Daniel W. Drezner

One field’s technical wizardry is another field’s hidebound scholasticism

I’m starting to read Dani Rodrik‘s provocative book The Globalization Paradox, which is well-written, accessible, and (so far, at least) quite fair-minded with respect to the various economic debates over the costs and benefits of globalization.  It’s also, really, a book of political economy, so it’s nice to see that, based on his footnotes, Rodrik has more than a ...

I’m starting to read Dani Rodrik‘s provocative book The Globalization Paradox, which is well-written, accessible, and (so far, at least) quite fair-minded with respect to the various economic debates over the costs and benefits of globalization.  It’s also, really, a book of political economy, so it’s nice to see that, based on his footnotes, Rodrik has more than a passing familiarity with political science in general and global political economy in particular. 

I’ll blog more about Rodrik’s substantive arguments once I’ve  finished the book, but I wanted to take this opportunity to offer a mild dissent from an early point he makes about the social sciences.  In his introduction (p. xx), Rodrik argues that the ideas of economists are very powerful — more powerrful than the other social sciences.  Why?: 

It is perhaps natural for an economist like me to think that ideas–and economists’ ideas in particular–matter a whole lot.  But I think it is hard to overestate the influence that these ideas have hadf in molding our understanding of the world around us, shaping the conversation among politicians and other decisionmakers, and constraining as well as expanding our choices.  Political scientists, sociologists, historians, and others would no doubt claim equal credit for their professions.  Policy choices are surely constrained by special interests and their political organization, by deeper societal trends, and by historical conditions.  But by virtue of its technical wizardry and appearance of certitude, economic science has had the upper hand since at least the end of World War II.  It has provided the language with which we discuss public policy and shaped the topology of our collective mental map (emphasis added).

Now, Rodrik is correct up to a point.  Economists have been viewed as being at the head of the ssocial sciences for quite some time, and their unity of method probably has something to do with it.  That said, this explanation only goes so far.  As many have lamented, the field of international relations has increasingly embraced the tools of economics to develop and test theories, and yet the foreign policy community has not displayed an equal eagerness to have the topology of their mental maps shaped by this kind of analysis.  Rodrik does not explain why economic policymakers decided to accept these methods as a valid basis to form policy. 

To repeat a point I made a few months ago: 

[T]he fundamental difference between economic policy and foreign policy is that the former community accepts the idea that economic methodologies and theory-building enterprises have value, and are worth using as a guide to policymaking.  This doesn’t mean economists agree on everything, but it does mean they are all speaking a common language and accept the notion of external validity checks on their arguments. 

That consensus simply does not exist within the foreign policy community…. Many members of the foreign policy community explicitly reject the notion that social science methodologies and techniques can explain much in world politics.  They therefore are predisposed to reject the kind of scholarship that political scientists of all stripes generate.   This might be for well-founded reasons, it might be simple innumeracy hostility to the academy, or it might be a combination of the two.  I’d love to have a debate about whether that’s a good or bad thing, but my point is that’s the reality we face.

I had this observation confirmed in conversations I had with a political scientist working for the current administratioon who shall remain nameless.  Whenever this person attempted to discuss generic political science observations in a staff meeting, the inevitable response by someone in the room was, "well, that sounds nice in theory, but it doesn’t apply to this concrete situation."  I guarantee you that no one has ever said anything like that to Ben Bernanke in a policy setting. 

So, to sum up:  when economists use formal models, it’s technical wizardry.  When political scientists do the same, it’s hidebound scholasticism. 

There’s a supply side and a demand-side to the interactions between academics and policymakers.  Both economists and political scientists have supplied copious amounts of high-quality research, much of it relying on formal models and statistical tests.  On the demand side, however, only one group of policymakers has embraced this research with open arms. 

Am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner