technology and modernism. America has added territories, fought wars, experienced economic and social upheavals and become steadily more diverse. Along the way, religious, cultural and political worldviews have synthesized, polarized and changed. Yet the genius of the liberal paradigm can be seen even in those Americans who have responded most negatively to these historical encounters; they are indisputably products of the modernity they reject. Alan Wolfe has noted that in its quest for popularity in a democratic society, Puritanism lost its harshness (Wolfe, 2001). Much the same phenomenon has modified and tempered other movements and “isms” over time.


The United States cannot be understood outside its very Protestant Christian frame of reference. It emerged from the Revolutionary War with an unquenchable optimism about its future, fed by a conviction that it was the “New Israel,” and its national metaphor was “the shining City on the Hill.” That Protestant worldview carried with it an unfortunate predilection for what Jeffrey Alexander has called “binary thinking”—good vs. evil, us v. them. (Alexander, 2005).  The result has been a nation consumed  by successive moral conflicts, intensified by radically opposing views about the nature of morality and moral responsibility. Just as religion—or to be more precise, Protestantism—has left an indelible imprint on American institutions, however, liberal democratic processes and Enlightenment philosophy have exerted an enormous, and countervailing, effect upon American religious and political worldviews.


Several cultural shifts occurred during the post-revolutionary period. The Second Great Awakening, itself a reaction against the emergence of more liberal, intellectual approaches to Christianity, encouraged individualism by offering people a broad choice of affiliations available from a growing religious “marketplace.” Feminist groups began demanding the right to vote. The Women’s Temperance Union and the New York Anti-Slavery Society were founded, the former in 1826 and the latter in 1833. Democracy and mobility gave people previously unimaginable choices. Social protest and change were everywhere.


The American West was an enormously important element of this climate of change and renewal.Certainly the existence of vast expanses, uninhabited except for the Native Americans (whose claims were recognized by very few), encouraged a spirit of adventurousness and independence—not to mention acquisitiveness—and reinforced an already potent belief in America’s manifest destiny. As the population surged westward, Dissenting churches flourished. So did voluntary associations, necessary mechanisms for mutual aid in the nation’s less populated, less socially organized regions. The West was a metaphor for new beginnings; an ongoing invitation to start over. The “western ethos” that developed varied considerably with geography and with the cultural backgrounds of the people who settled in the various territories. California and the Pacific Northwest, in particular, developed highly distinctive political cultures.  


Throughout the post-Revolutionary period, the issue of slavery continued to fester. In a country that had expressly committed itself to the proposition that all men were created equal, inequalities of many kinds remained glaringly obvious. As James Morone has noted, however, slavery was inequality of a different magnitude. “Americans have been furiously assigning one another to balconies since the seventeenth century. We sort each other by religion, ethnicity, gender and bank account. But nothing marks American differences quite like race.” (2003:119)


By the 1830s, the energies of the always numerous moral reformers had largely converged on opposition to slavery. As abolition conflicts polarized north and south, another change occurred, a regional shift that has had continuing consequences for American political and religious institutions.  As a number of historians have noted, by the early 1830’s, modernism and liberalism had largely moved north and west. Southern religion and culture became increasingly orthodox.  As many times as the turbulence of the era has been described, it remains difficult for modern Americans to grasp.  Lynching of black men in the South, particularly Mississippi, was commonplace, and it was not unheard of to see lynching of whites suspected of collaborating with abolitionists. Anti-slavery rallies consumed northern cities, where sentiment was by no means uniform in favor of abolition and there was considerable sympathy for the economic arguments of the slaveholders. Abolition groups fought among themselves over what role, if any, women should be permitted to play in the movement, and a number of other issues muddied the waters, among them “nativism, temperance, free-labor capitalism.” (Morone, 2003: 121)


It is impossible to overstate the influence of race and racial politics on the American character. If the Civil War was our most painful wound, it has yet to fully heal; we continue to deal with the innumerable structural, psychological, economic and religious consequences of slavery.


