the principle of affected interests and the decline of the nation state

The dominant theory of democracy used to be a sovereignty theory. A “people” would consist of a bounded group, all of whose members would have equal rights to discuss and decide the issues that came before them. Such groups might be nation-states bounded by international borders, but they might also be organizations or associations; they were sovereign to the extent that they could make decisions about categories of issues. They would thus exercise what the French Revolutionary theorist Benjamin Constant called the “liberty of the ancients,” meaning the right “to deliberate, in a public space, about war and peace, to ratify treaties of alliance with foreigners, to vote laws, pronounce decisions, examine the accounts, actions, and management of officials, to compel them to appear before the whole people, to accuse them, to condemn or acquit them.”

Two problems arise for all such sovereign groups: 1) they may not have a legitimate moral basis to exclude outsiders from their decisions, and 2) they may not have actual control over the situations that they confront. For example, the US may not have a legitimate moral justification to exclude Germans from influencing our government’s surveillance policy, which also affects Germany; and the US government cannot control capital markets or pollution flows that cross its borders.

These problems have become more severe and more evident in a highly interconnected world. A traditional justification for the sovereignty theory presumed that nation states could safeguard the interests of their own members without impinging often on others. But, as my friend Archon Fung writes, “If there once was a time when the laws of a nation-state could adequately protect the fundamental interests of its citizens, many argue that such time is past.” He and others argue that we should shift from a sovereignty theory to a “theory of affected interests,” or at least add the latter to our understanding of democracy.

According to a theory of affected interests, a democracy is not a group of people who constitute a fixed polity that has a right to decide on everything that comes before it. In fact, if Americans can decide every topic under our government’s control, we will violate non-Americans’ rights to be consulted on matters that affect them as much or more than they affect us. Rather, each person has a potentially unique set of interests and a right to be consulted on all the decisions that affect those interests. For example, I have interests in clean and safe streets in my neighborhood and also the amount of carbon produced by Chinese industry. Archon Fung proposes as the basic democratic principle that “An individual should be able to influence an organization if and only if that organization makes decisions that regularly or deeply affect that individual’s important interests.” On that basis, I may have a right to influence Cambridge, MA and the People’s Republic of China, as well as Microsoft, the National Security Agency, and the American Political Science Association. The world becomes more democratic to the extent that each person has influence over the various overlapping organizations that affect him or her.

Empirically, this seems to be one direction politics is taking in our digitally enabled, global world. Social movements now draw people from a range of political jurisdictions who share a common interest. Movements target the appropriate organizations, which may be governments, corporations, or NGOs. They work like networks rather than institutions: people who share interests connect up to protest, boycott, or otherwise confront organizations.

Visiting Tufts in July, Archon cited the example of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, farm laborers in the Florida tomato industry who were subject to terrible pay, stolen wages, and even documented cases of slavery. The sovereignty theory of democracy would not work for them because they were mostly not US citizens; they would be badly outvoted even if they were citizens; and they worked in a global market. Instead, the workers identified consumers from many nations who felt a moral stake in not supporting oppression. (The consumers had an interest, but not a purely selfish one.) The workers organized a boycott that forced the major buyers to negotiate. The result was a binding code of conduct that the workers can help enforce.

In essence, they identified a common interest with global consumers, targeted a set of international companies, and created a new micro-democracy just for their issue, in which they have considerable clout. One could define a more democratic world as one in which there are more such movements that represent more interests more effectively. Digital media would make that version of democracy more attainable than it ever was in the past. The democratic nation state would have decreasing relevance.

However, we should consider what would be lost if the sovereignty theory gave way entirely to a theory of affected interests. Constant spoke for a long line of civic republican theorists who envisioned citizens as groups of people who do not assess their individual interests in an ad hoc way and decide what affects them. Rather, they take responsibility for forming opinions about all matters that involve the group, giving at least some attention to abstract principles of justice as well as interests. Because they are responsible for considering a wide range of issues, they can weigh conflicting claims. For example, they should not only care about the farmworkers but also industry, the environment, and consumers. They should make laws that govern not only the tomato industry but the whole economy. And they should be subject to the laws that they influence, consistent with Aristotle’s definition of a citizen as one who both rules and obeys (Politics III:5).

So far, the democratic nation state has provided the main venue for this kind of citizenship. It has the two limitations named above: it may not have acceptable reasons to exclude outsiders, and it may not be capable of addressing all of its own problems. Therefore, the state should not be the only venue for democracy. Yet the democratic nation state is an achievement that we should not casually discard. Nations are big enough that they encompass some diversity of culture and class, and the successful ones have been able to organize one reasonably representative national discussion about justice. That requires an inclusive public sphere, a powerful and accountable legislature, and a sense of common fate that draws people’s attention to the public good. I read works as diverse as the “Gettysburg Address” and Bleak House as contributions to building that sense of common fate at the national level. Perhaps we should now understand ourselves as global citizens as well, but we are not literally people who both rule and obey at that scale. Meanwhile, we are at some risk of losing the national solidarity that underlies hard-won sovereign democratic institutions.

This entry was posted in civic theory on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.