Libertarianism, Academic Philosophy

Comparative Institutional Evaluation, or How Not to Do Political Philosophy

Consider the following only slightly exaggerated version of an argument that occurs in a lot of political philosophy

1. Institution X is unjust or bad.
2. Therefore, X should be abolished or reformed.

What's wrong with this? Well, two things, actually, which I describe below.

First, identifying some feature(s) of X as bad or unjust doesn't give any reason, or at least no particularly strong reason, to believe that an alternative institution will be better or less unjust. A joke illustrates the problem. A Roman Emperor asked to hear the best singers in his kingdom. The finalists were narrowed down to two. The emperor heard the first one, was unimpressed, and promptly announced that the award goes to the other finalist, because the next singer must be better than the first one. Of course, that’s wrong: the second one could be no better or worse. The emperor needs to hear both singers to make a proper judgment.

  Call this first problem the nirvana fallacy. The nirvana fallacy is not that common in my view among political philosophers; they usually mention, at least implicitly, some alternative institution that is supposed to eliminate or lessen the alleged evil or injustice. (*For a whopping example of the nirvana fallacy, see below.)

  However, simply identifying some alternative institution is not sufficient, for one must also specify what processes or mechanisms of the alternative institution are likely to bring about an improvement. And failing to do this is, alas, fairly common in political philosophy. (For some prominent examples, see the excerpt from chapter 1 of my book:

 Call this second problem the failure to engage in comparative institutional evaluation. 

  Failing to do comparative institutional evaluation runs the risk of failing to compare like with like, with jumping between the real and the ideal. Arguments that an institution is bad or unjust are typically arguments about real institutions. So an argument for changing it must specify a real or realistic alternative. (The reason for the modifier “or realistic” and the challenges it raises for libertarians will be mentioned below).

  This suggests the following better argument for institutional change:

1. Institution X manifests or produces injustice or social evil E.
2. Institution Y has some processes or mechanisms that make it likely that it will lack E or manifest or produce less of E than X does.
3. If an institution produces or manifests more injustice or evil than a feasible alternative, it ought to be abolished.
4. Therefore, we should abolish or alter X and bring about Y.

Even this isn't quite right, because even if Y produces or manifests less of E, the change from X to Y might produce or manifest such side effects or so much injustice that it would be wrong to change X and try to bring about Y. But the above argument is certainly an improvement from the original defective argument and gives a rough idea how to do comparative institutional evaluation.

Two lessons can be drawn from the need for comparative institutional evaluation, one for political philosophy in general and one, a challenge specifically for libertarians. The general lesson is that doing political philosophy–at least if one is arguing for institutional change–requires social science. To argue that one institution is superior to or less bad or unjust than another one must compare how the different institutions work (or realistically would work) and that requires social science. A lot of political philosophy ignores social science; hence a lot of political philosophy is defective.

 The challenge for libertarianism is to avoid over-idealizing their alternative to statist institutions. Sometimes there simply aren’t any real alternatives to statist institutions; that’s why I said the comparison sometimes is real-realistic, rather than real-real.

I don’t have a general rule for how to avoid over-idealization.  Often history is a great help. The lack of a welfare state will lead to the immiseration of the poor? Nope, take a look at David Beito’s excellent book on mutual aid societies.  The market can’t provide certain public goods? Again, the empirical trumps the a priori. (For a long time the lighthouse was considered a paradigm example of a good the market couldn’t provide till Ronald Coase pointed out it had been provided without the state. Sometimes using arguments about similar or analogous institutions will help. So for example, there is nothing libertarians can point to that exists or existed that is genuinely free market health insurance (the claim that the US private health insurance is somehow an exemplar of market health insurance is utterly false—see pp. 42-53 of my book or David Henderson “Myths of US Health Care” in Better Medicine: Reforming Canadian Health Care, but one can use arguments about how market insurance works in other areas where the state’s presence is not as overwhelming as it in health care to show how it would work in health care. Still, one person’s realistic alternative is another person’s unfair use of an ideal market to compare to a real statist institution. This is an issue which libertarians need to give more thought to, I believe.