The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were passed in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Thirteenth wrote emancipation into the constitutional fabric. The Fourteenth required state governments to extend the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship and the “equal protection of the laws” to all citizens within their jurisdictions. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, effecting a significant structural change to America’s constitutional architecture. (Yale constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar has called it a “constitutional reconstruction.” (Amar, 2000))  Ever since its ratification, there have been persistent efforts to undo it, to argue that the Amendment has been misconstrued—that it was intended to be applied only to ex-slaves, that it has never been properly ratified, that an “imperial judiciary” has used the language as a warrant for all sorts of unintended mischief. The major effect of the Fourteenth Amendment was to strengthen the central government at the expense of the states, to require local governments to respect the “fundamental” individual rights at issue—to use the power of the state to impose what were then majority values on the various minorities who dissented from those values.[5] 


The legal changes effected by the Fourteenth Amendment were ultimately transformational, as were the social and cultural consequences of those changes. As Theodore Lowi has written: individual rights expanded; rights necessarily involve morality; and morality radicalizes. Lowi has located the beginnings of what Americans now call the “culture wars” in the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. As he argues, authoritarianism finds expression in the religious and moral beliefs of local communities, with real families, identifiable institutions and traditions. So while the early national elites, educated in Enlightenment philosophy and devoted to Lockean ideals, were busy shaping national governing institutions, conservative authoritarians had been content to concentrate their energies on their local communities. (Lowi, 1996)  When local communities remained free to impose their views of morality on their neighbors, they were largely content to ignore the federal government. Passage of the Fourteenth Amendment thus introduced new tensions into the relationship between the central and state governments. It did more than nationalize the Bill of Rights; it nationalized—and radicalized—populist (nearly always religious) conservatism by giving federal courts a veto over local government decisions. The 14th Amendment intensified the power struggles between units of government, and the conflicts introduced by that structural shift have continued into the present.


A number of subsequent conflicts have revolved around Darwin and the teaching of evolution in the nation’s public schools, which conservative Christians resisted—and continue to resist—as  inconsistent with their faith. In addition to these ongoing religious, political, scientific and ideological clashes, the period between the Civil War and World War I was roiled by industrialization, immigration and various crises of urbanization. It was also a period that saw regional differences intensify. The cultural differences between north and south, especially, continued to harden; in addition to the resentments flowing from the Civil War, southerners increasingly came to see the north as the source of troubling “new ideas” like evolution and women’s rights.


It wasn’t only science that was challenging the accepted order. The gulf between conservative and liberal religious beliefs was widening. The Industrial Revolution, increasing urbanization, and a constant influx of immigrants brought disorienting changes that further differentiated and secularized American life. Pluralism suddenly meant something other than different kinds of Protestantism, and the metaphor of an American “melting pot” that included Catholics and Jews came into common usage.  Economic disparities were glaring.  Predictably, people with different cultural and religious worldviews responded to these new challenges very differently, and responses to the insecurities and hardships of these times took very different forms. Nativism ebbed and flowed.  Meanwhile, population distribution added its own dislocations to the civic landscape. During the 1920s, for the first time in American history, more people lived in cities than in the country, making it more difficult to ignore American differences.


During the late 1920’s and early 1930s, the major fact of American life was the Depression, an experience exerting enormous stress on citizens and governments alike, and which eventually required a more robust central government structure in order to deal with it.  The interconnected reality of the the American experience continued to grow, with a number of technological innovations, like the telephone and radio, accelerating centralization and the pace of change. Standards for food and drug safety, control of air traffic, provisions for interstate commerce—all required national co-ordination. By the beginning of World War II, the Bill of Rights had been nationalized, social security and other national social programs had been instituted, and an ever-growing number of federal agencies were intruding on the traditional prerogatives of local governments. The pace and scope of change was dizzying. Then World War II affected American culture—and American religious and regional subcultures—in innumerable ways. Among its numerous other effects, the war once again generated large numbers of new immigrants, with strange cultures and beliefs.     


Cultural change continued to alter the American landscape in the aftermath of World War II.  Suburbanization increased, and with it economic stratification and dependence on personal automobiles. Television brought the news and entertainment to the living room—and showed everyone how “the other half” lived. Advertising and growth in disposable income encouraged consumerism. Women—including those with children at home—entered the workforce in ever-larger numbers. Black soldiers who returned home to find segregation and Jim Crow in the South, and less overt but still widespread discrimination elsewhere, joined a renewed movement for racial equality. Whole books have been written tracing the cultural consequences of each of these—and many other—developments.


