Category Archives: civic theory

the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right

In public debates about issues and problems, we typically consider institutions in two ways. On the one hand, we discuss their explicit purposes and missions, as reflected in the laws that create and govern them or (if they are autonomous) their mission statements and express goals. We ask whether these purposes are good and, if not, how we should change them. On the other hand, we discuss the institutions’ outcomes: what they actually achieve.

For instance, in public debates about public schools, we debate what they explicitly strive for (producing citizens? boosting the economy?) and what they really accomplish in terms of outcomes for students.

We are then frustrated because institutions do not seem to produce their intended outcomes, nor do reforms move them in the intended directions. This may be because of a set of well-known phenomena:

  • Path-dependence: Once an institution has developed in a certain way, shifting it is expensive and difficult.
  • Principal/agent problems: People in institutions have their own interests and agendas (which need not always be selfish); and there is a gap between their assigned roles and their actual goals.
  • Institutional isomorphism: Even when institutions are set up to be self-governing, they come to resemble each other. Witness the striking similarities among America’s 50 state governments or more than 5,000 colleges and universities.
  • Rent-seeking: People within existing institutions often extract goods from others just by virtue of their positions. Economists call these payments “rents.”
  • Bounded rationality: The individuals who operate within institutions have limited information about relevant topics, including the rest of their own institution. Information is costly, and it’s rational not to collect too much.
  • Voting paradoxes: No system for aggregating individual choices by voting yields consistently defensible results.
  • The Iron Law of Oligarchy: Even in organizations explicitly devoted to egalitarian democracy (the classic examples are socialist parties), a few highly-committed and tightly networked leaders almost always rule.
  • Epistemic Injustice: Knowledge is produced by institutions–not (for the most part) by individuals–and institutions favor knowledge that is in their own interests.

New Institutionalists emphasize and explore these phenomena. Their findings suggest either that citizens (meaning everyone who deliberates about how to improve the social world) should become much more attentive to these features of institutions, or else that we are incapable of social analysis because it is just too hard for millions of people to deconstruct millions of institutions. In the latter case, we should abandon ambitious theories of public deliberation and democracy.

New Institutionalism is heterogeneous. For one thing, it is ideologically diverse. Scholars who write about rent-seeking and voting paradoxes are often coded as right-wing, and sometimes they attribute rents mainly to governmental entities as opposed to markets. (Still, those of us on the left should take this issue seriously if we want to design governments that work for people). Scholars who write about Epistemic Injustice are often coded as left-wing; this idea emerged in feminism. The Iron Law of Oligarchy originated on the left, too, with Robert Michels.

New Institutionalism is diverse in other ways apart from ideology. For instance, the version that emerged from Rational Choice Theory is methodologically individualist. It models institutions as the result of interactions among individuals who have distinct goals and limited information. Some other versions of New Institutionalism are explicitly critical of methodological individualism. They attribute causal roles to institutions as opposed to individuals.

There is also a debate about determinism versus chance and choice. Historical institutionalists often emphasize the contingency of outcomes. Due to a random confluence of circumstances at a pivotal moment, an institution gets on a “path” that persists. In contrast, institutionalists who use rational-choice analysis often try to demonstrate that a given institution is in equilibrium, which implies that it almost had to take the form that it does.

Given this heterogeneity, we might begin to wonder whether New Institutionalism is a thing at all. Here is an alternative view: Institutions matter, but so do ideas, values, climates of opinion, identities, technologies, demographic changes, and biophysical feedback (e.g., climate change). Because many factors are relevant, there is often a moment when someone needs to say, “We have been neglecting institutions!” This person usually fails to find adequate resources in the “old” institutionalist authors: Weber, Veblen, Michels, et al. So she naturally calls herself a “New Institutionalist.”

In that case, New Institutionalism is not a movement or a phase in intellectual history. It is a recurrent stance or trope in debates since ca. 1900. As Elizabeth Sanders writes:

Attention to the development of institutions has fluctuated widely across disciplines, and over time. Its popularity has waxed and waned in response to events in the social/economic/political world and to the normal intradisciplinary conflicts of ideas and career paths. … Some classic works that analyze institutions in historical perspective have enjoyed a more or less continuous life on political science syllabi. Books by Max Weber, Maurice Duverger, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Locke, Woodrow Wilson, Robert McCloskey, and Samuel Beer are prominent examples.

