Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dialogus de Beijing Consensus, Pessimo's Summation and Conclusion: 'Whither Beijing Consensus' -- not where you might think!

The Beijing Consensus, including its various derivatives, is not a model, it is a narrative.  Moreover, as a narrative, it is for the most part not particularly about China, nor is it particularly about development.  Rather, it is -- paradoxically -- a story that is primarily about the United States, and about America's place in human evolutionary history.  But this is not necessarily a bad thing.

* * *

In order to understand how this is so, we have to look a bit more closely about the intellectual history of 'development'.   As is well known, the modern law and development movement first emerged in the 1950s as a product of the Cold War.  The idea of development fit quite neatly into the American way of promoting itself vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.  The story was that economic development -- i.e., the development of standards of living and capacities to project political power characteristic of the advanced industrial democracies of the North Atlantic, and particular of the United States -- was the product of a liberal-democratic constitutional order interacting with a laissez-faire capitalist economic order.  Since both liberal democratic constitutionalism and laissez-faire capitalism were distinctly American attributes, 'development' itself came to be seen by many as proof of the practical and moral superiority of American-ness.

The emotional triumph of the American linkage of development, neo-Madisonian constitutionalism, and laissez-faire capitalism was, of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This was, in the famous terminology of Frances Fukayama, proof that human's had finally reached the 'end of history' -- objective proof of the fact that the 'American'[1] linkage of liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism was indeed the only real path to human thriving, and perhaps by extension, proof that the United States' status as the World's  political, economic and ideological hegemon was in fact the morally deserved.  From a developmental perspective, this linkage came to be embodied what become known as the Washington Consensus, a developmental model that -- consistent with American triumphalism -- saw laissez-faire capitalism as silver bullet for economic development.

Of course, either the United States, nor the West, have ever been completely unified behind the American vision.  There have always been significant pockets of intellectual resistance to and dissent from the othodox American economic ideology, not simply as an international agenda, but particularly with the coming of Reagen-Thatcher 'revolution' as a domestic agenda.  Prior to the 1989, such dissent -- what we might call 'economic humanism' -- relied primarily on various versions of Marxism -- generally utopian Marxism in the United States (see, e.g., the Critical Legal Studies movement); structural Marxism in the case of Europe.  But to many in the West, and especially in the United States, the fall of the Berlin Wall was interpreted as a conclusive proof that Marxism, in all its variants, was simply wrong.  With this, the conceptual / and ideological foundation of economic humanism crumbled, particularly in the United States.  Critics had to search for a different narrative on which to frame their critique.

Despite all this, post-Cold-War American triumphalism was short lived.  Most particularly for our story here was the problem of China.  Even after 1989, China appeared to remain stubbornly non-liberal, both economically and politically, but also appeared to be experiencing significant developmental success.  Through 1997, the American / Western developmental orthodoxy was able to ignore the conceptual threat of China because of evolutionary ambiguities in the Chinese political-economic system.  Sure, the Chinese remained largely non-liberal both politically and economically, but at the same time, if you squinted just right, they could nevertheless be seen as possibly moving, again both economically and politically, in a liberal direction.

The first real challenge to Washington-Consensus triumphalism came from the Asian Financial Crisis ca. 1997-2000.  Efforts by IFI's and the American government to craft / impose a Washington consensus solution to that crisis not only resulted in failure, but in many cases they appeared to exasperate the social effects of that crisis.  This gave economic humanists a new conceptual peg on which to hang their critique. The on-going American (and European) battle between laissez-faire capitalists and economic humanism -- a battle that dates back at least to the 1880s in the United States (see, e.g., the 1896 presidential campaign between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan) -- now shifted to a new front, that of East-Southeast Asia ('ESE Asia').  And insofar as that larger front was concerned, China would quickly come to represented ground-zero.

The East Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) introduced two subtle but extremely catalytic changes in to Euro-American conceptualizations of the global economic order.  First, the fact that that crisis was largely localized to East and Southeast Asia catalyzed the identification with the countries of ESE Asia of a distinct and structurally and conceptually coherent capitalist structuring, what is often today referred to as 'Asian capitalism'.  (Such an identification can be traced back at least to the 'developmental state' literature of 1980s, but the AFC greatly popularized it.)  That 'Asian capitalism' represented a distinct form of capitalism helped explain why the Asian Economic Crisis was largely localized to ESE Asia.  That Asian capitalism represented a structurally coherent form of capitalism helped explain why that crisis impacted equally an otherwise wide diversity of politically autonomous national systems (from seemingly industrial democracies like South Korea to seemingly autocratic kleptocracies like Indonesia).

