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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 October 2015

Adam Martin*
Agricultural and Applied Economics, Texas Tech University


Advocates of cosmopolitan ideals, to the extent that they engage with questions of institutional design, typically imagine replicating or refining existing, nation-state models of governance but on an international scale. This essay argues that cosmopolitan ethics need not go hand in hand with international government, and may be better served by a different approach. I explore the concept of degeneracy as a principle of institutional evaluation and design in international politics. Degeneracy is a characteristic of complex systems in which multiple components of the system offer overlapping (but not identical) functions, and is a key component in the robustness of such systems. Non-degenerate systems, by contrast, exhibit fragility in the face of adverse conditions. When applied to systems of governance, degeneracy commends polycentricity and allows for some evaluation of the robustness of different mechanisms and forms of polycentric governance. Cosmopolitan ideals are better served by providing alternatives to existing forms of governance than by building on them. I consider some concrete policy applications of this idea, focusing on immigration and intellectual property.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2015 

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63 The obvious omission from the list of functions is a capacity for wide-scale redistribution. Many cosmopolitans place substantial weight on concerns about distributive justice, even on a global scale. They would be right to worry that robust exit rights might empower wealthy individuals to flee to less egalitarian jurisdictions, but degeneracy is not wholly at odds with all concerns for distributive justice. By enabling exit, polycentricity insulates individuals from the “fat tail” of truly awful governance outcomes. Degenerate cosmopolitanism is thus compatible with a sufficientarian understanding of the demands of distributive justice.

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69 See the essays collected in McGinnis, Polycentricity and Local Public Economies, especially Elinor Ostrom, “Metropolitan Reform: Propositions Derived from Two Traditions.”

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79 Charter cities have been proposed by economist Paul Romer, who wrote a detailed proposal in “Technology, Rules, and Progress: The Case for Charter Cities,” Center for Global Development mimeo (2010). Romer’s original proposal involves more-developed nations providing governance in charter cities, which met with substantial resistance from those weary of new forms of colonialism. Startup cities advocates likewise propose semi–autonomous areas but instead push for local determination of the legal regime and public service provision. There is no detailed academic proposal for Startup Cities at the time of this writing, but there is a Startup Cities Institute at Universidad Francisco Marroquin that maintains a web presence at