ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: On Goodhart’s Global Democracy (A Critique)

| December 2008
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In a broad sense global democracy addresses the question of democracy and democratic governance on the global level of politics. On most accounts of global democracy, human rights are ascribed a key role. It is generally agreed that to the extent that we wish to apply the principles of democracy globally we must apply some basic rights globally, too. At the same time, the role of human rights in global democracy is undertheorized in this debate. In order to specify it more carefully, one must address in much more detail the relationship between human rights and democracy. One such attempt is made by Michael Goodhart, notably in his article, “Human Rights and Global Democracy,” in Ethics & International Affairs (22, No. 4, 2008). In his view, the relationship is misconstrued due to a persistent coupling of sovereignty and democracy in modern democratic theory. Once we let go of this connection, he claims, global democracy could be fruitfully reformulated through the emancipatory force of human rights.1

I indeed share the concern raised by Goodhart about the need to investigate more thoroughly the role of human rights in global democracy by addressing the relationship between human rights and democracy. In my view, any attempt to contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between human rights and democracy must supply two things: a fruitful way to conceptualize the relationship as such, and an adequate conceptualization of the two parts, i.e., of human rights and democracy, respectively. What I argue, however, is that Goodhart fails on both accounts. Concerning the former, he confuses conceptual with causal and constitutive relations, thus conflating conceptual and empirical questions; concerning the latter, he confuses concepts with conceptions, and reinterprets the concept of democracy to the extent that it misses its target. More specifically, I argue that his conception of global democracy does not accommodate three necessary conditions for democracy: self-government, political equality, and political bindingness. Thus, even if Goodhart were to offer a novel account of the relationship between human rights and democracy, it would be at the expense of reconceptualizing democracy in such a way that it would no longer be the appropriate term to use, which means that he would not be offering a better understanding of the role of human rights in global democracy but, at best, something else.

Goodhart’s Diagnosis and Solution

While human rights constitute a part of the infrastructure of democratic global governance on almost all accounts of global democracy, Goodhart argues that the relationship between human rights and democracy is severely undertheorized, which has led to a vagueness concerning the role of human rights in global democracy. He claims that the main flaw of contemporary theories of global democracy, be it David Held’s cosmopolitan democracy or John Dryzek’s civil society approach, is that their focus on mechanisms of democracy leads them astray. A common feature is that they take for granted that the state is the “natural container of and vehicle for politics,” characterized by a presupposed symmetry among citizens, policy, and power that “typifies the familiar model of democracy as a system of elections—of ‘rule by the people.'”2 However, Goodhart wishes to remind us that these Westphalian assumptions concern certain mechanisms for making a political system democratic—for example, through representation and elections—and that there are other ways to achieve this.

Instead of starting out from specific mechanisms, Goodhart starts out from democracy’s core principles and key functions. In his view, democracy is animated by the two fundamental principles of freedom and equality, which at the minimum require constraints on the exercise of power and political agency. Constraining power and enabling political agency constitute two core aims or functions of democracy that “derive from the fundamental principles of freedom and equality and are widely accepted.”3 Human rights dovetail into this view precisely because they also articulate aims rather than mechanisms. They describe what should be achieved rather than how it should be achieved, and thus constitute “ethical standards for legitimate governance at all levels and binding on all actors.”4

On the global level, says Goodhart, constraining power and enabling political agency require the protection of human rights, both in terms of constraining rights, for example, non-discriminatory rights, and of enabling rights, that is, rights that make “effective agency possible.”5 Goodhart makes the case that the conceptual role that human rights play in global democracy is that they “are a necessary condition for global democracy.”6 Furthermore, he argues that “[h]uman rights are necessary for achieving democracy.”7

Of course, to claim that human rights are a necessary condition for global democracy is not particularly controversial. But Goodhart pushes the argument one step further, suggesting that human rights are “perhaps a sufficient condition for global democracy as well.”8 While the argument for necessity relies on the idea that the two main functions of democracy (constraint on power and enabling of political agency) can be translated into human rights requirements, the argument for sufficiency relies on the idea that democracy could reasonably be interpreted “precisely as a political commitment to realizing freedom and equality for everyone through the protection of human rights.”9 To integrate human rights into supranational institutions and global governance, according to Goodhart, means to set up an ethical standard by which decision-making processes and outcomes can be assessed, thereby subjecting political power to democratic norms (although without direct popular control) and thus delimit what is considered to be democratic.10