The postwar period gave rise to a surface religious ecumenicism, but enormous differences in worldviews contributed to continuing tensions over church-state relationships, particularly the 1963 decision striking down required prayers in public school.  In 1954, the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, requiring racial integration of the public schools. The ruling sparked such fierce resistance that President Eisenhower dispatched troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect the new black students from angry white mobs. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white passenger, and Martin Luther King, Jr. called for the boycott that would ignite the Civil Rights movement.  In 1963, King would direct his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail to antagonistic white clergy, and help found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Meanwhile, the racist, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic Klu Klux Klan was operating with impunity throughout much of the South.


The turmoil Americans still refer to as “the sixties” actually lasted well into the 1970s. Its major flashpoints were the struggle for civil rights and the protests against the Viet Nam War, but publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique in 1963 also led to a proliferation of feminist “consciousness raising” groups, and emergence of a full-fledged Women’s Movement. Universities were under attack by everyone—students protesting the draft, parents horrified by the weird, “atheistic” ideas their children were suddenly spouting, and various defenders of the

American Way

of Life convinced that “academic freedom” was a liberal, elitist defense of communist propaganda in the classrooms.  Protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention were clubbed in the streets by Chicago police on national television. Students participating in an antiwar demonstration were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at Ohio’s Kent State University. President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were all assassinated. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Black separatists and Black Power advocates spurned King’s nonviolence, while Students for a Democratic Society and the even more radical Weathermen engaged in everything from civil disobedience to robbery and murder in the name of radical ideologies. In 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, in what was a fairly common incident of official harassment of gays; this time, however, the gays and lesbians fought back—and gave birth to the gay civil rights movement.


Constant confrontation and disorder shattered the complacency that had characterized so much of middle-class life in the Fifties. Television news and an ever-more ubiquitous popular culture forced Americans to confront divisions and issues they preferred not to acknowledge. Among those was the profound social division that occurred in the wake of  Roe v. Wade in 1973, when the Supreme Court struck down state laws forbidding abortion. Another source of political unrest was the immensely unpopular Viet Nam War.

(Today, many commentators draw a parallel between the deep political divisions over Viet Nam, and the current war in Iraq.)



This incredibly abbreviated tour through the history of inter-group conflict in the United States—superficial and inevitably distorted as it has been, given its single-minded focus on what divides Americans—gives at least a hint of the challenges faced by governing institutions throughout our nation’s relatively short history. And yet—contentious and confrontational as our politics have undeniably been—with very few exceptions, our disputes have been resolved politically and peacefully, rather than through violence or widespread civic unrest. The airwaves of our media may be awash in impolite and confrontational dialogue, we may struggle with racial and religious and political differences, but our streets are reasonably safe, our political officeholders are changed through democratic elections, not revolution, and under all the heated rhetoric, there is a genuine patriotism and a pervasive popular commitment to e pluribus unum—a shared belief that, out of the many, we are one nation, after all. That is a significant accomplishment, and it can only be explained by the architecture of our governing structures, which require that contesting viewpoints vie for acceptance in the public square under rules that are fair and neutral. Psychological research confirms that antagonists who believe 1) that the mechanisms of decision-making are fair and unbiased; and 2) that all parties to a dispute are equally entitled to express themselves and to participate in the process, are much more likely to abide by decisions with which they personally disagree.   


In the final analysis, it is not the homogeneity of a population, or the absence of discord, that creates stable social systems. It is the “rules of the game” and the perception by most of the “players” that those rules are fundamentally fair that operates to preserve social peace and manage social change.


                                                Global Application


There are many parallels between our rapidly shrinking world and the American experience. In the Twenty-First century, sophisticated communications are fast creating the “global village” foreseen by Marshall McLuhan. Global markets are emerging, creating new geopolitical realities. As Thomas Friedman has noted,


“Unlike the cold-war system, which was largely static, globalization involves the integration of free markets, nation-states and information technologies to a degree never before witnessed, in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and countries to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever.”

