Leif Wenar on the Resource Curse and Impact Philosophy – #49
Corey: Our guest today is Leif Wenar, professor of philosophy at Stanford University. Leif is the author of Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World, the coauthor of the author meets critics volume Beyond Blood Oil: Philosophy, Policy, and the Future. He co-edited an autobiographical volume on the economist FA Hayek, and co-edited Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy. Leif received his AB in philosophy from Stanford, his PhD in philosophy from Harvard, where he worked with Scanlon, Nozick and Rawls. Before taking the position at Stanford, he was chair of the philosophy department at King’s College London. Welcome, Leif.
Leif: Thanks so much Corey, delighted to be here
Corey: I think you and I met about 30 years ago. I think it’s around 1990 at Stanford. Is that right? Did you graduate around 92?
Leif: I graduated around then and yes, it has been a long time. I have to say you haven’t changed a bit. You still look terrific.
Corey: You were an undergrad and I was a grad student. And I think you were at that time focusing on moral philosophy or did that come later?
Leif: Yes, that’s right. Moral and political.
Corey: I think we reconnected about 10 years ago, maybe a little bit more, when Daniel Max was writing his biography of David Foster Wallace. Because as I recall, you’re one of the few people who actually knew Dave when he was at Harvard. Do I have that right?
Leif: I was a year ahead of him and he and I used to go to the gym together where I heard about all of his adventures in the performance art scene in New York city, which eventually drew him in and we lost him to philosophy, but our loss was certainly literature’s gain.
Corey: So I think that was in the mid to late 90s, I guess, is that right?
Leif: A little earlier than that.
Corey: Earlier, okay. And I think at that time, Dave was taking a break from writing. I think he sort of thought his writing career was over at the time. This was way before Infinite Jest. I guess it was early 90s. It’s interesting, only Dave would do this. I think he thought that a way of getting his life together was to drop out of fiction and go to philosophy grad school.
Leif: Yes. And he didn’t really realize what philosophy grad school was all about. It turned out to be much more technical and detached than he expected, and he lost interest in that fairly quickly and decided to turn his formidable intellectual powers back to writing fiction.
Corey: I think the last time when we talked about this, you say one of your memories of Dave was finding him asleep in the philosophy library.
Leif: That’s right. He was not sitting in a chair like everybody else looking to a huge tome of Emmanuel Kant. He was in fact asleep underneath the table, after one of his extraordinary outings to the city where he met all sorts of characters and had all sorts of adventures.
Corey: This was just before, I think, one of Dave’s larger breakdowns that is actually chronicled in Infinite Jest.
Leif: I think that’s right. He was having a… Let’s just say he was engaging in a lot of extreme activities, perhaps more than his system could handle.
Corey: Got it. So I want to turn to our common origins, which is analytic philosophy at the end of the last century. I’ve been on the field for quite a while. So in looking back, my impression is that philosophy became very narrow towards the end of the 20th century. Analytic philosophy had been going for about a hundred years and become increasingly technical and perhaps detached from, I think, broader questions that might engage the intellectual community and certainly broader questions that engage the public. And so I just want to get your reaction to that view of philosophy at the time, because it really was what led me to basically leave the field.
Leif: Yeah. Since we started in philosophy, it’s become increasingly engaged with evermore sophisticated intellectual techniques. Now that’s produced work so that incredible rigor and extraordinary detail, but the danger is that the techniques become ends of themselves. So the debates feed on themselves and they become self contained and lose contact with the questions that got us into the field in the first place. So there’s a lot of great work in philosophy, but the danger is that in analytic philosophy it can become scholasticism, in a pejorative sense. In my own field, political philosophy, it’s just clear. The best work in the last 400 years has been done by philosophers who were engaged in the big political struggles of their day. I mean, just look at who we teach in political philosophy 101. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx. And think about these men.
Leif: Hobbs had to flee the country for fear of his life because of the political philosophy he was writing. John Locke had to flee the country for fear of his life because of the political philosophy he was writing. They threw rocks at Rousseau as he fled Paris and they really gave him a hard time when he reached Geneva. Mill was a member of parliament engaged in every one of the big issues of his day. And Karl Marx, well they chased him from Germany to France and from France to London, they still followed him around with the secret police in London because of the political philosophy he was doing. These philosophers were not engaged in scholastic debates for their own sakes. They were fully committed to the struggles of their time and their work is of enduring interest because they captured the dynamics of human nature and human power that we still see around us right now.
Corey: So what happened over the hundred years since analytic philosophy got started, because I think the initial impulse was reasonable, to add some rigor to what may have seen to people to be very vague debates, to bring in new methods from mathematical logic. Where did that go astray?
Leif: Let me just talk about my field, which is political philosophy. My own field, political philosophy, lost track of politics. There was less of less of a sense that political philosophy should be about real things happening in the world and more and more of a sense that political philosophy should be responding to its own self contained literature, developing ever more refined versions of very abstract principles, that it was hard to see resolving problems of real people. Part of that is due to the things you would expect. Academic specialization, institutions tend to hyper specialize the more they go along. When I was training as a grad student, there was a real sense that you should not know about politics. I remember one of my advisors saying, “We can’t talk about that question because it depends on facts about the world and we’re philosophers, we don’t talk about facts about the world.” And especially in politics I think that has been very limiting. Again, the rigor is fantastic. Development of abstract principles are fantastic. But if you lose track of the animating impulse of politics in the first place, it’s hard to reconnect your work to anything that matters to real people.
Corey: So two of your advisors, or two people you worked with, Nozick and Rawls, have had a fair amount of influence, it seems, on the political debate at least at one time. And maybe this was sort of the… They were, I think, perhaps the last political philosophers to do so. But I have to say, I agree with you. I had this revelation back in the mid 90s when I was toward the end of my career in philosophy, and I remember thinking that I could imagine seeing almost an academic for almost any field on TV. I can imagine seeing political scientists, economists, physicists, talking about things of interest to the public. I could even imagine literature professors because people read books, and I can imagine people who specialized in film.
Corey: And I realized, I couldn’t imagine seeing a philosopher on TV because I couldn’t think of anything that they would want to tell the public that’d be of interest to them. They couldn’t tell him a new facts because as you said, they were not interested in facts. And they’re worried about arcana of the kind that wasn’t part of popular culture, like literature or film or theater. So I remember that revelation was quite striking to me. I realized I’m in a field that is of no interest to the public. Why keep doing this? And that led me to essentially begin to move in a very different direction. My impression is that you saw that and then found a way to basically tack back into the mainstream of a public discussion.
Leif: Yeah, that’s right. So my work for the past 15 years has been on the resource curse. Why do resource rich states like Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Congo, why do they have such huge problems? Oppressive government, grand corruption, civil conflict. Why do resources, and especially oil, mean such disasters for the people there, and very often the disasters come and reflect back on us here in the West. Why does that happen, and how can we change our own laws to stop that from happening by realigning our laws with our interests and our values? That’s a real world problem that I became deeply engaged with, and it really changed the way I see political philosophy. And one way that we can go about doing it.
Corey: Go ahead Steve, yeah.
Steve: Sorry to interrupt. But before we leave your… I sense we might be leaving your attack on analytic philosophy. So just before we leave that, because I think you and I maybe don’t quite agree on this so much. I’ve never been that negative about analytic philosophy. Although any academic subject, I think can go off the rails if it becomes overly introspective or specialized, but just correct me if I’m wrong. I didn’t realize that in analytic philosophy one should not introduce facts as part of the subject, because a lot of the analytic philosophers that I knew who were doing say philosophy of science or philosophy of physics had to introduce facts constantly because there were new physical theories being developed, and they were trying to actually understand, from a slightly more philosophical perspective, the scientific advances that were being made by the actual scientists. So that the introduction of facts didn’t really seem to be a constraining part of what they were doing.