The Role of Human Rights in Goodhart’s Global Democracy

With the aim of clarifying “the conceptual role of human rights in global democracy,”11 Goodhart thus concludes that human rights are a necessary and sufficient condition for global democracy.12 However, this conceptual approach is not the only one present in Goodhart’s argument. Equally often he moves from the conceptual to the empirical domain, and defends either a causal or a mutually constitutive view of the relationship between human rights and democracy. An example of the former is Goodhart’s claim that human rights are necessary for achieving global democracy, and that their protection is necessary for achieving the aim of democracy globally, that is, of constraining power and enabling political agency.13 But a conceptual and a causal relation are very different things. It is not only the case that Goodhart conflates them in different places of his work, he explicitly says that his aim is to show that human rights are conceptually necessary for achieving global democracy.14 How can a relation be both conceptual and causal? If X is a necessary causal condition for Y, it cannot at the same time be Y or be a necessary conceptual condition for Y. The fact that Goodhart is vague about this is all the more striking against the background of his attack on cosmopolitan and civil society approaches precisely for being conceptually unclear.

This picture gets more complicated when Goodhart concludes that he wishes to establish neither that we should equate human rights with global democracy, nor that they are solely compatible and complementary, but that they are mutually constitutive.15 There are two problems involved here. First, if this is an argument about a mutually constitutive relationship, it does not seem as if Goodhart is making a conceptual point after all. While the terms necessary and sufficient conditions are appropriate to use insofar as the intention is to make a conceptual point, constitutive relations are neither reducible to nor the same thing as conceptual relations. The terms necessary and sufficient conditions are not fit to explain constitutive relations since these relations commonly refer to the empirical world and its coming into being.

Second, even if we interpreted Goodhart as arguing that a mutually constitutive view simply means a conceptual view of a specific kind, the fact remains that he never establishes this mutuality. While he often expresses how human rights are necessary for global democracy (conceptual argument) and for achieving global democracy (causal and thus empirical), he does not give any examples of how global democracy is a necessary condition for human rights. The closest he gets to this is when he argues that democracy is a system for the protection and promotion of human rights.16 However, something stronger is needed to establish that democracy is constitutive of human rights. In fact, in his criticism of communitarianism and defense of civic republicanism and liberal-nationalism, he explicitly says that a community’s right to self-determination is “flowing from a recognition of freedom and equality of its members,” and thus that human rights inform the right to democratic self-government, “not the other way around.”17 But arguably such a one-way view cannot be mutually constitutive, by definition.

Global Democracy: Concept and Conceptions

As noted earlier, any attempt to contribute to a better understanding of the role of human rights in global democracy should not only say something about this relationship but also give an adequate account of the two parts involved, in particular of democracy in this case, since Goodhart’s aim is to develop a theory of global democracy rather than a theory of human rights. The debate on global democracy attempts to rethink the concept of democracy in light of globalization, but the aim is still to conceptualize democracy, not something else. As acknowledged by Goodhart, in any good translation, the “original meaning remains unchanged.”18

This is often described in analytical terms as a distinction between concept and conception. Conceptions share some central characteristics, without which they would not refer to the same concept.19 This distinction is a useful analytical tool in political theorizing. If we did not differentiate between a general concept of democracy and more specific conceptions, we could not identify any necessary conditions or features of democracy, without which we could not compare different democratic proposals, nor know when there are enough differences in our conceptions to arrive at a different concept. Certainly, concepts are reformulated and reshaped by their application or use in discourse. Still, conceptions only belong to the same concept if they share some characteristics or, to use Wittgenstein’s term, some “family resemblances.”20 As we have seen, Goodhart defines democracy in terms of two necessary conditions—the constraint on political power and the enabling of agency—which are also considered sufficient for democracy as minimal requirements. On the global level, these conditions could only be fulfilled by protecting basic human rights. Goodhart’s conception of global democracy if flawed, however, because it overlooks three conditions which in my view are necessary for the concept of democracy, and even sufficient on some conceptions.

The literal meaning of democracy is “rule by the people,” and one necessary condition for rule by the people is popular self-government (collective self-determination), that is, that people rule over themselves (directly or indirectly) by taking decisions about matters of common concern. Yet, this condition obviously does not stand on its own. Another characteristic that distinguishes democracy from other forms of government, such as a dictatorship, monarchy, or aristocracy, is that it is egalitarian. In a democracy everyone is equal in the sense that they have political equality. While equality plays an important role in democracy in several respects (notably in terms of equal rights), what is of concern here is democracy as a system of decision-making in which anyone who belongs to a political body that makes the decisions is equally (directly or indirectly) involved, and that this free and equal participation is protected by a system of rights.21 Third, democracy is a political system of self-legislation by citizens that requires that those subject to a law (or a political decision) as its addressees are simultaneously made authors of this law, that is, that they bind themselves to a political authority through a particular kind of political action. This means that a necessary condition for democracy is political bindingness.

