Chris Coyne is the F.A. Harper Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and he serves as the North American editor of “The Review of Austrian Economics.” In addition to teaching Economic Problems and Public Policies for TFAS’s Washington, D.C. Programs, Chris has authored numerous books. Most recently, he wrote “In Search of Monsters to Destroy: The Folly of American Empire and the Paths to Peace,” which offers alternative approaches to imperialism, militarism, and empire. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Manhattan College and both a masters and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. In 2008, he was named the Hayek Fellow at the London School of Economics.
In this week’s episode of the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 and Chris discuss his approach to teaching “Mason Economics,” how certain kinds of large scale economic planning can lead to devastating results, September 11th’s impact on inspiring him to apply the “economic way of thinking” to the war on terror and nation building, and how trade is not a zero-sum game.
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.
Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, supporters, faculty and friends who are making a real impact in public policy, business, philanthropy, law and journalism. Today, I’m excited to welcome Chris Coyne, a professor with TFAS’s Washington, DC program to the Liberty and Leadership podcast. Chris teaches economic problems and public policy issues for TFAS and is also an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and the Mercatus Center. We’ll be discussing Chris’s experience teaching students and how an economic mindset can be used to solve public policy problems, international relations, American government and in everyday life. Chris, thanks so much for joining me today.
Chris Coyne [00:00:56] Thank you for having me. It’s wonderful to be here with you.
Roger Ream [00:00:59] Well, Chris, I thought the best thing to start to get this rolling and I’m so looking forward to the discussion is to talk a little bit about your background. I know you grew up in New York, went to Manhattan College, and there you discovered a professor who helped influence the direction of your career. Since that’s so much what happens with our students at TFAS when they meet members of our faculty and have a class with them, I thought you should maybe give that background to get us going.
Chris Coyne [00:01:27] Yes, certainly. So, I grew up right in northern New Jersey, about 20 minutes outside New York City, and as you mentioned, I went to undergraduate in New York City at Manhattan College. It was during my third year that by chance I needed to economics electives to fill out my business degree, and I chose to take comparative economic systems and public economics with a professor named Pete Boettke. It was Pete’s first year, so he was an unknown to me, but it fit my schedule. So, I took his classes and as you mentioned, it changed my life. It introduced me to economics in a way I hadn’t thought about it. Pete, of course, who has a long-standing relationship with TFAS, just has an energy and passion about him that is hard to resist in terms of being engaged and excited. But really it was the ideas, and in comparative economics systems, I was introduced to Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek and “The Great Debate” over socialism versus capitalism as a means of economic organization. In public economics, I was introduced to two thinkers like James Buchanan and Gordon Tulloch on how the tools of economics can offer very important insight into the operation of government, the analysis of public policy issues and all these things really matter because they affect human well-being for better or for worse. So, after that one year, Pete left then to come to George Mason, and it changed my life. So, after I worked in New York City for a couple of years in finance, I came to George Mason University to pursue my Ph.D. in 2001, where I studied with Pete and his colleagues at the time.
Roger Ream [00:03:13] Comparative economics has been a course that has been offered regularly in TFAS programs. Professor George Vixens taught it for us for 34 years when he was on the faculty at Georgetown University. We’ve had Don Lavoie teach versions of that course. Is that of course you’ve taught it at George Mason as well?
Chris Coyne [00:03:31] I haven’t taught that course, but elements of it are included in it. Pete teaches the course here as well at the graduate level, and he’s taught at the undergraduate level as well. Of course, he was a student of Don Lavoie, who you just mentioned. So, you can see the connection through all this.
Roger Ream [00:03:47] Yeah. I think we’ll get into some of the themes you mentioned from that course as we talk today. Themes such as the knowledge problem, the socialist calculation debate and things like that. Could you first talk a little bit about your courses and teaching TFAS students? I’ve had the opportunity to sit in the back of your classroom. It’s a very interactive and lively classroom, but what is your approach to teaching the TFAS courses you teach?