Leif: Yeah. I really agree with you, Steve. I think what I said is particular to political philosophy. So when I was in grad school, absolutely, if you’re doing philosophy of science, you had to know something about science. If you were doing philosophy of mind, you had to know something about cognitive science. It’s really political philosophy that has tended to lose touch. Well at least the grand theories has tended to lose touch with politics. And if it weren’t for John Rawls and his great influence, I don’t know if political philosophers would talk about institutions at all, instead of just principles. Now there are of course political philosophers who do work on particular problems like immigration and nationalism and poverty and so on, but that tends to be roped off into an area called applied philosophy, and it’s its own world somewhat out of the mainstream of what I think political philosophers think of as political philosophy proper.
Corey: So Steve, I think you’re right. I think perhaps I was maybe being a little bit too critical, but I do agree with Leif there. It’s not just political philosophy, I think, that stepped back from facts. Philosophy of language had facts of a kind, but they were intuitions. You would consider a sentence. Everyone loves someone, or snow is white and you ask yourself what that sentence meant. And that was the fact that would kind of guide your theory. And this approach is modeled on linguistics, which essentially took intuitions as evidence for theories. And the problem is that this is really tenuous evidence as we’ve come to realize, because people’s intuitions clash. Sometimes the intuitions are not sufficient to support all the technical detail that goes on in the theory. So there were facts, but I think they weren’t particularly hard facts.
Corey: And philosophy of mind, I think at least, some people in philosophy mind did pay quite a lot of attention to current research, but a lot of it got pretty abstract and people begin to try to characterize what a mental state was in a way that didn’t seem like it was constrained by what was happening. In fact, I remember it, I was really fully part of this outlet. I remember having a friend who would spend time… In fact, he’s now a professor here of philosophy at MSU, would spend time in the psychology department. I remember hassling him, like, “Why are you over there? Why are you over there? What are you going to learn from those people? They’re just doing empirical stuff, and we’re looking for essentially the universal rules, and you can’t learn by universal rules from looking at what’s actually there.” Anyway, I think there are varying degrees of involvement with facts, but there’s something of a liftoff from facts, and we became increasingly detached from them. And my impression is that’s not actually too far, Steve, from what you were saying has happened in physics at the time.
Steve: That’s a totally different thing, which I’m happy to discuss, but I don’t want to derail this conversation. But my impression going back to the 90s was that… And maybe this characterization is not even correct, but that you had analytic and continental philosophers, and the continental philosophers, as far as I could tell, didn’t make any sense at all, and at least the analytic ones were using some kinds of vague rules of logic that I could understand. So I tended to be more favorable toward the analytic types.
Corey: You know, it’s interesting. I think there’s a split. I think the continental types focused on relatively big questions, but often in ways that I agree with hard to understand. And the analytic philosophers wrote often, at least on the surface, precisely, but worried about narrow question.
Steve: No, I think that’s right. I think that’s right. But the continental types I would meet with, because my wife is in comparative literature. So I would often, going in that direction, end up meeting up with people who did quote continental philosophy, but they would make gigantic claims that I just couldn’t make sense of or justify in the slightest. Whereas at least the analytic guys that I spoke to, what they said made sense, even if though it was quite often very narrow.
Leif: Yeah. I totally agree with that. The continental, analytic divide. The clarity is on the analytic side. And let me say, I think there is a lot of fantastic work going on in analytic philosophy. Not only in other fields, but even in my own field, there are leading figures are doing terrific work on important topics. [inaudible 00:16:08] here on what should and should not be for sale. Elizabeth Anderson on discrimination and the tyranny inside corporations. There’s really great work going on. But if you open up the average political philosophy journal, tend to find is it some removed from the problems that motivate us all and that we think about when we open up the newspaper.
Steve: Just to touch on the physics issue, because you raised it, Corey, and we just released the [inaudible 00:16:40] syndrome episode today. The issue with physicist is never that things need to be subject to empirical validation or falsification. Every physicist agrees on that. The question is whether, while we’re waiting for the experiments to get good enough to test certain theories, is it a reasonable thing for someone to spend their entire career on some very mathematical speculative physics, which may or may not describe our universe, even if we know it’s going to be at least a hundred years or more before that particular theory could be tested? And there’s a big group of physicists who would say, “No, that’s not physics. You’re speculating too much and you’re too disconnected from experiment.” And then there’s a smaller group, for example, string theorists, who say, “No, the ideas are so beautiful, even if they’re not falsifiable for the next thousand years. It’s still physics and I should still be allowed to work on it.” So the central role of empiricism is never doubted. It’s just a question of timescales.
Corey: I want to segue back into Leif’s work, and I have to say, when I was leaving philosophy, I began teaching classes in applied ethics, and I rapidly found myself introducing works from political scientists, from sociologists. One of my favorite books was Christopher Jencks’ book on homelessness, one the first books homelessness. I read a book on rethinking abortion by Mark Graber, which was incredibly informative. And I found that that’s what actually engaged the students. You did some philosophy, you introduced political scientists, you introduce economics, you introduce sociology, because that’s what problems were, these multiple areas, and philosophy could help structure the debate to a large extent.
Corey: And when I read your book, I really had the feeling of a little bit of deja vu, because it’s a book that really tackles this problem and this philosophy in it, but it doesn’t feel like work of philosophy. Now, I don’t know how you view it, but I thought that is an incredible accomplishment because it showed the power of philosophy to structure debates, and to be an organizing principle, but you really got pretty deep into discussions of things like supply chains. So I just want to get a sense of how you came to approach the book the way you did, without making it really a philosophy book.
Leif: This is the way I think political philosophy can be [inaudible 00:19:07]. Start with a real problem in the world and then follow Wittgenstein’s advice. Don’t think, look. Even better, don’t think, listen. Go and talk to people on the frontline of some issue that you care about. Resource curse, immigration racial discrimination. Go to talk to people who have to make real decisions about what to do in this area. And don’t think that your fancy philosophical theory is going to solve their problems. In fact, just be quiet and listen. These people can teach you so much about how the world works, how it really works, and that stuff you’ll never learn in your philosophy books. For me, it was going to Nigeria many years ago. My first trip to Nigeria, I found that I could get meetings with all sorts of people just because I was a professor. So I met with the head of the central bank, the Nigerian representative to OPEC, [inaudible 00:00:20:13], the Dutch embassy staff, the son of one of the important tribal chiefs, militants from the Niger Delta, lots of NGO people.
Leif: And I just asked them questions. I didn’t lecture them on cosmopolitan theories of global justice or anything like that. And I learned so much from them about how Nigeria works, how the politics of oil works, how the dynamics of power do so much to disrupt the lives of these real people in this amazing country, and listening to them gave me a sense of what the problems really were, and so what the solutions could possibly be, which had never occurred to me as an academic philosopher. And that got me thinking about, what is it that a philosopher can contribute to these kinds of questions? Resource curse, immigration, racial discrimination. What’s our contribution? What’s our comparative advantage? Well, a lot of philosophers are super smart, but of course, most super smart people are not in philosophy, and that’s obvious because philosophy is a tiny part of the labor market, but also because most of the recognition doesn’t go to philosophy. It goes to other places.
