Through the Garbage Can, Darkly, Review of David Williams's Japan and the Enemies of Open Political Science

Through the Garbage Can, Darkly, Review of David Williams's Japan and the Enemies of Open Political Science

Mini Teaser: This is a work of criticism ranging over the more fashionable social sciences and humanities, assessing and mostly rejecting them as unsuitable for elucidating the Japanese political system and berating their exponents for ignoring that system in

by Author(s): Eric Jones

There is a hole the size of Japan in this book. Japan ghosts in only as the home of uniquely brilliant economic management that gives it "an almost golden patina", exposing by its glow the ineffectiveness of Western, especially American, policy. Yet social scientists are condemned as "keen to ignore or denigrate Japan's achievements" and their intellectual blindness is David Williams' target. His black list stretches to include philosophers, literary critics, and even a scientist (the continued "baleful influence" of Sir Isaac Newton). This, then, is a work of criticism ranging over the more fashionable social sciences and humanities, assessing and mostly rejecting them as unsuitable for elucidating the Japanese political system and berating their exponents for ignoring that system in any case.

Williams, who is senior research fellow in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield, bases his book on lectures he gave at Oxford during the 1990-91 academic year. His dazzling text suggests there is no one Williams has not read, except mainstream economists, and almost no one, read or unread, whose work he does not dislike. Very few escape the sword. Prominent among those who do are Edward Said, George Steiner, Richard Rorty, and Chalmers Johnson. Even the last two, they will perhaps be glad to hear, may have some clay where their feet should be.

The excoriating is clever, objections astutely anticipated and adroitly rolled over, a striking phrase on every page. The author's scope is a little miracle. His judgments are absolutist: Western writers are blamed if they do not deal with Japan, and blamed for getting it wrong if they do. They are held guilty of being disingenuous, craven, imperious, intolerant, dogmatic, Eurocentric and, it goes without saying, anti-Japanese. They are virtually looked over, in Kingsley Amis' phrase, for signs of "passive racial violence." They culpably overlook the fact that the rise of Japan was a signal development in the long durŽe of human history, creating a political economy not merely beyond the dreams of Western social science but destructive of all its pretensions, requiring, in truth, a new Japano-centric social science of its own. Not that the specifications of this wonder are ever set out. An "open" political science is mapped only by denouncing the putatively closed one we now possess.

Let us move nearer. The author writes,

"I have sought to do nothing more than send up a flare to illuminate the whole horizon of epistemological and ontological difficulty facing those who animate the disciplined study of Japanese and East Asian politics in Europe, North America and Australia today. I have concentrated my critical fire on the ways that the methodologies and paradigms that prevail in textual classicism, positivism, empiricism, Orientalism, linguistic theory and post-structuralism all appear, from the vantage of political science and Japanese studies, to deny the canonic achievements of modern East Asians. Nowhere have I sought to deliver a decisive blow. Rather the intention has been only to stimulate awareness of the Grundprobleme. . . ."

The Lord, or to stay with the spirit of this barrage, the Herrgott, knows what detonation Williams would accept as final.

To continue in his words:

"Scientific status is being denied to political scientists despite the fact that they are busy discovering new facts. . . . Advocates of social scientific prediction, economic positivism, behaviouralism and rational choice, and some schools of quantitative research methods all suffer from empirical bad faith . . . they threaten to deny jobs and research funding to some of the best-known names in the Western political scientific study of Japan and their students."

It would be laborious to refer to the relentless detail of Williams' indictment, which disappointingly documents no scandals of tenure refused or the like. He is intent on more abstract questions about the relative status of economics and area studies. Being neither a practitioner of mainstream economics nor a student of any single country, I hope I can view this tussle at a remove.

The source of the West's refusal to acknowledge Japanese (or, in a revealing shift, East Asian) achievement is positivism, "pernicious" and "procrustean." Exactly what this is never becomes clear: the search for regularities and scientific laws of the kind that led to telephones or antibiotics? What, then, is Williams' alternative? Maybe the pluralism of what is termed (he says inelegantly, but I say, with Freud, that there are no accidents) the "garbage-can theory." The language of garbage-can theory, we are told, is not about "anything very specific" but addresses all contingencies, amasses each and every fact in the hope it has the power to kill an idea. Its efficiency appears elusive.