Goodhart dismisses the first necessary condition about self-government by distinguishing between mechanisms and functions. He argues that the mechanisms put forward by both cosmopolitan and civil society theorists are still intimately connected to a Westphalian view of the state characterized by a presupposed symmetry among citizens and the political authority, self-rule through a system of elections and representation, and supremacy within a unified territory.22 However, what Goodhart overlooks is that self-government is not premised on a system of elections connected to a unified territory. In fact, it is not premised on a territorial boundary at all. If a group of people constitutes a political system that claims to be democratic, we do not have to presuppose that they live near one another in order to govern themselves through egalitarian collective decision-making. The territorial boundary is not the kind of boundary on which the necessary condition of self-government relies. A demos consists of free and equal members participating in egalitarian decision-making of some sort. They thus govern themselves (bind themselves) via political equality. Regardless of whether it is a national, regional, or global demos, territorial or nonterritorial, held together by social solidarity or not, it is in this particular sense that a demos is bounded. Whether their self-government is best realized by a territory is foremost an empirical, not a conceptual, question. Thus, while Goodhart is right about the main characteristics of the Westphalian model, he overlooks two essential points: that they are to a large extent (and in a relevant sense) separable, and that some of them are not exclusively a characteristic of this model. Consequently, his criticism of cosmopolitan and civil society approaches partly draws on false premises.

The second necessary condition is political equality. Indeed, equality is a core principle for Goodhart,23 since it is from the core principles of equality and freedom that he arrives at (even derives) democracy. But the concept of equality is too broad to do the normative work required by the political kind of equality presupposed by a democratic system. Political equality is a specific conception of equality, which is a necessary condition for the concept of democracy. Indeed, any contemporary moral theory, be it concerning justice or something else, starts out from equality. For example, in the global justice debate the controversy is not about equality or not, it is about whether equality is best understood as a value, norm, or principle, as well as its appropriate scope or applicability. Consequently, the concept of equality in the abstract does not take us very far, either in moral theorizing generally or in democratic theorizing.

Political equality as a condition for democracy refers to the free and equal participation in egalitarian democratic decision-making protected by a system of rights. The closest Goodhart gets to meeting this condition is when he states that the democratic function of agency is to ensure opportunities for people to influence and contest decisions that affect them.24 However, while these suggestions say something about the possibility of agency, they do not say anything about equal agency. Creating sites of deliberation, contestation, and public input could arguably enhance the prospects of enabling political agency, but it cannot secure the equal possibility to directly or indirectly participate in egalitarian democratic decision-making.

Finally, the third necessary condition for democracy is what I referred to as political bindingness. A democratic system consists of two parts: a political authority and a citizenry, that is, a group of people subject to this authority. For this authority to have democratic legitimacy (rather than some other kind of legitimacy) the subjects in one way or the other (directly or indirectly) have to give their approval—thereby accepting its decisions as binding. Thus, in contrast to the condition of political equality, which has to do with equal agency, the condition of bindingness has to do with actual agency, with the doing rather than merely the possibility or capacity of doing. It is premised on political action.

The possibility of political agency that Goodhart elaborates through enabling rights for improving the possibilities of access, deliberation, and contestation does not suffice to meet the condition of bindingness, since it could mean that no one approved of the political authority in practice. Consider a political system within which every citizen had a vote but no one ever voted. It would be absurd to call this system democratic. We rarely give this a thought since we always presuppose that enough people vote. While the condition of political bindingness itself does not specify a threshold, it presupposes that there is such a threshold. Similar problems are sometimes labeled the Sorites paradox in analytic philosophy. The paradox refers to “little-by-little” arguments and to the question of when, for example, a heap of wheat is a heap. For if we remove one grain at a time, we cannot tell when it ceases to be a heap. Although there is a boundary, or threshold, it is characterized by vagueness. Equally, even if the justified threshold for the number of people necessary to approve of a political authority (directly or indirectly) to make it democratically legitimate will probably vary between different democratic theories, my point is only that political bindingness, which harbors a threshold, is a necessary condition for democracy.

In sum, what I have argued here is that Goodhart’s theory of global democracy fails because he neither adequately specifies the relationship between human rights and democracy nor fulfills the necessary conditions for the concept of democracy. Beyond that, however, I see these problems as an illustration of a general tendency to ascribe human rights a key role (or multiple roles) in global democracy while failing to specifying more carefully the relationship between human rights and democracy. This speaks to an even larger concern, namely the tendency to propose remedies for the democratic deficit in global governance that are unclear with respect to their democratic merits.

