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The Moral Politics of IMF


Reforms: Universal Economics,
Particular Ethics
Jacqueline Best 1
Abstract
The IMFs response to recent nancial crises has involved
the development of an extensive series of international economic
standards that it believes all states should adopt. Fund representatives have justied these reforms by using explicitly moral
arguments. In this chapter, I take a closer look at this new
turn in order to determine its implications for both nancial
governance and political ethics. I suggest that although ethical
discourse has historically played a crucial role in sustaining
nancial regimes, the recent turn to moralize nance is novel,
for it represents a new kind of economic and ethical liberalism.

Introduction2
While the nal decades of the twentieth century were dominated by
widespread optimism about the benets of globalization, the rst few
years of the twenty-rst century have been characterized by a greater
measure of skepticism. The recurrence of nancial crises, the growing
gap between rich and poor, and the rising tide of criticism from nongovernmental organizations, scholars, activists and policymakers alike

Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Ottawa.


I would like to thank Kirsty Best and Kathy Trevenen for their critical feedback
on earlier drafts of this paper, Richard Day and Joe Masciulli for their excellent editorial
assistance, as well as Jean Laux, Paul Saurette, Doug Moggach, Fiona Robinson and
Duncan Cameron for many thoughtful conversations that have informed this project.
2

Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, Volume 4, issue 3-4


2005 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden

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have all raised questions about the costs of globalization. In response,


some have begun to call for a better globalization with a new global
ethics to guide it. What is surprising, perhaps, is that some of those
calls have come not from the civil society sector or from the more vocal
critics of globalization, but from that bastion of globalization itself, the
International Monetary Fund (Khler 2002). In this chapter, I shall take
a closer look at this new turn to ethical language in the mainstream of
international nance, focusing on both ocial and scholarly statements.
In doing so, I hope both to provide some insight into the implications
of this current turn to moral argument among the major participants in
nancial governance and to explore more broadly the potential role for
ethics in economic globalization.
Economics and ethics have shared a long and storied history. The
question of how the economy does work cannot be easily separated out
from that of how it ought to work. Or, as Aristotle once suggested, we
cannot begin to determine how to live without rst asking How should
one live? (Sen 1987: 4). There is a multitude of possible ways of organizing our economic life. Dierent choices will work to shape dierent
ways of living and thus dierent conceptions of the good life. Moreover,
many such choices will benet some individuals or groups over others.
Many of the greatest economic minds have sought to reconcile such economic and ethical dilemmas. Adam Smith wrote not only The Wealth of
Nations, his famous treatise in defense of laissez-faire economics, but also
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which sought to uncover the cementing
role of sympathy in society. Yet, by the 1930s, the economist Lionel
Robbins spoke for many of his peers when he argued: Economics is
neutral between ends. . . . It is fundamentally distinct from Ethics (Vickers
1997: 36).
As the classical economics of Smith, Ricardo, and Marx became the
neoclassical economics of the twentieth century, the mathematization of
the discipline seemed to promise the possibility of a truly value-free science.3 Since then, the legitimacy of economic ideas and institutions has
rested not on any claim to moral soundness, but rather on the claim of
neutral expertise. The representatives of institutions like the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) have gone to great lengths to present themselves
in such terms. Theirs is not the task of judging among various possible
ends, and thus conceptions of the good life, they suggest; this is the
purview of politics. Rather, they seek to determine the best means of
achieving any given end by giving a countrys leaders the economic tools

For a more extensive discussion of this process, see Vickers (1997).

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necessary to pursue their own goals.4 The Funds legitimacy has thus
rested in part on the separation of economics from ethics. How then do
we explain the recent turn to moral arguments by members of both academic and policymaking circles in international nance? Why would the
Managing Director of the IMF have called on several occasions for a
new global ethics, and what does this new ethics look like? These are
the questions that I shall be exploring in this chapter as I seek to uncover
one more aspect of the role of ethics in globalization.
I will begin by taking a closer look at the question of ethics, outlining two dierent ways in which we might conceptualize ethics in international economicsa universalist cosmopolitan ethics that seeks to
determine universal global norms of conduct, and a more contextualist
communitarian ethics that sees norms as varying among communities. I
will then turn to the question of economics and examine recent events
in international nance, concentrating in particular on the debate over
the appropriate response to the nancial crises of the past decade. Focusing
on the mainstream proposals for nancial reform, I will bring ethics and
economics into conversation with one another, exploring the recent use
of moral arguments to justify particular policy directions. I will suggest
that in their turn to explicitly moral language, Fund representatives have
sought to combine cosmopolitan and communitarian arguments in a new
hybrid that has very specic political consequences. In the process, two
seemingly contradictory ethical frameworks are thus combined into a
new form of communitarian economic liberalism. This new ethical hybrid
plays a crucial role in legitimizing the Funds reforms, embedding a universal vision of the global economy through a particularist ethics that
places the responsibility for change on developing states.
Two Approaches to International Ethics
Although there are many dierent ways of categorizing ethical perspectives, the most central division in international ethics has traditionally
been that between cosmopolitan and communitarian approaches.5 These
two ethical approaches conceptualize moral agency dierently, with cosmopolitan perspectives focusing on the individual as the only genuine
moral agent, while communitarian theory emphasizes the community
or often the nation-stateas central. They also dene the source and

