Challenging Simpol

By Robert Hickey

When one ‘designs’ a system of global governance (although I suspect it would be by more than ‘one’) it should both be democratically legitimate as well as capable of timely action. Yet, these two requirements are often at odds with each other, even within the relatively homogenous context of the nation-state. The democratic process does a decent job of preventing extremism in official government policy, particularly in multi-party systems where opposing parties have relatively equal power over the political process over time. Nations are often able to arrive at compromises, even if they sometimes come at the 11th hour. Countries containing significant ethnic, religious or linguistic groups may have bigger challenges in achieving this, particularly when regions within countries have been historically autonomous entities from the now centralized government.

This issue plagues international organizations (quick glance over at the UN) such as in the U.N Security Council, where democratic decision-making takes on its most absolute form; decisions must be taken unanimously in order to be passed. It is true then, from experience here on Earth, that when national views migrate to an international democratic forums, and that forum is mandated with maintaining global security, fighting poverty and ensuring human rights are had by all (among other things), such democratic legitimacy has obvious faults. In some cases, it may act as a reason for inaction. With such diverse views and interests, how can any decision which is debated within, not be reduced to the lowest-common denominator that will satisfy all those voting. The reality it seems to me, is that it usually can’t.

How then can the need for global governance on so many issues; climate change, acidification of the oceans, addressing humanitarian crises, overfishing of the seas, deforestation, and other challenges, be addressed with such diverse views and interests at play? I do not mean this as a rhetorical question. I really do not know how it can be done.

Under the SIMPOL model, it would seem that the more nations that agree to diverge from the most optimal economic policies (in the sense of GDP gained without regard for social and environmental factors), the more that those that maintain traditional international destructive economic policies would benefit. As such, as more countries sign on to SIMPOL, the higher the incentive would be to not abide by the SIMPOL pledge. It seems to me that there is an inverse relationship here between the number of nations joining SIMPOL and the motivation to join. Not until all nations agreed would there be benefits for all. And getting all nations to agree…it is quite a task to be sure.

I suppose the current government-sponsored massacres in Syria is what got me thinking about this subject. If the international community, through the UN, has problems making even a statement condemning the violence, what does that say about the prospects for taking unified action on immediate and long-term challenges like climate change? Such lack of sufficient and timely action is the elephant in the room and it exists horizontally across all global challenge areas.

Perhaps I am just in a disparaging mood, and minds and institutions entrenched in the past and present can change in time to address an uncertain future. Momentum on a global scale will certainly takes much force to redirect.

I really hope that making comparisons between the Syrian case and climate change is my own simply convolution of comparing apples to oranges. For all of us.

I am interested in the comments section of having a discussion on how to reconcile this action vs. democratic legitimacy paradox at the global level.


20 thoughts on “Challenging Simpol

  1. Hi Rob,

    There’s a lot to consider here of course. I hope others will join in the with the discussion too.

    What I wanted to consider first was this: “Under the SIMPOL model, it would seem that the more nations that agree to diverge from the most optimal economic policies (in the sense of GDP gained without regard for social and environmental factors), the more that those that maintain traditional international destructive economic policies would benefit”

    What is missing here, unless I have misunderstood you, is the ‘simultaneous’ part of simultaneous policy. Basically, nations agree to implement simultaneously ONLY when all (or sufficient) other nations do likewise. So there is no disadvantage to those already signed up as there is no requirement to change behaviour or policy until all others are equally ready to do so.

    Nations pledging to implement can continue, for now, to compete to the best of their ability in the global marketplace – just as they do now.

    • Hi Folks,

      Rob makes extremely valid points about the difficulties of getting populations that hold differing and often-conflicting value-sets to agree on anything, let alone on global governance!

      However, Simpol does offer a potential answer to some of these concerns:

      Firstly, the structure of simultaneous action among nations (rather than some form of world parliament, etc) means that both democratic and non-democratic nations could be included. Whereas a world parliament, for example, would be a complete no-no for any non-democratic nation.

      Secondly, Simpol offers a multi-issue policy framework. Rather than trying to deal with global problems one issue at a time, Simpol can combine two or more complementary issues. Eg, an agreement on carbon emissions alongside a Tobin Tax. In that way, revenue from the tax can be used to pay off the big losers on the emissions part of the agreement, so making it much more likely that all nations can be kept on-side.

      Thirdly, Simpol offers a solution to the problem of conflicting values. This solution comes in two parts. Part A is inherent in what I sometimes call the “Subsidiarity Criterion”. This is that the ONLY policies which qualify for inclusion in Simpol are those which, if a nation were to implement them unilaterally, it would land itself with a competitive disadvantage. This therefore excludes a vast swathe of policies, such as capital punishment or abortion, etc. which are just the kind of policies which give rise to conflict. So Simpol’s Subsidiarity Criterion already excludes much of the potential values-conflict that one might expect.