Leif: So when you go out in the world outside of the academy, what you find is extraordinary people who know their worlds extremely well, much better than you ever will. What could you possibly contribute as a philosopher to add value to the worlds of these people? And the conclusion I came to is that our comparative advantage as philosophers is that we can see the big picture. We’re good at abstracting from details. We’re intellectually flexible enough to put facts from different fields together in a unified view. That’s what Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau and Mill and Marx did. They gave big synthetic pictures of the world, and that’s what I found I had to do to talk about the resource curse and how to lift it. You have to put together political economy with law and with history and with philosophy and with public policy. For making a real impact, what philosophers can contribute is not our ability to do conceptual analysis or to detail the slightly different versions of some principle. Our contribution is to give a big picture that even some super smart people who are immersed in their own worlds have never been able to see.
Corey: So at the beginning of Blood Oil, you have a really nice introduction, you sort of zoom in to the problem. You begin with a very high level statement of the resource curse-
Corey: You begin with a very high level statement of the resource curse and then start quoting papers successively closer and closer to the problem. I sense when you narrowed it in, the focal point were these initial discussions. Now, I know this is many, many years ago, but take us back to those initial discussions. Do you remember what you learned at the time when you talked to these people?
Leif: Yeah. Well, when I was in Nigeria I asked everyone I met the same question, which was, “Imagine the United States wanted to do the best thing for Nigeria.” And everyone stopped me right there. They said, “Imagine what?” I said, “Okay, just go with this for a second. Imagine you could snap your fingers and make the United States government do one thing that would actually help the Nigerian people. What would that be?” And I was so surprised that everyone said the same thing. I would never have guessed this. Everyone, from the head of the central bank down to the mountains and the delta said travel bans. I said, “Travel bans? Why?”
Leif: And as the son of the tribal chief told me, he said, “Look, these corrupt guys in Nigerian government, they don’t need your development aid. You have no leverage on these people economically. These guys get rich. They’re dollar millionaires within four years. They get into office, they take the money, they’re out of office. When you’re at the trough you don’t talk, you eat. So what could America possibly do to change the incentives of these guys while they’re in office? And travel bans is the thing. What these corrupt guys in government need,” he said, “is to show their face overseas. They want to send their kids to Oxford or Michigan State. They want to send their mistress to shop at Harrod’s or Barney’s in New York. And when they get sick they want to go to the Mayo Clinic. That’s what they need while they’re in office. If you put travel bans on the corrupt guys and their kids, that’s really going to change their incentives and get them to be less corrupt. And when you do that, you should also please give meetings, high level meetings, to the non-corrupt guys and maybe give some scholarships to their kids to prestigious American universities.”
Leif: Now, that’s a great answer, which I now understand makes a lot of sense. As an academic philosopher, that answer would never have occurred to me in 1,000 years. It wasn’t even in my radar, but that’s the kind of fact that gave me an insight into how power around oil works and how we could possibly reshape that kind of power.
Corey: So I think for most of our listeners, they may be generally familiar with the resource curse. So I want to zoom back out before we zoom back in and just give people a summary what the resource curse is. I think it’s widely understood at least the negative effect of the resource curse on the countries themselves, but you actually emphasize the negative effects on us. So explain both sides.
Leif: The resource curse shows up in our headlines all the time if only we can see it. So let’s just think about oil for a while. Oil is the world’s biggest commodity, hundreds of billions of dollars a year cross borders for oil. And think about where oil comes from. The world’s big artery of oil stretches down from Russia through the Middle East into north and then west Africa, and then over to South America. That’s where most of the world’s oil comes from. And if you look at the map of authoritarian and failed states in the world, you’ll see that so many of those states are right along that big artery of oil. And the results can be disastrous. So let me give you six correlations. Most of the authoritarian regimes in the world are in oil states. Most of the civil wars are in oil states. Most grand corruption is in oil states. Most hunger crises are in oil states. Most extreme poverty in the world will soon be in oil states. And most refugees are fleeing from oil states.
Leif: Oil can really mess up a country’s political economy, with disastrous results for the people there. And as you just mentioned, it can also be very bad for us here in the West. So to see that, to see how the resource curse can be bad for us, let’s just think backwards in time through the big threats and crises that we’ve seen in the last 50 years. So recently we’ve seen what Putin of Russia invading a European country, meddling in American elections. Putin was also intervening in Syria, where Assad was barrel bombing his people, leading to a refugee crisis that put serious pressure on the politics of Europe. Before Assad it was ISIS with their atrocities and their beheadings. Before ISIS, of course, Al Qaeda behind 7/7 in London, which was very near where I was living at the time. So of course behind 9/11.
Leif: Saddam Hussein destabilizing the Middle East overnight in 1990 by invading Kuwait, the Iranian regime behind all sorts of regional terrorism and extremism for 40 years, Muammar Gaddafi sponsoring terrorism around the rest for his whole political lifetime. And if you go back far enough, 50 years ago, the Soviet Union starting to surge ahead of the West in the nuclear arms race. All of those threats and crises have one thing in common. They all originate in countries that exported a lot of oil. And that means all of those threats and crises have one thing in common, and that’s our money. Our money spent to pay for that oil. In a very real sense, we were funding our biggest threats and crises for the past 50 years. That’s how the resource curse hurts us, and that is the business we have to get out of.
Corey: What’s the mechanism by which oil has these consequences?
Leif: The mechanism is a law that’s embedded so deep in global commerce, that’s been around for so long we don’t even see it. We just take it for granted. So here’s an obvious fact about the law within our country. If an armed gang takes over a gas station by force, that gang does not get the legal right to sell off the gas and keep the money. But here’s the strange thing about how the world works for natural resources. If an armed gang takes over an oil producing country or even a few oil wells, we do give them the right to sell the oil to us. That means that we incentivize through our own laws the most violent and oppressive people taking control of the world’s most valuable physical commodity. All of their oil flows to us, all of our money flows to them. And that’s why we see such disastrous repression, corruption, and conflict in many of the biggest oil producing countries. We give these men, and they’re always men, unaccountable power by the huge sums of money that we give them for oil.
Corey: So you talked about corruption in Nigeria, and I guess there’s some facts about there being very low rates of democracy in oil producing countries. But Nigeria is a democracy, at least on paper. So what’s the effect of oil in a putatively democratic society?
Leif: You’ve hit on the key fact, because there are a lot of oil rich countries that are democratic. So the resource curse does not strike you just because you have resources, the oil curse doesn’t strike just because you have oil. What’s the dividing line? Well, in general the question is, was your government accountable to the people when the oil came in? If you have a lot of oil and your government was accountable to the people, then the people force the government to use the oil for public goods. And that’s the story of Norway, for example, or Canada, the United States. United States has a lot of problems, but it’s certainly not as bad as, say, Saudi Arabia. If your government’s accountable to the people, then oil can be a blessing. But if you have a lot of oil and the government’s not accountable to the people, well, then it goes to empower the authoritarian who’s in charge, or even worse, it goes to fund the civil war on both sides that’s going on, like we see right now, for example, in Libya.
Leif: Now, Nigeria is an interesting case because Nigeria [inaudible 00:32:41] resource curse for many years. For many years oil revenues were propping up some pretty authoritarian governments. But now, as you say, Nigeria is making its democratic transition. How did that happen? The basic answer is, it started running out of oil, or at least it started running out of oil per capita. So when the oil money starts to run out, then there’s just less money for the government to repress the people and the people start demanding that the government becomes more accountable to them. So the countries that were resource cursed that have made their democratic transition are places where the power, the unaccountable power of oil just started to run out. And that’s Nigeria and Indonesia and Mexico. So the resource curse can ease when the resources go down. The other way to do it, of course, would be for us to stop buying the resources from authoritarian regimes and armed groups. And that is the central proposal of the book.
