Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 | 15:17 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 | 15:17 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: What is economics?

13 September 2010 14:57

Professor Ronald Duncan from the Australian National University writes:

Jim Manzi's article 'What social science does--and doesn't--know' in the City Journal gives strong backing to Sam Roggeveen's argument with Mark Thirlwell.

And Richard Green says:

As an economist I only really wish to point out that the view from foreign policy towards economics is actually very similar to the debates within economics over epistemology over the past 100 years, although these debates have never been as visible to the layman and certain 'policy entrepreneurs' (to use Paul Krugman's description). I will also note that the attitude of many economists is very much Kuhnian.

Economics and foreign policy may have a lot to learn by considering each other epistemologically as they confront the same issues in terms of determining knowledge. Both deal with situations that cannot be repeated for experimental purposes, and require knowledge that is usually hard to observe and quantify. Here's John Quiggin providing himself the same licence to comment of foreign policy that most people grant themselves to comment on economics.

I am interested subsequently, how foreign policy as a discipline views itself in this same light. There is after all a difference between being a China Hand, or a Kremlin Watcher, with a great deal of expertise in a single country, region or relationship and allowing oneself to be described with broad terms such as Realist, Idealist, Liberal Realist etc. The existence of these terms implies that foreign policy is more than just an umbrella term covering many different small areas of knowledge, but also includes an attempt (or pretension) to have a framework to incorporate all these small areas.

If this attempt at creating a discipline is real, what kind of discipline do foreign policy types consider it to be' Does it react to events that fall outside the framework (such as, say, the collapse of the USSR) in a Kuhnian fashion' It cannot use vulgar positivism for the same reasons as economics, climate science and evolutionary science (because one cannot rerun history as a control with different circumstances and policy), so what standards does it adopt to understand it's veracity'

Or is there no discipline of foreign policy, just a large array of small disciplines that happen to share office space in universities, with no shared knowledge and assumptions for applying lessons learned in one area in another'