For a more thorough discussion of this attempt within economic theory to separate
out positive means from normative ends, see Blaug (1980: 149-152).
5
Chris Brown (1992) provides the classic discussion of the historical evolution of this
debate. For other categorizations, see Terry Nardin and David Mapel (1992 and 1998).

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scope of moral feeling dierently, with the cosmopolitan perspectives


emphasizing the universality of moral identity and responsibility, and the
communitarian approaches focusing on the particular communal sources
of moral attachment. From these divergent starting points, each approach
provides a dierent account of the moral implications of international
economic relations, with cosmopolitans emphasizing global responsibility
for economic inequality, and communitarians focusing instead on the
value of a communitys economic autonomy and self-responsibility.
Cosmopolitan ethics can be traced back to classical times and to
Diogenes famous declaration, I am a citizen of the world. As this
statement suggests, cosmopolitans dene themselves in opposition to those
who dene human moral identity in particularist terms by associating it
with specic communities, cultures, peoples, or nations. While cosmopolitan
theorists often accept the reality of the nation-state as a central form of
political and social organization, they insist that this unit has no necessary moral relevance. Instead, it is as individual persons that we have
moral value and agency. And given that we are all equally human, we
are all guided by similar moral precepts. Morality is therefore universal. Beginning from this basic premise, liberal cosmopolitan theorists from
Immanuel Kant (Reiss 1977: 41-53, 93-130; Kant 1956) through to
Charles Beitz (1979) have sought to determine the abstract universal
moral laws that ought to guide human action. These laws, moreover,
have implications for international economic relations. Cosmopolitan theorists like Beitz (1979) and Thomas Pogge (2002) have argued that a
global ethics necessarily implies a form of redistributive justice in which
those living in auent states bear signicant moral responsibility for alleviating the poverty of those born in poor states. Development, nance,
and tradeall of these international economic practices thus have an
explicitly moral character for cosmopolitans.
Cosmopolitan ethics oers the possibility of developing universal guidelines that can apply regardless of the particular context. It holds out the
promise of providing us with the moral tools necessary to challenge both
political and economic injustice wherever it occurs. Yet this universalizing logic is double-edged. Cosmopolitan theory runs the risk of abstracting too far from the concrete context of social life and focusing too
much on individuals in isolation, thus ignoring some of the historical
and social conditions that have produced and reproduced global poverty.6
At the same time, cosmopolitan theorists can sometimes nd themselves

6
For a more thorough critique of the implications of cosmopolitan ethics for global
economic justice, see Fiona Robinson (1999).

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unconsciously universalizing a particular set of valuesoften Western


onesand imposing them in the name of universal morality. They can
thus lose sight of the value of diversity and pluralism.
As an alternative to such abstract conceptions of morality, communitarians have proposed to ground ethics in particular communities. Such an
approach to ethics pays attention to the concrete social and historical
context within which particular ethical values and problems emerge.
Rather than beginning with a conception of human nature that emphasizes
abstract and autonomous individuality, they emphasize the relationships
through which ethical ties are forged. Michael Sandel describes this conception of human nature as encumbered by central aspirations and
attachments (1982: 172). Communitarians, such as Sandel and Michael
Walzer (1994), focus on the primacy of the community, or nation, as
the source of ethical attachments, and thus see the nation-state as itself
having ethical signicance. They argue that universalist moral frameworks,
like those proposed by cosmopolitan theorists, run roughshod over these
more particular community-based ethical values.
What are the economic implications of such a perspective on international ethics? Ironically, it is a renowned liberal theorist and neoKantian, John Rawls, who provides us with the best example of a
communitarian-inected approach to international economics. While
Rawls, in A Theory of Justice (1971), advocated a form of national redistributive justice based on the dierence principle, he has consistently
denied that such a principle can hold at a global level.7 In The Law of
Peoples (1999), his most thorough elaboration of the international implications of his theory of justice, Rawls emphasizes the importance of creating a pluralist international order that respects dierences among
national cultures.8 At the same time, he suggests that the ip side of a
peoples autonomy is responsibility for its own economic success or failure. I would conjecture he writes, that there is no society anywhere
in the worldexcept for the marginal caseswith resources so scarce
that it could not, were it reasonably and rationally organized and governed, become well-ordered (1999: 108). Rather than a cosmopolitan
principle of redistributive justice, he therefore proposes a much more
limited duty of assistance. This duty is limited mainly because he
believes that a societys economic underdevelopment is due to its domestic political, social, and cultural traditions. A communitarian approach

I provide a more thorough comparison of Rawlsian international ethics and the


IMFs new global ethics in Best (2004).
8
See also Rawls (1993).

