Methodological and normative ideology

Martin Krygier’s response to Waleed Aly’s Quarterly Essay makes an interesting distinction between ‘methodological’ and ‘normative’ conservatism. Methodological conservatism offers what he calls ‘well-nigh universal’ lessons: that the world is complex, that radical change will always have unintended effects, that long-lasting things are likely to have something going for them or at least be ‘sticky’.

‘Normative conservatism’ expresses an ‘attachment to familiar features of the society in which the conservative lives’. The problem with it is that these ‘familiar features’ can be ‘lousy’; other ideologies provide some grounds for discriminating between those that are worth keeping and those which are not. We can accept methodological conservatism, but still recognise that ‘sometimes the disease actually is worse than the cure’.

The distinction can be made for other ideologies as well.

Methodological liberalism contains the claims made by liberal theorists about how the social and especially the economic and political worlds work. These include that tolerance of differing religions and cultures reduces social conflict, that markets as economic co-ordinating mechanisms have information flows and incentives than governments cannot match, that constitutionally divided and democratic governments are more stable and successful than their alternatives.

Normative liberalism includes moral claims by individuals against the community and the state, that private property is preferable to state ownership, and that wealth distribution that is the result of just processes is itself just.

Methodological social democracy includes a range of assumptions about the weak and the strong: that workers are vulnerable to employers, that people are poor mainly due to forces beyond their own control, that women are materially disadvantaged by social attitudes and institutions, that the lives of racial minorities are shaped by discrimination. Methodological social democracy assumes that goverments are generally competent.

Normative social democracy includes claims that the government is morally justified in trying to remedy the weaknesses identified in methodological social democracy, that the wealthy have no strong moral claim to their wealth, that less income inequality is always better no matter what the status quo, and that public ownership and provision is generally preferable to private ownership and provision, especially in core social services.

Though strong belief in the methodological claims of the respective ideologies may incline people to also accept the ideology’s normative claims, as Krygier points out it is possible to at least partially accept an ideology’s methodological claims without also accepting its normative claims.

One way in which social democracy differs from socialism is that social democrats at least partly accept conservative methodological claims about fast and radical changes, and liberal methodological claims about markets and constitutional structures. However social democrats reject much of normative conservatism and liberalism, which tend to accept society as it or as it evolves through the free interaction of individuals, preferring instead to try to partially reshape society according to their vision of how it should look.

Some methodological disputes are normative disputes in disguise. For example the parties to recent macroeconomic controversies about the effectiveness of deficit spending in stabilising economies (an essentially methodological question about how economies work) are closely matched to whether the parties normatively prefer bigger or smaller government. The various left-wing academics lining up to attack the efficient markets hypothesis (an essentially methodological question about how well market prices reflect available information) do so not because they have any real views on this matter, or had even heard of the EMH until recently, but because it seems like a way of discrediting market control and bolstering state control.

Nevertheless, there are likely to be more fruitful debates at the methodological than the normative level. Normative views reflect deep intuitions that come from socialisation, life experience and personality type. These will rarely change by intellectual persuasion; the normative ideologies are more ways for believers to formalise their intuitions and work through their implications than they are ways of persuading non-believers. Normative claims are often beyond evidence.

By contrast, methodological claims about how the world works are more easily open to proof or disproof. The fluctuating fortunes of methodological claims partly explain the ideological cycle in politics. Just as 1970s stagflation damaged methodological assumptions about the competence of government to manage the economy, the GFC has damaged methodological assumptions about the efficiency of markets. But if the liberal methodological claims about the competence of government are correct (think insulation, school buildings) the cycle will eventually turn again.

4 thoughts on “Methodological and normative ideology

  1. In economics we make a distinction between positive economics which deals with describing “what is”, and normative economics which seeks to deal with “what ought to be”.


  2. Brendan – Yes, same basic distinction. In economics the profession tends to play down the normative, while in political theory the normative issues are usually seen as the most important.


  3. Thanks for drawing attention to Krygier’s essay. However, prima facie this distinction doesn’t seem particularly illuminating.

    As you observe, every ideology can be seen to include both “methodological” and “normative” ideas – that is, ideas about how the world is and how it works, and ideas about which values should be pursued and which discouraged. In that respect, conservatism is no different to any other body of political thought.

    But there are at least 2 other dimensions of “conservatism” to consider.

    First, there is what Michael Oakeshott called the “conservative disposition”, which is not about ideas but attachment to familiar things and familiar ways and familiar people – a disposition to prefer the enjoyment of what exists to chasing after some notionally more enjoyable thing that does not yet (and may never) come to be. Oakeshott believed that everybody has this disposition to one extent or another, and if he was correct then this type of conservatism doesn’t need either methodological or normative ideas – it just needs a world full of things (and people) that we would be very sorry to lose.

    Second, there is the fact that even the ideological sort of conservatism is highly particularistic and fragmented in a way that other ideologies do not seem to be. Personally, I think it is a misnomer to speak of conservatism in the singular; there just doesn’t seem to be one single thing called conservatism; and the plurality even goes beyond Wittgenstinian family resemblances. In different places at different times, different peoples have drawn different lines in the sand and cried “enough change! We love X, Y, Z and don’t want to give them up”. Sometimes they have latched onto the same rhetoric to promote their goals, but when you look at the details of each group’s chosen X, Y and Z, they often turn out to be radically incompatible – a la American “Southern agrarians” versus “neo-cons” versus “paleo-conservatives”, or any of them compared with what passes for conservatism in Australia. Often, the only thing that seems to unit two conservatives is the presence of a mutual enemy.

    This doesn’t seem to be the case with other ideologies, e.g. liberalism. The causes of American “liberals” today seem similar – at least at the level of basic principles — to those of English and Australian left-liberals, and to those of the left-liberals of a few generations ago. And religious liberals also seem to favour much the same causes as secular liberals (greater equality for women, greater acceptance of gays, greater freedom to dissent…). Likewise, in the last few decades classical liberals seem to have pushed the same causes, wherever they have been, just with circumstantially different priorities. But when it comes to different conservatisms, even the principles are different.


  4. Alan – I fully agree that conservatism is particularistic. But within this diversity, I am inclined to think that the methodological/normative distinction will often apply.

    Perhaps ‘normative’ is the wrong word for a ‘disposition’, though I suggest that for other ideologies there are disposition-like feelings underlying the norms.


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