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  • Adam Martin (a1)

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.

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1 Cabrera, Luis, Political Theory of Global Justice (London: Routledge, 2004); Held, David, Democracy and Global Order (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).

2 Rawls, John, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

3 Pavel, Carmen, Divided Sovereignty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Buchanan, Allen, The Heart of Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

4 Whitacre, James and Bender, Axel, “Degeneracy: A Design Principle for Achieving Robustness and Evolvability,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 263, no. 1 (2010): 143–53.

5 Ostrom, Elinor and Parks, Roger, “Neither Gargantua nor the Land of Lilliputs,” in McGinnis, Michael, ed., Polycentricity and Local Public Economies (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 284.

6 Beinhocker, Eric, The Origin of Wealth (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2004) surveys the literature on complexity and economics. Hayek, F. A., “The Theory of Complex Phenomena” in Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967) is an early example of thinking about complex systems across multiple domains. See also Ostrom and Parks, ibid.

7 This terminology follows Taleb, Nassim, Antifragile (New York: Penguin, 2012).

8 Edelman, Gerald M. and Gally, Joseph A., “Degeneracy and Complexity in Biological Systems,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 98, no. 24 (2001): 1376313768 . Whitacre, James M., “Degeneracy: A Link Between Evolvability, Robustness, and Complexity in Biological Systems,” Theoretical Biology and Medical Modeling 7, no. 6 (2010): 117.

9 Ibid., 13765.

10 The claim here is not that degeneracy causes mutation or change, but rather that only a system characterized by degeneracy can accommodate both change and robustness.

11 Taleb, Antifragile.

12 Edelman and Gally, “Degeneracy and Complexity in Biological Systems.”

13 Ibid., 8.

14 Taleb, Nassim, The Black Swan (New York: Random House, 2007).

15 Wagner, Richard, “Retrogressive Regime Drift in a Theory of Emergent Order,” Review of Austrian Economics 19 (2006): 113–23.

16 Ibid., 115.

17 Ibid., 116.

18 A wide selection of classic Bloomington School texts can be found in McGinnis, Michael, Polycentricy and Local Public Economies , and McGinnis, Michael, ed., Polycentric Games and Institutions (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000). Two recent works that examine the distinctive aspects of the Bloomington approach are Aligicia, Paul Dragos and Boettke, Peter, Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development (London: Routledge, 2009) and Aligicia, Paul Dragos, Institutional Diversity and Political Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

19 Ostrom, Vincent, Tiebout, Charles, and Warren, Robert, “The Organization of Government in Metropolitan Areas: A Theoretical Inquiry,” American Political Science Review 55 (1961): 831–42.

20 Ostrom, Vincent, The Political Theory of a Compound Republic, 3rd ed. (New York: Lexington Books, 2008), chaps. 5–7.

21 Eusepi, Giuseppe and Wagner, Richard, “Polycentric Polity: Genuine vs. Spurious Federalism,” Review of Law and Economics 6, no. 3 (2010): 328–45.

22 Vincent Ostrom, Compound Republic, 11–12. See also 156–67.

23 Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom, “Public Goods and Public Choices,” in Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of American Federalism, 193.

24 Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of American Federalism, 234–40.

25 Aligicia, Institutional Diversity, chap. 2.

26 For an excellent discussion of these twin sources of failure, see Pennington, Mark, Robust Political Economy (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2011).

27 In Aligicia and Boettke, 155–56.

28 Ibid., 153.

29 See Frey, Bruno S., “Functional, Overlapping, Competing Jurisdictions: Redrawing the Geographic Borders of Administration,” European Journal of Law Reform 5, nos. 34 (2005): 543–55 for an important proposal along these lines, though not one aimed at international governance.

30 Kukathas, Chandran, The Liberal Archipelago (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 169–71.

31 Sovereignty is a storied and malleable concept in the hands of different authors, so of course only some conceptions of sovereignty will be flatly inconsistent with degenerate governance.

32 Vincent Ostrom, Compound Republic.

33 Taleb, Antifragile, chap 5.

34 See Pinker, Steven, The Better Angels of Our Nature (London: Penguin, 2011) and North, Douglass et al, Violence and Social Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

35 Pavel, Divided Sovereignty, 167–68.

36 Allen Buchanan, The Heart of Human Rights, 217–18.

37 Weede, Erich, “The Impact of Interstate Conflict on Revolutionary Change and Individual Freedom,” Kyklos 46, no. 4 (1993): 473–95.

38 Weede, ibid., See also Chiu Yu Ko, Mark Koyoma, and Tuan-Hwee Sng, “Unified China and Divided Europe,” SSRN working paper (May 2014), URL = <>

39 Allen Buchanan, The Heart of Human Rights, chap. 5.

40 Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of American Federalism, 8.