Chris Coyne [00:04:15] Sure. So, I’ve been teaching full time with TFAS since 2015. I had given lectures and participated in various activities with TFAS prior to that, but I’ve been formally teaching the course you’ve mentioned for several years now, and the way I view it, first let me mention what I really like about the TFAS program, which is that there is such a diverse body of students in terms of their backgrounds and their interests. So, the students come from not just all over the country, but all over the world. They have all different backgrounds in terms of their interdisciplinary backgrounds and even those in the same discipline. Some go to smaller liberal-arts type colleges, others go to larger universities, and so their experiences are just enormously diverse. Their ideological priors are diverse, and their ideological positions and their interests are quite diverse. So, it makes for a fascinating environment to engage in ideas and to learn together. The way I view it is, is my job in facilitating this class is to introduce the students to a broad set of analytical tools, the economic way of thinking that they can add to their overall intellectual toolkit, and that can help them understand and analyze a wide variety of public policy issues. And the way I think about it is some of these students will go on and actually work in public policy, others might go get graduate degrees, others might choose a completely different path in life, but they are still going to be citizens of whatever society they belong to, such that it’s important to have a analytical framework for understanding different policy alternatives, whether you’re directly contributing to that policy, whether you are teaching it as an academic or as a teacher at whatever level or as an informed citizen. And so I don’t aim in any way, shape or form to tell the students what conclusions to believe, but instead view my role as empowering them to think about things analytically and critically, using the tools of economics combined with all the other things they’re learning, both in the TFAS program, in their various lectures that they’re attending and activities, in their on the ground experience in their in their internships, as well as what they’ve learned and will learn from their home institution. The way I structure the class, it’s a combination of me providing some overarching kind of insights each class about the economic way of thinking and how it can apply, opportunities for class discussion, and then a written exercise which we can talk about a little later that actually asks the students to kind of exercise their economic muscles, if you will, by using the concepts that we’ve learned throughout the course together to apply to whatever topic they want to, to write a short piece and to demonstrate their ability to understand and apply those concepts.
Roger Ream [00:07:18] Well, you use the phrase the economic way of thinking. It’s a phrase we use a lot around TFAS, and it’s one that was used by the Foundation for Teaching Economics when we took it over in 2013, now our high school division. As far as I know, I could be wrong about this, it was coined by Paul Hayne, but we like to use it because I think it fits in very closely with what you said. And the way you teach is to try to give students the tools of economics so they can apply them in trying to solve problems in fields that go beyond what most people consider economic fields. And you’ve done that in your career, and we’ll get into that. But I want to go into a little more about what you referred to as Mason Economics. It’s that unique combination. You’ve had a strong public choice, part of that which was headed up in some sense by Jim Buchanan, who won a Nobel Prize when he was at George Mason. You have the experimental economics area at Mason, which was brought there by Vernon Smith, also who won a Nobel Prize. And then you’ve got this rich Austrian tradition that hearkens back to Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises and Hayek and Israel Kirzner and others strong at George Mason through Pete Boettke and you and colleagues there. Do you bring those three together, in a sense, in what you teach at Mason?
Chris Coyne [00:08:45] Oh, we certainly do. It’s the foundation of our department at George Mason. I think what makes us unique in the broader kind of world of economics and the academic world of economics, there’s very few, if any, of the other schools that consistently teach that integration of those three traditions in the way that we do. And so, that’s foundational what we do. What I bring to TFAS myself is, is more of an emphasis on market process economics or Austrian economics and public choice. I bring in some of the experimental kind of findings and discussion, but really trying to introduce the students to how those things can empower them to understand and think about the world.
Roger Ream [00:09:31] Well, you’ve use in your teaching this phrase spontaneous order or emergent order. Could you talk about that and how it’s applied in your courses?
Chris Coyne [00:09:41] Sure. So, this is one of the most foundational concepts to understand the world. And it’s often neglected. It’s often not taught, certainly in economics, but in other fields as well. Carl Menger, who you mentioned earlier, who’s one of the co-founders of what economists call their marginal revolution, so this is in the late 1800s, talked about what he called organic institutions or what we today call emergent institutions, the enlightenment thinkers. So, Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Fergusson, all these thinkers and others in that in that period, all emphasized that a large variety of aspects that make the world operate, not just economics, but things like norms that apply to law, that apply to social interactions between each other and a whole host of other things that obviously contribute to economic activity, emerge without anyone centrally planning them. Without anyone sitting down, any one person or group of people and saying: “This is how it has to look.” In fact, it’s just the opposite. Once you appreciate the spontaneous order way of thinking, you realize that attempts to plan what we might think of as complex systems, systems that are beyond the grasp of human reason, lead to disaster and human suffering often. The kind of the starkest and perhaps saddest example of that being large scale efforts to implement economic planning across entire countries, which just led to widespread starvation and human suffering on a great scale. Because one of the many applications and insights of spontaneous order thinking is that markets, so voluntary exchange under a system of private property rights, allow all of us to achieve greatness and amazing outcomes that we never could absent that market process. And that’s very counterintuitive to many people because people’s natural inclination is to associate order and improvements with design and control. And the way that most economics is taught is in terms of that. I mean, we hear if you just pick up a newspaper or turn on the news, the Fed is doing this to the economy. Regulators are doing this to as if they’re acting upon it, as if they’re the ones controlling it and designing it. And so, the way these issues are oftentimes framed and discussed and treated as if it’s a an issue of getting the right, smart people in a room, giving them enough power over others and then giving them the control of whether it’s the economy, whether it’s society, international relations and spontaneous order thinking calls it into question. And so, appreciating both the underlying logic of spontaneous order as well as various real-world kind of manifestations of it, and many of which we take for granted. You know, the one I always discuss with students because we all experience it, is: you walk into a supermarket or Walmart or Target, or you go shopping on Amazon, and if it wasn’t so routine and normalized in our lives, if we were able to just step out of the mundane for a moment and appreciate the complexity and beauty of it, you’d have a moment of true of shock, of amazement that the number of people and steps and coordination that weren’t produced in these things, is just mind boggling. And that’s the beauty of it. The beauty of it is that we’re able to accomplish just wonderful things that improve our lives and the lives of our fellow human beings, and it works so well that we’re able to take it for granted. And so, getting students to both understand that underlying logic and appreciate it and incorporating it into their kind of body of thinking, is one of my goals when I discuss these issues with the TFAS students.
