Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dialogus de Beijing Consensus -- The Beijing Consensus reloaded: Optimo on Experimentalism


We turn now to a second version of the argument that the so-called Beijing Consensus potentially represent a development model that contrasts with the Washington Consensus. This second version is based on the idea that this model is primarily based on experimentalism. 

Pessimo's previous post does not address whether there is experimentalism in China or somewhere else. Instead, Pessimo offers a challenge to the idea that experimentalism could potentially serve as a model for development. 

Pessimo's first argument against experimentalism as a model is the fact that it does not help us deal with the normative questions of development. In other words, experimentalism does not help us define the ends of development. Thus, its utility would be limited to situations in which the ends are already defined, which are often not the major problem that developing countries are confronting, according to Pessimo. 

Optimo's first reaction to Pessimo's point is to ask whether it would be even possible to develop a model to define ends. As Pessimo acknowledges, any attempt to define the goals of development and what a society is ultimately aiming at achieving, is highly dependent on the political, cultural and social context. Thus, abandoning the idea that there could or should be a model to define the ends of development may actually be the beginning of a much more promising conversation than the one that the development field has experienced thus far. Indeed, Optimo would argue that the fact that experimentalism seems to have abandoned the intention to define ends, and has focused instead on means, is not only a differentiating feature of this model over the Washington Consensus model, but it may actually be considered a significant upgrade, as development models go. It is a model that is aware of its limits and operates within realistic boundaries.

This is not to say that the search for a way to define and determine the ends of development is futile and should be abandoned. On the contrary, the entire development enterprise operates under the assumption that there is some search for a common goals of some sort, lest the concept of development becoming so diluted as to encompass "anybody's notion of utopia". But it may as well be the case that the model that will help us search for the ends is not and should not be the same as the one that will help us deal with the means. Thus, Optimo would advance the idea that experimentalism can still survive as a model, despite not helping us with the pressing normative questions that Pessimo correctly highlights in the last post. 

The second point raised by Optimo is the incompatibility between development in a national legal system and experimentalism: the former would intrinsically involve a top-down process that is antithetical to the central tenants of experimentalism. Optimo also disagrees with the premise of this statement, as it fails to distinguish between form and substance. One could argue that the substance of experimentalism is indeed context dependent, but the form is not. Thus, there is a dimension of the process that remains top-down, which is the formal dimensions -- i.e. what is the process through which actors may find the appropriate means to achieve predefined ends. The beauty of experimentalism is the fact that we may arrive at different solutions through the same process, thus being able to share lessons while at the same time remaining context-dependent. 

Regarding this last point, there is a recent article by Kevin Davis and Mariana Prado suggesting that experimentalism and other recent theories represent a move away from substantive commonalities, towards meta-principles. Since context-dependency prevents a productive conversation about shared lessons and transplanted solutions, the conversation may be more productive moving from the substance of development policies to its form. The idea of meta-principles captures this move. Acknowledging that, law and development theories are now focusing on the procedural and formal aspects of reforms, rather than the content. This is exactly what experimentalism seems to be doing. So, there is still a role for the "development facilitator located internationally", in the words of Pessimo.

Regarding the national legal system and its compatibility with experimentalism, Pessimo also argues that national policies would not be possible, because experimentalism is intrinsically connected with decentralization. Optimo thinks that the experimentation and decentralization may go together or not. And to make that point with an specific example from China, it is interesting to take a look at the work of Chenggang Xu from the University of Hong Kong. Xu argues that decentralization and experimentation are different features. While both have been present in China, their combination created a particular type of decentralization that is unique to that country (see the published version here and a previous draft that can be read for free here). 

What are the examples of experimentalism? One example was land reform in the late 1970s, which was initially done at the local level. According to Xu, when the local experimentation "was endorsed by the central government, they were implemented by all levels of government nationwide". Contrary to Pessimo, Optimo does not see any problem in calling this experimentalism. To be sure, Xu indicates that such experimentation was more prominent at the earlier stages of reform, and was significantly reduced as higher levels of economic growth were achieved. Still, the fact that such experimentation took place still suggest that there is something that could be potentially called the Beijing Consensus that would be based on experimentation.

In sum, Optimo remains and optimist that Beijing can offer something useful to other developing nations!