Corey: Before we move on to the proposal I want to get back to this law of international commerce. You call it effectiveness. Is that a longstanding term or is that a term of art within law? And where is it written down, if anywhere?
Leif: Effectiveness is a term that every lawyer knows. It’s a technical term within law. It essentially just means might makes right. And I mean that literally, that the law of every country for the resources of other countries is, might makes right. So for example, years ago when Saddam Hussein’s junta took over the government of Iraq in a coup, American law made it legal to buy Iraq’s oil from that junta. Years later when ISIS took over some of those wells in northern Iraq, American law by default made it legal to buy that oil from ISIS. America’s law is, might makes right. In fact, the law of every country in the world for the resources of other countries is, might makes right. And that’s the law that puts us into business with authoritarians and armed groups. Every country’s law is structured differently. Might makes right will be realized in different ways in different legal systems. But it’s always true that if someone seizes resources by force over there, we will make it legal to buy those resources over here.
Leif: And sometimes I use this analogy to show what a disaster that is. Imagine that New York declared might makes right for all the goods in New Jersey. Imagine that the New York legislature said any goods that can be seized by force in New Jersey can legally be sold in New York, and that the New York police and courts will enforce the property rights over those goods. Well, if might makes right with the law in New York, what do you think New Jersey would look like after a while? You’d see crime kings, syndicates, extortion racket, just the kind of phenomena we see on a much larger scale in resource rich countries, because our laws for the resources of other countries literally is, might makes right.
Corey: So before we get into your proposals in the book, I want to return our question of how you approach this as a philosopher. Because this is something that presumably political scientists have been aware of for a very long time. It’s discussed. When you start trying to write this book as a philosopher, how do you approach it in such a way that it doesn’t feel like conventional political philosophy? Where did you find yourself deviating from effectively what you had been reading for the past 20 years in your classes?
Leif: The deviation is not mine. Primarily the deviation is academic philosophy. Let me go back to those classic works of political philosophy that I mentioned before, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx. The kind of work that I found myself doing on the resource curse is very much continuous with the kind of work they were doing. They started out with a political crisis and they abstracted to a level that they could make the problem comprehensible and the solutions manageable. The primary method of political philosophy through the centuries has been, work from the ground upwards. It’s only recently where the primary methodology of political philosophy has been top down, that is, you think you know what the principle of justice is and then you’d explain how that principle of justice could be realized in the world.
Leif: Now, I think the top-down theory is valuable, has many uses, but it would be great if we could create more room within academic political philosophy to do work that starts with the ground and goes upwards. This is not applied philosophy where the principle comes first. This is problems first, and solutions emerge from the problems. It’s only when you understand the dynamics of the problem in detail you see where the solution could possibly come from.
Steve: So Corey, if I’m leaping ahead too far just say, “Hey, we’ll get to that” and cut me off. But it sounds like we’re getting to the point here where we’re going to judge the goodness or justness or appropriateness of a sovereign government in a foreign country and then decide whether to buy oil from those countries based on our conclusion. Is that the proposal that is being advanced?
Leif: It’s a very limited proposal. Let me mention that we cannot avoid a decision on who we should buy resources from. We’re all in sovereign states. United States is a sovereign state, the United States makes its own laws. We decide from whom it will be legal for Americans to buy oil and other resources. We can decide to buy it from authoritarian regimes and armed groups, or we can decide not to. The proposal that Clean Trade is making is that we should decide not to buy resources from anyone who’s not minimally acceptable to the people of their own country. That doesn’t touch on whether the government in other countries has the right to rule. It says nothing about whether the government can defend its borders or issue currency or postage stamps. That’s all for the people of the country to decide. But we have to decide whether it will be legal for us to buy their resources. The decision we make now leads to disaster for them and for us, and we should change our decisions so that we no longer buy the way we do now.
Steve: So I think there’s clearly a precedent for this already in the divestment movement for South Africa when apartheid was still in place. Is there any reason specifically why you want to limit it to resources and not, for example, manufactured goods or other goods produced by that country?
Leif: Yes. There’s two reasons. First, the resource curse is a widespread dysfunction in the political economy of major countries around the world. There are, of course, many problems with exploitation in garment manufacturing and so on, but those problems are often problems that accompany the development of countries out of the poverty that they’re in. By contrast, the resource curse is almost entirely negative. The resource curse really does hold countries back from the paths that non-resource rich countries take. So Michael Ross, a great scholar of the resource curse, opened his book this way, that the major oil exporting countries outside the West today are no richer, no freer, and no more peaceful than they were even 50 years ago.
Leif: So think about the great progress of China and India in that time. Major oil exporting countries are still no richer, no freer, and no more peaceful than they were even back in the ’70s and ’80s. So the resource curves really does hold countries back. And the solution to the resource curse is already embedded in treaties that almost every country has signed up to. We don’t need to invent a new legal regime to solve the resource curse. If you look at Article One of both of the main human rights treaties, it just contains the solution to the resources curse. These treaties say that all peoples may for their own ends freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources. So the resources of every country should be basically under the control of the people of that country. Everybody has signed those treaties, 98% of the people in the world live in a country that’s signed one or the other of those treaties. So the problem is especially bad around resources, and the solution is one that’s widely believed and ready to go right now as a matter of international law.
Steve: I think some people might say that aside from whether we buy the oil from these countries, maybe we should stop propping up our own puppet governments in those countries to allow us to extract the oil. It seems like a lot of these countries, look at the Saudi regime, it’s only there because the United States is supporting it. And it’s maybe to our benefit to have them there as a stable source of oil for us and our allies. So not only are we not behaving in this ethical way in choosing who to buy the oil from, we’re literally putting in place these non-democratic, autocratic regimes because it’s convenient for the United States to run these countries for us.
Leif: That’s right. I very much agree with that. And I could even state it in a way that policy makers should pay attention to. So it’s absolutely right that we should be in favor of democratic governance around the world, but even for our own national security interests, we should stop propping up autocratic governments just for the sake of oil. If you look at the history of the Middle East, we’ve tried that experiment many times and it’s always failed. One way or another, when we try to prop up an oil exporting regime it ends up biting us back. And when you talk about Saudi Arabia these days, I really am concerned. You see the Crown Prince, and in some ways he’s a reformer, but it’s also now one of the most repressive times in Saudi history. He’s really consolidating power in his own hands and seriously cracking down on domestic dissent.
Leif: When you look at the Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia right now, it just reminds us of other episodes in the Middle East. Two come to mind. Think of the Shah of Iran. As you suggest, we reinstalled the Shah after helping to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953. And the Shah was our man in Tehran for 25 years. The Shah helped us fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union, he put down regional disturbances, he gave us oil and votes for Israel when the rest of the Arab world was turning against us. We got 25 really good years out of the Shah, who was a progressive, modernizing, Western facing ruler. But he was extraordinarily repressive. And because he was so repressive he was overthrown by the people, leading to the Ayatollahs. And so for the last 40 years we’ve had an extraordinarily anti-American regime in the Middle East who has countered American interests at every turn.
Leif: So 25 years of good under the Shah turned to 40 years of a seriously antagonistic regional hegemon. That didn’t go well. And neither did the next friend we took in the Middle East, who also reminds me of the Saudi Crown Prince, who’s Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was our next friend in the region. He helped to fight the Ayatollahs next door. We gave him intelligence, where the Iranian troops were when he was going to launch his chemical weapons strikes. In return-
Leif: He was going to launch his chemical weapons strikes. In return, he bought our weapons and our agricultural goods. Thomas Friedman said that Saddam Hussein was a thug and a bully, but he was our thug and our bully. And again, for years, he advanced our interest in the region until one night he made a bad judgment and destabilized the Middle East by invading Kuwait in 1990.