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to international ethics places considerable emphasis on the value of a


states economic autonomy while also emphasizing its ultimate responsibility for its own economic well-being.
Like cosmopolitan theory, communitarianism reveals both strengths
and weaknesses when it is applied to international economic questions.
The theorys strengths include its attention to the complexities of specic
historical, social, and cultural contexts and its attunement to the importance of preserving political, cultural, and economic autonomy. But should
this be at any cost? Because of their regard for the value of community
and nation, communitarians run the risk of ignoring injustices that may
occur within a given political community. Moreover, their concern with
protecting autonomy can become a form of neglect if it means that states
in dire straits are left without adequate support from their more fortunate neighbors. While the economic autonomy of states is a value worth
preserving, it has already been greatly compromised by the force of globalization; a global ethical framework must be able to recognize and
respond to the moral obligations posed by economic interdependence
obligations that may well exceed a limited duty of assistance.
We therefore have two very dierent conceptions of ethicsa cosmopolitan approach that seeks to develop universal moral codes to guide
global action, and a communitarian approach that works instead to preserve the autonomy of ethical communities. What role might these two
perspectives play in the context of international nance? While one could
argue that ethics has always been relevant to international nanceafter
all, without international credit, few countries have sucient resources
to pursue any kind of good life at homeethical questions have become
particularly important in the context of globalization. Economic globalization
and the process of nancial liberalization that it has fostered have produced both great winners and losers, bringing with them both success
and suering. As the suering has begun to outweigh the success in
many countries over the past decade, the moral and political legitimacy
of globalization has been increasingly challenged. As I shall discuss below,
in their response to such challenges, IMF representatives and nancial
scholars alike have begun to draw on moral arguments to defend a particular kind of nancial globalization. In so doing, they have relied on
both cosmopolitan and communitarian arguments, developing a new
hybrida kind of communitarian liberalismthat so far has demonstrated more of the weaknesses than the strengths of these two moral
frameworks.

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Globalization and the Debate over Financial Reform


In the realm of international nance, the process of globalization has
generally taken the form of nancial liberalization and the progressive
dismantling of the national and international controls on capital ows
that were established in the postwar period. After the experience of the
Great Depression and World War II, economists and political leaders
were determined to avoid a similar economic and political debacle.
Believing that one of the central culprits in the nancial collapse of the
1930s was the destabilizing impact of capital ight, they sought to reign
in capital movements through a network of controls and xed exchange
rates supported by the Bretton Woods regime (Bloomeld 1946; Helleiner
1994). By the late 1970s, however, there had been a signicant shift of
opinion about the value of controlling capital movements following the
collapse of the Bretton Woods regime. The United States and Britain
were the rst to begin liberalizing their nancial markets in the late 1970s
and early 1980s (Arrighi 1994; Strange 1990). They were soon followed
by Europe and Japan in the 1980s and by emerging and developing
economies in the early 1990s, a process that was encouraged by the
IMF and World Bank (Williamson and Mahar 1998; Eatwell 1996).
Mainstream economists and international policymakers alike were now
united in their belief that capital ows were in fact a stabilizingand
a discipliningforce in the international system, as the threat of capital
ight caused governments to pursue scally conservative economic policies.
Yet nancial crises continued to occur. In fact, by the end of the
1990s they appeared to be endemic: crises in Europe and Mexico were
followed by the Asian nancial crisis in 1997-1998, which devastated
economies in Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, the Philippines, and
Indonesia among others (Hunter, Kaufman, and Krueger 1999; Singh
1999). In the wake of so much economic devastation, scholars and policymakers alike undertook two common tasks: to understand the causes
of the crises and to propose solutions for avoiding them in the future.
This discussion concerning the future of nancial governance ultimately
came to be known as the debate around the reform of the international
nancial architecture, a term rst coined in 1998 by Robert Rubin
(1998), then US Secretary of the Treasury.
The principal interveners in this debate fall into three camps. First,
there are those critics who argue that the process of nancial liberalization undertaken since the late 1970s was itself the cause of much of
the current nancial instability. They suggest that we have forgotten
many of the hard lessons of depression-era economics, and have moved