As a territory within the ESE region, China was naturally included in this new, Asian-capitalist narrative.  This, in turn, highlighted its 'otherness' -- the degree to which it now appeared to stand as contradiction of (rather than as support for) American triumphalism.  This otherness was further heightened by the fact that not only had China largely escaped the social and economic disruptions of the ARC, but it had -- along with Japan -- sought to provide an alternative form of transnational economic response to that crisis, one that deviated significantly from the Washington Consensus based response offered by the international IFIs,  but was prevented from doing so by political pressure from the United States.

All this made China a very attractive peg on which economic humanists and others could begin to re-frame their ideological objections to American triumphalism.  This was clearly why Joshua Ramo choose to name his humanist alternative to the Washington Consensus the 'Beijing Consensus', despite the fact that it had almost nothing to do with anything that China had actually done, intentionally or unintentionally, in the context of its own post-1980 economic and social evolution.  And the appeal of China-centric adjectives like 'Beijing' and 'Chinese' extended beyond the realm of economic humanism.  The American Cold-War linkage of the economic with the political with the developmental made China-centric adjectives useful in a wide diversity of Western ideological contestations -- not simply economic, but political and cultural as well.

* * *

This helps explain why the 'Beijing Consensus' is a least in part a story about the America.  But couldn't it also at the same time still also be a story about China's actual development? and through that a model for development more generally?

Likely not.  For a number of reasons.

First, I think it highly questionable whether China actually presents us with a show-case example of 'development'.   As least some portion of China's development has been a product of an earlier economic insanity that needlessly devastated China's productive capacity for over two decades.  Much of China's subsequent growth was simply a product of China opening it markets, much like the rest of the world had already done some 200 years earlier.  In other words, China's dramatic economic growth may well be the product of China simply no longer being stupid and not of China being particularly smart.  Is simply not being stupid really that meaningful a developmental model?  Beyond this, Green GDP measures suggest that China's unprecedented environmental degradation is now actually destroyed as much wealth as China's GDP growth is producing.   In other words, China's may have effectively stopped growing altogether once one accounts for environmental degradation.  Related to this, China significantly underperforms its income class in terms of iHDI, environmental sustainability, and subjective well being -- suggesting that even if China is 'growing' economically, it may not be growing into a country in which most people would actually want to live.  All of this gives very good reason to question where China's particular pathway to economic 'growth' is really something we want to other countries replicate. 

Second, implicit in the story above is the observation that what adjectives like Chinese, Beijing and Asian are really doing is appealing to a particular quality of otherness.  They are negative rather than positive definitions -- their principal purpose is to signify what something is not -- that it is not supportive of American triumphalism -- rather than what it is.  But a model, on the other hand, is not about what something it not, it is about what something actually is.  And for this reason, a negative definition can never serve as a meaningful 'model'

We see this most clearly in the legal-developmental 'models' of experimentalism (aka New Development Economics') and the East Asian model.  Experimentalism might represent an affirmative model when we structure it as a controlled experiment, but without control, and Rodrik makes clear that 'control' is not a necessary or even feasible component of the experimentalism of New Development Economics, experimentalism becomes nothing more than simply 'muddling through'.  But 'muddling through' clearly does not describe anything that could meaningfully be called a model, rather it expressly denotes the affirmative absence of a model.    

What really prevents some vision of a Beijing Consensus from developing into an affirmative model for development is that at the end of the day, our understanding of development itself is founded upon a series of conceptual categories and distinctions that ultimately emerged to express particular moral-ideological understandings of the Cold War binary.  They simply do not translate into post-Cold War understandings of the human condition.

One the other hand, the last 70 years of human economic history has made increasingly clear that we really still have no hard evidence as to what triggers actually 'development'.  Of course, we have gained considerable knowledge about what doesn't promote or trigger development:  we now know, for example, that Soviet style command economies are often not particularly good at promoting economic development; more recently, we have also found out that implementation of greater laissez-faire capitalism, a'la the Washington Consensus, also does not promote economic development, at least by itself.  But if not socialism or laissez-faire capitalism per se, what does promote development?