      Part B of the solution is that, were any dangerous or contentious policies still to slip through the Subsidiarity Criterion, they are still likely to be screened out for the simple reason that Simpol can only proceed if all or sufficient nations agree. Thus, any policies that give rise to conflicting values are likely to fall out of the process through lack of global agreement.

      What would be left at the end of the process, then, are only those policies that are genuinely capable of appealing to ALL value-sets (albeit that each set might have a different reason for supporting the policy). These would be policies coming from what Ken Wilber calls “2nd-tier” because only 2nd tier is capable of appealing to, and integrating, all the 1st-tier value-sets that presently exist in the world today.

      I realise this a very brief answer to Rob, and may well raise more questions than it answers. However, there is a paper on exactly this being published shortly in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice which I can send to anyone who might be interested. If you are, please conact me at and I can send you a copy.

      best wishes
      John B.

      • Thanks a lot John for your reply. It was likely not very easy to follow the flow of the conversation through all of the blog replies.

        On your first point: Shortcoming of democracy aside, a non-democratic nation may not represent its people whatsoever, or only a small minority of them and as such, its values from a human rights and global justice perspective may not overlap whatsoever with other commonly held second tied values by other governments around the world. As such, they may never agree to policies which take any decision making power away from them whatsoever. Although it does address the problem of a global democratic parliament.

        On the second point..forgive my ignorance here about Tobin, but would not a Tobin Tax and emissions capping both harm wealthy nations more than smaller ones?

        On the third point, I am interested to see what 2nd tier issues would actually be in practice; where value sets overlap among so many nations. If this is true, why have these issues not already been addressed then?

  2. I understand the point you are making, but I believe that my point still stands.

    Simpol seems ONLY to make sense when all nations agree to implement SIMPOL policies…but how likely is it that all nations will agree? That is what I am getting at here.

    • How likely is it? I think it is perhaps not as unlikely as it might at first seem, particularly when the alternative may well be simultaneous failure. The point of Simpol was always that the current system is ultimately unsustainable and liable to utter failure and collapse.

      Viewed in the present context, where things struggle along, this may seem far fetched and so make Simpol seem likewise. But necessity is, as they say, the mother of invention. As the pressure within the current system builds to dangerous levels – and some might argue we are getting that way already – so will the necessity of Simpol suddenly seem much less far fetched.

      There is another argument also on this. It seems to me that actually governments go where they are led to a large extent. All nations seem to have agreed on money as a way of exchanging goods and services. All the developed nations seem to have agreed that globalisation was a good idea (other nations didn’t really have much of a choice really as far as I can tell!).

      The question then, is who is leading the governments? At the moment the answer is clearly the mighty markets. The gods of competition and the titans of industry reign on high in our current pantheon.

      Simpol seeks to change that and put the people first.

      This comment is intended to reply to Rob’s last comment – Aubrey beat me to it! 😀

  3. SIMPOLicy on Climate Change has for some years been advocacy of Contraction and Convergence [C&C]: –

    The global emissions contraction-event required for UNFCCC-compliance is a ‘science-based’ judgement’. The international convergence within that contraction is ‘rights-based’. The UNFCCC executive says that C&C is ‘inevitably needed’ for UNFCCC-compliance.

    Robert’s ‘challenge’ recognises that the essence of SIMPOLolicy really means simultaneous for all of us over space *and* time and that we all have to ‘do enough soon enough’ to avoid dangerous rates of climate change. C&C makes it possible to negotiate that.

    Robert’s challenge is a good challenge and SIMPOL climate response to it is a good response.

    • Thanks for the reply guys.

      @Simpol-UK – But we need leaders of industry and competition is good. They are ‘the people’ as well. I do not think it is the market based economy we are against here are we – but rather a market economy which respects environmental and social challenges. And for that to happen, we need a level playing field for all. I just don’t like the idea of having to wait until ALL nations agree before action is taken. I do not know if there is a better solution; rather I am trying to strengthen SIMPOL by point out its intrinsic flaw – that it cannot do anything until everyone agrees.

      @Aubrey – I like the idea of contraction and convergence, but enforcement of any agreement to that effect is unenforceable for countries who wish not to participate or cannot agree to the terms of C+C. Is not the problem with C&C that some countries want to converge at different things..for example some want to converge at emissions per capita (China) and others to converge at emissions per unit of GDP produced (maybe the USA)

      • This one [enforcement] is a ‘problem’ period. i.e. its not just a problem v-a-v C&C.