Roger Ream [00:13:45] Yeah, I recall the example Hayek used of language and how language develop spontaneously languages, all different kinds of languages. No one set out to design the rules, develop the vocabulary, and how to use the words, it just emerged, it was emergent order. I recall Russ Roberts speaking to our students maybe ten years ago, talking about using the example of when you go to the bakery on the morning of the Super Bowl and ask for a bagel, they have bagels. And it’s remarkable because you’d think all the dough on Super Bowl Sunday would be going in to make pizzas that afternoon. But you go there, and they know you were coming, I guess, because they have plenty of bagels to serve you, and it’s just this price mechanism and the spontaneous order of the market that does create what, as you said, marvelous things out of what seem mundane to us when we find what we need at the at any kind of store we go to. Do you think that students grasp that through your classes?
Chris Coyne [00:14:50] I would hope so. You know, one of the things I like about TFAS in addition to teaching, I sometimes participate in the alumni events, and we were at the Washington National Game last summer, and I was sitting there watching the game, the current students were there in the class or some of them who chose to attend, but others could attend as well. And a former student, someone I taught in 2016, and I recognized his face, but he came over and said: “Oh, Professor Coyne.” And I was trying to place the name, but I couldn’t. But then he introduced himself and said: “You know, I want you to know that I really enjoyed your class.” Then he started kind of listing some of the things that we talked about in class that impacted him. Now he works down on Capitol Hill as an aid. And those kind of moments as a professor really stick with you because it makes you realize and again, many of us who get excited about these ideas as we were talking about the outset, have that moment in our own educational experience, that kind of “aha moment” where someone introduces us to it. But as a professor, it’s nice to hear it. And one of the things he talked about was this idea of spontaneous order that he had. It always stuck with him, this idea that there’s so much in the world we can’t design and the constant push to control and design is highly problematic. And so, for him it served kind of as a check, an intellectual check as various policy issues, and I forget what area of policy he worked in. As he was thinking through those, just keeping that in mind and to my way of thinking, that’s a huge success. And the kind of critical thought that I hope to instill in students.
Roger Ream [00:16:36] Now, you’ve taken these concepts and what you call the economic way of thinking, and you’ve applied it to a whole range of topics that are typically thought of as economics, economic topics, things like foreign aid, the War on Terror. Your most recent book is “In Search of Monsters to Destroy: The Folly of American Empire and the Paths to Peace.” Could you give us a sense of how you are able to take these concepts and apply them, and what inspired you to particularly go into the area of foreign policy?