To observe that China's political economic system deviates from that promoted by American triumphalism ultimately only tells us what that system is not, not what it is.  Along these lines, it tells us of what is not essential to promoting development, but is much less clear about what it is that does promote development.  Is it sequencing?  is it state capitalism?  is it Confucianism?  Is it all of these, or something different?  Or is it those emergent elements of Western-American capitalism that we saw in China's post-Mao opening but which the discourse of 'Asian capitalism' has tended to invisiblize?  How much of China's economic growth post 1980 is attributable to the fact that prior to 1980 China effectively obliterated industrial economic productivity through 25 years of disastrous economic policymaking, namely the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution?  (The World Bank, for example, has recently praised China for “lifting 500 million persons out of poverty” without acknowledging the role that China may have played in putting those people in poverty in the first place.)  We might also note even more radically along these lines that some argue, rather convincingly to my mind, that development is actually not primarily the product of institutional or capitalist design at all.  China's development can be explained simply by reference to its particular location in transnational political-economic space (its proximity to Taiwan and Japan, and by its location in the Cold War political contestation between the US and the USSR).   

Much of the problem in this regard is that the very categories we use to conceptualize our possible predicates for economic development are themselves the product of Cold-War mythologizing. The fact is that the American economy never functioned the way that what I have been calling 'the laissez-faire capitalism' model of the Cold War claimed it did.  American capitalism is actually a highly variegated economic system that includes within it a wide diversity of capitalism each serving a distinct social purpose.  And there is no evidence that the particular features that we during the Cold War chose for ideological reasons as signifying the essence of the American economy are actually what drove economic growth, or whether that growth might have been catalyzed to considerable extent by other structural elements that were invisibilized by this myth because they were less effective at politically and ideologically branding the American economic system in distinction from the Soviet economic system (such as state and local social public welfare systems, or the quasi-monopolies that Joseph Schumpeter termed 'core industries' and that tended to populate the pinnacle of the American economic order, or the state-capitalist linkages created by the linkage of private campaign finance and political lobbying).

The same is true with regards to American framing of its political order.  American liberalism -- rights, democracy, rule of law -- has always been much more conditional than our engagement with the transnational world would often lead one to believe.  Human rights are frequently qualified and the will of the demos is frequently subordinated to more sectoral, modernist, or otherwise elite perspectives.  'Rule of law' does not structure American social, political or economic ordering to the degree that that transnational 'rule of law' discourse suggests.  And at the same time, these liberal elements also enjoy at least some degree of qualified respect -- sometime highly qualified to be sure, but some degree of true respect nevertheless -- in most of the world's political orders, including that of China.  The difference is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.

Once we recognize how much distinctiveness of both the American liberal market economy and its liberal political ordering have been exaggerated, then we see how exceedingly difficult it becomes to identify any set of features of China's political-legal-social-economic system that are really that distinctive to that system.  China's is not a liberal market economy to be sure, but at the same time it to some extent it has within it all the elements of a liberal system.  And its deviations from the ideal of market liberalism can be mapped onto deviations that are also found even in the United States.  The same is true of its political system, and of its social system.  And without being able to actually identity and meaningfully distinctive features of China's system, we can't identify what is actually distinctive about some so-called Chinese 'model'.  Clearly, it is different, but it is also to some extent the same.

Beyond this, even our understanding of what constitutes -- or what indicates -- development is highly colored by Cold-War ideological concepts that are of questionable application to the real world.  As noted above, the modern idea of development -- the idea that equates development with GDP or GNP growth -- is an invention of the Cold War:  we equated development with GDP growth because GDP growth was something that the West in general, and the United States in particular, has historically been particularly good at.  But there are a number of problems with this.  First, GDP was originally developed to measure industrial productivity in a classically Fordist economy -- that of the United States during the Second World War.  The farther one moves away from that kind of economy, the more problematic that particular measure -- or its derivatives, like GNI -- become.  Lessor developed countries are also lessor industrialized, and even beyond that not particularly Fordist, and this causes significant portions of their economy to elude GDP / GNI capture.  Sometimes, these portions represent pockets of considerable productivity, other times, they can represent pockets of considerable non-productivity.  And since they are by definition invisible, we really can't know which are which.  Further catalyzing this ambiguity is the fact that in developing countries, the economic figures used to construct GDP / GNI measures are invariably provided by governments whose legitimacy and even survival depend upon a positive GDP / GNI assessment of economic growth.