Williams' ideological inclination may be revealed by a remark he makes that another writer's "social liberalism and commitment to egalitarianism provided her with an indispensable dose of critical clarity." I suspect he may be putting a gloss on this writer's position, but on the face of it the statement is perilously like saying that Lysenko's commitment to the Soviet people gave him an indispensable dose of scientific acumen. Williams' overall methodological preference seems to lean toward implying that anyone who tries to establish interpersonal knowledge--the kind that is shared and can be replicated by the next thinker--is seeking permanent validity for his ideas. Ignore whether or not anyone actually believes this--indeed set aside debate about the existence of objective truth. Merely consider the instrumental advantages in any sphere of having agreed rules. Take prescriptive grammar. The practical utility of English grammar is not compromised by its ultimate arbitrariness. The rules are conventions without which the descent to chaos begins. We have no need to grapple with abstractions about positivism to know that it makes sense to try to talk intelligibly to one another. This does not mean that we are claiming finality for our accounts of the world.

The archetypal positivist ruin is economics, the type of economics that can be traced back to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. This is Williams' message, not mine. His opinion of the tunnel vision of economists does have something to it. There are bound to be limits to the applicability of economics to political science, as there are to economic history; economics is readily pushed too far. Nor do I doubt that there is also something in his insinuation that networks of quantifiers are appointing their clones to university posts. Robert Frank has discussed the socio-pathology of professional economics at length, reporting among other unappealing facts that economists earn more than comparable academics but give less to charity. We do not know whether certain personality types are attracted to the discipline or whether the training inculcates such attitudes. Maybe both. But what, if anything, this has to do with despising the Japanese is imponderable.

The crime of economists, so we are told, is that their positivism has infiltrated political science. Their habit of piling up theory, uncaring of the will o' the wisp contingencies of life, has been passed on like a virus. The further charge is that they spurn Japan, withholding recognition from its genesis and achievement. Professional economists do tend to leave the origins of the East Asian Miracle to historians of political economy; it is surely proper that they concentrate on the modern macroeconomy. As Ernest Gellner said, things favoring the start of economic growth and things maintaining this may not be the same. Once learned, "single-end rationality may not be quite such a difficult accomplishment", but--restricted accomplishment though it be--how economies work is what economists claim to study. None is duty-bound to single out the Japanese economy.

If economists thought that studying Japanese culture and institutions really would advance theory (and their reputations) they would move in on Japanese studies in droves. We can deduce this from the fact that they commonly "free-ride" on other scholars, for instance historians. The reason is that economists take their strength to lie in explanation rather than in the grind of descriptive work. Their choice of other topics says however not one whit about hostility to the Japanese. Should you conclude that because I have not mentioned the Scott Polar Base in this review, I hate penguins?

Williams reiterates endlessly that Japan is the most important political system in the world, deserving of a separate science, and that the proof lies in its successful economic management. This amounts to a strong opinion that the Japanese recession of the 1990s has been cyclical rather than structural. The occasional reference to East Asia as a whole introduces at least one further problem that is avoided: how could industry policy have accounted for economic growth in Hong Kong?

If Japan is the ghost in Williams' machine, economics is thus the ghoul. According to him, things would have been all right if Western economists had studied Friedrich List, as the Japanese do, or once did. List is certainly interesting. He was no simple-minded protectionist. I accept that it is sadly incurious of modern Western economists--to tar them with one brush--that List no longer rates a mention in the syllabus. But no effort is made in this book to determine what is supposed to flow from List, or whether industry policy must beat the free market, let alone how long a giant experiment of that kind should be let run. We are given no means of gauging the real impact List has, or once had, on Japanese policy formation. Furthermore, there is too little structure in The National System of Political Economy (1841) for this to have been developed into a rich, separate stream of economic theory. List was no Smith or Ricardo, he was an interesting advocate of one sort of policy. Whether he contributed much more than a rationalization of what policy-makers in Japan anyhow proposed to do still awaits demonstration. As to Williams' grander claims, it must be insisted that nothing in this book shows that Japan is so different as to need its own social science. Why (for instance) should we read claims about Japanese snow being suitable only for home-produced skis, or Japanese guts being capable of digesting only home-grown rice, as anything but arrant glosses on protectionism?

