Explanation and Justification

Bates (Amazon.com link)
Easterly (Amazon.com link)
Olson (Amazon.com link)

Prof. Brad DeLong has a long post/dialogue with his “ex-teacher Jeff Weintraub,”* on the difference between explanation and justification. Are those who attempt to explain or rationalize the insurgency justifying it? DeLong argues that they are separable (it is possible to explain without justifying) while Weintraub maintains that DeLong’s dichotomy is oversimplified.

As a student of non-democracies, this issue does gnaw at me. Bates (1981) provides an excellent (seminal!) contribution to the analysis of agricultural policies in sub-Saharan Africa. He is correct to point out the discrepancy at the heart of the analysis of the agricultural economists who argued for smart farmers but stupid politicians. That is, while farmers were incredibly sensitive to the market environment in which they found themselves and adjusted their economic decisions accordingly, politicians were considered to be making mistakes when authoring such policies. Bates argues that the politicians were simply looking after their own interests (in terms of their own political survival and yet attempting to encourage development) and policies were essentially an equilibrium outcome of such decision-making. His is a very clear explanation for the political behavior in these nations. And yet one could read Bates and claim that as he believes that such brutal behavior by dictators in rural areas is an equilibrium, he must believe that these decisions are somehow acceptable and justified.

This would be a mistake. Robert Bates has spent considerable energy fighting against such policies. He reasonably believes that the agricultural economists are making a mistake by ignoring politics.** They [ag economists] are only able to push policy and thus the incentives of farmers if the politicians are actually unaware of the results of their policies. As Bates points out, the politicians are not naïve. Policy makers in developed countries or the World Bank will be able to make more of a difference in these countries if they improve their understanding of the political environment and know the levers that can change policy (i.e. if they read Bates). See Easterly for an oft-depressing blow-by-blow account of such misadventures.

Obviously one needs to distinguish what is explanation and what is justification in anything that one writes; and just as obviously, we cannot spend all of our time with such meta-level argumentation.

Social science is hard enough of a job on its own (remember that I need to be able to explain that my analysis is based on adequate measurements of inequality [headcount ratio, general entropy index, etc] as they use the government’s real PPP-adjusted 1990 constant poverty line adjusted for both regional and urban CPI differences and based on consumption and not income to handle differences in what is free and what one has to pay for and of course is robust to other poverty lines (whether they be caloric (2000 to 2500 calories per day in food bundles based on survey-obtained consumption patterns) or international standard (which is another way of saying arbitrary but often used)). I study fiscal policy in non-democracies. Such policies are almost universally not welfare-maximizing. Until we understand the underpinnings of such policies, we will be frustrated by attempts to improve them.

Smart, brutal dictators are common. Olson writes with hatred about the inframarginal taxation in the USSR and yet he is impressed by the way in which it smartly maximizes Stalin’s interest, which to make clear, Olson abhors. In my research I will presumably find similar inventive policies serving ends that I disagree with. I will do my best to always offer explanation separate from justification.

* The definition of an “ex-teacher” is both obvious – an individual who played the teacher role during an educational period that occurred in the past – and obscure – is it a slam, implying that one has ceased to learn from that educational period or that one never did learn anything from her or simply informative that the educational period has ended?

** Oh, the irony. Again, though, one can “explain away” this ‘mistake’ by examining the institutional environment in which the agricultural economists found themselves. They were trained to excel in their profession, which translated into examining a particular set of questions using a particular toolbox of methodologies, which inevitably left some components of social interaction outside of the analysis. Rationalist analysis of policy-making decisions was for a long time in the set of the other for economists. This is no longer so much the case.

P.S. Stating the obvious, I’m back.

One response to “Explanation and Justification”

  1. JEROME!!!

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