Monday, December 22, 2014

Dialogus de Beijing Consensus -- Optimo on the Ends and Means of Experimentalism


In the last post, Pessimo provided some illuminating comments about what is often portrayed as an example of experimentalism: land reform in China. Pessimo challenges the widespread idea that there was much experimentation in this process, and I wonder if these have been developed in an academic paper somewhere. If not, they should be!

More important than challenging the concrete example of China as a development model (which is beyond the scope of our debate, as we indicated earlier), Pessimo also raises an important question about whether experimentalism can serve as a model for development. Pessimo's argues that experimentalism cannot bracket the normative issues, which are currently the most pressing issues in the field. 

In the words of Pessimo:

Law is a strongly normative phenomenon, and even the most hard-core positivists (like Pessimo) seem to have great difficultly separating the normative from the positive / procedural.  Almost all of the law and development projects that I am aware of have ultimately been informed strong normative understandings.  I would therefore at least hypothesize that experimentalism distinct difficulty with the normative may be a significantly more problematic feature in the context of law and development than it is in other areas of development. 

I just want to clarify that I am not diminishing the importance of addressing normative issues. The sheer fact that I am proposing experimentalism as model for development has already a normative undertone. The issue is whether we can separate the discussion of ends and means when contemplating a model for development. Pessimo's post seems to suggest that this separation is not feasible (and perhaps not desirable). Optimo, in contrast, is suggesting the opposite. 

So, let me try to illustrate how such separation would operate with a concrete example. The discussion about Rule of Law (ROL) in development circles has provided us with a myriad of definitions of ROL. Some authors have usefully distinguished between thick and thin definitions of ROL. Thin definitions are primarily procedural, e.g. if rules are applied impartially and equally to all parties involved, one could claim that there is ROL, regardless of the content of these rules. The criticism to thin definitions is that abusive and dictatorial regimes can easily meet these criteria. To address this criticism, thick definitions incorporate not only procedural features, but also substantive ones. Thick definitions are then criticized for searching to something akin to a universal concept of justice, and reducing the possibility of context dependent solutions.  

While Pessimo seems to be asking for a thick concept of experimentalism -- i.e. a type of experimentalism that would help us define means and ends, or procedure and substance -- I am proposing that we can use a thin one, i.e. a procedural form of experimentalism. Thus, the ends of the experiment would be defined somewhere else, and this process does not need to be an experimental one. In sum, according to this thin concept of experimentalism, once the ends have been defined, an experimental process should be used to try to achieve these ends. 

If one adopts the thin concept of experimentalism that I am proposing here as a model for development, it is possible to address two criticisms raised by Pessimo. 

First, in the context of the Chinese reform, Pessimo says that that fact that the reforms were not new is antithetical to the raison d'etre of experimentalism. I do not think that this is the case. The substance of the reforms does not need to be new. What is required is a spirit of experimentation, i.e. the idea that reforms will be reverted and revised, if they do not work. 

Second, Pessimo claims that the fact that the end of the reform was predetermined (i.e. there would be free market in China) defeats that purpose of experimentation. As I argued here, this is only a problem if one subscribes to a thick concept of experimentation, i.e. means and ends need to be defined through experimentation. According to the thin concept of experimentation, however, the ends can be defined according to other processes, and these may even be political processes. Experimentation comes only as the procedure according to which one will find the means to achieve these ends.

In sum, despite Pessimo's pessimism, Optimo remains optimist that we can use experimentalism as a model for development!  

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