IILJ Working Paper 2007/5 (Global Administrative Law Series)

Accountability in a Global Context

John Ferejohn

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In well-functioning democracies, the political accountability of an agent (such as an administrative agency) mean that its principals (e.g. elected officials or the electorate itself) may punish an agency by removing its leaders, reducing its budgets, limiting its jurisdiction, etc. Political accountability is fundamentally arbitrary in the sense that it is up to the principal as to whether to base its decisions on reasons, or not to offer any reasons at all. Legal accountability is different: the agent is required to take or refrain from taking certain actions and must defend her actions in a legal forum. Legal accountability is not arbitrary but is based on reasons, reasons connecting behavior to the relevant law binding the agent. Political accountability is best exercised directly by the person(s) who has the right to hold another to account, whereas legal accountability pushes ought to be imposed by a third party whose personal interests are not involved, such as a judge or a court.

Within international institutions, the basis for democratic electoral practices — the idea that persons should have in some sense equal entitlements to be heard — is subverted both by the system of “sovereign” states and by myriad other power wielding organizations. Global institutions are a myriad of unevenly regulated processes of public choice, so democratic-style political accountability is difficult to achieve. Global institutions are thus forced to rely on juridical or legal accountability even in circumstances where a political model might be more attractive. Deliberation and critique within global civil society may help assure that policies are responsive to all legitimate interests. But the important role played within electoral democracies by arbitrary political accountability to the people, can not wholly be substituted for within global institutions by these legal and deliberative mechanisms.