Recently, scholars have reflected on how to make political theory more relevant to policy. While most of the ideas around this charge are centered around the debate between ideal and non-ideal theories¹, one might ask whether there are other methodological insights we can advance to make political philosophy more useful to politics and society. In this piece, I suggest that one avenue that should be explored consists of building a bridge between political theory and comparative political economy to theorise varieties of ideal regimes.
As vaccination campaigns proceed throughout the globe, policymakers, activists, and scholars are thinking about what the post-Covid world will look like and how to repair their national economy. Many view this moment as a critical juncture and are promoting reform plans which would allow us not to go back to our pre-Covid society, but rather to design a world that reduces and responds to the flaws of previous systems. In other words, we are thus living at a crossroad—an exciting political moment which offers the possibility to draw new ideal regimes up and get politically involved to try to implement them.
Instinctively then, political philosophy and politics appear to be connected. Since one of the main tasks of philosophers is to outline political ‘realistic utopias’, à la John Rawls, by developing theories about the shape that institutions ought to take, politicians and citizens can draw inspiration from these philosophical accounts. These theories can more precisely provide them with a normative compass that they can use to guide their political action. The question then is: how can we make better political theory which fulfills this role in a more satisfactory manner?
One fruitful way is to do political theory differently, so it promotes more efficient political decisions. Surely, proponents of the ideal and non-ideal methods of theorising would argue that it requires spending more time thinking within their own frameworks, and it is worth highlighting that there are powerful arguments on which they could rely to defend their respective claim. My point here is not to engage with this debate and assess who is right. Instead, I believe that political theory could also be made more useful to policymaking while putting aside ideal and non-ideal considerations, and the reason why is to be found at the intersection of philosophy and the comparative political economy (CPE) literature—an intersection at which we can find some hints on what shape political decisions should take.
Since the publication of David Soskice and Peter Hall’s seminal book on Varieties of Capitalism (VoC) in 2001², the CPE literature has expanded in numerous directions. What is important in our case is that despite all these differences, most comparative political economists agree on one fundamental thesis: reforming countries through the implementation of a one-size-fits-all reform package or ideal is likely to be unappealing.
Consider, as an illustration, the emblematic case of the Euro debt crisis analysed by Peter Hall in an article published in West European Politics in 2014. While the Eurozone was implicitly tailored for promoting one specific variety of political economy throughout member states—an export-led model of growth and social democratic welfare institutions found in Germany, for example—countries with different varieties also joined the monetary union. Especially problematic was the addition of southern European countries, which had radically different political economy regimes than Germany. Their economic growth was the result of demand-led policies which were supported by conservative welfare arrangements, so their institutions soon began conflicting with the rigid Eurozone arrangements. In turn, this led to growing imbalance between member states, and eventually to the economic collapse of the Eurozone. In other words, Hall’s analysis suggests that the disastrous consequences of the Euro crisis are related to the unnuanced imposition of a one-size-fits-all economic system—the German variety—over a range of countries with different institutions. If CPE scholars had only one unique and general policy recommendation to make, it would thus certainly be to not try to implement the very same ideal regime in a uniform manner throughout countries.
But, how can policymakers take advantage of the critical juncture we are in by taking CPE’s thesis into account? Should varieties of ideal regime be available, one way would consist of picking one variety and building upon it to reform a country in accordance with its national specificities, yet no such account is available at the moment.
While policymakers are very good at advocating for reforms, most of them lack time to develop such sophisticated frameworks of political thought. Furthermore, although scholars enjoy a better position in that respect—as the purpose of their job is precisely to develop new ideas—very few thinkers have actually tried to design varieties of ideal regime. Comparative political economists have usually refrained from engaging with normative political theory, which would have enabled them to expand their empirical study of current political economy systems toward the formulation of ideal regimes. And nearly all philosophers who have been interested in justice and political economy have tended to reflect in terms of a one-size-fits-all ideal. Throughout history of political philosophy, thinkers as diverse as Marx, Roemer, Hayek, or Friedman have all put forward one unique ideal economic regime that they wish to see uniformly implemented.
In sum, we find ourselves in a critical juncture during which important political changes could occur, and even though numerous ideal and non ideal theories are available, one set of accounts that could potentially lead to better policy decisions is still missing. This is unfortunate and is the main reason why building bridges between political theory and comparative political economy to delineate varieties of ideal regime is a task that needs to be completed—not solely because it may be fruitful in terms of academic findings, but also, and more importantly, because it might be of use to citizens and politicians.