Leif: And after that, all of our relations with Iraq just turn disastrous. We had an invasion, and then sanctions and then another invasion and then ISIS, and now the essentially failed state that we’re helping to prop up. Whenever we try to ally with an oil field autocrat, eventually things go bad.
Leif: So now in Saudi Arabia, we see a very oppressive, repressive young man whose judgment seems to be poor. He started this disastrous war, which he seems to be losing in Yemen, which has strengthened Iran’s position in the region. And this journalist, Khashoggi, killed as far as we can tell, which was a public relations disaster that really limited foreign investment in this country.
Leif: So I really worry about Saudi Arabia. If his balloon bursts, in the Middle East things get much worse than they ever were after the Shah or after Saddam.
Steve: Could I tease that apart a little bit? It seems like there’s sort of two separate claims here. So there’s one claim, let’s imagine I’m only interested in the good of Americans. And there’s a claim that in the long run, we end up behind by supporting nasty autocratic regimes even if they seem useful to us in the short run. And in this analysis, I’m putting aside entirely the utility of the people who live in Iraq or Saudi Arabia.
Steve: Suppose I’m only concerned about Americans. I think you’d get a lot of pushback if you said that kind of selfish, real politic is always a loser for the empire. I think a lot of people would say, “No, actually, it’s a winner for the empire. It sometimes loses, but on that, actually, that’s the way empires should behave if all they care about is the utility of their own citizens.” So there’s one claim there, which is totally independent of whether you care about the man on the ground in Nigeria or the average Iranian or Iraqi person, but there already, I think there are people who would push back on empirical basis, just saying that you’re too, shall we say, idealistic or optimistic about what America should do. For its own sake in the world.
Leif: I’m happy to have that empirical argument. I think the costs really are significant and we could get the benefits from relations with countries in the Middle East without bearing those costs. If we did insist, as we are loath to do, that these governments become more accountable to their own people.
Leif: Now, when I say insist, I don’t mean invade. Insisting through invasion has worked out very poorly for us. By insist, I mean just telling these governments, “We will no longer buy your oil until you are accountable to your own people.” There are reformers, real reformers, democratic reformers, outside the palaces and inside the palaces in these countries. If we peacefully, responsibly, give our support to the reformers, they can make the changes that would improve relations between us and them. We could get the gains from these countries, the benefits to American citizens without bearing the tremendous costs that we’ve born in the Middle East over the last 40 50 years
Steve: Is the claim, this particular claim, is it specific to oil and resources? Or for example, if I said, “Well, we supported fairly autocratic regimes in South Korea and Taiwan for quite a while, which then gradually evolved into modern democracies, and that was okay.” Would you say that you’re sure that that can’t be true for an oil producing country as for those countries?
Leif: Let’s say there’s a very strong tendency, and it is specific to oil and other high-value natural resources. Let me put it this way: oil is the largest source of unaccountable power in the world. Because our laws say “might makes right,” whoever can keep control over some holes in the ground gets a huge funnel of money coming in from the world. And that money goes directly into their hands and it’s entirely unaccountable power.
Leif: So for an autocratic regime, oil is better than foreign aid because it comes with no strings attached. Oil is better than loans from banks because you never have to pay the money from oil back. And oil is better because it comes in without any accountability to the citizens of your country. If you can control the oil wells, you have a very large revenue stream, which comes to you regardless of whether your people are healthy or educated or productive.
Leif: As long as you have that money, you can continue to repress the population and buy off threats year after year. You don’t need to develop your economy as the non-oil countries you’ve mentioned did, which eventually gives the people power and leads to democratic reforms.
Leif: One of the reasons that oil is such dangerous stuff is that it gives autocrats the power to stay in office independently of their people. They have the power to keep their people down and the people have no economic or political base to resist them.
Steve: Right. I think I understand that line of reasoning. It’s certainly plausible. I just don’t know how confident one can be in it. Let me give the example of Saudi Arabia. Just recently, I’ve been invited to a couple of big AI meetings in Saudi Arabia, which are sponsored by [MBS 00:52:08] and he’s trying very hard to modernize the country. I don’t want to portray myself in any way as a supporter of him, I was just invited to these conferences so I spent some time in Riyadh. I was kind of amazed to meet some young Saudis who claimed the situation has improved tremendously in the country under MBS and women can go around not wearing a veil. So some people are kind of optimistic at what he’s trying to do.
Steve: Certainly he is an autocrat. There’s no question about that. He probably did some nasty things to Mr. Khashoggi, but am I absolutely sure he’s not going to succeed in modernizing Saudi Arabia to the benefit of its citizens? And maybe even eventually transition to a more democratic society? It doesn’t seem I can rule it out.
Leif: No, you can’t rule anything out in politics. But historical examples in the region should give us pause. Again, this Shah was a progressive, westernizing, modernizing leader. In terms of social progress, the Shah made many reforms that were very welcomed, especially to the urban elites. But like [inaudible 00:53:21], the Shah was extraordinarily repressive to his enemies and to his own people in terms of their political dissent. And I have to say, I don’t trust his judgment overall.
Leif: So he’s getting a gigantic amount of power in his own hands. He seems not to be using it well on the biggest geopolitical issues around him. He could learn and he could democratize. I hope he does. Let’s say, I hope he does. The risks are extremely high. If Saudi Arabia, the biggest oil country in the world, becomes destabilized the economic consequences are really going to become very serious. So nothing’s impossible in politics, but the risks are very serious.
Steve: But for the line that you like to draw, are both Saudi Arabia and Russia on the wrong side of it? You would suggest we don’t buy oil from those countries.
Leif: That’s right. And a serious question, how you draw that line. The line you want to draw is which countries are minimally accountable to their own people? And I do mean “minimally.” Luckily, there’s many good metrics of governance that have been established for a long time around the world. So Freedom House has one, the World Bank has one, the Economist has one.
Leif: My organization, Clean Trade, has put together a metric of metrics to cancel out the biases and we draw the line very, very low. So for example, Nigeria is well above the line. Even Kuwait is above the line. It’s only the really worst of the worst unaccountable regimes that are below the line. Because of the resource curse, I’m sorry to say, that’s a great deal of the world’s oil.
Steve: And do you have any economists or oil traders that could suggest what the world would actually look like if the largest economies stopped buying oil from, for example, Saudi Arabia and Russia?
Leif: Yes. In fact, I asked former Vice President of BP what would happen if North America and Europe decided to stop importing oil from all the countries below the line. And at first I just gave him the list of countries. And he said, “Really? Do you want us to stop importing oil from Russia and from Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Algeria?” And I said, “Yeah, what would be the economic consequences?” He went away and he thought about it for awhile. And he came back with different answers for North America and for Europe.
Leif: So for North America, it would be no problem. We don’t import much oil anymore. The barrels we just shift around, we could probably do it within a matter of months. You’d have to change around some refinery processing, but relatively small amounts of money for North America to stop importing authoritarian oil.
Leif: For Europe, the picture is different because of the dependence of Europe on Russian energy in particular. This vice president, Nick Butler, thought that it would take five years and tens of millions… I’m sorry, tens of billions of euros for Europe to disengage from Russian and Qatari and Algerian energy. So the Norwegians would have to step out productions. You’d have to join up the pipeline network in Europe and make it run both ways and so on. It’s serious costs. Tens of billions of euros is not nothing. But compared to what we’re seeing now in the COVID crisis, or even for national defense, those sums are not unreasonable.
