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The Legitimacy of Global Governance Institutions

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“Legitimacy” has both a normative and a sociological meaning. To say that an institution is legitimate in the normative sense is to assert that it has the right to rule—where ruling includes promulgating rules and attempting to secure compliance with them by attaching costs to non-compliance and/or benefits to compliance. An institution is legitimate in the sociological sense when it is widely believed to have the right to rule. When people disagree over whether the WTO is legitimate, their disagreements are typically normative. They are not disagreeing about whether they or others believe that this institution has the right to rule; they are disagreeing about whether it has the right to rule. This essay addresses the normative dimension of recent legitimacy discussions.

We articulate a global public standard for the normative legitimacy of global governance institutions. This standard can provide the basis for principled criticism of global governance institutions and guide reform efforts in circumstances in which people disagree deeply about the demands of global justice and the role that global governance institutions should play in meeting them. We stake out a middle ground between an increasingly discredited conception of legitimacy that connotes legitimacy with international legality understood as state consent, on the one hand, and the unrealistic view that legitimacy for these institutions requires the same democratic standards that are now applied to states, on the other.

Our approach to the problem of legitimacy integrates conceptual analysis and moral reasoning with an appreciation of the fact that global governance institutions are novel, still evolving, and characterized by reasonable disagreement about what their proper goals are and what standards of justice they should meet. Because both standards and institutions are subject to change as a result of further reflection and action, we do not claim to discover timeless necessary and sufficient conditions for legitimacy. Instead, we offer a principled proposal for how the legitimacy of these institutions ought to be assessed—for the time being. Essential to our account is the idea that to be legitimate a global governance institution must possess certain epistemic virtues that facilitate the ongoing critical revision of its goals, through interaction with agents and organizations outside the institution. A principled global public standard of legitimacy can help citizens committed to democratic principles to distinguish legitimate institutions from illegitimate ones and to achieve a reasonable congruence in their legitimacy assessments. Were such a standard widely accepted, it could bolster public support for valuable global governance institutions that either satisfy the standard or at least make credible efforts to do so.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2010

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