Chris Coyne [00:17:16] Going in reverse in terms of the inspiration, it was somewhat serendipity. I came from New York City, as I mentioned, when I went to Mason. I went to school there. I worked down on Wall Street for two years prior to coming back to grad school. And in one year I lived in New York City, the other year I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is right across the river. I would take the path train into the World Trade Centers and then walk down the Wall Street. And so, I left that job right before the summer started, and I came here then to start graduate school here, being George Mason in September of 2001. So, I moved from New York City to Hoboken, New Jersey, to Fairfax, Virginia. Three weeks in the graduate schools, the 911 attacks. And so, of course, the World Trade Centers were hit, and then the Pentagon, which is about 13 miles from where I’m sitting right now, was hit. And of course, just like everyone else, I watched all this unfold in shock and sadness. But of course, it hit everyone personally to varying degrees. But for both areas, especially World Trade Centers, I had just been there. And so, I had been around that area for a large chunk of my life. And then, of course, the United States government undertakes the war on terror, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. During graduate school, I was assigned as a research assistant for Tyler Cowan. And so, I was in Tyler’s office one day, just chatting with him about the news, and I said: “You know, it’s weird, but all this talk about going into Afghanistan and then Iraq, very few people are talking about things like what kind of knowledge would you need to actually nation build?” Because there was this talk of spreading democracy and spreading freedom, and what would you need not just to engage in economic planning, but design the overarching institutions of a free society and are those objects of choice? So, those things that outsiders can come in and design and write down, or as we were just discussing, is there a significant element of those things that are spontaneous, that are beyond the grasp of human reason, that are largely historically contingent, meaning that there are certain historical conditions and belief systems that need to be in place in order for free institutions to operate and sustain? And then what about incentives? What incentives do people who are both members of the US military and bureaucracy, as well as international actors, as well as people on the ground, what incentives would be required for all this to align? And so, that’s what got me started on it, and then from there, I’ve done a lot of work on issues like nation building, then on foreign aid, and then more recently I’ve turned my attention to the domestic effects of these things. And again, as the title of my most recent book, which comes from the famous speech by John Quincy Adams when he was secretary of state, a lot of the early leaders of America were very worried that a proactive, militaristic foreign policy would undermine liberty at home, undermine freedoms, but also just put the viability of the American project under pressure, both in fiscal terms but also in terms of centralization, bureaucratization and so on. And so, I’ve kind of taken that as an inspiration to explore some of those issues as well. And it does go back to your point that the way people who come out of that tradition I’ve come out of and now how I work with my graduate students, the economic way of thinking is quite powerful because it can be applied to all these different areas which are, as you mentioned, a lot of people would refer to the topics I just talked about not as economics proper, but public policy or political science and understand them. And that’s one of the things I try to bring into the TFAS environment when I interact with the students, which is to show them how you can use these tools, whether they are political scientists, economists, sociologists or whatever they’re studying now, or whatever they’ll study in the future.
Roger Ream [00:21:22] Now, in that work, have you determined some things we can do on the margin to improve outcomes, in say, the war on terror?
Chris Coyne [00:21:30] Well, you know, these are complex issues, but oftentimes my own view and where my own work has led me, is that there’s certain low hanging fruit that can help people that are suffering. And that’s what drives this. So, these issues are very personal, emotional for many people. Oftentimes, if you push back on certain aspects of it, it’s like: “Well, are you anti-patriotic or anti-American? You don’t care about people that are suffering.” It’s just the opposite. The shared goal is to help our fellow human beings that are suffering, to have a society in a world where all else constant, there’s more freedom as compared to less, where people are free to engage in self-determination. I’m not just talking about economic freedom, that’s just one slice of this, but freedom in general, freedom of association with other people, freedom of self-determination, freedom to practice the religion of their choosing and so on. The question and where the debate come in is: “What can you do about that?” And I am highly skeptical of top down, large scale efforts to plan and implement these things. For the same reason, by the way, I’m skeptical of other large-scale government driven programs. In many cases, if you look at these foreign policy programs, all of the kind of frictions and pathologies of domestic government programs are scaled up, which makes sense because there’s usually more resources, more people involved, and it’s on an international scale in addition to a domestic scale, because of course, there is a domestic element to it politics, resources and so on, but there’s an international element as well. But to answer your question in terms of what can be done? One of the things I try to emphasize to students is, it’s very easy to look down upon the world. And that’s what we do domestically with public policy, that’s a lot of people in Washington, D.C. do. They try to look down on the economy or certain sectors and say: “Well, that’s not how it should be. I want to fix it.” So, that’s looking down from the outside, you’re not part of the system, meaning you’re acting upon people. But that also has effects for things like democracy and self-governance. Because rather than governance emerging from the ground up, you are stepping outside of it and imposing certain things on people in the name of their own good. So, how do you avoid that? Well, one is to look for opportunities to empower individuals to have more freedom and choice. Now, internationally, there are certain things that we just can’t control because people live in other societies, they’re subject to constraints the rules, laws, norms of their own society. But there’s many things that the American government, for instance, can do if it truly cared about helping the poorest people in the world. One of them, for instance, is to remove trade barriers. And so, if you look at the poorer societies in the world, they typically focus on agriculture. Then if you look at wealthy countries and you look at their trade barriers, one area where there’s typically very high trade barriers are agriculture. That’s in America, that’s the common agricultural policy. There’s the Common Agricultural policy in the EU. And who does this punish? One addition to making prices higher for consumers domestically, it necessarily and purposely, the very purpose of it is to restrict competition from foreign producers. That is going to tend to impoverish people who are already suffering. Any move to ease those barriers will, on some margin, make people better off. Again, consumers will pay lower prices, but beyond the purely economic gains from trade, you’re also empowering foreign producers to have more freedom, to make more choices, to interact with other people voluntarily. And I think this is a quite powerful example because we tend to think of international trade in terms of accounts. There’s the exports and the imports and the current account. And that’s all fine and good as an economist. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about those things, but there’s a human element to it. These are human beings who you are either empowering or preventing through the threat of government force from peacefully interacting with other human beings. And that has not just economic effects, but personal effects on people, but also broader effects, because peacemaking is an art. It is something that is exercised in practice. It’s a set of skills, and that requires giving people space to practice and develop and cultivate those skills. And so that’s just one of many examples of the type of moves you can make to assist people. There’re many others, for instance, you might think about reducing arms sales to governments that are brutal and so on. But that’s the kind of thing that I think about my own work and try to emphasize that the students need to think about.
