Daniel W. Drezner

Pick your policymaking metaphor

Matt Yglesias linked to this months-old Emily Stokes profile of Rory Stewart in the Financial Times.  Yglesias highlights one of the funnier metaphors I’ve seen about the trouble with advising policymakers:    “It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not ...

Matt Yglesias linked to this months-old Emily Stokes profile of Rory Stewart in the Financial Times.  Yglesias highlights one of the funnier metaphors I’ve seen about the trouble with advising policymakers:   

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’"

OK, that’s really funny, and I think it’s true a fair amount of the time. 

On the other hand, I’m not sure that metaphor holds up all of the time.  Consider another possibility.  From the policymaker’s perspective, getting outside advice is like trying to figure out which railroad track to take if you’re driving a train.  There are three options ahead, and for myriad reasons each of the possibilities carries some risk.  So you go place an emergency phone call to the head of Harvard’s Department of Railroad Studies to get a recommendation.  His advice?  "Why don’t you go off-track?"  

To revisit a recurring theme on this blog, sometimes the outside advisor is right to make policymakers question core assumptions.  At the same time, however, sometimes a policymaker has neither the time nor the political capital to go back to first principles.  Sometimes they just need to know what is the least bad policy option.  And I guarantee you that having an academic tell them, "they’re all bad policy options" is of no use whatsoever in that moment.   

I suspect that knowing which metaphor applies is more art than science, but I’m curious to hear from commenters on both sides of the policymaking divide. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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