Recipes for the cook-shops of the future

March 13, 2019

A few thoughts on the project of political-economic institution design.

I guess you can think of a spectrum of ‘large-scale’ political transformations – those that make changes within an existing institutional framework (say, increasing the budget for a specific program, or reducing it for another); and those that transform the institutional framework itself. It’s a spectrum because it’s sort of unclear at what point tweaks within an institutional framework turn into transformations of the relevant institutions – one person’s transformation is another person’s tweak. But still – one of the things that people do, in politics, is propose changes to institutions, large and small. And one of the things political actors do – or try to do – is actually change those institutions.

I guess you can say that a lot of ‘policy’ literature exists on the ‘tweak’ half of the institutional change spectrum (whether tweaks large or small): ‘reformist’ proposals that aspire to modify existing institutions in a way that will better achieve whatever goals. Then there is another tradition – a more ‘revolutionary’ or ‘utopian’ tradition – that aspires to much more dramatic institutional transformation, changing the very category of institutions that structure our political, economic and social worlds.

Both of these approaches have lots of critics, from different bits of the political spectrum. So, for example, there is a prominent critique of ‘planning’, coming primarily from the right, but also from some bits of left, which comes in different shades. One such shade is a cluster of critiques of Soviet-style central planning, which argue that central planning: has a tendency towards authoritarianism; is inefficient; tends to serve the interests of an elite of planners rather than the broader population they purportedly serve; tends to make bad planning decisions due to the myopia associated with elite class fractions; tends to make bad planning decisions due to the intrinsic difficulty or impossibility of any, even an idealised, planner mastering the complexities of a complex society; etc. etc.

This category of critique often involves critique of a specific form of planning – centralised command and control economic planning – and many such critiques only really apply to planning in this sense. However, the broad critique of ‘planning’ can also extend to a critique of much weaker forms of planning than Soviet-style command and control economies. These categories of argument are often levelled against even fairly moderate social-democratic or left-liberal policies, for example. Moreover, various critiques of ‘planning’ can in principle apply to any effort to design political-economic institutions that will better the lives shaped by those institutions. From the perspective of this quite capacious critique of planning, institution-design as such is hubristic in its conviction that the institution designers know enough to design institutions that will improve people’s lives.

Perhaps it helps here to separate out different forms of liberal, conservative, and radical critiques of ‘planning’. One critique, for example – call it the Hayekian critique – emphasises that individuals know better than planners what their own needs and desires are, and that the goal of political-economic institution design should therefore be to facilitate the expression and realisation of those needs and desires, rather than to paternalistically or coercively take such decisions out of individuals’ hands. This argument is often made by advocates of market choice, for example, who argue that the market is an institution well-suited to communicating preferences that would otherwise be unobservable or impossible to adequately respond to, within a more centralised system. From this perspective, the goal of the institution-designer is to establish institutions – such as markets – that facilitate this aggregate social communication and responsiveness to human needs or desires. The planner has a role, but it is a ‘meta’ role, in designing, realising, and safeguarding the institutions that can in turn do the heavy lifting of actual resource allocation, etc.

From a more conservative point of view, this form of institution design itself involves excessive planning. Some conservatives argue that such attempts to design institutional frameworks – however decentralised – are hubristically confident that such institutional planning (including the planning involved in the creation and maintenance of markets) results in institutions superior to those that have either evolved slowly over the centuries and millennia, are the underlying essence or core of an immutable human nature, or have been gifted to humanity by a supernatural order. From these perspectives, our goal should be to interfere as little as we can in ‘natural’ institutions, whether that nature is identified with historical stability, transhistorical essence, or divine order. This tension between different forms of conservative (liberal, traditionalist, religious) orientation to institutions has much to do with the tensions in conservative political coalitions.

At the same time, there are a range of critiques of planning that often come from a more leftist, or radical, ideological tradition. There is a class critique of planners as managerialists. There is a broader anarchist tradition that sees planning in general – even in weak forms – as a recipe for domination. There are traditions that aspire to ‘drop out’ of large-scale political-economic institutions altogether, establishing alternative communities where problems of institution-design must be considered at the local level if at all. And there are ‘voluntarist’ traditions that see the desire for planning as an effort to pre-empt the decisions and insights that will be generated in practice, as a component of political struggle or as wisdom forged in the heat of revolution.

One of the phrases that is sometimes cited by (some of) these more radical traditions comes from Marx’s Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital I. There, responding to critics of the first edition of Capital I, Marx mocks the idea that Capital – an analysis of the dynamics of the capitalist system and of associated ideological perspectives – should also have included a set of blueprints for an alternative future society:

the Paris Revue Positiviste reproaches me in that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing recipes (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.

Marx’s narrow point here is that expecting Capital to provide a blueprint of a future society is to mistake the purpose of the book – but this phrase is often also used (whether in line with Marx’s broader views or not) to express a critique of the idea of preparing ‘recipes’ for the creation of future societies at all.

