Why are there so many ignoramuses in political theory? A rational choice perspective.

July 10, 2012 at 5:26 am (Oh the humanities!, Price theory)

I discovered a “ranking” of the upcoming stars in political theory today, as ranked by a collection of over a thousand political theorists in Moore’s Political Theory Today: Results of a National Survey. Out of sheer boredom, I went through the works of perhaps twenty or so, reading their biographical details, education, main publications and notable ideas. I would categorize these political theorists mainly into three similarly sized groups:

1) Shameless demagogues who see academic research as another front in a larger political struggle. The young theorist in Chicago is a nice example.

2) People well-trained in the rhetoric and obscurantist techniques of political theory, but without a cogent argument, nor any basic understanding of political processes.

3) A minority of liberal theorists defending what the rest of us already know, with ever more arcane language and terminology that they themselves probably are uncomfortable with. (Free Market Fairness…)

If this is not enough of an evidence of the continued intellectual hollowness of the field, consider this: there are perhaps 25% of liberal theorists who consider the rest of the field to be a complete joke; and there are perhaps 25% Marxist/post-structuralist theorists who also consider the rest of the field to be a complete joke; and this has been the state of the discipline for roughly a hundred years. They can’t both be right, and it follows that at least 50% (you do the math) of the discipline is a complete joke and has been for a hundred years. That is not a sign of a healthy discipline.

So why is political theory such a mediocre field? Why do they seemingly not advance despite the mountains of contrary evidence against the relevance of Hegelian theory, the hollowness of ethics, the irrelevance of moral philosophy without an analytic foundation? How can they proceed so comfortably in their theorizing even as the rest of the discipline (political science) moves further and further away?

C.P. Snow, and later Krugman, refers to this fundamental divide as a difference of “culture” – the culture of nerds and the culture of the literary intellectuals. But I think the difference in culture is merely the result of something more fundamental – a difference in incentives. A personal anecdote would be illustrative here. When I was in my first English class in college, which was taught from a heavily postmodernist perspective, I managed to convince myself that the various vices commonly associated with postmodernist writing – the use of obscurantist terminology, the use of namedropping, analogies and anecdotes as proof, the avoidance of any clear argument or direction, and the general lack of rigor and preciseness – as, indeed, virtues. If they’re not, how else could I have any faith left in the “elders” of the literary tradition that I was eagerly following? And more pertinently, if I do not pretend that postmodernist writing is rigorous and useful, how do I bring myself to conjure up the 8 paged, double spaced essays that I desperately need for a good grade in the course?

After I abstained myself from (or rather, was yanked away from) the literary tradition and switched to economics through the influence of some brilliant minds, I found it pretty obvious, in retrospect, how silly it all was. And I think any reasonably educated and astute mind – once he suspends his faith in the intellectual authority of some literary academics for a moment – can easily recognize after some serious reading and thinking that there is little value in postmodernism, or the poststructuralist tradition, or more specifically deconstructionism. The key thing I want to point out here is that there really is no culture. Culture is persistent, unchanging and, in the short term, irrational. Yet it is possible for one to turn from an addict of postmodernism to a fervent critic of it merely in response to the changing of incentives.

So why do some disciplines seem to have such failing incentives? How do these incentives come by? It may be worthwhile to consider how some disciplines succeeded as a contrast. Economics and analytical philosophy are two disciplines that are widely regarded as successful, in the sense that they have managed to weather criticism, and in the case of economics, colonize other disciplines. A crucial common characteristic, I propose, is that both disciplines arose primarily in Anglo-Saxon countries, which have several cultural characteristics that influence the incentives of the academe:

  1. The Anglo-Saxon academe is highly reverent of positivism and the natural sciences
  2. The Anglo-Saxon and especially American public tends to be critical or skeptical of authority and elites
  3. The Anglo-Saxon countries were relatively unaffected by the Second World War, and thus are less prone to political radicalism in its aftermath

The combination of these factors, I think, are why economics and philosophy both had an analytic turn in the first half of the 20th century. In economics, this is what critics justifiably deride as “physics envy”; an obsession with putting everything into neat mathematical models and equations, and an eventual complete rejection of all non-mathematical research (in stark contrast to the early 20th century, when mathematical economics was a fringe, suppressed field). This was necessary both to gain some credibility in the public, especially among bureaucrats and the business elite; and as a reaction against the rapid turn to Marxism in the continental academe. I think, in retrospect, it would be fair to credit much of the modern relevance and rigor of economics – especially compared to other social sciences – with this (in the context of the global intellectual culture) rather accidental quantification of economics.


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