Elizabeth Sanders, “Historical Institutionalism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (2008)

Still, a case can be made that we are in the midst (or perhaps the wake) of a New Institutionalist Movement. Sanders observes that classic theories of institutions were “increasingly sidelined … with the rise of behaviorism after the Second World War, particularly with the emergence of survey research and computer technology. …. However, after a hiatus of several decades, the study of institutions in historical perspective reemerged in political science in the 1970s, took on new, more analytical, epistemological characteristics, and flowered in the 1980s and 1990s. Why this reemergence?”

I’d give a slightly different answer from hers. I would note that several ideologies were influential from ca. 1945-1980. Here I don’t define an “ideology” as a form of invidious bias, nor as a mere basket of ideals. It is a more-or-less harmonious combination of ideals, causal theories, grand narratives, exemplary cases and models, and favored institutions. It makes sense of the world and motivates change, including positive change.

By that definition, liberalism, wealth-maximizing utilitarianism, democratic socialism, deliberative or participatory democracy, and Leninism were all ideologies. But none took sufficient account of the phenomena listed above. None was Institutionalist, in that sense. And all have been set back on their heels by the increasing strength and plausibility of Institutionalist research.

This my basis for claiming that New Institutionalism is a movement with consequences. Almost all of the ideological options available in 1968 or 1980 are less confident, less coherent, and less prominent today, thanks in significant measure to Institutionalist analysis conducted since then.

This account applies strongly to the stance that I grew up with: deliberative democracy. It originated in normative political philosophy plus small-scale voluntary experiments that succeeded in their own terms. It never attended enough to Institutionalism, and it now looks increasingly naive.

The main exception is classical liberalism/libertarianism. In the political domain, this ideology faces at least as much trouble as the others do. The libertarian-leaning (but never consistent) Republican Party has been taken over by authoritarian nationalists. However, in the intellectual domain–in the classroom–libertarianism has offered a coherent answer to New Institutionalism. It holds that all the flaws of institutions are worse in monopolistic state organizations than in markets. It can even explain why this insight is not more broadly understood: state schools and nonprofit colleges are run by rent-seekers who oppose libertarian ideas.

I dissent on several grounds (as do thoughtful classical liberals), but I’d still venture that classical liberals weathered New Institutionalism better than their rivals did, which explains a certain confidence in their ranks from ca. 1980-2008.

But now classical liberalism faces the same threat as all the other ideologies. The movement that is being called Populism (although I’d apply that word to other traditions, too) is perfectly calibrated for a world explained by New Institutionalism. Populism begins by denouncing all the institutions around us as corrupt because they unaccountably fail to generate their promised outcomes. It attributes this failure to the treason of elites: people well situated within existing institutions. It describes a homogeneous “us” (usually a racial or national group) that has been betrayed by “them,” the elites and foreigners. And it endorses a strong leader who fights for us against them. It dismisses specific institutional analyses as mere excuses and envisions a simple system that avoids all such Institutionalist problems. In this system, the authentic citizens constitute a unified majority; they select a leader in an occasional vote; and the leader rules.

In the face of this challenge, what are our options?

  • We could embrace the right-wing authoritarian populism. That is morally repugnant. Also, it won’t actually work over the long run.
  • We could ignore the findings of New Institutionalism and barrel ahead with an ideology like deliberative democracy or social democracy. I don’t think that’s smart.
  • We could count on elites to address the flaws of the institutions they lead. I don’t think that will happen, not only because elites are untrustworthy but also because these flaws are hard to fix.
  • We could beat the right-wing populists in other ways: by revealing their corruption, seizing on their missteps, or just running better candidates. This is important, but what happens after a Putin, an Orban, or a Trump?
  • We could re-engineer the institutions we care about by giving more attention to New Institutionalist insights. I think European social democrats have done so, to a degree. Social welfare programs in the Eurozone reflect concerns about path-dependence, feedback loops, principal/agent issues, etc. Deliberative democrats could, likewise, build deliberative institutions that take more account of such problems. This is a worthy approach but it requires compromises. For instance, social democratic systems may have to be less egalitarian to enlist the support of wealthy constituencies. And deliberative democratic forums may have to be made less democratic, for similar reasons.
  • We could enlist a wider range of people than just “elites” to work on the problems of specific institutions. We could make the solutions democratic. That is valuable but a long and slow process.
  • We could educate the public about the inner workings of institutions, their pathologies and solutions. That is important but hard.