But even beyond this, the actual relationship between GDP / GNI growth and a conception of development that is actually desirable from the point of view of the national populations experiencing it is also quite contentious in the post Cold War world.  China in particular showed us that GDP development can at least in some circumstances be severed from what we regard as political development (such as political liberalization, political or economic equality, 'freedom' or 'capabilities'), and this has lead many to question whether economic growth by itself actually captures anything we would consider desirable, at least in the absence of some corresponding political development.  But of course, as we explored above, our understanding of what actually constitutes 'political development' is invariably itself highly colored by our Cold War narratives as to what constituted the structural 'essence' of the late-industrial American political-legal system.  It is by no means structurally comprehensive, and in some cases is structurally arbitrary.  For this reason, our choice as to what constitutes a meaningful political-social structure that is indicative of 'development' is as conditioned on ideology as our choice as to what constitutes a meaningful economic structure.

All in all, in discussing a possible Chinese model of development, not only are we unable to objectively identify any truly essential structural features of Chinese capitalism, we are also unable even to objectively identify whether China is actually experiencing and meaningful sense of 'development'.   At least for the present, our choice of which particular economic and political-legal structures are meaningful within the context of development continue to be borne primarily out of American efforts to locate itself in the political world created of the Cold War, and through that in human history.  For this reason, our stories about China's 'development' -- both positive and negative -- are ultimately not stories that are ultimately about China.  They remain, for the present at least, stories about what China has to tell us about being American.

* * *

And this is not at all a bad thing.  As Baruch Spinoza so cogently identifies, knowing the world and knowing oneself are symbiotic endeavors.  The more we can learn about who we really are, as distinguished from who we like to think we are, the more we are likely to truly understand and appreciate our place in the world, and through that the world as it actually is.  Speaking now as an American, the problem with the Cold-War ideology along these lines is precisely that it represents a picture of ourselves as we wish we were, but not as we actually are.  Seen in this light, endeavors to identify (and contest) a Beijing Consensus, even though they are really about America, are indeed nevertheless very much worth the effort.  Because in telling us who we really are (as distinguished from who we wish we were), these effort ultimately help us appreciate how the world actually is (as distinguished from how we want it to be).  This we have to do first, before we can knowingly identify any meaningful paths to 'development' -- however conceived -- through law.

Wait . . . did Pessimo just end on a note of optimism?  

Friday, December 26, 2014

Dialogus de Beijing Consensus, part 3: Pessimo clarifications on the East Asian Model

Some quick responses to Optimo regarding my position on the East Asian Model:

First, one of my arguments against the East Asian Model involves its claim that law and development should focus on promoting economic reform before focusing on promoting political reform.  I counters by arguing that a regime's political evolution simply probably lies beyond the reach of developmental programs.  If the polity is not ready to reform, there's nothing law and development can do about it; and when it is ready to reform, no developmental officer is going to say "not yet, you're not finished with your economic development."  So as a developmental model, sequencing is really a moot point.

Optimo interpreted my argument as being strongly normative -- as arguing that law and development should not engage in efforts to promote political development.  In fact, I did not intend it to be a normative argument.  I meant to advanced it as a simply empirical claim that law and development cannot control for (i.e., promote or retard) political evolution, as advanced by the East Asian Model.  They can try, but they will fail.  Not because they should fail, but simply because that is the way our social universe is put together.

On the other hand, there may be reasons why law and development may sometimes normatively choose to promote political reform even if it knows it is going to fail.  Where and if this is ever the case, my argument would be moot. 