41 Ibid., 44.

42 Sells, Susan, Private Power, Public Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Drahos, Peter, “Global Law Reform and Rent-Seeking: The Case of Intellectual Property,” Australian Journal of Corporate Law 7, no. 1 (1996): 117.

43 Sells, Private Power, Public Law, 80.

44 Eli Dourado and Alex Tabarrok, “Public Choice Perspectives on Intellectual Property,” Public Choice, forthcoming.

45 Boldrin, Michele and Levine, David, “The Case Against Patents,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 27, no. 1 (2013): 322.

46 Kyle, Margaret and McGahan, Anita, “Investments in Pharmaceuticals Before and After TRIPS,” Review of Economics and Statistics 94, no. 4 (2012): 11571172.

47 Boldrin and Levine, “The Case Against Patents.”

48 Kukathas, The Liberal Archipelago, 205.

49 Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of American Federalism, 240–43.

50 Ibid., 261.

51 Benson, Bruce, “The Spontaneous Evolution of Commercial Law,” Southern Economic Journal 55, no. 3 (1989): 644–61.

52 Leeson, Peter, “How Important is State Enforcement for Trade?American Law and Economics Review 10, no. 1 (2008): 6189.

53 Pauline Kleingeld and Eric Brown, “Cosmopolitanism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

54 Kukathas, The Liberal Archipelago.

55 Ibid., 30–35.

56 Ostrom, Vincent, The Meaning of American Federalism (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1999), chap. 9.

57 Ostrom, Vincent, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997).

58 See, e.g., Allen Buchanan, The Heart of Human Rights, and Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights.

59 Weingast, Barry, “The Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market-Preserving Federalism and Economic Development,” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 11, no. 1 (1995): 131.

60 Fleck, Robert K. and Hanssen, F. Andrew, “When Voice Fails: Potential Exit as a Constraint on Government Quality,” International Review of Law and Economics 35 (2013): 2641.

61 Lemke, Jayme, “Polycentrism, Self-Governance, and the Case of Married Women’s Rights Reform,” The Annual Proceedings of the Wealth and Well-Being of Nations 4 (2012): 6988.

62 Weede, Erich, “Ideas, Institutions, and Political Culture in Western Development,” Journal of Theoretical Politics 2, no. 4 (1990): 369–89, provides an excellent summary of this line of argument. Berman’s, Harold Law and Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983) offers the classic exposition of how the conflict between secular and religious courts played a significant role in the formation of the Western legal tradition.

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.

64 See Williamson, Oliver, “The New Institutional Economics: Taking Stock, Looking Ahead,” Journal of Economic Literature 38, no. 3 (2000): 595613.

65 Taleb, Antifragile, chap. 4.

66 Dawson, John W., “Macroeconomic Volatility and Economic Freedom — A Preliminary Analysis,” Economic Freedom of the World 2010 Annual Report (Fraser Institute, 2010).

67 Economic freedom is measured by the economic freedom index, found in Gwartney, James, Lawson, Robert, and Hall, Joshua, Economic Freedom of the World: 2013 Annual Report (Fraser Institute: 2013). Other data is taken or calculated from the World Bank Development Indicators, found at All GDP figures are from 2011 and adjusted for purchasing power parity; income share of the bottom 10 percent is the most recent available figure.

68 The classic essays from the Bloomington side of this debate are gathered in McGinnis, Polycentricity and Local Public Economies.

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

70 Ostrom, Tiebout, and Warren, “The Organization of Government in Metropolitan Areas,” 831.

71 Ostrom, Elinor, Governing the Commons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990), and Gibson, Clark C., et al., The Samaritan’s Dilemma (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

72 Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James, Why Nations Fail (New York: Random House, 2012).

73 See Leeson, Peter, Anarchy Unbound (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

74 Rummel, R. J., Death by Government (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994).

75 Olson, Mancur, The Rise and Decline of Nations (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).

76 Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies, chap. 11.

77 Clemens, Michael, “Economics and Emigration: Trillion Dollar Bills Laying on the Sidewalk,” Journal of Economic Perspective 25, no. 3 (2011), 83106.

78 See Becker, Gary, The Challenge of Immigration: A Radical Solution (London: Institute for Economic Affairs, 2011).

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

* I would like to thank Carmen Pavel for her feedback and encouragement, and the other contributors to this volume. I also received helpful comments from Daniel D’Amico, Richard Wagner, and Adam Tebble. Any remaining errors are due to insufficient degeneracy between my own neurons.

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