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Over the past decade, international economic organizations have come under attack as illegitimate and oppressive. The remedy, according to the critics, is civil society: non-state associations should have a right to participate in the policymaking activities of international organizations. But the moral grounds for giving civil society such a central role in global governance, together with the ramifications of those moral grounds for organizational reform in the international arena, have not yet been systematically analyzed. Why are associations outside the state better placed than trained, career civil servants and elected politicians to decide on international aid, the regulatory pre-requisites for free trade, and other issues of global governance? And even though we might all agree that associations outside the state have something to contribute to the work of international elites, what, precisely, should be their role? Writing press articles, lobbying, commenting on policymaking proposals, voting on committees, or suing in international tribunals?

This paper explores the contribution that the political philosophy and empirical practice of liberal democracy can make to this set of questions. Liberal theorists have made four different types of claims for how civil society contributes to the good life, each of which generates a different understanding of the associations that count as “civil society” and the policy initiatives that should be undertaken in favor of civil society. Equipped with these insights, the organizational reforms under way in the international realm are evaluated. However, the literature review also demonstrates, somewhat surprisingly, that the political theorists and the civil society activists are talking past one another: the theory does not address directly the question of whether associations should take part in democratic governance. For the theory, the democratic value of civil society lies in collective life outside the state. Therefore, the paper turns to the practice of contemporary democracies. Comparative law shows that private associations can participate in public life in at least three different ways: pluralism, corporatism, and republicanism. In pluralism, multiple, competing interest groups have numerous opportunities to influence policymaking, irrespective of their size or aims, through the legislature, the bureaucracy, and the courts. In corporatism, certain intermediate organizations are afforded a special role in policymaking because they are believed to represent significant social and economic forces. In republicanism, citizen associations engage in the public life of the nation through debate and protest, but enjoy relatively few opportunities to influence legislators, bureaucrats, and judges. In light of the ideals underpinning these different cultures of democracy and the empirics of the international realm, the paper concludes that the law of corporatism is the most appropriate for some of today’s international organizations.

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