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too quickly to eliminate many of the key international and domestic policy tools through which states once tamed the volatile ows of capital
(Krugman 1999a; Michie and Smith 1999). These ows, moreover, have
not proven to be as rational or as disciplining as the advocates of liberalization had hoped; instead, in the case of the Asian nancial crisis,
the deregulation of nancial controls in fact allowed capital to move into
increasingly irrational and risky speculative areas, eectively producing
an unsustainable bubble (Stiglitz 1998; Singh 1999; Grabel 1999). In
response, such critics have suggested that what is needed is more rather
than less regulation, selective controls on capital, and a signicant political reform of the International Monetary Fund (Kaplan and Rodrik
2001; Eatwell and Taylor 2000; Stiglitz 2002; Krugman 1999b).
Second, there are those who argue that the process of nancial liberalization has not gone far enough. The fundamental cause of the crises,
they suggest, was the persistence of illiberal economic practices among
the aected states. In spite of their progress towards liberalization, they
argue, these economies continued to follow the Asian model of capitalist development, retaining signicant state involvement in the economy that ultimately encouraged lax risk management on the part of
investors (Camdessus 2001; Calomiris 1998a; Greenspan 1998).9 Once
market participants discovered these problems, they responded rationally
by withdrawing their capital, thus disciplining these errant states. Such
analysts have argued that what is needed is more market discipline, to
be achieved both through the reform of domestic nancial governance
practices and through the reduction in the funds provided by the IMF,
which, they argue, have only encouraged reckless behavior on the part
of governments and investors alike (Meltzer 2000; Calomiris 1998b).
The third and most inuential intervention in this debate has come
from those who suggest that while nancial liberalization must continue,
it should proceed more cautiously than before. This perspective has
evolved in large measure out of the second, pro-liberalization, approach,
in response to some of the challenges brought by their critics. Advocates
of this position, including inuential academics along with major IMF
representatives, continue to place much of the responsibility for the recent
nancial crises on the aected countries themselves, citing signicant concerns about their institutional infrastructure (IMF 2001a; IMF 2001b;
Goldstein 1999; Eichengreen 1999). At the same time, they recognize
that the pace of nancial liberalization was in fact too rapid to be sus-

On the Asian model of state-led development, see Peter Evans (1989) and Singh (1999).

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tainable. They thus recommend a more cautious continuation of nancial


liberalization combined with a process of domestic nancial reform.
Given its dominant place in the current debate, it is on this perspective that I shall focus my attention for the remainder of this chapter. On the surface, this third approach to architectural reform appears
to be relatively limited. Much of the focus is on technical improvements:
increasing the ow of nancial information, improving the Funds surveillance of member economies, and creating early warning systemsin
short, improving the transparency of the nancial system in order to
increase the markets access to economic information (IMF 2001b). Yet
the proposed reforms also imply signicant interventions in member
states economic aairs. Believing that the causes of international nancial
crises are primarily domestic, they seek to make changes at that level.
Thus the economic analyst Barry Eichengreen (1999) suggests that the
blurring between international and domestic economies makes it impossible to x the international balance of payments without also xing the
domestic nancial system (p. 20). How do they justify such signicant
interventions in a world in which state sovereignty remains such a powerful norm? They do so by framing these proposals in the terms of universal moral imperatives.
The Moral Logic of Financial Reform
When examining some of the recent proposals for international nancial
reform, one cannot help but be struck by the persistent reappearance
of certain moral tropes. Terms like citizenship, self-responsibility, culpability, civility, ethics, punishment, and morality occur in ocial IMF
statements and scholarly contributions alike. On closer attention, moreover, a pattern of sorts emerges in these texts: a moral logic, sometimes
explicit, sometimes implicit, which works to legitimize a particular set of
nancial reforms. In the following pages, I shall elaborate this moral
logic by focusing on certain key concepts: transparency, universal standards, ownership, self-responsibility, solidarity, culpability, and discipline.
Transparency
If there is a single phrase that dominates the current discourse around
nancial reform, it is transparency. Michel Camdessus (1999a), when
Managing Director of the IMF, suggested that There is a strong consensus for making transparency the golden rule of the new international
nancial system (p. 16). In the aftermath of the turbulent 1990s, nancial
leaders were quick to identify lack of nancial transparency as a central
cause of both the Mexican and Asian nancial crises, suggesting that

