An Economist Explains Foreign Policy

Release Date
July 10, 2017


Basic Economics Economics Government Politics & Policy

Can economics tell us what kind of foreign policy will work in Syria or around the world?

    1. Public Choice: Why Politicians Don’t Cut Spending (video): Professor Ben Powell explains public choice theory and why politicians spend more than the average voter wants. 
    2. Dan Carlin — What Is Military Keynesianism? (video): Dan Carlin explains why the US spends so much on defense spending and why it’s so hard to reign it in. 
    3. Foreign Policy Explained (playlist): Professors Abby Hall and Chris Coyne explain important concepts in foreign policy from government surveillance and the military industrial complex, to police militarization and humanitarian aid. 

Dave Rubin: Foreign policy to me seems like one of the craziest things that we have going on these days, because everyone’s talking about it. And yet it seems like no one knows what they’re talking about. Is that a generally fair statement?
Abby Hall: If it’s comforting at all, having a lot of foreign policy issues that people know nothing about is not anything that is new to today. However, I don’t pretend to be able to sit from my position and prescribe foreign policy. That is not what I see my role as an economist as being. But I can say that economics gives us a lot of insights as to how we should expect foreign policy to work or in a lot of cases to not work in the way that it’s intended. There is absolutely what we would call the public choice aspect of foreign policy, what Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the military-industrial complex. You have congressional leaders, you have the Pentagon, you have private interest who all have a vested interest in engaging in foreign policy or particular types of foreign policy, I should say, regardless of whether or not it’s actually productive or serving the “common good”.
Dave Rubin: When you say particular types, you’re talking about some sort of military intervention, basically.
Abby Hall: Military intervention. Although, one thing we have observed for the last several decades, humanitarian interventions are becoming more and more something that’s falling under the umbrella of military execution, regardless of whether or not that’s appropriate.
Dave Rubin: Yeah. When you see something like Syria going on right now and there’s a humanitarian disaster. Are they bringing in economists to say, “Guys. There’s a humanitarian disaster, there’s hundreds of thousands, something like 500,000 people have died over the last eight years or something like that.” What are the economic choices we have to make, to make this viable? Or is it just that the machine just kind of exists and they’re just going to make the decisions and do what they want?
Abby Hall: Unfortunately … and this has been a point a lot of the research that I’ve done, is people tend to think about foreign intervention as being something really simple. It’s a math problem or very just linear. Here’s a problem. We want to get from this point to that point and here’s a solution that’s supposed to fix it. We go from A to B to C.
Dave Rubin: Right.
Abby Hall: Unfortunately, that is not how things work.
Dave Rubin: Yeah. Has it ever worked that way?
Abby Hall: No.
Dave Rubin: Has there ever been an A to B to C? Never. Right?
Abby Hall: Not that I’m aware of.
Dave Rubin: Yeah.
Abby Hall: Things are not linear like that. When you think about issues, especially something as complex as foreign policy, it’s totally just fantastic thinking to look at that and go, sure, if we intervene at one part in the system there’s no way that there’s going to be an impact in other parts of that system as well. And that’s where you wind up running into some really nefarious unintended consequences, which we have seen over and over and over.