APPLIED TO POLITICAL REALISM
Political realism is a loosely related group of approaches to normative political theory that has emerged out of dissatisfaction with the apparent irrelevance of political philosophy for evaluating real-world politics and orienting actors toward practical goals (Geuss 2008; Galston 2010; Williams 2008). A common feature of this literature is a rejection of a conception of political theory as a form of applied ethics. Within the framework of applied ethics, the purpose of political institutions is typically to establish justice. Institutions are, therefore, evaluated on their ability to allow individuals to discharge each other’s moral duties as members of a community. Political realism, by contrast, suggests that there is a more basic shared interest in establishing a social order that is the primary function of political institutions. Realists wish to evaluate political decisions and regimes on the basis of this more fundamental concern (Jubb 2015).
Political realism thus has many of the same concerns of RPE. Unlike more idealistic approaches, realism recognizes violence and conflict as possible scenarios when institutions fail. The key question, therefore, is what additional contribution my approach to RPE can offer to existing forms of realist political theory.
The first is an additional justification for the realist focus on seeking a minimally legitimate regime rather than morally just institutions as such. An evolutionary understanding of the social order suggests that institutional development is fraught with difficulties because that development takes place outside a framework that copes with problems of dispersed knowledge and opportunistic actors. Any significant institutional shift will necessarily present agents with significant costs, as well as inherent risk and uncertainty. This suggests that rather than theorizing and affirming the perfect institutional outcome and rejecting all others, a realistic approach commends convergence around a focal point of minimally legitimate institutions that extend the basic benefits of peace and tranquility to those subject to them (Hardin 2003).
There is a more optimistic side to this evolutionary account. Once established, even minimal conditions that are far from ideal are nevertheless capable of generating incremental improvements in human welfare if they permit a market process to operate. Purposive actors in a civil society do not require the constant deliberate support and direction of political institutions in order to set about cooperating to improve their lives, and the lives of those around them. They merely require a framework that discourages predation and allows the sharing of dispersed knowledge. In this sense, conditions of peace, toleration, and the rule of law can lead over the long run to more substantive welfare improvements.
A second contribution of my approach to RPE is an observation about the nature of the problem that politics must solve. For a great many realists, it is the problem of moral disagreement among human beings. On the realist account, theories in the applied ethics tradition assume away this problem of disagreement by suggesting that, at least in principle, everyone would agree to the same set of moral principles (or a workable shared subset of principles for a community). In so doing, realists suggest that idealists lose sight of the coercive nature of real politics. In suitably ideal circumstances, where agents comply with both the letter and the spirit of a shared sense of justice, it can appear that there is hardly any distinctive role for political institutions at all, as opposed to voluntary governance. Realists, by contrast, suggest that institutions must be able to legitimize themselves in the absence of such agreement.
The deep subjectivist stance drawn from market process theory suggests a more basic problem of coordination: the primitive fact that people each have the same capacity and desire to lay their hands on objects and resources. In the absence of communication, there is no possibility of coordination, but nor is there any space for moral disagreement as such. In this sense, the emergent institution of language is the first mechanism of coordination.
Subsequently, communication mechanisms used to establish coordination, such as oaths, rituals, and shared moral norms, become sources of discursive disagreement. Individuals can come to blows not over resources themselves but over misunderstanding (or perhaps worse, correctly understanding) the beliefs, desires, and values of others once it is possible for them to be articulated. Silent actors “disagree” over what is mine and thine through attempting to follow their uncoordinated desires. Discursive actors, by contrast, can disagree over what makes mine and thine.
Looked at from this perspective, one might see moral disagreement not always as a problem in need of a solution, but rather as an outcome and contributor to successful coordination. The fact that people can successfully communicate disagreement demonstrates the existence of some shared institutions, at least a shared language of moral concepts. Discourse about morality and conduct may be a part of an institutional background that permits ongoing productive cooperation while highlighting areas of dispute.
There is a parallel here between the profit and loss signals of the market process and the protest and debate of political environments. In the ideal circumstances of perfect competition, profits and losses should not exist. They are a sign of error, ignorance, or miscalculation that, in principle, could be ameliorated through state intervention or redistribution. On a market process account, it is only through those signals that error and ignorance can be made known both to market and political actors. A regime that intervenes constantly and arbitrarily to fix market failures ends up depriving itself of the social knowledge necessary to identify them in the first place. Similarly, on many ideal accounts of politics, the presence of widespread disagreement is a sign of failure of a set of institutions to justify its rules to those bound by them. A more robust account suggests that voicing such disagreement, as well as allowing actors to pursue alternatives through exit rights, may be the only realistic way of discovering superior rules by which to live.
Finally, my account offers a methodological rejoinder to some realist theorizing by insisting on an explicitly comparative (Boettke, Coyne, and
Leeson 2013; Boettke et al. 2005) element to the examination of worst-case scenarios, and not simply a critique of existing regimes. To take one example of how this difference applies in practice, consider Geuss’s explanation of how his realist approach was influenced by a
growing conviction that the present political, social, and economic situation of our world is desperate. The combination of already intolerable overpopulation and effectively irreversible pollution and degradation of the environment which may have no “solution”. . . minimally acceptable for the human species. . . . If complexly organized social life survives at all, political agencies will have the task of exercising much of the discipline needed to force people in the West to adopt drastic reductions in their absolute level of consumption. . . . A solution . . . will not lie in any scheme that permits the continuation of . . . the so-called “free market.” (Geuss 2010, xii-xiii)
Geuss (2002, 2008) has a strong claim to dealing with worst-case scenarios and premises his work on a fierce rejection of romantic ideological illusions. Yet, as one can imagine, Geuss’s proposals (such as they are) stand almost at a polar opposite of the liberal ideas that RPE commends. From Geuss’s standpoint, one can imagine that the supposed robustness on offer from Pennington et al. at best relies on the naive belief in the ability of imperfect human beings to produce defensible outcomes in the absence of the continual deliberate exercise of political force. At worst, it is an ideologically motivated defense of unsustainable and unjustifiable market institutions.
Geuss is correct to identify ecological problems as a kind that are unlikely to be ameliorated alone through the undirected, spontaneous activity of the market process. Environmental problems are beset with epistemic and motivational challenges of a particular kind that makes generating knowledge of the relevant costs of individual decisions difficult. A great deal of environmental damage occurs through the unintentional, uncoordinated, and unobserved decisions of large numbers of people over long periods of time. These harms are, at least, resistant to the private-property solution of establishing exclusive domains of activity and control.
For these reasons, it is almost inevitable that the market process’s incremental, marginal adjustments on the basis of local knowledge will fail to address adequately some environmental problems. This applies especially to global ecological problems such as climate change. A commendable public policy is informed by the systematic scientific knowledge of the likely long- run impact of human activity on the environment and not just the implicit knowledge embedded in market prices.
However, there are critical weaknesses to Geuss’s approach as well. A simple counsel of despair does not have any practical implications for public policy and reflects an attitude more than a motivation to action. As
Knight (1939, 1) writes, “to call a situation hopeless is for practical purposes the same thing as calling it ideal.” Insofar as political realism identifies bad features of political life that cannot possibly be overcome, it is rendered as irrelevant as its mirror image, ideal theories that describe perfect political conditions that could never be attained even in principle.
RPE also suggests that establishing that a particular regime has failed is insufficient to suggest an authoritarian alternative. In order to commend harsh disciplinary solutions that would intentionally dramatically reduce the material welfare of human beings subject to the new regime, we would need some account of how that solution would deal more adequately with the epistemic challenges of ecology than the imperfect results observed under liberalism. As Shahar (2015) argues, the poor record of authoritarian solutions to ecological problems suggests that liberal market solutions may turn out to be superior even if they remain far from ideal. The question prompted by the claim that our present situation is “desperate” is simply “compared to what?” An RPE approach is more rounded in considering the worst-case scenario of the proposed solution as well as the problem.
The notion of the market process as necessarily taking place within an institutional framework, the market order, allows us to avoid the simple binary of an unbounded “free market” versus centralized authoritarian political solutions to social problems. Individual freedom within a private-property framework is instead one point along a continuum of possible institutional frameworks that includes various forms of common ownership and forms of subsidiary governance and federalism before reaching unitary government. We can also distinguish between policies that attempt to command individual conduct directly and policy approaches that change the rules of the game— that is, the underlying order—in a way that allows agents to experiment and discover solutions for policy problems (E. Ostrom 1990).
My approach does not prescribe any particular set of rules as such, and is quite compatible with a variety of distributions of rights and powers over resources, some of which will be better at dealing with environmental problems than others. My argument is for the use of rules in general, rather than arbitrary discretion, without which actors will be exposed to predatory behavior and not be able to produce the knowledge necessary for even basic cooperation.