Accountability in an Unequal World


Jennifer Rubenstein is a post-doctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows and lecturer in politics, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544.


According to the “standard model” of accountability, holding another actor accountable entails sanctioning that actor if it fails to fulfill its obligations without a justification or excuse. Less powerful actors therefore cannot hold more powerful actors accountable, because they cannot sanction more powerful actors. Because inequality appears unlikely to disappear soon, there is a pressing need for “second-best” forms of accountability: forms that are feasible under conditions of inequality, but deliver as many of the benefits of standard accountability as possible. This article describes a model of second-best accountability that fits this description, which I call “surrogate accountability.” I argue that surrogate accountability can provide some of the benefits of standard accountability, but not others, that it should be evaluated according to different normative criteria than standard accountability, and that, while surrogate accountability has some benefits that standard accountability lacks, it is usually normatively inferior to standard accountability.