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Is liberal governance unable to deal with global threats?

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, heads the closing session of the COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Joseph Eid/AFP

The translated version of the original article in French has been updated to include the authors’ comments on COP27.

Since the Rio de Janeiro Declaration of 1992, government representatives have flocked to one Conferences of the Parties (COP) after the next in an attempt to halt global warming, in vain.

This year’s COP27 was no exception. Although delegates managed to strike a historic deal on a climate finance fund that would go some way in compensating developing countries for climate damage they are suffering, they were unable to produce measures to phase out fossil fuels, or protect biodiversity. This is despite the fact emission have now reached record levels.

A governance problem

In this regard, governments’ repeated failure in preventing and managing “global threats”, such as global warming, pollution, biodiversity loss and pandemics, appears to be the rule and not the exception and can hardly be attributed to ignorance. Years of reports on the causes and consequences of these threats have not sufficed to move politicians into action, with scientists increasingly having to take on the role of whistle-blowers to raise awareness over crises affecting their field of expertise.

Variation of annual observed global average temperature (1850–2019) relative to the 1850–1900 average (blue line), as reported in the Summary for Policymakers from The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6, 2022) of the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has provided objective and comprehensive scientific information on anthropogenic climate change. In 2022, the last part of its 6th report made clear that failure to take climate action threatens the survival of humanity. At the same time, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published an alarming report on the risk of extinction of one million species and pointed the finger at intensive agriculture as the main culprit.

Western governments have been the main organisers of the international political response against these threats. Largely guided by the principle of liberal economics, they have favoured pro-market, and controversial tools such as carbon trading schemes. More than a much talked about leadership failure, could it be that liberal governance’s failure to prevent and manage global threats draws its roots from structural causes? Otherwise, how can we explain our inability, in spite of an overabundance of warnings and scientific evidence, to solve these issues?

In a recent study, we argue that certain structural features of liberal democratic governance are responsible for our recurring failures to manage global threats, and spell out proposals to overcome this urgent problem.

Controversial conceptions of the common good

Liberalism was established in the West in the 18th century, in a world torn by wars of religion. The pioneers of liberal thought tackled this issue by proposing to dissociate political and moral governance from any religious or philosophical normative system.

According to philosopher Charles Larmore, a liberal state has to be neutral, in the sense that public institutions and policies cannot be designed to support or favour one philosophical or religious conception of the common good over another.

Consequently, liberal society is characterised by “value pluralism” – values which can be incommensurable and mutually exclusive. And because there is no consensual way to prioritise values, “this pluralism of values frequently leads to a version of moral relativism”.

Now, if there are no norms defining the common good, how can one govern in the name of the general interest?

The legitimisation of “laissez-faire”

Answering this question requires us to go back in time to understand the nature of liberalism itself. Influenced by English empiricist philosopher John Locke, in the 18th century the French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius attempted to replace divine laws by natural laws and to introduce a mechanistic vision of human nature in order to legitimise political decisions:

“If the physical universe is subject to the laws of motion, the moral universe is no less subject to those of interest.”

These ideas would greatly influence the pioneers of philosophical and economic liberalism such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill or Adam Smith. The latter would go on to theorise that the free pursuit of private interest through trade is the natural driving force of the economy and must therefore constitute the self-organising principle of governance.

In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), the economist Joseph Schumpeter defined liberal democracy as follows:

“An institutional system leading to political decisions, in which individuals acquire the power to make those decisions through a competitive struggle for the votes of the people.”

Thus, although often considered as such, liberalism is not axiomatically neutral. One of its fundamental traits is the belief in the ability of competition to self-organise and optimise economic, social and decision-making processes. Such a faith legitimises a “laissez-faire” approach to markets, as well as the process of deliberative democracy which submits various social projects to the public or representative assemblies for scrutiny.

The ambiguous place of science

In a liberal approach, what is good for all and what should be taken as true tends to be determined by a democratic process. This leads to a “competition of opinions” in order to define what is desirable by the greatest number. Thus, scientific judgements frequently tend to be considered by policy makers as opinions among many others.

Moreover, as has been well documented in the fields of health and environmental policy, pressure groups can distort the deliberative process through misinformation from the public or policy makers. This is particularly common when science comes into conflict with private commercial interests.

Recently, during the Covid-19 crisis, many prominent liberal political leaders, such as presidents Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have publicly supported conspiracy theories and rejected the advice of official scientific agencies.

This denial of science has become too frequent an occurrence to be interpreted as accidental. Instead, it strikes us as symptomatic of a deep and very worrying structural problem linked to liberal governance.

Improving the decision-making process

Global threats are fundamentally different from traditional threats. First, given the seriousness and irreversibility of their consequences, it is necessary to prevent them, which requires being able to predict their effects. Second, these threats cannot be dealt with in the absence of a coordinated international response, which requires a broad consensus between States on their seriousness, their causes and on the priorities of the response.

Thus, the management of global threats depends on the value attributed to scientific knowledge and the meaning given to the common good. However, certain characteristics of liberalism, in particular the absence of norms defining the common good as well as the place of scientific arguments in the democratic process, make it ill suited to deal with global threats. We cannot therefore simply hope that a change in the composition of governments will solve the problem.

By referring to Hobbes’ modus vivendi, which aimed to ensure arrangements between members despite their differences in interests, beliefs and values, we propose to work on a minimum definition of what the common good is and how achieve it. This modus vivendi should be based on at least two arguments:

First, responding to global threats involves convincing as many people as possible, regardless of their differences. Thus, we postulate that the survival of the human species as well as the preservation of health be considered as consensual ethical priorities of governance and embody the common good.

Human survival and health are worthy and just goals, capable of convincing the greatest number since they are prerequisites for any other need or desire. In addition, the One Health, Planetary Health and EcoHealth concepts, which form the conceptual basis of international public health agencies, recognise that human health is closely dependent on animal and ecosystem health.

Second, scientific advice shouldn’t be considered as one opinion among others. Science is fallible and does not produce absolute truths, but it is our most reliable method for understanding natural phenomena and producing universal knowledge as the consensus basis for global decisions.

This article was originally published in French

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