Ignatieff vs. Canada: Implications for Law and Development Theory

One interesting by-product of Harvard Law Professor Michael Ignatieff failure in his bid to take over the federal Liberal Party of Canada (discussed by Cristie Ford here) is its implications for ‘law and development’ theory, and in particular Yves Dezalay and Bryant G. Garth book on The Internationalization of Palace Wars: Lawyers, Economists, and the Contest to Transform Latin American States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), which details how the US has been so successful at exporting our distinctive neo-liberal model of economic and legal development – such as the ‘Washington consensus’ in the realm of economic development, and a detached and court-centric “rule of law” in the realm of legal development – to the developing world

Dezalay and Garth’s story is that American success in this area is due to a confluence of two factors. The first, and most obvious, is American political and economic power, and the social prestige that power brings. The second, and heretofore unrecognized factor, is the pronounced hierarchal social and political environments of the relevant American academic fields. This pronounced hierarchy caused the immense social prestige that derives from American power to focus on a very, very small collection of very elite academic departments. And insofar as these departments’ international programs are concerned, they tend to be dominated by the distinctly American neo-liberal perspective described above. Future political and intellectual and legal elites in Latin American and other developing countries attend these elite American departments in order to increase their own political and social prestige, and consequently they develop strong ties with these departments and their perspectives. When the future elites return home, they in effect become agents of these departments’ America neo-liberal viewpoints. (The paradigmatic example of this as explored by Dezalay and Garth is Vicente Fox, neo-liberalist President of Mexico who received a Diploma in Upper Management from the Harvard Business School in the 1980s.)

One aspect of this theory has is yet to be explored, but which I think is relevant, is the social-hierarchical nature of the recipient country. My impression is that like Mexico, most Latin American countries are also very hierarchically organized – socially, intellectually, and politically. I suspect that just as a sharp social hierarchy works to winnow the diversity of relevant viewpoints with regards to law and development projected by the relevant American academic environments, so to does it facilitate intellectual and policy ‘capture’ by a small group of American-trained elite within the recipient country.

This is where Ignatieff in Canada becomes an interesting test case. Dezalay and Garth identify the Harvard Law School as one of the principal elite exporters of the American vision of law and development. My impression is that Canada has a much flatter social, academic and intellectual environment than found in Mexico and the developing countries of Latin America and elsewhere. Ignatieff’s inability to take over the federal Liberal Party in Canada suggests that it may indeed be the case that the less socially stratified the intellectual, social and political environments of the recipient country, the more resistant that country will be to the kind of capture by American models of law and development described by Dezalay and Garth.