I Introduction
  • 1 0000000404811396https://isni.org/isni/0000000404811396International Monetary Fund

Abstract

“Even when laws have been written down, they ought not always to remain unaltered.” Aristotle

Possibly one of the clearest and most persistent trends during the second half of this century has been the development of an increasing interdependence among national economies. Moreover, as the century’s last decade has opened, this trend has broadened and intensified dramatically as most of the centrally planned economies, which deliberately had remained outside the international economic and financial system, have decided to undertake widespread economic and political reforms to end their long isolation. These reforms seek to establish democratic and pluralistic systems with economies organized on the basis of market forces. As a result of these remarkable events, the world economy has finally been set on the road to becoming truly universal.

As has often been stressed, close economic interdependence offers ample scope for raising world welfare, though it can also impose severe constraints. In particular, in a closely integrated setting, a country’s capability to pursue national objectives can be either enhanced or limited by how well it adapts to the constraints of interdependence. Fundamentally, this adaptability depends on the setting of appropriate boundaries to national autonomy, an age-old dilemma facing collective units.

The challenge of drawing appropriate, that is, sustainable, boundaries between national and international domains is unending, because boundaries themselves are not immutable; they shift with political, economic, and social developments. And to an important extent, the systems that have evolved to bring national domains into the international setting have responded to these variable perceptions concerning national territory. From a general standpoint, those systems fall into two main categories: these that rely mainly on the observance of well-established rules to govern economic policy and those that give predominance to the use of discretion in economic management.

This paper is concerned with this demarcation between national and international domains from an economic standpoint, in particular from the perspective of economic policy. The paper’s underlying theme is that, although for purposes of classification it is possible and legitimate to distinguish between “rule-based” regimes and “discretion-based” regimes, the distinction can only be one of degree, not of essence. All possible frameworks encompassing a national and an international dimension must include, to a greater or a lesser extent, some rules and some discretion. Without discretion, any system of rules is likely to become unsustainably rigid; without a minimum set of rules, discretion is likely to create a system so disorderly that it cannot endure.

This paper explores this duality from a variety of perspectives. First, a historical road map lays out the periodic swings between those international economic regimes that have emphasized rules and those that have stressed discretion (Section II). Then, the paper turns to the limits and opportunities facing units in an integrated system from the particular standpoint of the international debt crisis, a problem that dominated international economic policy in the previous decade (Section III). This debt discussion stresses the importance of rules and clear boundaries, both internally and externally, for averting moral hazard and other divisive risks. Next, the challenges confronting the former centrally planned economies are examined to bring out two important issues: the extent to which the reform experiences of these economies differ from those of established market economies and the importance of simple and transparent rules for the efficiency of the reform process (Section IV). Following that, the paper examines the continuing effort to create a single European economy; this investigation underscores the extent to which the adoption of broad and concrete rules, which can cut across national taboos concerning autonomy, has acquired momentum in the route toward a unified Europe (Section V). The paper concludes with a search for the appropriate weights to be given to rules and discretion for the successful operation of international economic policy (Section VI).

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