Liberty Matters

Some More Positive Remarks about the Study of Interventionism

My comments so far have been largely concerned with critical methodological argument with Sandy about how we should study interventionism. I would like, here, to turn to some more positive suggestions.
First, while the phenomena focused on by classical liberals who have studied interventionism are important, we may need to refine what we are talking about. For we can ask: with what is intervention being contrasted? Is our background model with which governmental intervention is being contrasted some form of free-market anarchism or a limited state? If it is a limited state, what is its character, and how do we separate the kinds of action that it can legitimately take from those with which we are concerned?
If my earlier arguments against a Misesian approach are accepted, then it seems to me that we are likely to find ourselves engaged in the development of a variety of different approaches and models to address different kinds of situations. However, classical liberals – and also, from a different perspective, Marxists[50] – will typically also wish to argue that there are certain kinds of structural constraints imposed by the character of a market order on the kinds of things that can be done without damaging the operations of that order. There will also obviously be opportunity-cost issues raised by actions which don’t have this damaging character.
My first positive suggestion, here, is that we should welcome a plurality of different approaches, provided that they make interesting theoretical claims, and testable empirical claims, about the material with which we are dealing. Some writers have argued that we need to adopt a single model concerning human motivation, across both economics and political science.[51] But this seems to me incorrect. While it may be possible to offer an account of all human action as taking place on the basis of people’s preferences, once one goes beyond this to specify what those preferences are, there seems to me no reason why we may not accept they may differ in differing situations. In addition, institutions and forms of government may differ significantly, as may the character of the constraints under which people act. It is also worth noting that there may be important commonalities between a classical-liberal perspective and those of other people. Note, in this context, the way in which classical-liberal class theory is paralleled in some important ways by the kind of analysis that Frank Parkin developed drawing on Max Weber, in his Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique.[52]
My second suggestion is that we should not restrict ourselves to work undertaken by economists or more generally within rational choice theory. For example, one really important and interesting study of why government does not achieve what is sets out to do was provided by Pressman and Wildavsky’s Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland; Or, Why It's Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All….[53] It would seem to me, more generally, that there is a great deal of important work on which classical liberals could usefully draw in political science, public administration, sociology, and law – to say nothing of history – both in themselves and as models for other studies. While economic and rational-choice approaches may be fruitful, to restrict ourselves to such work seems to me to pose an unnecessary limitation on ourselves.
Finally, I have written here – and elsewhere in these responses – about a classical-liberal approach. It seems to me that there is no intellectual problem about identifying what we are doing as such. (Although clearly there may be pragmatic reasons against it; e.g., if someone is seeking tenure in a department with people in it who have silly prejudices against classical liberalism.) Essentially, classical liberalism can – along with competing approaches – form the core of a “research program” which can guide work within science in competition with other approaches. Classical liberals can – and need to – engage in argument, of many sorts, about our theoretical ideas, but we also need to show that we can produce better explanatory work than can those with whom we are competing. Such a view may be seen as a competitor to a Kuhnian one, in which people are simply seen as committed to paradigms, about which there can be no fruitful critical discussion. It may also be contrasted with the kind of “justificationist” approach which tried to demonstrate that its assumptions are correct. There is not the space to write more about these issues here, but the references below offer two further discussions of this theme which may be of use for those who wish to take issue with it.[54]
[50.] My point here is not to endorse Marxism – although some Marxist analysis of the constraints under which people act, is interesting. It is, rather, to suggest that there are important commonalities between the approach of classical liberalism and Marxism. Compare also Murray Rothbard’s enthusiasm for the historical work of Gabriel Kolko.
[51.] See, for example, James Buchanan and Geoffrey Brennan, “The Normative Purpose of Economic Science,” International Review of Law and Economics, 1, December 1981, pp. 155-66.
[52.] Frank Parkin, Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique (London: Tavistock, 1979).
[53.] Jeffrey L. Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky, Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland; Or, Why It's Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All… (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
[54.] Jeremy Shearmur, “Popper, Lakatos and Theoretical Progress in Economics,” in Appraising Modern Economics: Studies in the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, ed. M. Blaug and N. de Marchi, Aldershot (Cheltenham: Elgar, 1991), pp. 35-52, and “Commitment, Scholarship and Classical Liberalism,” The Independent Review, Spring 2003 7, no. 4, pp. 575-85.