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Category Archives: International Relations

I think that this story is much more important than this story.


One purpose of this blog has been to question the way to think about problems.  I’m specifically interested in how philosophy of science, statistics, and rhetoric shape the way we think.  Another purpose has been to identify which world problems are most worthy of discussion, having received insufficient attention.

Today I followed Tyler Cowen’s link to Mike McGovern’s essay about development economics.  Development economics is a topic I don’t understand well but consider highly important and under-discussed.  It’s also a meta-analysis, exploring different ways to think about problems.  For instance:

The difference between poets and economists…there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points…Paul Collier, William Easterly, and Jeffrey Sachs can all be tenured professors and heads of research institutes, despite the fact that on many points, if one of them were definitively right, one or both of their colleagues would have to be wrong. If economics really were like a natural science, this would not be the case.

I wasn’t expecting to find philosophy of science (or philosophy of poetry) in an essay about third world development, but I think this type of thinking is necessary to address the particulars of third world development.  It’s a slightly morbid point of view; most people who want to solve problems want to do something; instead I want to think about thinking.  But actions are driven by views, and views and driven by the way we think about the world; when we don’t analyze the ways we think, we’re more likely to hold misguided views and take misguided actions.

McGovern’s assessment of development economics is shaped by his philosophy of science; in the above paragraph, he first criticizes economists for trying to be scientists, and then criticizes economists for being bad scientists.  The two criticisms contradict, and don’t account for the fact that throughout history, hard science regularly maintains contradictory points of view, whether in cosmology or mathematics.

My concerns about McGovern’s philosophy of science should dismiss what’s he written; his concerns about development economists may have more to do with their rhetoric than their scientific thinking.  On the whole, his essay is a really interesting read, and I’ll continue to think about it throughout the day.

Happy July 4th.

Matt Yglesias, while defending realist foreign policy, nonetheless is morally adamant that dictatorial rule is morally wrong.

Ruling a country as a dictator is morally wrong…Killing protestors is even more morally wrong…If your only way to hold an office you don’t deserve is to shoot protestors, then you’re deep in the weeds of some morally wrong conduct. That’s obvious and it would seem bizarre for Obama…to voice any other kind of opinion on the matter.  But if the President of the United States says things, he’s expected to back them up with action. Which is fine. But action often isn’t warranted!

I don’t think it’s so bizarre to add some gray to black and white world of dictatorial decision-making.  There are unanswered questions that may mitigate or even justify the decision to shoot protestors.  If the protestors intend to overthrow your government, what type of government to they plan to install?  What’s the likelihood your country descends into anarchy?  History tells us that unexpected and terrible things can happen to countries when their political structures collapse; this seems like an outcome that everyone should be trying to avoid.  It seems quite likely there are cases where harsh rule to maintain stability is morally sound.  As Matt Yglesias points out, stability is a good thing.  And as Matt Yglesias also says, these issues are complex:

It’s difficult to understand world events by trying to reductively view everything as a struggle of visionary good guys against blood-stained tyrants…Politicians are normally a mixed bag, and need to be assessed as such.