Note, along these lines, that Optimo writes:
However, the normative challenge posed by Pessimo is hard to reconcile with the views of one of the most respected thinkers in the development world today, Amartya Sen. In his book Development as Freedom, Sen argues that democratic regimes are conducive to development in a multitude of ways that ultimately enhance human capabilities. One of the most interesting claims developed by Sen in this regard is the idea that democracies avert famines.
In fact, Sen poses no challenge at all to my argument as I see it.  I will readily admit that democracy may well at least sometimes catalyze development (although I find his demonstration of how democracies prevent famine problematic).  My point is that regardless of such catalytic effects, law and development cannot strategically promote democracy.  I don't think Sen ever addresses how we in the real world might go about strategically promoting 'democratic' reforms of the kind that are likely to catalyze development.

But in any event, even if he does, Sen actually supports my larger argument that the East Asian Model's particular use of sequencing does not provide a meaningful model for development.  As noted, that model argues that economic reform should occur before political reform.  Like me, Sen is actually arguing against such sequencing, albeit from a normative rather than from an empirical position): it's just that Sen is saying that we should not engage in this this kind of sequencing, while I am saying that we simply can not engage in sequencing, period.   

Finally, Optimo defends the East Asian Model's advocacy of gradualism as simply an expression of the tried-and-true developmental formula that Charles Lindblom famously termed 'the science of muddling through.'  In fact, I see the East Asian Model's notion of gradualism in a very different light.  As advanced by the East Asian Model, gradualism is offered as an alternative to the rapid, big-bang approach that 'Western' advisers, most famously Jeffrey Sachs, pushed on the former Soviet bloc nations in the 1990s.  In this sense, it is clear referring to a strategy for capitalist transformation -- for transiting from a command economy to a liberal market economy.  As I note, there are very few developing countries left in the world that still operate a command economy, and for this reason gradualism is really a moot point insofar as a universalizable developmental model is concerned.

Along these lines, I would argue that 'the science of muddling through' is a different kettle of fish.  To say that we are 'muddling through' is not to say that we are being gradualist, it is not to say that we need to avoid moving 'too fast' in promoting development.  Again, my argument is that it simply makes no sense to say that Brazil or Thailand or Romania needs to adopt a gradualist approach to development -- 'gradualist' in what sense? What does 'gradualism' look like in the context of these countries?  I would argue that it doesn't look like anything -- to say that Brazil should adopt a 'gradualist' approach to development is like saying that Optimo's son should adopt a 'gradualist' approach to high school. 
As per Lindbolm, I believe that muddling through has always been our approach to the to development of national economies that are already capitalist.  Even as a positivist developmental strategy, there is nothing distinctly East Asian or Chinese about it.  And again, as with experimentalism, it actually offers very little in the way of a developmental model.  How do you model 'muddling through'?  To muddle is to muddle.  Is Brazil not developing because it is not muddling enough?  Or is it just not muddling the right way?  What distinguishes good muddling from not so good muddling?  It can't be failure, because frequent failure is the distinguishing feature of muddling. 

Finally, as it turns out, the fat guy on my roof was not Santa.  It was my next door neighbor.  She thought getting some horses on my roof this time of year would be a pretty neat practical joke.  She was right.  And after she came to after being hit by a baseball bat, we shared some eggnog and discussed Judith Butler.  So while it is indeed sad that Pessimo is innately pessimistic about Santa, at least he is not pessimistic about a neighbor who somehow managed to get a couple of Shetland Ponies onto his roof on Xmas eve, and who then shared some eggnog and discussed Judith Butler with him even after he knocked her upside the head with a vintage George Brett Louisville Slugger.

Which would you rather believe in?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Dialogus de Beijing Consensus, part 3: Optimo on the 'East Asian Model'


Pessimo's last post suggests that gradualism does not offer a model for development, but instead it is simply a model to manage economic transition. Pessimo also considers the possibility of such gradualism to be useful perhaps as a model for political transition, but then Pessimo dismisses this idea: 

"Regime liberalization and democratization are themselves rarely the product of developmental projects, they occur spontaneously, out of political and social forces that operate outside the reach of strategic developmental planning."

While development programs often engage with such endeavours, Pessimo seems to be presenting a strong normative stance here: development programs should not engage with this kind of transformation. Optimo will try to respond to both points, in turn.