Roger Ream [00:26:25] Well, the idea of free trade seems to be losing support among people on the left and the right in our country. Talk about the benefits of trade, especially when it comes to trade with maybe less friendly countries, because we talk about it a lot now with, of course, China concerns about all the imports we’re bringing in from China. Concerns about semiconductor production that’s in Asia and Taiwan. And then also, of course, trade has become an issue involved with Ukraine and Russia. Can liberal trade policies benefit us if they’re with regimes that seem to be somewhat hostile to us?
Chris Coyne [00:27:08] Yeah. So, this is a big debate, and you can see both sides. So, you know, the arguments against trade because of the factors that you mentioned, some other related factors, you know, it’s not crazy on the face. So, you can see why people hold that position. My own position, which I realize is not the only one, is that even under those circumstances, pursuing opportunities to engage with exchange are beneficial to at least explore. And I put a very high bar on implementing barriers to trade. And the reason why is because even if there is hostility or potential hostility, trade is one way to overcome that. That is blocking people off from trade. So, if you say, well, this country is either hostile towards us or might be hostile to us, therefore I’m at a completely isolate myself from them, which, by the way, is true isolationism. People oftentimes call me an isolationist, but they want to separate the world into buckets that are isolated, that is a recipe for necessarily creating tension between people. There’s a reason it’s called a trade war. Ordinary people who trade with each other don’t get into trade wars. So, you and I don’t walk into a supermarket and think about having a trade war with the grocer. That’s the realm of politics. And the reason it’s a trade war is because you’re using the tools of political force to block people from voluntarily trading with each other. So that creates tensions automatically, but also it creates habits of viewing other human beings, which we typically treat as collectives in the international space. There’s Chinese, there’s Americans, there’s Russians forgetting that these are all human beings. Now, it’s true there’s governments that represent them or in some cases rule over them, but there’s also human beings that live there and that by adopting these policies, it’s not like you can just target Putin. You are having widespread effects on ordinary people who are innocent of any kind of wrongdoing on their own. And so, to my way of thinking, trade just doesn’t separate or trade barriers, rather doesn’t just separate people in the immediate term by saying we can’t trade, but also creates a vision of the world that is negative some and that’s highly problematic. And this happens all the time, not just in trade, but in international relations in general. It’s that nations are against each other. So, if China somehow does better, it hurts America. And you hear this all the time, even in economics, what’s one of the things you hear? China’s growing and they’re going to threaten America because they’re economic power that views the world, the economic world, in this case as a zero, if not negative sum game, they are going to gain. That means we’re going to lose Americans. And so therefore, the American government needs to stop them from growing. I don’t view the world that way. I view it as positive some. And so, I’m all for looking for as many opportunities to engage with others, even if on many margins we disagree with them or we think they are repugnant. And by the way, the position I’m holding or laying out doesn’t mean that you have to accept everything that other governments do. Just the opposite. But to my way of thinking, if our benchmark is governments act badly, that’s our benchmark for not interacting with them, are kind of set of people we can interact with is going to be quite small.
