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The Limits of Pragmatism in Institutional Change




Modern politics in Western democracies is to a large extent characterized by political pragmatism, a position where feasible, incremental, and more or less technocratic improvements of the status quo are advocated. While such a position has some advantages, i.e. safeguarding against false ideologies and bad radical reforms as well as more populist policies, this paper argues that there are limits to pragmatism in “welfare-enhancing” institutional change. Pragmatism cannot deal with situations where a whole interpretative framework needs to be changed in order to achieve beneficial institutional change. The status quo may be highly inefficient and still cannot be improved by marginal adjustments due to outdated or false mental frameworks, special interests and institutional lock-in. In such situations an ideological shift may be a prerequisite for higher efficiency and welfare. A position that may combine the strengths in each of the perspectives may be called “principled pragmatism”.

Suggested Citation

  • Karlson, Nils, 2012. "The Limits of Pragmatism in Institutional Change," Ratio Working Papers 194, The Ratio Institute.
  • Handle: RePEc:hhs:ratioi:0194

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Denzau, Arthur T & North, Douglass C, 1994. "Shared Mental Models: Ideologies and Institutions," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 47(1), pages 3-31.
    2. Breyer, Friedrich & Craig, Ben, 1997. "Voting on social security: Evidence from OECD countries," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 13(4), pages 705-724, December.
    3. Dani Rodrik, 1996. "Understanding Economic Policy Reform," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 34(1), pages 9-41, March.
    4. Viktor Vanberg & James M. Buchanan, 1989. "Interests and Theories in Constitutional Choice," Journal of Theoretical Politics, , vol. 1(1), pages 49-62, January.
    5. Dexter, Lewis Anthony, 1981. "Undesigned Consequences of Purposive Legislative Action: Alternatives to Implementation," Journal of Public Policy, Cambridge University Press, vol. 1(04), pages 413-431, October.
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    More about this item


    ideology; pragmatism; reform; institutional change;

    JEL classification:

    • H12 - Public Economics - - Structure and Scope of Government - - - Crisis Management
    • H50 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies - - - General
    • H70 - Public Economics - - State and Local Government; Intergovernmental Relations - - - General

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