I see our work in Civic Studies as a combination of the last two responses.

See also: teaching about institutions, in a prison; a template for analyzing an institution; decoding institutions; a different approach to human problems; fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; separating populism from anti-intellectualism; against methodological individualism.

The Role of Social Movements in Fostering Sounder Public Judgment

Public Agenda has released the first papers in their series on “Sounder Public Judgment.” Among them is my paper on “The Role of Social Movements in Fostering Sounder Public Judgment.” It’s a short essay but it has several objectives:

  1. To encourage people who sit within formal institutions, such as my own university, to analyze and respond to social movements better. Movements are not just bunches of protesters; they have structures and norms that can be admirable or problematic and that deserve attention.
  2. To encourage proponents of deliberation (or, more generally, good discourse and conversation) to see social movements–including radical movements–as essential components of a deliberative society. There may be a tension between cause-driven movements and the institutions (such as newspapers and universities) that pursue impartiality; but a deliberative society needs both.
  3. To encourage social-movement participants to understand the value of deliberation within their movements and in the broader society, and to take advantage of the expertise and techniques of the people and organizations that directly promote deliberation.

I also took the opportunity to put my SPUD framework in print again:

See also: the value of diversity and discussion within social movements; social movements of the sixties, seventies, and today; deliberation depends on social movements; a sketch of a theory of social movements; What is the appropriate role for higher education at a time of social activism?; pay attention to movements, not just activists and events; Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism; we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)

new chapter on Elinor Ostrom and Civic Studies

A newly published volume: Ostrom’s Tensions: Reexamining the Political Economy and Public Policy of Elinor C. Ostrom, edited by Paul Dragos Aligica, Peter J. Boettke, and Roberta Q. Herzberg.

I contribute a chapter entitled “’What Should We Do?’ The Bloomington School and the Citizen’s Core Question.”

I argue that Elinor Ostrom’s thought offers powerful resources for people who see themselves as active members of communities (“citizens”). I discuss her emphasis on means, not ends; her vantage point as a citizen, not a state; how she deals with value questions in policy; and her work as a complement to deliberative theory and non-violent social movement theory (Habermas and Gandhi).

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha

Guha’s biography is the essential work on Gandhi: much more detailed, better researched, and more persuasive than the earlier biographies that I know of. Volume Two, focusing on India, is 1,104 pages long but moves at a brisk pace. It’s detailed but never ponderous. The story is often suspenseful, even if you know how it will turn out in broad outlines. For example, just when all seems lost, Gandhi suddenly pulls off the Salt March. And the end of his life has the inexorability of a classical tragedy.

Guha generally proceeds chronologically, but now and then he pauses for an essay on a special topic, such as “Gandhi’s personal faith, his personal morality, as expressed in his words and actions in this decade of the 1920s.” The narrative is enlivened by numerous quotations from original documents, many never printed before. Along with Gandhi’s voice, we hear an amazing range of human beings who interacted with him or commented on him in one way or another, from Black American pastors to anarchists to the advertisers who used his silhouette as a brand.

One of the larger themes that emerged for me was Gandhi as polemicist. The Mahatma relished arguments, even though some of his opponents alienated and infuriated him. You could summarize his thought by capturing his long-lived debates with a few key rivals, especially B.R. Ambedkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But he also sparred with many others.

For instance, I love to think of Margaret Sanger, the sex educator and popularizer of the phrase “birth control,” staying in Gandhi’s ashram and arguing with the celibate old man about first-wave feminism:

‘both seemed to be agreed that woman should be emancipated, that woman should be the arbiter of her destiny’. But whereas Mrs Sanger believed that contraceptives were the safest route to emancipation, Gandhi argued that women should resist their husbands, while men for their part should seek to curb ‘animal passion’. (p. 585)

Sanger was just one of scores of such visitors.

