from classical liberalism to a civic perspective

Earlier this summer, I was in the van Mises Room in the Friedrich von Hayek Program in the James Buchanan Building at George Mason University, talking about my intellectual hero, Elinor Ostrom, who learned a great deal from Hayek and Buchanan. This is a sketch of how I presented my own position. By the way, the audience was ideologically diverse, and each attendee held nuanced views; but I wanted to say something about the people for whom the space was named.

Hayek objected to thinking about “social justice” for two reasons that I endorse. First, no person or group has nearly enough cognitive or moral capacity to decide what everyone deserves across a whole society. Second, thinking about “social justice” encourages ideas about what the state should do to make the society just and to keep it just. I’ve collected quotations from a wide range of political theorists who move quickly from ideas of social justice to blueprints for states. There’s an interesting “tell” in Philip Pettit’s influential book Republicanism when he distinguishes between the objectives of “the authorities” (people who exercise power in a republican system) from what “we, as system designers” seek. He imagines his readers to be system-designers, but we are not that. We are participants in existing systems. And if we had the power to design and enact a real polity, we should be primarily concerned with humility and with placing limits on our own power to dictate to others. Hundreds of millions of people were shot or gassed in the 1900s by people who thought their job was to design polities and who had opportunities to do so.

The main question that confronts us is what should we do, not what regime should we live in. If I could choose which country I’d like mine to resemble–Denmark, Burkina Faso, or North Korea?–I would vote for Denmark. But I don’t need an elaborate theory to help me answer that question, nor do I need a theoretical rationale for my choice. Interestingly, everyone from a classical liberal to a social democrat would concur. It appears that well- designed, balanced regimes that rest on strong civic cultures optimize both freedom and equality.

I can vote on whether to make the US a little more like Denmark, and that is the way I usually choose to vote (i.e., for candidates of the left or center-left in our system). But my vote is far from the most consequential civic decision I make, and those candidates won’t redesign our regime. Like me, they are embedded in complex systems that they seek to adjust from where they are.

However, none of the above means that we should cease assessing the justice, fairness, and desirability of the situations that we observe around us. In fact, we must not only assess but try to remedy the injustices we see. That is our duty as ethical persons. We can think about social justice as members of a society, not as designers of it.

In a polycentric world, we are participants in many overlapping and nested political, economic, cultural, linguistic, and natural systems, all at once. We are immanent in these systems but we can influence them. We have moves to make in the “games” that we find ourselves in, but we can also change the rules or shift to different games. We are public entrepreneurs who can choose where and how to exercise leverage.

As such, we have much to gain from Vincent and Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School of Political Economy. First, we obtain the concept of polycentricity itself and a theory of ourselves as a participants in numerous interrelated systems. Second, the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework gives us a way of identifying the “action arenas,” “contexts,” “actors,” etc. that we must understand in order to be effective. Third, the list of design principles that Lin Ostrom and colleagues gleaned from experiments and observations is not only useful for practice–which it is–but it also exemplifies a process of gleaning rule-of-thumb guidelines from complex reality.

Yet the Bloomington School does not suffice. It focuses on certain problems that confront groups of people–e.g., how to encourage contributions and discourage free-riding–but not on other problems, such as how to deal with disagreements about principles or about the justice of boundaries among groups. The School offers a response to power asymmetries (basically, the classical liberal response of reducing concentrated power and encouraging people to manage their own concerns at the local level). This response is important but it doesn’t satisfy me as way of dealing with massive disparities in wealth and power or oppressive mentalities and norms.

Finally, the Bloomington School’s concrete suggestions (when abstracted from its philosophical background) are too value-neutral. The design principles, for example, would be just as useful for fascists as for democrats; just as useful for a cocaine cartel as for a community hospital.

We need to know what is right. As human beings, we lack direct access to certainties about ethics and justice. Our intuitions and are badly fallible. Most of our forebears had terrible values, and we are also subject to error for the same reasons they were. The best we can do is to listen and learn from people who have different values and interests from our own. Under the heading of “listening and learning,” I include not only discourse and deliberation but also art and narrative.

Thus we need a theory of communication, a theory that helps us to avoid propaganda and ideology, to distinguish good rhetorical moves from bad ones, and to design good formats for discussion (broadly defined). For that theory, I’d look to the Frankfurt School more than the Bloomington School, to Habermas more than the Ostroms.

And both the Frankfurt School and the Bloomington School are most helpful for relatively stable situations in which a community exists and faces problems of collective action or of disagreement. These schools are less helpful for moments when a community needs to be formed, when some people are excluded from a community that they have a right to join, or when some people want to exit a system that they find oppressive. For these situations, we need the tradition of nonviolent civil resistance represented by Gandhi and King. I come to that tradition without a fixed commitment to pacifism (I happen to think that some wars are just). Instead, I believe we can learn general principles from cases in which people forego violence yet still confront power.

The Bloomington School offers a framework: a cluster of theories, models, theses, and findings. I think we need a larger framework that encompasses the Bloomington School plus theories of deliberation and of nonviolence.

See also: social justice from the citizen’s perspectiveagainst state-centric political theorythe legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II).

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.