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markets were kept in the dark about important developments and


became rst uncertain and then unnerved as a host of interrelated problems came to light (IMF 2001a: 7). As I noted above, the call for transparency appears at rst to be a purely technical strategy for nancial
reform: What could be simpleror more neutralthan providing more
information to nancial markets? Yet the appeal for transparencywhat
I have elsewhere called the politics of transparencyin fact has both
moral and political implications (Best 2005, 2003a).
The word transparency brings with it a host of moral connotations:
one IMF Survey pairs it with candor and accountability, while a
nancial-sector commentator on the Asian crisis denes transparency as
easily understood or detected; obvious; guileless (free of deceit, cunning
or craftiness); candid; open (Fons 1999: 307). Other commentators, like
Robin Cook (1998), then British foreign secretary, explicitly contrast
transparency with corruption, another term that has complex and powerful moral overtones.10 The call for nancial transparency thus makes
a powerful moral argument for the universal value of such a policy
approach.
Yet policies designed to increase transparency have not only moral
but also political implications. While one might imagine that achieving
nancial transparency is an essentially passive processsimply a matter
of opening up existing economic practices to the gaze of international
market participantsin fact, it is very interventionist. Yes, transparency
does involve the publication of information about economic policies and
practices. But it also involves transforming those practices so that they
can be measured and communicated in a particular way. Simply publishing data is not enough for such communication to occur; everyone
must be speaking the same language. And, as it turns out, that language
has already been dened by the dominant players in the international
nancial markets. Thus Western nancial practices and legal norms have
become the lingua franca of a transparent international nancial order.
The moral discourse of transparency thus relies on a particularly uncritical variant of cosmopolitan ethicsone that appeals to the universality
of its principles without recognizing their source in particular cultural
norms. By appealing to the universal value of a particular model of
transparency, nancial leaders eectively treat all alternative nancial
norms, regardless of their merits, as inherently opaque or even corrupt.
At the same time, advocates of nancial transparency are able to diuse

10

For an excellent discussion of the moral politics of the current international focus
on corruption, see Mlada Bukovansky (2002).

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disputes over the political costs and consequences of such policies by


framing them in universal moral terms. Who, after all, could be against
honesty, guilelessness, and candor?
Universal Standards
Once transparency has been accepted as the golden rule of nancial
governance, one further question remains: How is one to determine
whether the necessary threshold of transparency has been achieved? This
is where international standards come in. One of the central goals of
the IMF, together with the World Bank, has been to elaborate voluntary standards and codes for sound economic and nancial policies and
corporate governance (Khler 2001). Once again, these standards appear
at rst to be merely a technical expedient for standardizing nancial
practices internationally: while the codes now cover twelve dierent areas
of economic practice, they address the dry and technical questions of
accounting practices, data dissemination, and scal and monetary management (IMF 2003).
Yet the language that policymakers and scholars use to defend these
standards reveals a much more normative emphasisone that once again
borrows from cosmopolitan ethics, with its emphasis on abstract universal principles. Horst Khler (2002), the former Managing Director of
the IMF, has described the purpose of these standards and codes as a
means of dening recognized rules of the game, or a level playing eld,
for participation in globalization. Khler suggests that these universal
standards of transparency will work to foster a better globalization by
making the international system fairer to all participants. These standards are not only represented in consequentialist terms as having the
normatively desirable outcome of greater economic stability and growth,
but are also framed in deontological terms as dening a universal economic obligation. IMF documents refer to the value of adhering to
international standards of good economic citizenship, characterizing
these standards not as a means to an end but rather as an expression
of moral and political responsibility (IMF 2001a: 6).
It is dicult to fault the goal of achieving greater fairness in international economic relations. Yet in this case, the appeals to the creation
of a level playing eld conceal considerable political implications. In
fact, these international standards work to realize a particularAngloAmericanconception of good economic practice, and thus to transform
those economies that have followed a dierent economic model. While
many of the aspects of scal and monetary practice that the Funds codes
cover emphasize process over content, they do ultimately privilege certain
forms of economic organization over others. Above all, they identify a

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clear separation of public and private spheres as good practice, denigrating the kind of economic system in which the state plays a more
extensive role in the economy.11
Comments by Fund representatives and scholars also suggest that, in
practice, standards for good economic practice are dened in far greater
detail than the formal codes suggest, at least in cases where conditionality is involved.12 Thus IMF representative Flemming Larsen (2002)
denes a whole range of basic principles of sound economic practice,
including price stability, competitive exchange rates, open trade policy,
and sustainable debt levels, which should serve as the basis for conditionality. In her study of the international eort to eliminate corruption,
Mlada Bukovansky (2002) suggests that for many analysts, less corruption is equated with less government; a parallel assumption appears to
underlie much of the commentary on transparency, making a reduction
of the role of government a necessary component of reform.
The imposition of such universal standards and best practices will
therefore have signicant social and political eects on the countries concernedparticularly those that have traditionally allowed the state to
play a greater role in the economy. My concern here is not to debate
whether or not a more laissez-faire Anglo-American model is in fact
preferable, but rather to point out that within the context of the present call for universal standards, such debates are not being acknowledged as legitimate in the rst place. Ironically, the eect of these explicitly
normative arguments of fairness, good citizenship, and good economic
practice is to conceal the politics at stake. By suggesting that the adoption of international standards will create a level playing eld, Khler
abstracts from the current and historical context of international economic development. This abstract conception of procedural fairness
eectively ignores the existence of structural inequalities that make even
the adoption of those standards more onerous for poorer countries, and
that will no doubt continue to shape their participation in the global
economy once those practices are adopted.13 The concept of good eco11

