Chris Blattman

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

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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.

9 Responses

  1. Couldn’t agree more! Smith’s class in particular is a wonderful introduction to this topic. Should be required listening for all empiricists. And agreed with DNF’s comment: +1 for cblattsU.

  2. Thanks for sharing! I didn’t know Yale had a few select open courses online. Even though I’m taking a political philosophy class at my university in the fall it will be interesting to hear the topic from different professors.

  3. I too enjoyed those courses very much and ran a reading group for my fellow undergraduates based on their content last year.

    To see that you’ve enjoyed and benefited from their content similarly warms my heart. I think the study of such theory is not only academically edifying but also both comforting and humbling. It is part of appreciating one’s place in the millenia long legacy of humanity’s attempts to understand the world.

  4. I was clicking on your link to send you an email message and it is not giving me the address. The Pennsylvania Economic Association Conference would like to invite you to be our speaker on June 1st during our luncheon. Would you be able to join us? Please email me so I can give you more details. Thank you.

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