(Friedman 1999: 42)


Alfred Aman has described the implications of so unprecedented a phenomenon


“The end result of these new networks of investment, finance and production is that they help to create relatively integrated markets for their products and they produce new, multiple sets of relationships or economic networks that transcend the geography of states…..As a result, new bodies of global and international law are developing to address issues that are neither wholly domestic nor wholly international.”  (Aman 1998:781-82)


This global integration has both positive and negative implications. In terms of diminishing armed conflicts of the sort that the world has previously known, I would argue that global markets are emphatically good. As a general rule, countries don’t bomb places where their citizens own valuable real estate; they don’t wage war on those who purchase their goods and services.  It has been said, and not entirely in jest, that no wars occur between countries that both have McDonalds (Barber 1999).


But even if it is true that global communication and a global economy are making large-scale, conventional war less likely, the absence of armed conflict between nation-states is not same as peace, and certainly not the same as a just peace. In such a world, it is still possible (and perhaps even likely) that the strong will dominate the weak, that the gap between haves and have-nots will widen, and that the new dialectic will be tribalism against globalism (Barber 1995). By tribalism, Barber means the resistance of insular religious or ethnic comprehensive cultures to the seemingly inexorable march of global capitalism. Such resistance proceeds largely from a fear of cultural imperialism, fear of having one’s ethnic group or tribe or even one’s nation swallowed up and replaced by a pallid, all-encompassing western materialism. We are currently seeing the emergence of terrorism and local insurrection as the new form of warfare, fought by those who believe that they are thereby protecting their cultural or national or ethnic autonomy against an emerging world culture or new form of imperialism.


It is not only marginalized societies that fear the development of a “new world order,” conceived as a transnational or supranational authority or world government. In the United States, as in other western industrialized countries, there are powerful voices advocating isolationist measures, and others intent upon unilateralism and global hegemony. Even quite moderate politicians express concern over potential loss of sovereignty to international agencies. Nationalism and national identity are powerful forces even in countries with a large economic stake in further global commerce. The political difficulties that have attended the emergence of the European Community are illustrative of the barriers to full co-operation, even among countries with many similarities and strong incentives for added institutional integration.


On a more theoretical level, political scientists who believe global institutions are necessary and desirable nevertheless worry that citizen apathy and political disaffection will increase if too much power is exercised by institutions that are ever more remote.  If power shifts to supra-national institutions, the distance between the exercise of authority and the kinds of civic participation that are necessary to legitimate such exercise becomes too great. If global citizens are to retain—or regain—control over the governments that rule them, power must devolve as well evolve, with local, national and international bodies each exercising jurisdiction only over those functions that require action at that geographic level.


Politicians are not unaware of the dual nature of globalization’s pressure. In a discussion of Tony Blair’s celebrated “third way” of governing, which rejects the prior European political categories of Left and Right, the Economist Magazine reported on a seminar devoted to an exploration of the new approach as follows:


“The old left sought to maximize the role of the state, the old right to minimize it. The third way should seek instead to restructure government, at all levels. It should promote subsidiarity and address the “democratic deficit.” Measures included constitutional reform, greater transparency, and more local democracy…The third way recognizes that we no longer live in a bipolar world and realizes that states no longer face enemies, only dangers.” (Economist 1998:52)            


Some governing functions must be handled globally. Others are best addressed locally. A growing number of commentators and political scientists are considering (or challenging) the widely-held thesis that, under the press of globalization, political authority is draining away from nation-states, simultaneously moving upward to supranational organizations, downward to sub-national units, and “sideways or laterally to private actors assuming previously ‘public’ responsibilities.” (Kahler and Lake 2000) 


Whether that thesis is proved or disproved, the central challenge to governance in this brave new world will be to identify not only what functions are appropriately governmental and nongovernmental, but also, for those that are deemed governmental, to identify the proper unit or level of government to exercise jurisdiction of the matter.


Mediation of treaties, trade disputes, environmental threats and international peacekeeping are inescapably global issues. Justice systems, transportation and labor policies, central banking decisions and the like are generally issues of national concern. Burglary and assault, traffic engineering, garbage collection and similar matters are just as clearly local. A workable international federation must reflect this reality, or it will not have the support of the nations it purports to represent nor the legitimacy to exercise the limited powers it must have.


An international body based upon liberal democratic principles will not intentionally suppress indigenous cultures or supplant existing national governments.  Like national governments in the libertarian political tradition, its power will be limited.  If the liberal democratic distinction between public and private informs the conduct of such an international institution, it will prohibit interference with the internal affairs of its “citizens”—in this instance, member nations—much as the Bill of Rights in the United States places limits on government interference with its human citizens. Ideally, the United Nations will some day evolve into such an institution, marrying moral authority and legitimacy to the power to enforce a sharply limited but common set of standards for nations’ behavior.