Roger Ream [00:30:34] Yeah. Well, I’ve decided not to declare a trade war against my grocery store, even though my balance of trade is very one sided. I buy a lot from them, and they buy nothing from me. But it seems to be a win situation for both of us. When you think about, you know, major issues of your books and research, you know, you’ve written about war and terrorism. We’ve talked about that. You’ve written some about the militarization of police in our country. It’s a result of that of cronyism within the military industrial complex. I mean, are you optimistic about the future? I mean, there’s easy to be very pessimistic, I think, in with the kind of topics you’ve been writing about because we haven’t seen much progress in that area.
Chris Coyne [00:31:27] Yeah.
Roger Ream [00:31:28] And perhaps been some on an area you’ve written about we haven’t talked about yet, a humanitarian aid. I think there’s a better understanding in that field, of course, but yeah, please comment on that.
Chris Coyne [00:31:37] Yeah. And that’s one of the common questions I get as well. “Doesn’t this depress you and aren’t you pessimistic?” And I’m not. I’m just the opposite. And let me explain why. I’ll link it into one of the exercises I do in the TFAS class, I mentioned there’s a writing exercise I do. A couple of years ago I started something called the Peace ableness project, I posted it publicly with student permission and the word peace ableness comes from a sociologist by the name of Elise Bolding, who is married to the economist Kenneth Boulding, who’s a famous economist. And she didn’t like the word peace by itself because it was kind of talking about a state of affairs. You either have peace or you don’t. And she viewed peace as a process. It’s something that you need to learn how to do, even in the smallest scale, like, you know, in your family, you have a conflict. You can navigate that using violence, but we typically don’t. And when our kids hit each other, we say, no, that’s not the right way to deal with your sibling not doing what you want them to do. And you try to teach them the skills of navigating things. Not that conflict doesn’t exist, but how we navigate it is a choice. It’s up to us. So why does that matter? Because the reason I am optimistic is because the citizenry, ordinary people can be peacemakers. We tend to think about peace on this grand global scale, and that’s important. There is world, you know, interactions between nations can be more or less peaceful. So, I’m not denying that. But when we only think in those terms, we neglect the power that we have as people. And one of the things I try to explain to the students and get them to think about is the fact that each and every one of them has the power to be peacemakers in their lives, even if it’s in the most mundane of activities. How you treat other people. I say to them, “look, today you’ve already had moments of conflict in your life. You could have gotten off the metro when you came to Arlington from D.C. and bumped into someone.” How are you going to deal with that? Are you going to deal with an unpleasant matter or an unpleasant matter? You can control that your family members or significant others, your colleagues at work. And I assign this project, this peace ableness project where each student has to find two instances and it can be from their own life, it can be from the news, it can be from history, where people were in a conflict situation, and they now have figured out ways to navigate it peacefully without resorting to violence. And I tell the students that can be the most mundane thing. A tree branch falls from your neighbor’s tree onto your fence and how are you going to deal with that? That’s a situation of conflict. And what I want them to realize is that all these little micro interactions between people are both important in themselves. You can contribute to peace in your own community by how you choose to interact with each other. But that scales up. So, you think about politics in America post 2016, and politics has always been contentious. So, you know, in some sense not much has changed. But, you know, certainly things are a lot more contentious now where oftentimes people are not even willing to listen to other people. They’re not even willing to have a discussion and hear the other people out. And that’s no way to live in a free and liberal and self-governing society. And so, I want the students to internalize and think about the power they have and the power that other people have to change that and not change it in some grand sense, but through their own behaviors. And once you realize that, then you realize that there’s hundreds of millions of peacemakers all around the world. And then it’s a question of how we empower them. And once you start thinking in those terms, I think it’s reason for great optimism, because ultimately the ability to make the world a better place is with each of us, even in the most mundane, small scale daily activities and training yourself to think in those terms is quite important.
Roger Ream [00:35:26] Yeah, I’ve sometimes, you know, said at orientation at our programs that God designed us beautifully with two ears and one mouth, and he expects us to use them proportionally. Just listening is a very important skill in life as well as in peacemaking. And I’m glad you put that emphasis on that in the classroom because it’s something we’ve emphasized increasingly at orientation at the start of our programs. And I was very reassured in the middle of our program this past summer when I had breakfast with about a dozen students, some no doubt who are in your class and I’ve mentioned this before on the Liberty Leadership podcast, but I asked them, you know, when you go back to the dorms at night, do you have these, you know, knockdown, drag out arguments about, say, recent Supreme Court decisions? And the Supreme Court had just ruled on Dobbs on overturning Roe v. Wade. And there have been some other very controversial decisions. And I was just struck by the response of students said, “no, no, we don’t we don’t really argue.” We just want to listen to each other and appreciate each other’s viewpoints. And I said, “that’s perfect.” That’s what you should be doing at the age of 19 or 20. Attending a program like this with a diverse group of students, listening to each other, having civil debates. But finding ways to understand and appreciate another person’s viewpoint. So, I think if that is something that we can practice more often in our everyday lives, it will radiate out to a broader scale in the world and in world events.