This is particularly evident in the Funds Fiscal Transparency Questionnaire (IMF 2001c),
in which the multiple choice answers clearly establish the link between transparency and
laissez-faire on the one hand, and state-led development and opacity on the other.
12
The IMF imposes specic conditions on member states to which it provides nancial
assistance. Over the years, these conditions have grown more extensive. Currently, there
are two trends in loan conditionality: one, which I will discuss further below, to make
conditions more exible, and a second to extend them further into the arena of domestic governance. On the latter trend, see Eichengreen (1999).
13
For a discussion of some of the potentially asymmetrical costs of transparency policies in the area of trade, see Robert Wolfe (2003).

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nomic citizen similarly abstracts from the concrete conditions of radical economic inequality that make it very dicult for poorer countries
to participate actively on the international stage, even in those rare
instances in which they are granted an equal voice or vote. Finally, the
particular conception of good economic practice that is contained in
these international standards is in fact heavily inuenced by Western
economic traditions. Nevertheless, it is portrayed as a universal good that
remains beyond political contestation.
Ownership, Self-responsibility, and Solidarity
In spite of such appeals to the universality of the proposed international
standards, there has been some resistance by member states to their
introduction (IMF 2001a: 21; Khler 2003a). International Monetary
Fund representatives have responded to these more recent concerns and
to a much longer history of complaints about the one-size-ts-all nature
of Fund standards and conditions by introducing more exibility into
their programs. Central to this process have been the concepts of ownership and self-responsibility. The idea of country ownership has
become ubiquitous in Fund and other ocial documents.14 As one IMF
representative put it, We have learned that good policies are unlikely
to succeed if they are simply imposed from outsidecountry ownership
is essential if a country is to tackle its problems on a durable basis
(Larsen 2002). The idea of ownership points towards the possibility of
involving individual states in determining their own paths towards reform
and of nding economic solutions that meet their needs and desires. It
thus draws on a more communitarian form of ethics in which state
autonomy is valued and universal standards are made more responsive
to the particular complexities of individual contexts.15
IMF Managing Director, Horst Khler (2002), pairs the idea of ownership with a second powerful moral conceptthat of self-responsibility.
Countries must not only own the conditions that are the basis for IMF
nancing, he suggests, but must also take responsibility for creating better governance, a secure legal foundation, and less corruption.16 Khler
thus characterizes the various domestic nancial reforms that are either
encouraged by the IMF under the rubric of international standards, or

14

See, for example, Proposal for an International Finance Facility (London: HM Treasury,
2003). See also Camdessus (2001) and Khler (2003b).
15
In his proposals for nancial reform, Peter Kenen (2001: chap 5) builds on this
concept when he suggests a specic mechanism of negotiation and contracting through
which states could agree with the Fund and World Bank on a particular path of reform.
16
On self-responsibility, see also Khler (2001).

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required as conditions for nancing, as a moral responsibility. In doing


so, he suggests that the primary responsibility for reforming the international nancial system rests with developing and emerging economies
not with auent states or nancial markets themselves.
Khler (2002) goes on to argue that a global ethic is necessary: This
ethic must respect human rights, but should also remind us that we have
duties as well as rights.17 These duties include a duty of solidarity,
which is increasingly necessary in an interdependent economic realm in
which one countrys economic diculties can precipitate a global crisis
(Camdessus 1997; Khler 2002). For developed states, the duty of solidarity involves providing a reasonable level of nancial assistance to
poorer states; the IMF supports the UNs target of .7% of GDP for
international aid (Khler 2002; Camdessus 1999b). The Funds support
for greater international aid does move in the direction of a more cosmopolitan conception of global responsibility; yet it falls far short of a
genuine commitment to redistributive justice, resembling instead Rawls
far more limited conception of a duty of assistance. Moreover, since the
Funds mandate does not include encouraging states to provide nancial
assistance, it has focused instead primarily on encouraging a commitment to solidarity on the part of developing states. For developing and
emerging economies, the duty of solidarity involves pursuing economically sound policies to minimize the risk of crisis.: Camdessus (1996) thus
suggests that a keener sense of responsibility in the conduct of internal
aairs in every country is the rst, and most essential, step toward solidarity in a world where the success or failure of one country has such
a pronounced impact on its neighbors. We have therefore come full
circle from a cosmopolitan to a communitarian conception of responsibility, in which a developing states primary duty of solidarity is selfresponsibility itself.
IMF leaders do not deny that the developed world has responsibilities towards those in need. Yet time and time again Khler and Camdessus
use the concepts of responsibility and self-responsibility to emphasize the
duty of poor states to improve their own lot. The image of the international system that emerges from these statements is one in which states
are largely islands unto themselves, detached from their historical or
structural place in the global economy, and responsible for their own
success or failure. Like Rawls in The Law of Peoples, Fund leaders downplay the complex international economic interdependencies that reduce