* Here's the example: Ronald Beiner, “What Liberalism Means,” Social Philosophy and Policy 13 (Winter 1996), 203, says the following: “A liberal is someone who says that the present social order in contemporary, Western, democratic, individualistic and pluralistic societies is basically okay, apart from a need for improvements in equality of opportunity and more equitable social distribution. A critic of liberalism like myself will say this is nonsense. To this, the liberal will reply: ‘Okay, this isn’t good enough; what’s your alternative?’ It is both necessary and legitimate for me to claim that I don’t need to answer this question. . . . That’s not my job. My job as a theorist is to criticize the prevailing social order.”

Published on:
Author: Daniel Shapiro
  • djr

    Much as I think Beiner’s rejection of proposed alternatives is too strong, I think your rejection of that rejection is even more excessively strong. It may depend on just what you want to say, though. Suppose we accept that Beiner commits the nirvana fallacy. By labeling it a fallacy, you are suggesting that arguments that commit it are worthless, except perhaps as examples of how not to argue. But is that right? Since you like examples from history, let’s take one.

    At least somebody in ancient Greece actually produced an argument that slavery was unjust, though by and large it seems that everybody else either accepted it as just or just accepted it. Aristotle considers the argument, in the first book of the Politics, that slavery is unjust because it is by force. He then provides some arguments intended to show that force is insufficient for injustice. But it’s noteworthy that the argument he rejects is rather libertarian-anarchist in flavor. So, suppose, as is plausible, that Aristotle’s presentation of the argument is uncharitable, and that it in fact appealed to a conception of justice as non-coercion, allowing that defensive force is just.

    Hardly anybody in ancient Greece could have imagined a realistic alternative to the slave societies they knew. The only readily apparent alternatives were more or less subsistence-level. Of course, people imagined slaveless societies, but they were usually mythic or incredibly utopian. Any proposal for a slaveless society that did not devolve to subsistence-level would have seemed at least somewhat implausible or rather improbable.

    So, suppose that the people who developed this proto-libertarian argument against slavery just had no idea what a feasible alternative would look like. On your rejection of the nirvana fallacy, it seems like you have to say that in that case the proto-libertarian argument had no value at all. But especially since you are a libertarian, that seems like a very odd conclusion to draw. If nothing else, the argument should have had the value of correctly identifying the injustice of slavery, both that it is unjust and also why it is unjust. If that isn’t enough, it could also — if it had been more widely embraced — have provided the impetus for inquiry into realistic alternatives.

    It seems pretty clear that a piece of political philosophy will be better if it can propose some alternative arrangement. But this example seems to show that an argument that fails to identify such an alternative does not need to be deemed fallacious. For even if it turns out that all alternatives would be demonstrably worse, one might still think it matters to know whether slavery is an injustice that we have to live with or at least conceivably and conditionally just.

  • The problem with your slavery analogy, as I see it, djr, is that if you define slavery as unacceptable or an injustice, in and of itself, then abolition is an end, not a means to another end.

    If I am proposing the abolition of slavery as a means, working towards better lives (however you define that) for the enslaved persons (separate from the injustice of slavery), then Mr. Shapiro’s point stands – just because one views slavery as a poor life doesn’t mean that their manumission will automatically improve their lot.

    • Well what’s wrong with identifying slavery as an injustice in and of itself? Seems like a reasonable philosophical argument, especially for a libertarian who is interested in maximizing the freedom of the individual. 

      Also, like Shapiro’s article says, we have empirical evidence (in this case, overwhelming empirical evidence) that over the long term the abolition of slavery ABSOLUTELY improved the lot of African-Americans in this country. What Shapiro is saying is that you need social science and empirical evidence to evaluate these claims. Your argument ignores the hundreds of years of empirical evidence combined with what we now know was the plight of slaves on Southern plantations in the 1800’s – whippings, rapes, etc – that we might not have known at that time.

      By your second rationale, the abolition of slavery would have been a bad idea had we been able to prove that a sufficient critical mass of slaves were living in posh Southern mansions as well-taken-care-of butlers and maids. It would have made it magically okay to have slaves if you treated them well enough. And that’s assuming that we would have been able to demonstrate that without the slave owners trying to cover up their abuses. I’m sure slave owners would have a vested interest in keeping whatever abuses they were committing hush-hush in order to satisfy the folks gathering data that slavery was actually better for people than freedom.

      • There’s nothing wrong with identifiying slavery as an injustice in and of itself. But when you do, arguments over the Nirvana Fallacy cease to be relevant, so it wasn’t relevant to the point that Mr. Shapiro was making.

