Sam has already mentioned Mark Pennington’s new book, Robust Political Economy – Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy, describing it as ‘required reading’. I’d like to add my own endorsement: this is an excellent book.

For those of you who didn’t see Sam’s piece, Mark sets out to do two things in Robust Political Economy. First, he seeks to defend classical liberalism against the charges most commonly levelled at it: that it depends on unrealistic assumptions about rationality and ‘efficient markets’, that it fails to appreciate the importance of community, and that it is oblivious to concerns about social justice and inequality.

Mark does this extremely well, drawing on Austrian and Public Choice economics to show that spontaneous, liberal orders are best placed to cope with bounded rationality and imperfect knowledge, that they are most likely to encourage human flourishing, and that they provide the best defence against abusive authority. Hayek would be proud.

In second part of the book, Mark goes on to apply his classical liberal principles to a variety of real-world public policy issues: the welfare state, international development, and environmental protection. Here, Mark talks convincingly about how liberalism can be advanced in practice, noting the inevitable tension between ‘evolutionary’ and ‘constructivist’ approaches to reform.

In domestic policy, do we just open public services to competition, use tax breaks to encourage people to go private, and hope that the state will ‘wither away’? Or are we so far from where we want to be that liberalization must be an exercise in ‘institutional design’?

The answer, Mark says, is that it depends on the circumstances. Classical liberal political economy tells us a great deal about the institutional framework we are aiming for, but rather less about the processes and mechanisms that can be employed to bring it about. Mark doesn’t provide easy answers or shirk big questions, and his Robust Political Economy is sophisticated enough to recognise the crucial importance of events, opportunities and political judgements.

Of course, coming up with those processes and mechanisms that move us towards classical liberalism is a big part of what the Adam Smith Institute is about. Mark Pennington’s Robust Political Economy is a welcome, refreshing, and stimulating contribution to the field.

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rpeOn Wednesday we held an event on the future of planning. Speaking were the Planning minister Greg Clark, Tim Hellier, Head of Planning at a major law firm, and Dr Mark Pennington, who is carving out a niche for himself as one of the UK’s foremost classical liberal academics. (Along with a few others like John Meadowcroft and Anthony J Evans.) All the speeches were interesting but Mark Pennington’s was particularly good. He combined an approach grounded in classical liberal – even, dare I say it, Austrian – thought with a mastery of the details of planning law.

One of the points he made was that centralized government has removed almost any incentives that local councils have for allowing new developments on their land, by mostly centralizing revenue-generation. The consequence of this is that there is an acute housing and land shortage in Britain’s major cities, particularly in London, while there is no shortage of land.

As luck would have it, Mark has a new book out, Robust Political Economy, which expands his approach across a few topics of political economy – poverty relief, international development, and environmentalism, among others. The book defends the classical liberal approach from neoclassical concepts of perfectly knowledgeable and rational market actors, which are often used in conjunction with the ‘market failure’ approach to justify government interventions in the marketplace. Mark rejects this model as being unrealistic, and instead proposes a model of political economy that is robust to the failings of administrators and actors. Government actors are as flawed as market actors, so a political economy that is robust to the existence of flawed actors should be better than one that assumes away the central problems of life.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m quite interested in strategy for libertarianism – how can we increase our influence in Britain, and ultimately roll back the state. Books like Robust Political Economy are a cornerstone of this push, because they attack socialism’s intellectual foundations. As Hayek knew, intellectuals were the key drivers behind the birth of socialism, and I think they’re the key to its demise as well. If you’re interested in cutting-edge scholarship with a liberal twist, Robust Political Economy is required reading.

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