Guha is even-handed, judicious, and open-minded. Only at the end, in an epilogue on contemporary interpretations of Gandhi, does he emerge as a defender of his subject. By then, Guha has explored many flaws, errors, and vices, but he insists that Gandhi was far more complex and responsive than some of his critics have been. For instance:

[Arundhati Roy] presented Gandhi as a thoroughgoing apologist for caste, further arguing that this was in line with his views on race. Gandhi, she suggested, was casteist in India because he had been racist in South Africa. Roy claimed that Gandhi ‘feared and despised Africans’; this he certainly did in his twenties, but just as certainly did not in his forties and fifties. Reading Roy, one would not know that Gandhi decisively outgrew the racism of his youth, a fact that people of colour themselves acknowledged, and appreciated. … Roy has all of Ambedkar’s polemical zeal but none of his scholarship or sociological insight. … [She seeks] —by the technique of suppressio veri, suggestio falsi so beloved of ideologues down the ages—to prove a verdict they have arrived at beforehand.” (p. 876)

In contrast, Guha situates Gandhi in his time and cultural context, appreciates the Mahatma’s critics and opponents, explores his flaws and limitations (and occasional weirdness) at length, and paints a real-life portrait–which thereby emerges as a portrait of greatness.

Guha, Ramachandra. Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. See also: the question of sacrifice in politics (on Gandhi and Ambedkar); Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends; Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends; and notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King

Garret Hardin and the extreme right

Garret Hardin’s 1968 Science article entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been cited more than 40,000 times. It is appropriately influential, since the problem he analyzed is pervasive and profound. The example of global warming could kill us all, as could the example with which he began his article: the nuclear arms race.

Hardin saw ubiquitous “tragedies,” situations defined by the “solemnity of the relentless working of things,” “the inevitableness of destiny,” and “the futility of escape” (quoting Alfred North Whitehead). That stance provoked Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues to identify solutions. In place of the tragedy of the commons, Ostrom observed a drama that may end as either a comedy or a tragedy, depending on how we act. I find her response to Hardin extraordinarily important.

Several recent articles have explored Hardin’s apparent connection to radical anti-immigration campaigns. These articles have been prompted by the El Paso murderer’s writings (which have environmentalist echoes) plus the recent death of John Tanton, the founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Tanton was inspired by Hardin, who served on the FAIR board. See, for example, Matto Mildenberger, “The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons (subtitled: “The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamaphobe—plus his argument was wrong”) and Alexander C. Kaufman, “The El Paso Manifesto: Where Racism and Eco-Facism Meet.”

I don’t have extra insights into Hardin and have not directly evaluated the charges in these articles. But I have long wondered about the strange normative claims in the “Tragedy of the Commons” article.

For instance, at one point, Hardin considers whether a system of private property plus legal inheritance is just. He answers that it is not, because “legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance–that those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more.” Instead, in our system, “an idiot can inherit millions,” which we “must admit” is unjust, although it does help to prevent a tragedy of the commons by protecting property rights (p. 1247).

Hardin says that this conclusion about justice follows from his training as a biologist. But biology cannot demonstrate that the biologically fittest deserve the most property. Biology should not yield normative conclusions at all. From the perspective of science–the study of nature–there is no justice, not even a reason to prefer environmental sustainability over a tragedy of the commons.

One reason that some people try to derive ethics from biology is naturalism: they posit that there can be no truths about right and wrong, only truths about nature that science uncovers. Therefore, we should replace any ethical claims with scientific ones. In my view, this is misguided, but it isn’t necessarily pernicious; plenty of people who hold decent values are naturalists, in this sense of the word.

A different reason is some kind of enthusiasm for Darwinian nature, understood as a realm of power and selection-of-the-fittest, in contrast to our debased societies that coddle the weak. This is not naturalism but evil. Reading “The Tragedy of the Commons” many times, I always assumed that Hardin was a naturalist, but now I wonder if he was at least tinged by evil.

See also: Seeing Like a Citizen: The Contributions of Elinor Ostrom to “Civic Studies”; against inevitability; is all truth scientific truth?; and does naturalism make room for the humanities?.