Indeed, human rights play a fundamental role, conceptually as well as empirically, in any proposal for how to make the global political order more legitimate. But as ethical standards for legitimate governance they do not automatically entail democratic legitimacy, as Goodhart presumes, since human rights are not enough for global democracy. The three necessary conditions for democracy elaborated here are meant to assist in distinguishing between democratic and non-democratic (but moral) conceptions of better global governance. If we choose the former, democratic path, scholars such as Jürgen Habermas and Hauke Brunkhorst have suggested that we could to some extent remedy the democratic deficit of global governance through the medium of the law. Democracy beyond the nation-state requires a constitution defined as a horizontal association of citizens bounded by fundamental human rights that, as free and equal founders, they mutually grant each other. Habermas and Brunkhorst argue that constitutionalization is the only way to realize the free and equal participation in egalitarian decision-making procedures (securing self-government, political equality, and political bindingness).25 If we choose to improve global governance without necessarily seeking global democracy, on the other hand, we might theorize better global governance by way of a justificatory device such as fairness or accountability, or through the normative force of human rights.26

It is in this latter category that Goodhart’s human rights approach is appropriately placed, since human rights on his account constitute ethical standards for global political decision-making (while not securing the basic conditions for democracy). Another example is Andreas Föllesdal’s recent suggestion of what he calls normative legitimacy in multilevel governance, which consists of the compliance of decisions with justifiable norms. However, in contrast to Goodhart, Föllesdal shows awareness of the difference between the two paths, arguing that this is a way for nondemocratic governance to become legitimate in an international setting where norms are not justified by popular will.

I wish to thank Niklas Möller for valuable comments on earlier drafts of this critique, as well as the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation for financing my research project on “democratic legitimacy, accountability and global governance.


1 Michael Goodhart, Democracy as Human Rights: Freedom and Equality in the Age of Globalization (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 117-34.
2 Michael Goodhart, “Human Rights and Global Democracy,” Ethics & International Affairs 22, No. 4 (2008), p. 401.
3 Ibid., p. 406.
4 Ibid., p. 403.
5 Ibid., p. 403.
6 Ibid., p. 396.
7 Ibid., p. 403.
8 Ibid., p. 416.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid., p. 405.
11 Ibid., p. 396.
12  Ibid., p. 396; see also Goodhart, Democracy as Human Rights, ch. 7.
13  Ibid., p. 402 and 406.
14 Ibid., p. 406.
15 Ibid., p. 416.
16 Ibid., p. 416.
17 Ibid., p. 415.
18 Ibid., p. 402.
19 For a fruitful use of the distinction between concept and conception, see John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), and Ronald Dworkin, Law’s Empire (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1986).
20 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, eds. E. Anscombe and R. Rhees (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1953), Part I, pp. 66-71.
21 For insightful thoughts on different conceptions of equality in democracy, see Thomas Christiano, The Rule of the Many (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).
22  Goodhart, “Human Rights and Global Democracy,” p. 401.
23 Sometimes Goodhart refers to it as a core value rather than a core principle, which is confusing, since values and principles carry different connotations. As David Miller has pointed out, claims to values and claims to how agents ought to act are two different things, and one does not automatically follow from the other. David Miller, “Against Global Egalitarianism,” The Journal of Ethics 9, No. 1-2 (2004), pp. 65-67.
24 Goodhart, “Human Rights and Global Democracy,” p. 407.
25 Jürgen Habermas, The Divided West, ed. and trans. C. Cronin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006); Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions, ed. and trans. C. Cronin and M. Pensky (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006); Hauke Brunkhorst, Solidarity: from Civic Friendship to a Global Legal Community, trans. J. Flynn (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005); Hauke Brunkhorst, “The Legitimation Crisis of the EU,” Constellations 13, no. 2 (2006).
26  Andreas Föllesdal, “Epilogue: Toward more Legitimate Multilevel Regulation,” in Multilevel Regulation and the EU: The Interplay between Global, European and National Normative Processes, ed. A. Föllesdal, R. Wessel, and J. Wouters (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2008). For similar proposals, see Allen Buchanan and Robert Keohane, “The Legitimacy of Global Governance Institutions,” Ethics & International Affairs 20, no.4 (2006); Eva Erman and Richard Higgott, “Deliberative Global Governance and the Question of Legitimacy: What can We Learn from the WTO?,” Review of International Studies (2010, forthcoming).

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Category: Issue 22.4, Online Exclusive, Response

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