Global Governance and the Problem of the Second Best: The Example of Reforming the World Trade Organization

30 Pages Posted: 27 Feb 2020 Last revised: 15 Sep 2021

See all articles by Karen J. Alter

Karen J. Alter

Northwestern University - Department of Political Science; University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law - iCourts Center of Excellence

Cristina Lafont

Northwestern University - Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Date Written: 2019

Abstract

This article–a unique collaboration between political philosophy and empirical analysis–applies the problem of the second best to the subject of global governance reform. The problem of the second best raises a concern about an “approximation trap” where steps intended to move closer to an ideal instead generate outcomes that are worse than the unreformed system. The solution, we argue, is “second-best theorizing,” identifying a package of objectives worth protecting so long as the first-best ideal remains elusive. Our second-best theorizing involves ideal elements that one can approximate, deviant elements that one must defend so long as the ideal is unattainable, a substantive floor so that reforms do not make things worse, and a meta-requirement that wholesale institutional change take the form of a “constructive vote of no-confidence.” We then apply these criteria, suggesting reforms of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Our example of the Kantian ideal, our second-best criteria, and their application to the WTO are real examples. Yet our larger objective is to demonstrate the problem of the second best as it applies to global governance, thus their development is mainly illustrative. Readers need not share either the first or second-best objectives to agree with the larger point. So long as efforts to approximate an ideal (e.g. economic growth, Pareto welfare improvements, etc.) can fall prey to the approximation trap, our endorsement of the superiority of second-best theorizing applies. In fact, one of our goals is to prompt second-best theorizing around a range of proposals to reform the global order, to make global capitalism more normatively defensible and politically sustainable.

Suggested Citation

Alter, Karen J. and Lafont, Cristina, Global Governance and the Problem of the Second Best: The Example of Reforming the World Trade Organization (2019). Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 19-13, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3524325 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3524325

Karen J. Alter (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Department of Political Science ( email )

601 University Place
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law - iCourts Center of Excellence ( email )

Karen Blixens Plads 16
Copenhagen, DK-2300
Denmark

Cristina Lafont

Northwestern University - Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences ( email )

Evanston, IL
United States

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