Chris Coyne [00:36:58] That’s right.
Roger Ream [00:36:59] Let’s talk for a minute about work you’ve done on foreign aid, humanitarian aid, and what you’ve called the tyranny of experts, and others have called it that, of course, that so often the best of intentions doesn’t necessarily lead to the right results. Can you comment on some of those themes you’ve developed in that area?
Chris Coyne [00:37:20] Sure. So, my second book is called Doing Bad by Doing Good. And what the argument is that, look, again, the premise is that we want to help people that are suffering. So, it’s not a question of if you want to help people or should you have charity. Of course, that’s a critical element of human life, helping our fellow human beings in a free society. And the way that the kind of aid complex, certainly in the wake of World War II, because that’s really when the current state led international led kind of foreign aid complex emerged the way it is oftentimes as part of the Cold War to be kind of an input into this broader proxy war against the Soviet Union. But it’s a very top-down way of thinking. It’s that country is poor. It’s poor because they don’t have enough resources to invest, so they get stuck in a poverty trap. So, what we need is smart economists to figure out how much money they need to invest in capital and then where they need to invest it, and then we can tell them, and that will lead to development. And so, if you kind of look at the trajectory or the kind of major steppingstones in post-World War II foreign aid. First you had the kind of physical capital argument, they don’t have enough savings, so let’s inject money. Well, that didn’t work. Well, they must not be smart enough. So, then they started investing in education. Well, that didn’t work. Then the argument was they have too many people. The population is too large. Let’s invest in contraception. Well, that didn’t work. So, then what happened? Well, you need the right institutions. So, you need things like private property rights and constraints on government. And that’s great, right? Except this goes back to our earlier conversation that you can’t just design and drop those things down. These are very complex, nuanced institutions that we don’t fully understand. And that played a role both in development aid but in humanitarian aid as well. And of course, all of this is filtered through these enormous bureaucracies where it’s hard to account for the aid and accountability and all these issues. So, one of the arguments I make in the book, and this links back to early discussion as well, is when you’re thinking about helping people, this can be domestic, this can be foreign. Really, what you need to think about, is there appropriate mechanisms for what I call adaptability? And adaptability is quite simple and straightforward, but it links back to the economic way of thinking. In all areas of life, we’re imperfect people. We make mistakes. In order to correct those mistakes. You have to have what are called feedback loops. You have to have knowledge that you’re making a mistake. If you don’t know you’re making a mistake, you can’t change it. And then you have to have an incentive to act on that if you’re rewarded for making a mistake. So, if you’re rewarded for wasting money by getting a bigger budget in the next period, you’re going to continue to waste money. And so, what you need to think about, this isn’t just go for government. It can go for nonprofits; it can go for for your own charitable giving. Do the areas where you’re giving money to help people, do they have mechanisms in place to provide feedback and incentives to actually help people in need? And oftentimes for helping people that are suffering, that means very small-scale local efforts. And the problem is those efforts oftentimes don’t get attention because they’re not headline news. The headline news is the United States Agency for National Development spent tens of millions of dollars in Afghanistan where you could generally help someone at a very small local effort that might help two, three, four people. But you actually get on the ground. You figure out what they need. It may not be headlining type news that you’re doing, but you’ve actually created genuine improvement for people. And so, again, this very localized appreciating are limited knowledge, a humility, a genuine humility of how little we know about the world is an appreciation that efforts to do good can harm the very people you want to help by empowering the people that are repressing them through what’s called aid stealing where criminal organizations or members of government steal the aid that is supposed to help people that are suffering and then use it as leverage against those very people. And so, you have to be very aware of incentives, knowledge and unintended consequences. And just appreciating those things provide you a useful analytical framework for thinking through the nuances and complexities of these issues and hopefully helping the people that are suffering.
Roger Ream [00:41:50] Yeah, I recall the phrase by the English economist, Peter Bauer who said, describe foreign aid as taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries. In these poor countries, the rulers tend to have bank accounts in Switzerland and corporate jets and their people continue to suffer decade after decade. And where we’ve seen some great strides in terms of reducing poverty in the world, but it’s generally come where countries, communities, whatever, have turned toward private property rights, a rule of law, and those kinds of institutions and frameworks that you’ve studied in your work and have advocated for in your work and as part of the Mason economics approach.
