Methodological and normative liberalism (A review of Mark Pennington’s Robust political economy)

This review was published in Policy in 2011.

A review of Robust Political Economy: Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy by Mark Pennington, Edward Elgar Publishing 2011

The UNSW academic Martin Krygier draws a useful distinction between the ‘methodological’ and the ‘normative’ aspects of political ideologies. The methodological aspects are theories about how the world works, while the normative aspects are theories about which values are most important. The two have a complex relationship. The normative ideal of socialism, equality between people, continues to resonate even though socialism is methodologically discredited, its institutions overwhelmingly thought ‘not to work’. The methodological ideas of conservatism (Krygier’s example) about the unanticipated and often unwelcome consequences of radical change provide useful insights, even for people who might find conservatism’s ‘normative’ aspects, such as support for religious values, unappealing

Mark Pennington’s book Robust Political Economy puts him in the school of classical liberal thought that emphasises methodological claims. Mainly following Friedrich Hayek , Pennington focuses on the institutional implications of  limited human cognitive capacities and, to a lesser extent, limited moral motivations. The strands of classical liberalism or libertarianism that make normative rights-based arguments are largely absent from his book, while the normative arguments of left-liberalism, as found in the work of John Rawls or Ronald Dworkin, are present but criticised on methodological grounds. Pennington’s liberalism is one that starts with Adam Smith and David Hume, rather than John Locke. 

Pennington’s cryptic title, ‘robust political economy,’ refers to his key test for comparing economic, political and social institutions: how ‘robust’ they are to our cognitive and moral weaknesses.  The book’s key contention is that liberal institutions—private property, a market economy and limited government are robust to these weaknesses, that they work fairly well even when our individual knowledge is limited and we are prone to neglect the interests of others. Moreover, they work better than the institutions proposed by rival economic and political theories.

The comparative element of Pennington’s argument is important. He is not saying that liberal institutions completely solve the ‘knowledge problem’ or prevent unethical behaviour. Compared to an ideal situation, liberal institutions will be found wanting. Compared to the realistic alternatives, liberal institutions look more attractive. In dealing with basic human limitations, we have better or worse options, not complete solutions.  Classical liberalism is the better option.

The first rival theory Pennington examines in detail will surprise some readers: neo-classical economics.  For many critics of liberalism, neo-classical economics and classical liberalism are conflated into ‘neoliberalism.’ In policy terms, the confusion is often understandable. Neo-classical economists have often supported the market policy solutions also favoured by classical liberals. There is a shared normative bias in favour of satisfying individual preferences.

Yet as Pennington rightly points out, neo-classical theory assumes that the full benefits of markets exist only when there is perfect information and perfect competition. As these rarely exist in the real world, neo-classical economics provides ready justifications for government interventions to correct ‘market failures’ caused by under-informed consumers and less than fully competitive markets. Yet on Hayek’s analysis (which Pennington supports), this is the wrong way of looking at markets. Markets are discovery mechanisms, in which people learn about as well as satisfy preferences. Profit and loss signal to producers what and how much should be produced. Markets are valuable institutions in part because they can coordinate this highly decentralised knowledge.

Switching from economics to politics, Pennington considers the challenge to liberal institutions from theorists of ‘deliberative democracy.’ The key idea behind deliberative democracy is that ‘aggregative’ institutions, where outcomes are the sum of individual preferences (markets and to a lesser extent current democratic politics), should make way for ‘dialogic’ institutions where people get together in conditions of equality to deliberate on common ends. Deliberative democracy is seen by its supporters as an alternative to both liberal individualism and central planning.

Pennington argues that deliberative democracy fails a ‘robust political economy’ test. It obliges citizens to keep themselves informed, despite the high opportunity costs and low rewards from doing so. Deliberative democracy consumes time without necessarily producing influence. It asks people to be more saintly in their devotion to deliberation than is at all realistic.

Deliberative democrats support ‘voice’—staying within institutions to change them, over ‘exit’ –individuals leaving institutions that no longer satisfy them. Yet exit mechanisms can use tacit information that individuals cannot articulate in ways that would persuade others, and favour social learning by letting individuals try new things. Exit mechanisms let minorities establish their own institutions, avoiding majorities imposing their own decisions. As Pennington remarks, many once unpopular or downtrodden minorities found space in markets and the voluntary sector long before they achieved democratic political recognition.

Pennington observes that of all the arguments against classical liberalism, the most powerful is that it leaves too little space for ‘social justice’. He applies his key ideas about limited knowledge to the social justice theories of Rawls, Dworkin and Iris Marion Young. Pennington is right that constructing a grand theory of society-level social justice is very difficult. Complex questions of who is disadvantaged, which resources should be redistributed, and how to maintain incentives frustrate plans to redesign society from first principles.

These arguments are well made, but more persuasive against political theorists than real-world ‘social justice’ proposals. These share much with the ‘mosaic’ of private-sector welfare institutions that Pennington praises in a subsequent chapter. Real-world social policy starts with specific issues—people struggling to pay bills, poor educational outcomes, inadequate healthcare—and not blueprints for how society should look.Trial and error reveals which remedies work best. The practical goal is not a socially just end-state, but continual evolution and adaptation in response to problems in people’s lives.

Pennington’s classical liberal critique still applies: compared to private welfare agencies, social democratic states suffer from poor information flows, weak incentives and inefficient decision-making processes. But a social democrat could accept all these methodological points, and still believe that on balance welfare states make a positive difference, because private charity and self-help would leave too many people with too little.

Overall I found Robust Political Economy to be a very good book. It applies core Hayekian ideas to political theory and public policy issues (poverty relief, global governance, and environmental protection) that have emerged or developed since Hayek completed his major work. As Pennington has said elsewhere about his book, it offers a ‘unified theoretical framework’ explaining how classical liberalism responds to range of alternative theories.

A strength of Pennington’s emphasis on methodological issues is that people who do not share classical liberalism’s normative ideas can nevertheless learn from its insights into decentralised decision-making. A sign of this is that many social democrats now see a larger role for markets, marrying their normative commitment to helping the disadvantaged to a liberal methodological understanding of how societies and economies work.

Understanding human cognitive and moral weaknesses is, however, only part of the classical liberal story. Even if government could in some circumstances make better decisions for individuals many classical liberals would still object. Individual rights and liberties are to them important whether or not they always lead to better consequences. Their normative support for freedom comes first. Methodological arguments can reach out to classical liberalism’s opponents, but they do not fully explain what drives the political commitments of classical liberals themselves.

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