Steve: Yeah. I think it would not be cheap given the problems Trump has had in trying to get the Europeans, the Germans for example, to abandon this pipeline from Russia. I think that carries natural gas, if I’m not mistaken. And trying to get them to buy our liquified natural gas instead of theirs.
Leif: That’s right.
Steve: It seems to me geopolitically, the big winners would be China and some East Asian economies, because if they decided not to stop buying oil from those sources, I think they would just end up getting energy much more cheaply than they currently do.
Leif: That’s correct. So the big question is if the West goes clean trade, what will China and India do? And you might think that it’s great for them for the reason you suggest, that they would get a lot of cheap energy, especially from the Middle East. If we’re not buying the Middle Eastern oil than they will, and they’ll get a better price.
Leif: That might seem so, but look at it from the perspective, say, of the Chinese leadership. Do they really want to be dependent longterm for their primary energy supply on a region which seems to be destabilizing and into which they cannot project military power? So basically, does ISIS 2.0 end up being China’s problem or not? China is not going to make any moves for the sake of democracy in other countries, obviously. Longterm strategic interests of China, might it be in their interest to announce, and I just mean “announce,” that sometime in the future, maybe 10 years down the road, they will no longer be buying oil from any regime that’s not minimally accountable to its own people? The announcement in itself will very likely be enough to encourage the reformers and the countries that I mentioned before. And as much chance as we have of transition to better governance in those countries, that’s the best chance.
Corey: Yes, Steve. I don’t want to question your premise too hard, but it’s just not clear to me that supporting Saudi Arabia longterm has really helped us out all that much. I think we can make a pretty good case that a lot of the problems we faced, including 9/11, originated in Saudi Arabia. A lot of extremism from Islamic radicals has been inspired if not directly supported by Saudi Arabia.
Corey: And it’s interesting, hopefully we’ll get to this in a few minutes, but there are arguments that Russia and Saudi Arabia are doing what they can during the current crisis to push oil prices as far down as they can to basically tank the US shale industry.
Corey: And knock it out. So it’s just not clear that even if you’re pursuing us interest, the best thing to do is to prop up the Saudi regime.
Steve: Well, I think we may have benefited for a long time from literally controlling most of Middle Eastern oil. Right? That was our goal. That was our main geopolitical goal in that region. So A, it might’ve been a complete mistake and maybe on some different trajectory of history, we ended up better off, but I know plenty of people whose profession is to do this kind of thing and they seem convinced that we did what we had to do. I’m not saying I agree with them, but I don’t think you’re going to easily sway a lot of these people.
Steve: where it’s going in the future is quite an interesting question. I mean, yes, you’re right. It’s interesting, when I was at this meeting… They have a very large sovereign wealth fund that has an annual meeting in the fall, which all the top capital allocators go to, all the biggest private equity funds and hedge funds are there trying to get allocations. And the meeting, which had a separate section on AI that I was a part of, was part of this broader thing.
Steve: And the interesting thing, it was very much like the Cantina scene from the first Star Wars movie. So as you just stood in these gigantic buildings where the meeting was held, I think it was a Ritz Carlton, you could point and say, “Well, those are the Chinese tech companies. Those are the Russian spies. Those guys are CIA. Those guys are money-guys from Europe. Those are money-guys from New York. Those are Silicon Valley guys.” You could just point at the different alien species that were there.
Steve: So Saudi right now is one of the most interesting places in the world from that perspective, as a crossroads of geopolitical competition. Because you have Huawei there selling their stuff, wiring up their telcos. You have Americans trying to maintain control. You have Russians, you have everything. So where it’s going to go, I don’t know. And you might be right about them trying to drive the US out of the oil business.
Corey: So I’d like to get your take on the implications of the current crisis for countries where oil is essentially a dominant source of income. So places like Botswana and Nigeria, maybe Indonesia, other places like that, that are relying on oil for a significant portion of their budget. What happens when oil is trading around zero or below zero as it was about a week and a half ago?
Leif: So it’s an amazing time in the oil business. No one’s ever seen anything like it. All of these very sophisticated oil analysts, their jaws are just dropping. Day after day after day, low prices, negative prices, huge wave of supply [meeting 00:16:30], crushed demand.
Leif: You think about this in academic terms. What if the 50 leading academic philosophers started publishing their work at limericks? You would be absolutely astonished. And that is what it’s like being in oil today. The impact of low prices will depend on the nature of the oil exporting country and on how long the price dip lasts.
Leif: As you suggested, for the poorest countries, this is a real problem. Think about Nigeria, gigantic country, biggest in Africa. By 2050, will probably be more populous than the United States. Here we have Nigeria, already so many problems with governance, its budget is being wrecked by the dip and oil prices at the same time as it has to ramp up to try to protect against the virus.
Leif: It’s really challenging times. The main question about governance comes from the two big countries that did the most to spark the oversupply, and that Saudi Arabia and Russia. These are countries with very, very large national reserves, as Steve mentioned. Saudi Arabia has a gigantic sovereign wealth fund. So the leadership in these countries thought that they could flood the world with oil, do real damage to the American oil producers, put a lot of them out of business and then grab the market share. They thought that they would have sufficient reserves to keep hold of their own governance while this strategy was unfolding. And so far, that seems to be correct. They seem to be doing okay.
Leif: If the price keeps low for a long time, or if they have to spend significant amounts of money taking care of the virus and broader parts of their economy in the longterm, then we might see the governments in Saudi Arabia and even Russia starting to become shakier.
Leif: So only time will tell, but in the wild world of oil, this is one of the wildest times and no big oil producer can feel entirely secure.
Corey: So we’re getting to the end of our time with you. Steve, do you have any more questions on this topic before we return to philosophy?
Steve: No. Just to recap, I think it’s a fascinating proposal that the decision as whether to buy oil from countries be conditioned on at least some weak measurement of their quality of governance, benefits to their people. I think that’s a not-unreasonable thing. And it’s something maybe that democracies in the West could come around to feeling that way in the next few decades. I wouldn’t be that surprised if something like that were to happen. It’s not any crazier than carbon taxes and things like that.
Corey: So, Steve reminded me of a question that I meant to ask, which is, what kind of reception did you get for these proposals? I think the last time I actually heard you speak was your Econ talk about a year ago. And I think at the time you said you’d been meeting with members of Congress about your proposal. So I’d like to get a sense of the reaction you’ve gotten from members of Congress, from the campaigns. I assume that perhaps at the very least Sanders campaign would be sympathetic. You had any success in getting inroads into the Trump administration?
Leif: So let me say first thing, Clean Trade, the organization that formed around the work of [blood 01:06:23] oil, is an entirely nonpartisan organization. We think that clean Trade legislation is so obviously in the national interest and in the interests of our allies and our partners that we believe that all parties should support the legislation. We did do a lot of [inward 01:06:43] activity to Congress. We found that the people who are most receptive were, on the one hand, on the human rights side. And on the other hand, on the national security side. The closer we got to people who understood US longterm national security interests, the more receptive they were to our message.
Leif: The Trump administration as such has its own agenda. And Clean Trade is not one of the things that they’ve decided to prioritize. We’ve had successes in other places. For example, there’s a Clean Trade bill that’s now live in the Senate of Brazil, the largest country in South America, the biggest country in the world. Brazil is considering the bill that would ban all imports of authoritarian oil and ban its national oil company from signing any new contracts with authoritarian regimes.
Leif: You might wonder why Brazil is considering that kind of bill at the moment. Brazil, as you know, has had a lot of trouble with corruption in the past few years. And this bill would be a very strong signal to the world that Brazil was taking progressive action against corruption. This would be a strong signal of a new way of doing business in Brazil.
