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The normative gap: mechanism design and ideal theories of justice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 October 2019

Zoë Hitzig*
Affiliation:
Department of Economics, Harvard University, 1805 Cambridge Street, Cambridge MA 02138, USA Email: zhitzig@g.harvard.edu.

Abstract

This paper investigates the relationship between economic theory and theories of justice in the design of public policy. In particular, it focuses on the role of mechanism design in policy contexts beset with issues of social, racial and distributive justice. Economists’ involvement in redesigning Boston’s algorithm for allocating K-12 students to public schools serves as an instructive case study. The paper draws on the distinction between ideal theory and non-ideal theory in political philosophy and the concept of performativity in economic sociology to argue that mechanism design can enact elaborate ideal theories of justice. A normative gap thus emerges between the goals of the policymakers and the objectives of economic designs. As a result, mechanism design may obstruct stakeholders’ avenues for normative criticism of public policies, and serve as a technology of depoliticization.

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Article
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© Cambridge University Press 2019

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