First, while Pessimo is absolutely right in distinguishing a program of economic or political transition from a program to promote development, both can be conceived as programs that try to promote institutional change. Thus, while the end goal may not be the same (i.e. transitioning to a market economy, or promoting democracy may not aim at promoting economic growth), the strategies and tools of one process could potentially be useful to the other. For instance, the dual track strategy to allow state-owned corporations in China to gradually transition from a command economy to a market economy is sometimes used to reform inefficient bureaucracies. 

While this point assumes that functional institutions are conducive to economic growth (and therefore institutional reform would be the central goal of a development program), there are scholars who do not subscribe to this hypothesis. Even if Pessimo share such skepticism, Optimo still believes that Pessimo should have reasons to subscribe to gradualism as a model for development. The gradual implementation of policy change seems to be a general principle that is widely accepted among management scholars. Perhaps the most famous and one of the earliest piece supporting this idea is "The Science of Muddling Through" by Charles Lindblom, written in 1959. So, even if one is not trying to promote development through institutional change, but would be instead advocating for policy changes, the gradualism should still serve as a guiding principle. In this context, perhaps the East Asian model is the best example of such principle being applied in large scale.

Second, Pessimo is skeptical of the possibility of promoting any kind of political liberalization intentionally. It is not hard to side with Pessimo if one thinks of George W. Bush trying to bring democracy to the four corners of the world, and invading Iraq under this motto. However, the normative challenge posed by Pessimo is hard to reconcile with the views of one of the most respected thinkers in the development world today, Amartya Sen. In his book Development as Freedom, Sen argues that democratic regimes are conducive to development in a multitude of ways that ultimately enhance human capabilities. One of the most interesting claims developed by Sen in this regard is the idea that democracies avert famines. In other words, democracies avert exactly the kind of individual pain and suffering that Pessimo seems to have identified earlier on as a problem that does deserve our attention and concern, as development scholars. Thus, from a normative standpoint, there seems to be strong reasons to be pursuing political liberalization and promoting democratization in a developmental context. And maybe gradualism may be the way to get there, for the reasons presented earlier. 

Last but not least, Optimo is hoping (in its endless optimism) that Pessimo has not encountered a drunk with horses in the roof, but has instead had a lovely encounter with Santa Claus and is happily sitting by the tree opening presents at this moment. And since these are not mutually exclusive hypotheses (maybe it was indeed Santa and maybe he was drunk), Optimo hopes that Pessimo has had a chance to share a glass and have a toast with the good old man!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Dialogus de Beijing Consensus, part 3: The 'East Asian Model'

Yet another developmental model that has been drawn from China's experience is what Randall Peerenboom termed the "East Asian Model".  The East Asian Model is characterized by a gradualist approach to development, in contrast to the 'big bang' approach that was used to facilitate economic transition in the states of the former Soviet Unions and Eastern Bloc, and by a developmental sequencing that focuses first on economic reforms and only later on political liberalization. 


The East Asian Model does not actually provide much guidance for promoting development in today's world.  China's gradualist approach is an approach to economic transition, not to economic development.  Gradualism makes very little sense in the context of development per se:  what does gradualism significant in the context of today's India or today's Brazil?  What exactly should these countries be 'gradual' about in pursuing economic development?

Perhaps the idea is that they should be gradualist about pursuing political reforms.  One of the arguments underlying the East Asian Monday is that particularly for the more lesser developed countries, 'development' invariably involves significant social disruption, and its is easier for more authoritarian regimes to weather such disruption than for more liberal, democratic regimes.   Whether or not this is actually the case (Pessimo is skeptical) is an open question, but even if it is, it is simply outside the reach of developmental projects.  Regime liberalization and democratization are themselves rarely the product of developmental projects, they occur spontaneously, out of political and social forces that operate outside the reach of strategic developmental planning.  It is as hard to imaging an international developmental agent strategically halting political liberalization once demand for such liberalization has taken off as it is imagining an international developmental agent promoting effective political liberalization as part of her develomental agenda.  Political evolution is something that a developmental agent simply has to live with, it is not something she can effect (and it is probably something she should not try to effect even if she could).

I will revisit and expand on these arguments in my concluding comments.  For that reason, my response to this variant of the Beijing Consensus is somewhat brief.  In addition, some drunk seems to be traipsing around on my roof -- sounds like he somehow even got some horses up there.  Luckily, Pessimo is still quite good with a baseball bat . . . .

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!