Yesterday (June 19th) I had the opportunity to speak to the fellows in the Koch Associate program in DC. The program brings in recent graduates for a year to work in the network of think-tanks and go through a series of training programs designed by Koch. It has proven to be a very successful program.
My talk was on how to think about the problem of "transition" and how to engage in "transition analysis" and I mainly drew on my experience in East and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as more recent work on development economics in general (Latin Ameria and Africa) and also 'reconstruction' efforts after war, and after natural disaster.
Prior to my talk, however, I gave 3 general pieces of advice aimed at serious, smart, and impressionable young minds who want to change the world:
1. DON'T CONFUSE COMMITMENT WITH DOGMATICISM
Science, I argued, progresses by the commitment of scientists to propositions. This is a very Polanyi point to make, but one that is essential. A lot of people NOT involved in science (including philosophers of science) have no clue how science makes progress and they claim that it is all about self-subversion. Clearly self-criticism is important, but it is not how science progresses. Science progress by the dogged pursuit of an agenda by some scientists confronting the dogged pursuit of others in the field. Science should HURT when propositions are wrong. But for something to HURT the one who is proven wrong had to sincerely believe they were right. The boldness of the conjectures is positively correlated with the level of commitment the scientist has to the proposition. We want BOLD conjectures subjected to refutation, not weak ones. That means the scientists will have STRONG opinions, and too often that is confused with dogmaticism. It is not. In fact, as I have said here before, dogmaticism is never really a problem at the individual level, it is really a problem at the level of the discipline. As long as there is open scientific/scholarly competition in the field, dogmaticism doesn't do damage to the advance of science/scholarship. To claim otherwise is in fact, I would argue, to misunderstand how science progress, and how the best scientists in human history have in fact worked. However, system-level dogmaticism must be rejected at all times because that will kill scientific progress.
2. DON'T CONFUSE FAUX HUMILITY WITH REAL HUMILITY
In this post modern age, it is commonplace for people to assert that we don't know anything. I don't know, you don't know, we all don't know. Aren't we all really cool because we don't know anything?! NO, it is not cool to not know, in fact it sucks to not know certain things. There is a real joy to figuring things out and if you want to think seriously about issues, start figuring things out rather than claiming that we don't know anything. Also, the progress of knowledge is not a simple linear path from the unknown to the known, but it also isn't just a stab in the dark either. The phraseology is the more we know, the more we know we don't know. We have an expanding sphere of knowledge and as knowledge grows the sphere expands --- that is the area of the known expands, but as the sphere expands the surface (or awareness of) of the unknown also expands. This is the humilty we learn from scientific progress, not the false humility that none of us knows anything. No, most opinions on economic policy are wrong and we know them to be wrong because they are not based on either logic or evidence.
If we think about issues with regard to economics for a minute we might be able to clarify this. First, the economic world which we occupy is a complex phenomena comprised of an intricate web of interconnections, historical path dependencies, and engulfed in as Keynes put it "the dark forces of time and ignorance." That is the situation in which the economic actor finds himself. But that is not the plight of the economists, who instead is studying the matter and trying to understanding the coping strategies and institutional mechanisms that emerge to aid in coping with time and ignorance. In other words, the knowledge of the economist is different from the knowledge of the economic actor. We as economists have access to knowledge that actors within the economy do not. This is an important point stressed by Hayek, but sometimes forgotten by the extreme subjectivists. You can indeed have an objective science that is concerned with studying the subjective perceptions of opportunities for exchange and production for profit --- it is called the entreprneurial theory of the market process. Knowledge of the theory of the market process doesn't mean you could be a businessman, let alone a regulator of that process, but it does mean you can understand the "explanation of the principle" underlying the order produced in the market process. Knowledge is sweet, lets not sour on it.
3. SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER, DON'T STRATEGIZE WITH POWER
The key issue for individuals who want to change the world is to realize that the problem is not different political parties, but different rules of the game. it is the structure of governance, not who is governing that matters most. Focus on changing the rules and find rules that are incentive compatible with the "game" you hope to promote.
Related to this, the idea of communicating economic ideas so they don't hurt might make you popular on the lecture circuit, but it will not help change the world. Again, let me repeat, science shoudl hurt. Also strategizing with others over how to water-down a message from economics to those in power so they may adopt it doesn't work either. The expert at watering down economics might rise to high political office, but he will not advance truth in economics or in policy.
In my opinion, I told the fellows, the most important books they could read this summer are: Richard Epstein's Free Markets Under Seige, and W. H. Hutt's Politically Impossible? both published by IEA. Epstein emphasizes the low hanging fruit in public policy, and argues that if we just focused on the simple economic problems that politics gets wrong and get them right we would improve the plight of millions of people world wide --- lower tarrifs, lower taxes, cut back regulations, eliminate price and wage controls, etc. LOW HANGING FRUIT. There are complicated issues in economic public policy, but for 90% of the problems we face in the world it is the low hanging fruit issues that distort the world an harm the lives of so many. Think of the current food crisis and examine the rise of protectionist policies world-wide that is preventing the gains from trade from fixing it. LOW HANGING FRUIT.
Hutt, on the other hand, emphasizes that it is the economists responsibility to speak truth as they see it to power, and never to compromise their message. The simple reason is that if the economists water-downs his message, the politican will water-down even more in the policy process, and by the time the advice become actual policy it will be unrecognizable to the economist. Rather than the economic voice being given an hearing, it is completely muted by the economists own consent. NO SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER AND DAMN THE CONSEQUENCES IN TERMS OF YOUR POPULARITY WITHIN THE POLITICAL REALM.
Not sure how well my message was received, but that is it in a nutshell. Be bold and seek truth; be humble, but also confident in what you know and don't lose your curiosity in trying to figure things out; and based on your search for truth and discovery of truth, speak that truth loudly and clearly to power if given that chance. DO NOT COMPROMISE THE TRUTH FOR THE SAKE OF PERSUASION, INSTEAD BE PERSUASIVE ABOUT THE TRUTH.