Policymakers Should Avoid Academics Like the Plague

December 29, 2010 Topic: Political Theory Region: United States Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

Policymakers Should Avoid Academics Like the Plague

Should policymakers pay attention to academics? Should policy makers actually be academics? No and no. For the most part, policymakers should avoid them like the plague.

These thoughts were first prompted by Justin Logan's column and Paul Pillar's response. Logan bemoaned the fact that academics don't have much sway inside the beltway. Strictly speaking, I'm not sure that's true. Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright were both academics. I guess it depends on what kind of academics we're talking about. Rice and Albright were more grounded in history than in the abstract theorizing beloved of many political science departments. Indeed, to sharpen the distinction more, I would say that SAIS, the Fletcher School, and other such finishing schools for foreign affairs mavens have supplanted traditional political science departments, which became enamored of game and rational-choice theory. The only truly serious discipline in political science is political theory--Aristotle to Weber to Rawls. Is there much in international relations, by the way, that has not already been discussed by Thucydides--a dip into the Sicilian Expedition might have served George W. Bush well before he headed into Iraq.

One telling sign of the decline of political science, with its pretensions to scientific accuracy, is that Fareed Zakaria, a student of Samuel Huntington, did not pursue a career in the academy. It simply wasn't that attractive. Are the best and brightest attracted to political science in the first place? I would wager not.

It would be nice to think that the conundrums of foreign policy would be more easily unraveled by increased colloquy between academics and policy makers. For the most part, however, what political scientists have to offer is worthless. Sometimes it may be worse than worthless. It could be actively harmful. A grounding in history is far more useful for both policymakers and academics.