17

He makes similar points in Khler (2001 and 2003a).

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states capacity to direct their own economic aairs. Ownership is a thus


double-edged sword: it promises a measure of exibility in return for
the threat of blame in the case of failure.
Culpability and Discipline
The idea of blame, or culpability, has also begun to emerge in recent
statements and scholarship on nancial reform, particularly in discussions of crisis management. It is here that we can see the way in which
Fund representatives and nancial scholars have begun to combine cosmopolitan and communitarian ethics into a new hybrid that has specic
political implications.
International standards are designed to prevent the occurrence of crises
by encouraging good economic behavior. Yet crises cannot always be
prevented. In such cases, how should the international community respond?
Many mainstream analysts have argued that while there remains an
important place for an institution like the IMF, which is capable of providing emergency funding in a crisis, the size and frequency of these
bail-outs should be scaled back. They point to the problem of moral
hazard: if funding is too easy to come by, states and investors are both
likely to be tempted to take irresponsible risks, knowing that they will
not have to pay the full cost. The question of who is responsible for
causing crises, and thus for resolving them, is framed in moral terms.
This is particularly apparent in the Council on Foreign Aairs Report,
Safeguarding Prosperity in a Global Financial System, which develops a series
of proposals for reforming the nancial architecture and argues for the
need to place the primary responsibility [emphasis added] for crisis
avoidance and resolution back where it belongs: on emerging economies
themselves and on their private creditors, which dominate todays international capital markets (Goldstein 1999: vi).
The reports authors hope to identify responsibility for any given crisis
and to ensure that the costs of the response are allocated accordingly.
Essentially, they want to allocate blame. In classic communitarian terms,
most of that blame is placed on emerging states themselves, as they are
deemed to be primarily responsible for assuring their own economic
health. Yet they cannot simply force states to fend entirely for themselves;
while a crisis may begin in a single country, it can easily destabilize others and cause systemic damage. As a solution to this dilemma, the reports
authors propose a two-tiered approach to IMF nancing: For systemic
crises that threaten the international monetary system, the IMF should
turn to its existing credit lines when problems are largely of the countrys
making and to special contagion funds when the country is an innocent

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victim (Goldstein 1999: vii).18 The international community, the report


suggests, should take upon itself the power to judge the innocence or
guilt of a crisis-ridden state and to mete out the appropriate rewards
ample and condition-free nancingor punishmentslimited and conditional assistance (Goldstein 1999: 17, 86). How are these judgments to
be made? The answer is: by determining the extent to which a state
has adopted universal standards and has thus practiced good economic
behavior. It is here that a particular brand of cosmopolitan ethics comes
inestablishing the universal moral standards that are to be used to
measure a states innocence or guilt.
While Fund representatives have avoided using the term punishment
to describe the conditions that the institution appliesa fact that has
not stopped others from understanding conditionality in those terms
(Kenen 2001: 51-52)it is clear from recent statements that they do
view conditions for lending in moral terms. In a recent question-andanswer session with a group of parliamentarians, IMF Managing Director,
Horst Khler (2003a), justies conditionality as a means of disciplining
those political classes who have not enough resolve, ability, and capacity to work, and yet still ask for more support, more money from outside. In the face of such a lack of self-responsibility or a willingness to
take ownership for their own problems, it is the IMFs role, he suggests,
to impose responsible behavior. Thus, responsibility blurs into culpability and provides a justication for discipline. While a universalist cosmopolitan ethics justies the standards of good economic behavior, a
particularist communitarian ethics places responsibility for compliance or
failure squarely on the shoulders of individual states.
Conclusion
The language of morality has begun to appear in the unlikeliest of
placesthe programs and proposals of nancial leaders and scholars.
The debate over a new nancial architecture has taken on a moral tone,
as its most inuential interveners have begun to frame their arguments
in the terms of fairness, duty, responsibility, and obligation. As this discussion has revealed, these statements also share a hybrid moral logic.
The concepts of transparency and universal standards draw on an abstract,
universalist vision of the economic world. At the same time, those of
ownership and self-responsibility appeal to a particularist communitarian moral sensibility. Finally, the moral categories of culpability and dis-

18

For a far more extensive discussion of this report, see Best (2003b).

