Politics in the Way

Tom Flores pointed out a great bit of an interview conducted by Foreign Affairs with former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala:

Won’t politics always get in the way of technocratic reforms? 

It’s not insurmountable, but we need a social contract where everybody agrees that certain things have to be done. I don’t think we have that in Nigeria yet. Our politicians need to realize that you do not politicize the budget. In a developing country, that’s lethal. If developed countries are holding the budget hostage, well, they’ve already reached a certain level of maturity and of income.

Politicians create rules that govern the way that people live. Without governance and state capacity, things fall apart or are never built in the first place (as Jonathan Hanson shows). That there might be disagreements about what those rules should be, particularly about where money should be spent and on what, seems natural. To believe that “technocratic reforms” should somehow be outside of politics implies a belief in our knowledge about the “right” policies in a given context that seems completely at odds with historical experience. Governing societies and economies is tricky work, and politics is in part about the discussion of that trickiness.

Jay Ulfelder captures quite a lot of this in his recent introspective post following his calling Ukraine’s recent removal of its president a “just coup.”

One irony here is that lots of political scientists talk about wanting their work to be “policy relevant,” to have policymakers turn to them for understanding on significant issues, but I think many of the scholars who say that don’t fully appreciate this point about the inseparability of analysis and politics (just as I didn’t). Those policymakers aren’t technocratic robots, crunching inputs through smart algorithms in faithful pursuit of the public interest.  When you try to inform their decisions in real time, you step out of the realm of intellectual puzzle-solving and become part of a process of power-wielding. I suppose that’s the point for some, but I’m finding it more unnerving than I’d expected.

I do believe that Okonjo-Iweala has done quite a lot of good for the country and people of Nigeria. I do believe that progress is possible. But I also believe that politics is everywhere, and those who try to push apolitical or nonpolitical or anti-political policy solutions should be taken skeptically. Such policies tend to rest on a belief that we understand the complexities of the world much more than we actually do.  

Natural scientists have it relatively easy–the rules of the system don’t change based on their analysis of it. Social scientists cannot separate our analyses from the political world, which can twist it for its own purposes and to its own ends. Circumspection, rather than withdrawal, seems appropriate.

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