Leif: And that might actually be a chance for me to mention how I think change happens on issues like this. I mean, things like apartheid, how the change happened there, it seemed impossible until it’s happened. My view is that change happens when sharp people do all the research they need to get a proposal ready to go and then start pushing on it. And a lot of times when people get skilled up and have a proposal ready to go, well, nothing happens for a while.
Leif: Let me give you an example. 20 years ago, a lot of people were concerned about blood diamonds. There was a terrible civil war in Sierra Leone, for example, that was killing a lot of people and activists got skilled up and propose that-
Leif: And activists got skilled up and proposed that we no longer buy diamonds from armed groups. And it got a little bit of traction in Congress. But, essentially, it was a distant war amongst Africans and no one really cared. And the proposal got nowhere. But the activists kept pushing and then the window of opportunity opened. And, as it happened, just by chance, that window was 9/11.
Leif: After 9/11, it was found that blood diamonds from Sierra Leone had passed through the hands of Charles Taylor of Liberia into the possession of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda realized that its assets would be frozen after the 9-11 attacks. And diamonds, of course, are the best way to store value outside of the financial system. Once blood diamonds were found in the possession of Al Qaeda, then blood diamonds became a level one national security priority, not only for the United States, but for European governments as well. And, within 18 months, every major government in the world had passed some sort of blood diamond ban. So, the activists had their stuff ready to go. They pushed. The window of opportunity opened. They got their stuff in place. And it became the new normal.
Leif: Now that was diamonds, but you see this happening again and again, even on issues as big as oil. So, maybe 15 years ago, activists realized that one of the problems around oil is it is one of the most opaque businesses in the world. All the oil goes out to these big countries. All the money comes in. But the citizens of the country have no way of knowing how much money the government is getting for their country’s oil. So, the activists started pushing for transparency. That is, if any American company buys, produces oil, it has to tell everybody how much it paid to the government to do that.
Leif: And, of course, that transparency was very much resisted by the oil industry. The activists got a couple senators on their side, but the oil industry was very strong. And the bill didn’t even get out of the committee. But they kept pushing. And then, a window of opportunity opened. And, as that happened, just by chance, that window this time was Deepwater Horizon. Remember that terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 people? It was a terrible tragedy. But a silver lining was that the oil industry was toxic for that summer of 2010. And the lobbyists couldn’t get their phone calls returned in Washington.
Leif: So, then the activists started pushing again. They got their senators to reintroduce the bill. And it eventually became part of the [inaudible 01:11:48] reform of 2010. And overnight, we had transparency for American oil companies.
Leif: The great moral of that story that goes on is that, once one country moves, other countries followed. So, as soon as America insisted on transparency for its oil companies, well then the Europeans insisted on the same, Canada insisted on the same. Now most of the major Western countries have transparency requirements for the oil industry. The activists had their stuff ready to go. They kept pushing. A window opened. That’s how change happens. That’s how what seems like it might be impossible eventually becomes the new normal. And then, we take the next step after that.
Steve: So, Corey, before we leave the topic of oil, I just wanted to throw out one additional thing, which we haven’t discussed, which it’s such a complex thing, it’s hard to predict how it will play out. But there are people who claim that one of the reasons the dollar remains a reserve currency, despite our huge indebtedness, increasing indebtedness, is because oil transactions are settled in dollars. And it’s been a goal of the Chinese for a long time to start moving away from that. And I think there are now transactions, which are not priced in dollars. And, if the U.S. suddenly got out of huge parts of the oil market for this reason, then I think that it could be very detrimental to the dollar, the status of the dollar. And it, for other reasons as well, I think, would be quite favorable for the Chinese.
Leif: That could be. That’s certainly a fact to be taken to account. As you say, it’s unpredictable. It’s unpredictable how much de-dollarization would go along with a change in practices like this. In my view, it wouldn’t be enough to threaten the kind of dominance the U.S. has because of its control over the dollar, but it’s definitely a serious issue.
Corey: So, Leif, one more topic coming back to philosophy. I didn’t bring this up earlier, but you’re talking about technical devices or formal methods that have kind of taken over philosophy. I think that was primarily philosophy language, not so much political philosophy. But there was a kind of emphasis on technique rather than, I’d say, substance to some extent. While I was at MIT, we had a term called the hovercraft effect. You ever heard of this?
Corey: The hovercraft effect is using high powered mathematical machinery to skim over the surface of a problem. And it just gets to the idea that people have gotten so focused on stuff that looked mathematically sophisticated but wasn’t telling you anything. Looking back now, I see that as kind of a nadir when that stuff was very popular. And I think your work has been… it’s a really exciting, I think, direction that people could follow.
Corey: So, I want to ask you, what advice do you give to up and coming philosophers who want to work on impactful substantive topics, not get bogged down in lots of techniques? Right? Are you suggesting that people actually travel other countries and do research or interviews? I guess, what advice are you giving to your grad students? And what kind of approach are they taking?
Leif: Good. So, that brings me to three ideas, three things I would tell to philosophers who want to do impactful work. First, I would say, make one of your research projects either technical or scholarly. So, for example, I work on technical analysis of claim rights. And I do scholarly works on Rawls. We all have to be able to write clearly and rigorously. And we all have to have an absolute commitment in our work to the truth, just to getting it right. All philosophers need that.
Leif: But, second, for your engaged research, start with the world, don’t start with the literature. If there’s an ism in your abstract, you’re not doing it right. Find a real problem that you’re passionate about. And then, yeah. Go listen to people who are working on that thing. And I do mean really listen. Find out about how the world really works. What are the range of possibilities for the politics of your issue? And then, use your skills as a philosopher to try to come up with solutions.
Leif: And again, your skills as a philosopher are not primarily, in this case, skills of conceptual analysis or elaborations of different versions of a principle. Your skills are seeing the big picture. Your skills are not primarily analytic. They’re synthetic. Take all of what you’ve learned about this problem from all the people that you’ve talked to. See the big picture. Try to come up with a solution that actually meets the problem. And, as you do that, I expect you’ll find that you’re engaging with the issues in ways that brought you to philosophy in the first place. You’ll be engaging in the issues in a way that satisfies your passion to understand, and have something to say, and really to make a contribution in the world. We academics are immensely privileged. We have to find a way that we can do our bit to help out.
Corey: Thanks, Leif. I don’t have any more questions. Steve?
Steve: If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk a little bit about Bob Nozick.
Steve: Just because I knew him quite well. I was a junior fellow at Harvard in the early ’90s and he was a senior fellow.
Steve: So, I had… yeah. Leif, we probably overlapped on campus. I don’t know exactly when you were working with him, but it might’ve been around the same time.
Leif: Yeah, we were. In fact, I was ’88 to ’97.
Steve: Yes. So, I knew him quite well socially and intellectually, and had dinner with him basically every week.
Steve: Monday night for three and a half years. So, I just want to relate a few fond memories of him. And would love to hear your reactions too, and some of your stories as well.
Leif: Oh, I’d love that.
Steve: He was great to sit next to at dinner. And we enjoyed conversation a lot. He told me some stories about antisemitism that he had experienced. I think he might’ve been an undergrad at Princeton. It was at Yale or Princeton. I can’t remember. But anyway, he had stories about how he had been told at one point by a dean that his people were just lucky to be there.
Steve: And he wasn’t that much older than I was. So, it was a very vivid story that I heard from him. Another thing that’s very memorable as he used to bring people like Alan Dershowitz and maybe also Tribe, Laurence Tribe to dinner.
Leif: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Steve: Because he hung out with the lawyers a bit. And so, I remember some very memorable dinners where I discussed the Mike Tyson trial with Dershowitz because Dershowitz was defending Tyson.