        At one level C&C simply turns a random ‘market-based-framework’ [Kyoto] into a non-random ‘framework-based-market’ i.e. ‘the market’ isn’t the problem, its the randomness that is the problem.
        If we make anything [let-alone emissions] per unit of GDP, we’re the victims of this randomness as no-one knows what the $-numeraire will do next.

      • @Rob – You are right about waiting, but there are two things I would point out:

        1) The exact text is all or sufficient nations. In some instances it is not necessary for every single country to agree to something.

        2) Simpol recognises explicitly that actions are needed now. Simpol aims to provide a long term solution to the root cause of the problem, but that is no reason not to treat the symptoms now. To this end, Simpol aims to form partnerships with NGOs acting now and, more to the point, does not intend to discourage any actions taken by NGOs now. Simpol is intended not as competition for NGOs then, but as a parallel strategy.

        Finally, I feel the need to point out that whilst industry leaders may be among ‘the people’, transnational corporations and the money markets themselves are not.


  4. The problem with the U.N is that they often agree on many subjects but the security council is screwed over by the veto. The 5 most powerful countries can throw out any resolution if it doesn’t suit them despite an overwhelming majority. Palestine is a good exams of the western veto, and Syria a good example of the eastern veto.

    • Hi Ben,

      If there was universal agreement there would surely be no issue with the veto. The problem then, in these instances is regarding majority/minority, wouldn’t you agree?

  5. I understand the points about ‘sufficient nations’, but what really, does that mean?

    Also, I do not doubt that Simpol has made linkages with NGO’s who are talking action now, but without an overall framework among global leaders, the piecemeal approach by NGO’s is something wonderful but nowhere near what is needed to address global environmental issues. The bottom-up approach to me needs to be bound in a top-down mechanism of enforcement. Frankly speaking, the problem is, I think, simply too large for populations around the world, many of which do not live in de facto democracies, to vote politicians into office who would sign a SIMPOL pledge. I do not diminish the value of SIMPOL, but as part of this movement, top-down activities need to be considered in parallel.

    • Hi Rob,

      I’m a little confused about that first sentence…? Sufficient nations applies where not all nations would be needed. An obvious example would be nuclear weapons – we don’t need Mongolia and Ecuador to sign up for that one.

      Your other paragraph I don’t really get at all. What sort of top down activities are you thinking of? Perhaps I am misreading you, but it seems like you are considering all the aspects as separate issues rather than as an interconnected whole.

      • Well,

        Well, let me put it another way, how do we know when a ‘sufficient number’ of nations have been reached that would allow for the implementation of Simpol?

        In the second paragraph, I mean action taken by the UN or possibly another new global governance mechanism. Since many of these institutions lack complete democratic legitimacy, SIMPOL would not have any direct reach there.

  6. Piecemeal SimPol . . . ?

    In the UNFCCC process the positions have ranged between guesswork, patchwork, network and framework.

    Simpolicy advocates C&C which exists as a framework precisely because – as you correctly say Rob – the NGO approach has been and remains (like many Governments) at best a blend of guesswork to pactchwork.

  7. In response to Rob Hickey’s message of 22nd Feb:

    Hi Rob,

    I think the article I sent you by email should explain all three points. Briefly however, to point 1:

    Simpol, as you’ll see, doesn’t require all national societies to believe in human rights and social justice for it to work. It only requires them to act in their own self-interest; that is, to realise that cooperating in a global agreement, when the time comes, is in their best interests. Populations in richer, democratic nations (and those nations themselves), by the same token, will know that it’s in their interests to make it in the interests of non-democratic or poorer nations. Because otherwise there’s no agreement and we all go down the tubes.

    To point 2: Well, a Tobin Tax would be levied on players in financial markets rather than on nations. So it would affect investors and companies that reside in richer countries, yes, but I don’t think it would necessarily harm richer countries themselves. (Using Tobin, was however just an example. My key point was that we need to mix MORE than one issue if we’re to secure international cooperation on important issues.)

    To point 3: Indeed! Well, you’ll find an answer in the article I sent you. I realise this will sound ambiguous to other readers but what one needs to realise is that Simpol, rather like Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, could be capable of producing desirable outcomes even though the involved parties may not necessarily being aware of exactly how it does it. Somebody recently suggested that Simpol was one of what Terry Patten has been calling “Killer Apps”; a 2nd tier process that produces wonderful outcomes but without most of its 1st tier participants knowing quite why.

    with all good wishes,

  8. Thanks John for getting back to me on that.

    I just hope that when the time comes that nations decide finally to act in their own rational self-interest through global agreements, that it is not too late given the time lag between environmental degradation and negative human consequences on the environment. This presupposes as well that rationality incorporates long-term as well as short-term survival concerns.

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