Beyond any doubt there is group-think in mainstream economics. The power of price theory--the theory of markets and how prices are formed--can go to the head. Second-year graduate students can become drunk by pressing what is, in lay terms, the law of supply-and-demand up against its limits. They are only trying to practice their craft. Anything may be translated into the economists' calculus, but how much should be is a matter of judgment. All disciplines have to decide where to draw the line between intellectual conservatism and intellectual novelty. Yes, some economists do remain intolerant of alternative visions of the world beyond their graduate school years. In any field the second-raters are commonly formalists. However, attempts to extend the maximizing calculus into untraditional realms are not improper. If such efforts work, so be it; they are set up as refutable. Despite subservience to intellectual fashions and an occasional constriction in the professional maze, there is usually a way out. Let me cite an instance: Calculations that East Asian growth derives largely from the accumulation of resources rather than advances in productivity were hard to publish at first, but nevertheless they did get into print and formed the basis of Krugman's famous paper on the "Myth of Asia's Miracle."

Economists have thought about the rise of East Asia. A minority claims to find the secret in neo-Confucian culture. Most disagree. They find enough of the variance explicable in terms of ordinary processes, however oddly Japanese protectionism may bend them. Certainly economists are often glib about culture, belonging to the "cultural nullity" school. They tend either to ignore culture entirely or to claim that, while it exists, economics offers sufficient explanation: ex hypothesi, material considerations must dominate--with a lag. Yet any admission of a lag raises suspicions that something we could call culture is operating. On the other hand, there seems no cultural effect grand or lasting enough to lead one to abandon macroeconomics in its favor.

Williams prefers area studies. What this means is the study of the language, culture, institutions, and politics of another land, an approach that permits inter-country comparisons, though only binary ones. To explain East Asian regional change as a whole we also need, as Gordon Tullock has urged, "people who are able to deal with many countries, not one [or two]. They will not be able to speak, let us say, eighteen languages and hence must use other techniques." Globalization increases the need for these other techniques. Or put the way the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans did, China experts should first be expert.

Is it vital, in order to identify with another culture, to go to its seat and steep oneself in its peculiarities? Arthur Waley never went to China; he is widely regarded as the prime translator of Chinese poetry. Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without fighting in the Civil War; veterans who read it insisted they had served with him. After David Garnett wrote The Grasshoppers Come, the locust specialist Uvarov asked for his Outer Mongolian field notes; Garnett had relied on Uvarov's own monograph. Gautier financed his first visit to Greece with the advance he had received for writing a guidebook to that country. Johann Strauss the Younger could not waltz.

No one is suggesting that analytical techniques are perfect substitutes for local lore. The most impressive scholars I have ever met have been area specialists. Yet claims of the exceptionalism of this country or that do not take us far. They are always true, up to a point. A charge laid by economists against area studies in their cultural, linguistic form--which scorns anyone who is not a Margaret Mead, stumping in on her stick and talking about "my people"--is that its practitioners have not invariably acquired, or in cases like Williams', have set their faces against acquiring, the other social science techniques to which Tullock alludes. Some of them do not appear to see that models are intentionally tentative and testable constructs. Another charge might be that the students of single countries tend to belong to the "cultural fixity" school, prone to overlook how economic change reacts back on culture and alters it. The point is that local lore is not a perfect substitute for analytical techniques. Broader requirements in graduate school curricula could surely cross-fertilize economics and area studies.

Anyone can lay about him, as I have done in reacting against Williams' invective. But the search for knowledge does not require us only to criticize, much less to smite the Amalekites hip and thigh. A constructive approach would be similar to the one Robert Frank adopts in economics, noting the lapses but going on to incorporate fresh considerations in a systematic way. To switch the metaphor, economists and people in area studies are not Montagues and Capulets. There is no further point in calling down a plague on either or both their houses. Rather, they should be re-introduced to one another.

Essay Types: Book Review