Two Guys on Bikes Talk International Development

A couple of weeks ago, on the tail end of a lunchtime group bike ride, I complained to the one guy still headed my way—let’s call him Bob, because I didn’t ask him if I could share our conversation—about the lousy state of the roads in our area. We were heading south on Beach Drive through the northern neck of Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, crunching through fallen leaves and dodging or bouncing off cracks and holes in the asphalt. Like a coarse file, I said. Before winter even starts, he said.

That got us to wondering why the roads weren’t in better shape, and that got us to lamenting the failure of local, state, and national governments to spend more on infrastructure in the past few years, when borrowing was cheap and the economy was dragging. Bob applauded the Obama administration’s first stimulus package but complained that it mostly just dumped money into the economy, a lot of which ended up “going to China.” That remark about China segued into a short but thoughtful complaint about the federal government’s focus on free trade.

I said I didn’t have a problem with freer trade and was actually glad to see living standards improve so much in some of the poorest parts of the world in the last couple of decades. I know there are some losers, I said, but I’m okay with the American middle class getting a little worse off if it means billions of really poor people in other countries are now much better off. After all, they’re all people, right?

I would call Bob a strong liberal, so his response came as a surprise. “I am not okay with that,” he told me. He didn’t say anything about Americans as such, or clang any other patriotic bells. Instead, he said that people he knows personally were having trouble feeding their kids or getting divorced or otherwise struggling in the past several years. I said something like, “Right, but people who were dying before age five are now doing a little better,” I argued. “Nope, still not okay,” he responded.

What started out as a boilerplate cyclists’ lament on road conditions had turned into a debate of sorts on the ethics of international development. As often happens, we’d found our way to a version of the Trolley Problem. Growth is coming down the track, but it will be distributed unevenly, and some people might even get run over. If you could guide that trolley’s path, how should you choose? Proximity? Familiarity? Nationality? At random? Should we worry most about maximizing overall welfare, or should the people close to us count more? On what grounds?

I won’t try to resolve that debate here, and you already know what I think from the anecdote. Instead, I wanted to share the story because it reminded me of something important in the politics of global development. Equality sounds good in the abstract, but we do not sit comfortably with it in practice. Most of us care more about some people than others, and those feelings shape our politics. We can—and, I think, should—aspire to global fairness, but we can also expect to keep tripping over our own feelings when we walk in that direction.

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The Ethics of Political Science in Practice

As citizens and as engaged intellectuals, we all have the right—indeed, an obligation—to make moral judgments and act based on those convictions. As political scientists, however, we have a unique set of potential contributions and constraints. Political scientists do not typically have anything of distinctive value to add to a chorus of moral condemnation or declarations of normative solidarity. What we do have, hopefully, is the methodological training, empirical knowledge and comparative insight to offer informed assessments about alternative courses of action on contentious issues. Our primary ethical commitment as political scientists, therefore must be to get the theory and the empirical evidence right, and to clearly communicate those findings to relevant audiences—however unpalatable or inconclusive they might be.

That’s a manifesto of sorts, nested in a great post by Marc Lynch at the Monkey Cage. Marc’s post focuses on analysis of the Middle East, but everything he writes generalizes to the whole discipline.

I’ve written a couple of posts on this theme, too:

  • This Is Not a Drill,” on the challenges of doing what Marc proposes in the midst of fast-moving and politically charged events with weighty consequences; and
  • Advocascience,” on the ways that researchers’ political and moral commitments shape our analyses, sometimes but not always intentionally.

Putting all of those pieces together, I’d say that I wholeheartedly agree with Marc in principle, but I also believe this is extremely difficult to do in practice. We can—and, I think, should—aspire to this posture, but we can never quite achieve it.

That applies to forecasting, too, by the way. Coincidentally, I saw this great bit this morning in the Letter from the Editors for a new special issue of The Appendix, on “futures of the past”:

Prediction is a political act. Imagined futures can be powerful tools for social change, but they can also reproduce the injustices of the present.

Concern about this possibility played a role in my decision to leave my old job, helping to produce forecasts of political instability around the world for private consumption by the U.S. government. It is also part of what attracts me to my current work on a public early-warning system for mass atrocities. By making the same forecasts available to all comers, I hope that we can mitigate that downside risk in an area where the immorality of the acts being considered is unambiguous.

As a social scientist, though, I also understand that we’ll never know for sure what good or ill effects our individual and collective efforts had. We won’t know because we can’t observe the “control” worlds we would need to confidently establish cause and effect, and we won’t know because the world we seek to understand keeps changing, sometimes even in response to our own actions. This is the paradox at the core of applied, empirical social science, and it is inescapable.

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