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cipline combine a universalist conception of norms with a particularist


approach to moral responsibility.
Within this moral framework, there is one clear set of economic valuesone conception of the good economic lifeto which all people and
countries ought to subscribe. Yet this moral vision is a very narrow one,
based largely on Anglo-American economic practices. While the concept
of ownership appears to soften the rigidity of this vision, its potential is
ultimately constrained by a very limited denition of the scope of possible alternatives. Thus, while diversity is recognized in name, in practice very little deviation from the singular model of good economic
practice is allowed. Moreover, by linking ownership with self-responsibility, what might have been a dynamic negotiation between nancial
institutions and member states about the meaning of good economic
practice is reduced to an obligation to take responsibility and reform
their domestic institutions accordinglywith the threat of judgment and
discipline hanging in the air as an incentive to moral scrupulousness.
Sadly, the Funds global ethics appears to combine the worst rather
than the best of cosmopolitan and communitarian approaches. Its representatives have adopted the cosmopolitan tendency to downplay morally
signicant dierences, while drawing only limited inspiration from the
cosmopolitan commitment to redistributive justice. They have similarly
adopted the communitarian insistence on a communitys self-responsibility, while neglecting its emphasis on the value of pluralism and autonomy. Although there are moments in which these more positive possibilities
are acknowledged, they have yet to be pursued in any meaningful way.
What is lost in this moral vision is any real awareness of the political implications of nancial reform. This conception of ethics as rules
of the game, in which member states have specic rights and duties and,
above all, a sense of self-responsibility, denes moral relations in ahistorical terms as a series of contractual obligations among equal, isolated
states. By abstracting from complex, historically informed economic and
political relationships, this moral vision conceals the power dynamics that
characterize nancial governance.
What then would a more critical ethics of globalization look like
one that combined the positive potential of universal aspirations and
contextual possibilities? While any adequate answer to that question is
beyond the scope of this short chapter, I will conclude by citing two
suggestive contributions to that discussion, one theoretical and one practical. One of the more dicult questions facing those who seek to develop
a more critical global ethics is how to conceptualize universality. In
Identity/Dierence, William Connolly (2002) provides one possible answer
in his discussion of the paradoxical nature of ethics: Without a set of

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standards of identity and responsibility there is no possibility of ethical


discrimination, but the application of any such set of historical constructions also does violence to those to whom it is applied. Such standards are indispensable constructions rather than either disposable ctions
or natural kinds (p. 12).
If nancial commentators and representatives were to treat the idea
of universal standards as indispensable constructions that will sometimes do violence to the way of life of those to whom they are applied,
they might, at the very least, approach the task of negotiating them more
humbly than they do now. Better yet, they might discover that there
are ways of organizing nancial practices that, like the Bretton Woods
regime of old, seek to reconcile the universal goals of stability and growth
with a diversity of particular conceptions of the economic good.19
They might also come to appreciate the fact that responsibility is a
messy concept and should not be used lightly. It cuts back and forth
between people, places, and times, enmeshing them in complex ethical
interdependencies. In the same interchange between Khler and the parliamentarians that I cited earlier, the moderator, a member of the
European Union Steering Committee, posed a question that points towards
a dierent kind of responsibility. She cited President Lulas election in
Brazil and asked how the IMF could reconcile the basis upon which the
leader was electeda platform of reducing povertyand the conditions
that the IMF had imposeda large budget surplus. Are you taking any
responsibility, she asked, for this very big question of democracy?
(Khler 2003a).
By pointing to the political implications of the Funds actionsand
the democratic costs of imposing a singular conception of sound economic practicethe moderator was emphasizing the IMFs own ethical
responsibility for its actions. She was thus drawing on a more complex
conception of responsibilitya conception that combines a cosmopolitan concern with global responsibility with a communitarian commitment to political autonomy. Her brief statement also suggests a kind of
global ethics that is attuned to politicsin which tensions among our
various obligations do occur and must be negotiated politically as well
as ethically. Thus, Brazils responsibility to the international community
is qualied by its responsibility to its people, a responsibility that the
IMF must also acknowledge and to which it must respond. In such
dicult concrete situations, we come face to face with the inseparabil-

19

I discuss the positive possibilitiesas well as the limitsof that earlier international
nancial system in Best (2005).

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ity of ethics and politics and the complex ethical interconnections that
they create. It is in such moments that we might begin to grasp the
ethics of globalization.
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