While such an approach holds great promise, knotty and enduring problems remain.


There will always be those who resist membership in a world community so conceived, just as there have always been those who have resisted national and subnational authority—those whose religious views or cultural ambitions impel them to attack democratic institutions, subvert popularly elected governments, and otherwise engage in activities intended to shift the balance of power in favor of their own comprehensive worldviews. An international body committed to respecting the internal affairs of member nations will find it extremely difficult to justify measures taken against such efforts, which are likely to take the form of intrastate conflicts.


Even more difficult will be conflicts between fundamental human rights and national sovereignty. In the United States, until recently, that conflict was most stark during the civil rights movement, when respect for the sovereign rights of states came into conflict with the fundamental constitutional rights of African-American citizens of those states. Today, the conflict is between our commitment to human rights and our need to deter international terrorism. At what point will a world government committed to human rights feel impelled to prevent a nation state from denying fundamental rights to its own citizens?  What if the deprivation is rooted in the culture and history of that nation-state? How, to pose but one example, would a liberal world government address the genital mutilation of young women in certain parts of the world (Nussbaum 2000)?  Will such assaults be tolerated as an expression of a state’s right to cultural autonomy and self-determination? Or will the violation of a woman’s body without her meaningful consent be considered a criminal act that a global authority has the right to prohibit? Who will be the more important constituents of this future global government—the nation-states or the people? 


If intervention into the internal affairs of nations can be justified on the basis that it is necessary to put down subversion, or to protect the bodily integrity of women, can it also be justified in order to redress economic deprivations? It can be argued that a neutrality that ignores systemic inequalities is hardly neutral; that it is only when all people enjoy at least a minimal standard of living that the concept of autonomy has any real content or meaning. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights incorporates that insight. Will we ultimately empower a global authority to enforce the Universal Declaration, much as the United States government enforces the Bill of Rights within the various states? And what of the growing “lateral” concentrations of power in international corporations that owe allegiance to no state, or to many?  Global capitalism has encouraged mergers and acquisitions across national boarders; technology has enabled the creation of comparatively rootless international corporations. Some of these companies have gross national products that exceed those of many countries. Such concentrations of economic power, arguably unconstrained by the law of any particular nation, present yet another challenge to be overcome before we can create a meaningful global authority.





However daunting these and other problems may seem, there is no turning back. Governing institutions—national and global—will be vested with authority for the same reason that governments have always been formed: to enforce civil peace, meet common challenges and mediate disputes. The issue is not whether to create such institutions, but what form and authority to give them.


The alternatives to a liberal democratic order are authoritarianism, on the one hand, and persistent conflict, disorder or chaos, on the other.  With all its deficiencies, I submit that democratic liberalism based upon the rule of law[6] offers the best avenue to global peace and stability. A liberal federation governed by a global authority required to respect individual, ethnic and national autonomy, encourage diversity within unity, and enforce the fundamental human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is most likely to manage social change with minimal disruption, engage the allegiance of the human family, and most likely to achieve and maintain a just world peace.








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[1] How “harm to others” is to be defined is, of course, a highly contentious matter. Liberal principles are deceptively simple; their proper application (as evidenced by the thousands of books written on the topic) is anything but simple.

[2] This emphasis creates genuine problems when, for example, the United States is asked to endorse Conventions like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which include as rights affirmative entitlements to food, housing and medical care.

[3] For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

[4] The question of who will choose the ends, who will define what the “right thing” is and exercise the power to enforce “right ends” is seldom addressed. Presumably, the majority will do so.

[5] This example points to the inevitability of some degree of government authoritarianism, in any system, and raises the issue (a staple of political conflict in the U.S.) of where the line should be drawn.

[6] William Whitford has offered an excellent definition of the term “rule of law” in an article by the same name to be published by the Wisconsin Law Review. According to Whitford, the original meaning of the term “rule of law’ was that no individual should be “above” the law; that government actions should be accountable to some set of pre-determined standards, to be applied by an independent body (probably a court) and contained in constitutions, statutes, administrative regulations and common law precedents. 


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