Chris Coyne [00:42:37] That’s right.
Roger Ream [00:42:39] Well, we’re coming short on time. But if you could recommend to students in our program a few books they could read to learn about these basic concepts you’ve talked about today of things like spontaneous order and the knowledge problem. What are some of the books you’d read for introductions to these concepts, not just to students, but to anyone who might be interested?
Chris Coyne [00:43:03] Sure. Well, I would start with Thomas Sowell’s wonderful book called Basic Economics. It’s intimidating when you look at it because it’s quite thick, but it’s written like most of Thomas Saul’s work, if not all of it, in an extremely accessible manner. It’s all verbal, lots of examples. And one of soul’s great strengths, like my former colleague and Professor Walter Williams, is their ability to communicate extremely complex, nuanced topics in a way that anyone can understand them and think about them. So, I’d start with that. And I mention it’s thick, but you can pick any chapter and read it. That’s the other really great part about that. So, I’d start with that. The Fraser Institute, which is based in Canada, has this wonderful series of books which are free online. It’s called the Essential Series. And Pete Boettke and I wrote one called The Essential Austrian Economics. There’s one on public choice. Don Boudreau wrote one. My colleague Don Boudreau is also a professor of TFAS, wrote one on Hayek. And you can download these PDFs online if you’re okay with reading the e-version, they’re about 80 pages each, and they’re all written in an accessible way to address these topics. And then one final thing I would just mention is, I mentioned Don Boudreaux, my colleague. He runs a blog called Cafe Hayek, and he posts on it on a regular basis. And like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, Don is an amazing communicator of economics. I think one of the best, if not the best, just a wonderful communicator of these really big ideas. And he oftentimes writes on trade, as you and I were discussing these issues earlier, and he writes, you know, 250-to-500-word posts and they really make you think. And so, if you look at that on a daily basis, if you’re busy, for instance, and you just read through these 200 to 500 words and then you just think about what it means, it will teach you a great deal, but also provide you an opportunity for some critical thought as well.
Roger Ream [00:45:05] Yeah, I’m going to repeat that website. It’s Café Hayek. It’s one I go to. He often writes letters to the editor trying to respond to some sort of economic nonsense that he sees on the morning paper. So, I highly recommend that as well. And we’re privileged to have Don on our faculty along with you. Thank you so much, Chris, for being with us today. I appreciate it very much. I know you’re busy. I will close with one more question. You’re dedicated to research and writing. You’re certainly a dedicated teacher. You could obviously choose a different path at this point in your career and become a consultant and go out and just, you know, offer advice to people. But you’ve stayed dedicated to your research and your teaching. Could you tell us what motivates you and why you’ve chosen that path, which would be a beneficiary of?
Chris Coyne [00:46:02] Well, I’m blessed to have the opportunity and to work with you all as well, I should say. And, you know, I worked for JP Morgan for two years. I started there in college, actually, then worked there for two years. And so, I could have stayed on that path in finance. But I was so drawn to the ideas and not just the ideas themselves intellectually, but their implications for human well-being. And that’s what excites me and what drives me is, you know, I love being a professor because I get to think, I get to learn, but also, I get to interact with people. I get to interact with my colleagues in academics, but also students, Ph.D. students, master students and undergraduate students. And, you know, it’s wonderful. I mean, there’s not many walks of life where you get to interact with people at all those different stages of their intellectual development, all different views, and you get to have these conversations with them. And so, you know, I always tell my wife that I’ll know when it’s time to retire, if ever, because I won’t get excited about teaching. I research a lot; I write a lot. But with teaching I get very passionate and excited when I’m in front of the room and preparing for it and thinking about it and improving. I mean, that’s another thing improving and coming up with new examples and better ways of communicating these complex situations and helping students to learn. And so that’s what drives me and I enjoy it. To the extent it’s labor, it’s a labor of love.
Roger Ream [00:47:31] Well, I know you’ve been recognized with teaching awards at George Mason. We’re pleased to have you back. You’re our first repeat guest on the Liberty and Leadership Podcast. You were on, I think, in April of 2020, talking a lot about COVID at that time and using that same framework of the lack of knowledge and the tyranny of experts to try to impose solutions in the COVID pandemic. But thank you for returning as a guest today. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Chris Coyne.
Chris Coyne [00:47:59] Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Roger Ream [00:48:01] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership Podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFASorg. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream and until next time, show courage in things large and small.
About the Podcast
TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.
Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.
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