How seriously should we take such critiques of the project of institution-design – critiques that reproach not a specific institution, but the goal of designing institutions at all? My view is: not seriously enough to actually abandon the project of institution design, but seriously enough to offer a serious set of responses.

Here again I think it’s worth distinguishing different elements of the critique of institution design. The narrow Hayekian critique of planning is, as I said above, not really a critique of institution-design as such, but rather of a particular category of institution: the centrally planned command and control economy. This critique is worth taking very seriously indeed, in my view. The radical or communist left had much of the world’s population across much of the twentieth century as its experimental site, and the project failed, very badly. Of course, this assessment of the 20th century communist project is itself contentious – but it’s my assessment. I think the 21st century left has a responsibility to demonstrate that it has learned the lessons of the 20th century left’s failures and crimes, and has incorporated those lessons into an alternative or at least heavily revised radical project that can be trusted, with good reason, not to make the same mistakes again.

There is also a broader critique of ‘utopian’ leftism, which argues that any effort to radically remake the world is doomed to failure, whether because human nature is intractably flawed, or because unintended consequences inevitably follow from large-scale schemes to change the world. Again, I think these critiques are worth taking seriously. If we want to persuade people that the world can be remade in dramatic ways – and if we then want to actually achieve that remaking of the world – I think we have a responsibility to demonstrate that we’ve thought through the ways in which such transformative projects are likely to fail. Projects that are grounded, for example, in the idea that transformations in society will also transform human interpersonal relations in such a way that kindness and solidarity will prevail where previously all was strife, need to reckon with the charnel house of history, and that fact that utopian project after utopian project has run into the ground of human propensities to cruelty, pettiness, self-interest, etc. etc. Similarly, projects that have grand transformative goals with vague, handwavy mechanisms for achieving those goals can perfectly reasonably be approached with some scepticism, in my view. Plenty of ambitious plans for a better world turn to ashes or worse when confronted with the practical problems of putting ideals into practice. But this is an argument for institution-design, rather than against it. One of the ways we can try to evaluate the credibility of a political project is by evaluating the institutions that are proposed to achieve its goals. Just as ‘reformist’ policy wonks aim to assess the likely impact of tax measures or changes to the healthcare system, using the tools of political-economic and policy analysis, so more radical thinkers should make similar cases to similar ends, in my view.

What about some of the other radical arguments against institution-design – the arguments that to prepare “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” is to betray the radical nature of the radical project – that radical political outcomes should be chosen by the people, and informed by the revolutionary struggle, rather than devised in advance by sub-academic leftist intellectuals?

Here again I think we should take seriously – but not too seriously – this critique of institution design. It is certainly true that history is contingent, the future unpredictable, and that any effort to remake the world that dogmatically adheres to a single solution is likely to be undone by that solution’s poor fit for the exigencies of the historical moment in which it is attempted. Political actors must be responsive to circumstance, and this in itself rules out the rigidity associated with any ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to institution design. Similarly, we should be appropriately modest about the knowledge and wisdom we possess, relative to the knowledge and wisdom possessed by the actors who will ultimately be responsible for attempting to realise our political goals. Political struggle gives insight and experience that may well call forth better judgements than those we can form now. Relatedly, our preferences may change – we should not assume that we know what future political actors will value, even if we are those future political actors, and we should therefore consider the possibility that institutions designed to realise our preferences, will confound the preferences of those who have to inhabit them. All this is worth bearing in mind – and it all gives some weight to the idea that institutions are better forged ‘in practice’ than derived from pre-planned ‘designs’.

And yet these insights can only take us so far, in my view. In particular, these insights point, I think, not to the rejection of the project of institution design, but rather to a degree of humility in its pursuit. We should be aware that one size does not fit all. We should be aware that the political actors responsible for attempting to realise our dreams may know more, and better, than we do. But we should also bear in mind that one of the ways in which those political actors may be better equipped than we are, is that they have the benefit of our ideas, including our institution-design proposals.

In this respect, I think the “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” metaphor works well. Those in the future cook-shops may choose to follow any given recipe or not – but they will be better equipped if they have a broad set of debates and proposals ready to hand. One of the tasks of radicals is to work through political ideas in debate and analysis now, such that those debates and their conclusions are available as a resource for others. This understanding of the project of institution design does not grant excessive wisdom or power to the institution designer – but it also means that political actors are not stranded without intellectual resources at the moment when fateful decisions must be made. Keynes’s famous remark – that

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

– applies not just to heads of state but also to revolutionaries (and reformists). Better that the intellectual resources on which political actors draw are the result of careful thought and pluralist debate now, than are derived from “voices in the air” distilled from who knows what unacknowledged sources. People making decisions about the shape of our political-economic world are typically doing so under conditions of enormous stress – bad decisions are likely, and everything we can do to make those decisions better – and better informed – is desirable.

There is of course a huge amount more to be said about the project of institution design – what it should consist in; how it should be pursued – but the goal of this post is not to get into those debates, but rather to respond to some common objections to the project as a whole. Enough for now.

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