Leif: Oh, yeah.
Steve: And I was one of the few boxing fans in the Society of Fellows. And I had read a book. Did Nozick write a book called The Examined Life?
Leif: He did. Yeah.
Steve: And I think death is one of the things I could tell, both from our discussions and maybe what he wrote, that he had long thought about, I think as many philosophers might, the meaning of death and that sort of thing.
Steve: And so, when he came down with cancer, I really felt it like a punch to the gut because I was told, and obviously I didn’t speak to his doctor or anything, but the other people in the society, the general consensus or the opinion that was going around was that he had terminal cancer for sure.
Steve: I sent him a card with a very overwrought message in it. And, after I sent it, I realized like, wait a minute, this probably had the opposite effect of what I intended by it. It probably focused his attention on his demise. And he actually lived for quite a few years after that.
Steve: Longer than people thought at the time would be possible.
Steve: So anyway, those are my memories of him. He was one of my favorite senior fellows to spend time with. And I just thought, if you had any recollections, I’d love to hear them.
Leif: Oh, those are great stories. And what a privilege to be able to be with Nozick all the time. That’s just fantastic. You’re so lucky. Yeah. I was his advisee during this time too. And I thought he was just fantastic. He was certainly the quickest philosopher I’ve ever worked with. And I’ve worked with a lot of great philosophers. His mind was so fast and he read so much. And I don’t know if many people know this, but his memory was fantastic. He could read an article and 20 years later still have it more or less exactly In his head. He was a speed reader. So, he conquered all of these different fields. He never taught the same course twice, except for one course in his later years, which was Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, or as some of his students labeled it, Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Nozick.
Leif: But he was just incredibly wide ranging intellect. And, unlike so many philosophers now who are just defending their little position for their whole careers, Nozick was just a sprinkler of ideas. You must experienced this. He just loved having one idea. He had ten. If you got up on this one, he had nine more ready to go. And he just loved the conversation and the debate. Such a generous, generative mind. And such a positive person somehow. I mean, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. And he knew that he was something special. But how generous he was in spirit and as an intellectual. When he had his cancer of the stomach and then had the surgery, when he woke up, he did do an operating table joke. He says, I hope they don’t have to do that again. I don’t have the stomach for it.
Leif: And he did seem to face the end with, let’s say mental composure. He was beloved by so many people. And I think that really did support him. I’m sorry. Let me just say one more thing. I just re-watched Blade Runner, the final cut this time. And there’s a terrific scene at the end where Rutger Hauer knows he’s dying and he talks about all the things he’s seen across the galaxy and how, with his death, that they’re all going to disappear like tears in the rain. And I really did think of Nozick then. What our remarkable mind. What an incredible object in the universe his brain was. And to lose that mind 20, 30 years early, what a tragedy it was for all of us.
Corey: So, how old was Nozick when he died?
Leif: Let’s see, it was 2002. I think he was 62.
Steve: He was still very sharp.
Steve: That’s a scary thing is to go, be fully aware that you’re going to go relatively soon, and yet be fully sharp and understand all the consequences.
Corey: It’s fascinating listening to you guys talk about Nozick. I never met Nozick but I did find his writings really, really thought provoking. Incredibly smart guy. But he reminds me of just the tendency that people have not wanting to separate… they try to read into people’s personalities from their writing. Nozick, at various times, advocated pretty minimal states. And correct me if I have his view wrong. But I think, at one point, he thought that he was kind of a liberal in general. And then, later realize he couldn’t defend a lot of the complex superstructure of the state. And this led him to a kind of libertarian political philosophy.
Corey: I think there’s an inclination these days to take people’s political outlooks as sort of a reading of their personality or indictment of personality. So, people assume that people advocate a conservative political philosophy or a left wing political philosophy, somehow an indication of their personality, how generous they are. And again, in my experience, I’ve found that, regardless of someone’s philosophical outlook, you find incredibly nice people and generous people on all sides of issues.
Steve: It bespeaks to your own cultural matrix and bias that somehow you think a libertarian couldn’t be a nice guy.
Corey: I’m not talking about mine. But I’m saying these are criticisms I get from people. Right?
Steve: I see.
Corey: You hear this from… many people try to like, if they read that someone is conservative, they assume they’re not a nice person, or a leftist, they’re not a nice person. Right? This is something that… I think this gets lost. Right? In our current political debate, it’s very common for someone to try to indict somebody personally because they happen to disagree with their politics.
Corey: That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s not an inclination I’ve had, but like-
Steve: I think Leif would know more about this than I, but it seems like someone as smart as Nozick, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to pin him down as a left, or right, or liberal, or this, or that because his opinions were quite complex and, obviously, evolved during his life and are recorded in books. Right?
Steve: I want to say the one non-trivial philosophical thing that I remember from our conversation was, I think I first heard about this Rawlsian… is it called the veil of ignorance?
Steve: From Nozick. And, of course, this sounds very egoistic of me, but it is a true story. When he explained it to me, I said to him, isn’t Rawls making a huge mistake? Because, if you don’t know at what time you’ll be born into the society, then it really matters whether the distribution of resources is pro innovation or stultifies innovation. And so, there’s an argument to be made that equal distribution of resources, which might be great if you know the moment in time when you’ll be born, may be not so good if you are born into a communist country that has had no GDP growth because of this equal distribution of resources for the last hundred years. And he was actually a little bit surprised by that, taken. He had to think about it for a long time. So, I don’t know if that’s become widespread in philosophy or not. But, at the time, I think, it was not widely understood.
Leif: Rawls is an unusual thinker. Like John Stuart Mill, he is a steady state thinker. He thinks that, once a society becomes just, there need be no further real growth.
Leif: He really hated money. He thought money was a temptation to emptiness, and fruitlessness, and loneliness. And he really thought that the idea that economy has to keep growing ever and ever more was just the ideology of the bourgeois class.
Steve: Right? But, in this Rawlsian thought experiment, you could end up in a very fair society, but where everybody is still kind of in the preindustrial era, and then, you could be better off as the poorest member of a super high tech society where everybody lives to be 500 years old because of better medical technology.
Steve: And so, I was surprised that that was, at the time, a kind of novel critique of Rawls, or at least it seemed that way from our discussion.
Corey: Yeah. I want to be clear, it’s not right that Rawls thought you should have equal distribution of wealth. Right? Since, Leif, you’re a specialist in this. But let’s at least clear up Rawls’ view before we end.
Leif: Yeah. The worst off should be as well off as possible. And, Steve, as you say, well, to make the worst off as well off as possible, maybe you would want to have a few generations of hyper innovation for a while, huge growth. And this actually has shown up in the literature over the past, I’d say, ten, 15 years in particular. People who work on intergenerational justice have tried to grapple with these issues. And I have to say, philosophers are not doing very well on those issues. So, if you ever want to get into academic philosophy and make a contribution to Rawlsianism or intergenerational justice, that would be a great place to go. As I’m sure you’ve heard from Tyler Cowen when you had him on, he just thinks that we should grow like crazy. And, as long as we keep a human rights minimum, the best thing we can do right now is maximize growth.
Steve: Yeah. So, that’s a case where real kind of empirical claims about how the world works intrude. So, you might have some principle. Like I guess I got the Rawlsian principle wrong, but Corey just gave the correct version of it or you did. But, given that, then you would have to make some interpretation about how societies evolve and real empirical evidence would have to come into that.
Leif: Yes. Exactly. That’s right. Exactly.
Corey: Well, Leif, we’ve taken up way too much of your time. This has been great. Thanks for coming on.
Leif: I enjoyed it so much. Thank you both. This has really been terrific.