Defunct economists, academic scribblers, and other people we should be examining more carefully

My favorite discovery of past weeks are Yale’s open courses, for video or podcast.

Right now I’m about a third of my way through Steven Smith’s Introduction to political philosophy and Ian Shapiro’s Moral Foundations of Politics. Highly, highly recommended.

Political philosophy never entered my undergrad education, and I never found the time to read it afterwards. When I made the switch from economics department to political science, it was hard to understand what the political theorists were writing about. What use was revisiting 2000-year-old tomes? Surely it was important stuff to teach, and surely one could squeeze a few original papers out of them. But an entire discipline of new research?

I have since reconsidered. Take these courses for instance. They tackle the first and most fundamental questions in politics: What makes a state legitimate? What makes a good life? What is a responsible citizen to do? What are our obligations towards others?

Every course of new book on development, whether it seeks “why people are poor” or “why nations fail”, and every public policy or Millennium Development Goal–all of these implicitly have an answer to these deeper questions. The answer, though, is almost never explicit, even sometimes to the authors themselves.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Keynes quotes: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

As I listen to these lectures, I can’t help but look at half of my own sub-discipline in a new light. More on this in coming weeks as I have a few new books I want to discuss.