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”Good” Governance

The one truism that can be drawn from the research on governance is that governance is different from place to place and from system to system. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to governance problems. As a result, it may be less helpful to think about how to define governance and instead to think about how good governance should be assessed. Because “good” is in the eye of the beholder, it requires some kind of yardstick. To some, governance is seen as good when it protects human rights, or when it leads to sustainable governance of natural resources, or when it is seen as legitimate by the people who are governed, or when it is efficient and effective. Each of these is a slightly different conception of good governance, but they share common elements that can help us find a useful definition of “good.”

Good governance protects human rights. One common perspective is that governance systems must promote the well-being of the governed, or at minimum not violate their foundational human rights. (In some perspectives, those rights are expanded to include the rights of other creatures and ecosystems in general; see Chapter 7.) Although the list of what constitutes human rights has been debated for hundreds of years and is not yet fully agreed upon, political scientists Allan Buchanan and Robert Keohane claim that “there is agreement that the list at least includes the rights to physical security, to liberty (understood as at least encompassing freedom from slavery, servitude, and forced occupations), and the right to subsistence.”

In this conception, governance is good when it protects, if not actively promotes, basic conceptions of human rights. How exactly a governing body protects human rights depends on the system itself, but commonly it relies upon legal protections—an approach that requires a system with processes in place to hold decision makers accountable to some agreed-upon rule of law or process. Decisions that are made inclusively and with the full consent of those affected is also a way that human rights can be protected (even in the absence of formal legal structures), when stakeholders are able to explain how decisions can affect their rights and prevent serious damages to them.

Good governance governs by consent. Another criterion that many scholars use to judge governance, and one with a rich tradition in political thought, is the degree to which it reflects the consent of the governed. In this conception, because governance requires that individuals hand off decision-making authority to a superordinate institution, good governance must operate based on the decision of the governed to relinquish that authority; otherwise, it is a system imposed on the governed by force. This way of thinking extends back to John Locke's claim in 1690: “That which begins and actually constitutes any political society, is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a society. And this is that, and that only, which did, or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world.”

Locke's claim is that it is only right for one person to make decisions on behalf of another when the other person agrees to allow the governor to do so. The questions of whether and how this consent is given have important implications for governance. Governance systems are effective only when their decisions are put into practice, and if a citizen does not give consent to be governed by a system, then he or she may not go along with the decisions that the system makes. On a large scale, this kind of lack of consent can manifest itself as strikes, resistance movements, and the kinds of civil disobedience that can bring down governments.

Tom Tyler, a psychologist and lawyer at New York University, has studied for more than 30 years the question of what leads people to see systems as appropriate (or “legitimate”) governors. He has found consistently that it is fairness, not personal benefit, that leads people to consent to governing processes and procedures. If people believe that the governance system has made a decision in a manner that they see as fair and just, they are more willing to accept that decision—regardless of whether they personally benefit from the decision or not.

This suggests that the core question that humans ask when assessing legitimacy is not, “Will I benefit from this?” but, “Is this system fair?” According to Tyler's work, the answer is found in the extent of people's feeling that the system operates without preference toward any one group, that it treats constituents with respect and dignity, and that decision makers are benevolent or at least not actively malicious. As with the protection of human rights, creating a system with these characteristics often relies upon the establishment of rules and procedures to which decision makers are held accountable.

The research has also found that one particularly important element is the constituents' perceptions of “voice,” or the degree to which they feel that their perspectives have been taken seriously by the governors. This finding is not absolute: in larger systems, such as national governments, the question of personal benefit does appear to influence perceptions of legitimacy, possibly because in such systems it is harder to have a deep understanding of the processes and of how an individual's voice is represented. Survey data on governmental legitimacy have found it to be correlated with procedural elements, including good governance, protection of civil liberties, as well as more benefit-related correlates like poverty-reduction efforts and personal financial satisfaction.

Good governance governs sustainably. Another conception of good governance is that governance systems should lead to long-term sustainability of resources. Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed illustrates both what good governance looks like in this conception and the pitfalls of bad governance. Throughout history, quite a few societies and social systems have realized (sometimes too late) that their mechanisms for collective decision making have led them down a garden path to a point where key resources necessary for survival are being depleted.

In some cases, the result is complete ecological collapse—and a crisis for the humans who caused it. According to current historical understanding, the moai (giant stone heads) of Easter Island reflect a religious system of governance that encouraged clan competition and felling trees to build these representations of their ancestors. The outcome was the overconsumption of trees, an ecological catastrophe, and a descent into war and starvation. One definition of good governance is simply any system that avoids catastrophic collapse of the resources the system depends on.

Rice terraces north of Ubud on Bali, Indonesia.

What sustainability looks like in practice is a contentious question. As noted earlier, however, Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her serious and systemic attempt to explore what sustainable systems look like in the case of common-pool resources. In Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Ostrom reviewed the manifold examples of small, locally organized governance systems around the world that have managed resources sustainably, often for hundreds of years. She consistently found that sustainability is possible and that sustainable management of local resources is often built with bottom-up processes that emphasize social connections and local control rather than large, centralized institutions.

Ostrom found that systems that relied on social connections and close links between those who exploited the resources and those who made decisions were often effective—a finding that surprised the many people who had believed that centralized decision making was the only way to achieve sustainable management. Her work identified a set of design characteristics that defined good, sustainable systems for the management of common-pool resources, including clear boundary rules; resource access by members that is commensurate with their work contribution; support for rights to organize, modify the system, and resolve disputes; and the presence of monitors with the capacity to punish violators.

Other studies in sustainable governance have found similar conclusions: that local systems, rather than large centralized governance, appear to be particularly well suited to the sustainable management of resources; and many of Ostrom's “design elements” have been supported in other research. The research is not yet clear, however, on which of these elements are more important than others, or how different types of resources may change the needed structures. What is clear is that the claim that common-pool resources must ultimately face a “challenge of the commons” as individuals loot the shared resources is empirically false: many societies successfully avoid this fate.

Good governance allows specialization. Good governance can unlock dramatic benefits for the people within that system. Most notably, by allowing different elements of the governed system to focus on specialized tasks that collectively support the goals of the system, there can be an increase in efficiency and the productivity of the system as a whole. This argument is at the root of Adam Smith's analysis in The Wealth of Nations: he argued that international trade allowed different countries to specialize in their output. In other words, if cotton could be grown more easily in India than in the United Kingdom, and wheat more easily in the U.K. than in India, then a system that allowed each country to produce its own specialty and trade with the other was more likely to result in everyone having enough food and clothing. This was admittedly an oversimplification of the complexities associated with trade and production, but a logical claim.

A similar process is thought to have occurred as humans transitioned from bands of hunter-gatherers to settled producers of agriculture. The resulting increase in food production meant that specialized farmers could produce enough food to support specialized soldiers, tradespeople, priests, and governors. This system, however, required more complex governance systems to distribute the resources, which may have played a role in the development of more complex civilization.

From this conception, good governance is that which increases the efficiency of human groups and collective productivity. Although this argument is somewhat coldly analytical when considered in the light of the questions of human rights and legitimacy discussed earlier, over a long period of time, it may be the ultimate criteria by which governance systems are judged. One argument advanced by some scholars is that governance can be seen through an evolutionary lens: governance systems that meet the needs of their constituents and that facilitate effective performance of collective tasks persist and allow their members to thrive.

In contrast, systems that are unable to accomplish their goals are unstable and are more prone to conflict. They face internal pressure to transform and external competition from other groups. As a result, these systems fade away or are transformed, as largely happened with absolute monarchies in Europe. If this model of governance change is correct, then the effectiveness of collective groups is the ultimate metric by which good governance is judged. Even in this case, however, there is evidence that some of the same elements seen in prior conceptions of good governance matter: mature democracies characterized by representative decision making and strong rule of law appear to be simply more effective than other governments in many ways.

Putting it all together: what is good governance? As with the structure of governance, the assessment of what good governance is reveals more questions than answers. “Good” is a relative term and depends on the yardstick being used. When translating these general questions into practical assessments of governance, however, the yardsticks begin to converge on some basic recurring principles. Whether concerned about human rights, legitimacy, or even sustainability, it appears that good governance systems need to be inclusive and participatory: they need to allow the members of the system to change the rules when needed and to have a voice in the collective decisions that are made.

Whether concerned about legitimacy, human rights, or effectiveness, systems need to be accountable to processes that guarantee fair treatment and to establish predictable rules that are applied equally to all members of the collective. And ultimately, as found by Ostrom and reinforced in the concerns about human rights, systems need to be in place to resolve disputes and to sanction those who would violate the rules and collective values of the group. Although the specific way that “good” governance is defined may vary by observer, the characteristics of good governance do not differ as much as may be expected.

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