Rodrik’s trilemma and the OBR

by Chris Bertram on May 17, 2010

I’m grateful to commenters Lemuel Pitkin and Bill Gardner, who pointed me towards Rodrik’s trilemma the other day. In his latest Project Syndicate piece, Rodrik represents the trilemma thus:

bq. economic globalization, political democracy, and the nation-state are mutually irreconcilable. We can have at most two at one time. Democracy is compatible with national sovereignty only if we restrict globalization. If we push for globalization while retaining the nation-state, we must jettison democracy. And if we want democracy along with globalization, we must shove the nation-state aside and strive for greater international governance.

Possibly for pedantic reasons, I’m not all that happy with this formulation. After all, national sovereignty is pre-eminently a legal concept and democracy might be defined merely in procedural terms, and it isn’t at all obvious why regular elections, legal sovereignty and globalization would be incompatible in the way Rodrik suggests. However, there’s a more careful version in his 2000 paper “How far will international economic integration go?” (J. Econ Perspectives 14:1) where the trilemma is expressed as being between international economic integration, the nation state, and “mass politics”, where the latter refers to

bq. political systems where: a) the franchise is unrestricted; b) there is a high degree of political mobilization; and c) political institutions are responsive to moblized groups. (p.180)

In the 2000 article, Rodrik discusses Friedman’s “Golden Straitjacket” where “mass politics” is the disappearing bit:

bq. the shrinkage of politics would get reflected in the insulation of economic policy-making bodies (central banks, fiscal authorities, and so on) from political participation and debate …. (p. 183)

Cue Stephanie Flanders on the UK’s new Office for Budget Responsibility.