        As for munumission being an automatic ticket to a better life, your argument is pretty weak. Perhaps it’s just because of poor education, but many people can’t seem to understand that what went on in the pre-Civil War United States is NOT the ONLY model of slavery that has ever been practiced in the world. The whole point that Shapiro is making is quite simply that just because we perceive E as bad that does not, in and of itself, mean that anything that is not E is automatically better. For any given value of not E, it could be the same, or it could be worse or it could, in fact, be better. But simply understanding that E is bad doesn’t tell us which is which. The simple fact of the matter is that E, pretty much no matter what you define E as, is not the only evil in the world worth taking into account. Therefore, one should not rush to make a change simply to bring about not E. Instead understand which particular values of not E you’re after, and move towards them.

        You could I suppose think of it this way. If all you claim you want is out of the frying pan, into the fire fits the bill.

  • ricketson

    when an institution or policy is justified on moralistic grounds, demonstrating its immorality is sufficient to depegitimize it.

  • JH

    The lack of a welfare state will lead to the immiseration of the poor? Nope, take a look at David Beito’s excellent book on mutual aid societies. The market can’t provide certain public goods? Again, the empirical trumps the a priori.

    I’m not sure why this is a good example of comparative institutional analysis. Even if the lack of a welfare state would not lead to complete immiseration, that still doesn’t mean that the lack of a welfare state would have not substantially increase poverty. Just pointing at Beito’s excellent work doesn’t really bear on this question, as obviously modern societies are very different from 18-19th century America (See Dani Rodrik on public goods, for instance).

  • John

    JH – I don’t see how ” Therefore relation-based governance is better for small groups and rule-based governance better for large groups.” implies formal State institution over informal rule-based institutions. Moreover, the informal institutions (among which I would put common law) are much more flexible than the formal ones suggesting:
    ” The complexity, fluidity, and geographic non-specificity of these activities leave too much room for opportunistic behavior for self-enforcing arrangements to work well. They require an external backstop in the form of government-enforced rules.”
    Is not the correct conclusion to draw. The bureaucratic and more rigid government statutes will tend to legitimize as many “opportunistic” defections as it prevents in a dynamic and fluid setting. The informal rule based institutions will be more likely respond to the new situations and protect the group by establishing a new rule, or adjusting the existing one, to address the opportunistic behavior available in the new setting.

    The graph, is not showing any causality, only correlation so no conclusion is support by that data. Moreover it’s not clear that the fit is that good or the the semi-log plot is the correct fit for a linear estimation.

  • It seems problematic to argue from the fact that private organizations were able to address some problem in an earlier century, before the state took over the job, that they would be able to address it again were the state to step aside. In other words, it seems like history itself can sometimes seduce us into over-idealization. I don’t have a jazzy name for the fallacy at work here… the Golden Age Fallacy, perhaps.

  • I agree that libertarians need to avoid idealizing their alternatives to statist institutions (especially when it comes to the notion that charity will magically solve so many of our social welfare problems), but I also think the article underestimates the urgency of some injustices in the real world. We don’t live in a world where we have time to thoughtfully practice institutional evaluation until we find exactly what works and how best to implement it – we live in a world where when institutions are unjust people get hurt, die, lose freedom, etc. And those lives are more important than our philosophical purity and making sure we have just the right solution to the problem. When injustice happens we need to take real action as soon as possible, not stand and wait til the Platonic ideal of a just institution with perfect implementation lands in our brains. 

    In addition the notion that we haven’t found the perfect solution yet and should therefore continue studying the issue is often co-opted and used by people with an interest in perpetuating the injustice (eg folks who support totalitarian regimes, or, assuming you consider it an injustice, global warming deniers). If we practiced strict institutional evaluation the way the article suggests we probably never would have rebelled against the British Empire – our great experiment in democracy  would have been considered an untested and impossible-to-evaluate alternative that may or may not be worse. And even though the birth of our nation was implemented extremely poorly in some areas causing worse injustice, and even though there’s still massive injustice in its implementation today, hopefully we can all agree that it ended up being a step forward compared to continuing colonial rule by the English.

    The fact that we started with the Articles and then switched to the Constitution when the Articles didn’t work is an empirical argument of the value of doing something over doing nothing. Some fixes work and some don’t, but like the scientific method, oftentimes trying different things yields progress even if it doesn’t solve the problem (or makes it worse). We learn something for the next attempt. In that way, unsuccessful trial-and-error is better than doing nothing.

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