The Duck of Minerva

Repealing the First Law of Petropolitics


22 May 2012

I’m totally not bitter that Tom Friedman’s
elementary correlations have 165
citations on Google Scholar!

Kindred Winecoff, who is both very smart and possessed of good taste in linking, discusses the value of social science.

Winecoff discusses a recent splenetic venting by a philosopher claiming that social science has no role to play in policy debates, unlike physics or biology. I am unaware of any particular policy implications that flow obviously from any hard science. True, the atom bomb matters for policy, but the fact of the atomic bomb does not tell us what it means for international politics.

What is stunning is that the philosopher has it almost backward: the contentions about social science that matter for policy are almot never advanced by social scientists. Consider one relatively well-known example, Thomas Friedman’s 2006 Foreign Policy article “The First Law of Petropolitics,” which has 165 citations in Google Scholar.

Friedman discusses his project in tones so enthusiastic you’d think he’d invented quantitative methods:

The more I pondered these questions, the more it seemed obvious to me that there must be a correlation — a literal correlation that could be measured and graphed — between the price of oil and the pace, scope, and sustainability of political freedoms and economic reforms in certain countries. A few months ago I approached the editors of this magazine and asked them to see if we could do just that — try to quantify this intuition in graph form. Along one axis we would plot the average global price of crude oil, and along the other axis we would plot the pace of expanding or contracting freedoms, both economic and political, as best as research organizations such as Freedom House could measure them.

I want to interject here that I very seriously hope that the calculations necessary did not take months.

Friedman continues with a naive and enthusiastic defense of his project:

… I would be the first to acknowledge that this is not a scientific lab experiment, because the rise and fall of economic and political freedom in a society can never be perfectly quantifiable or interchangeable. But because I am not trying to get tenure anywhere, but rather to substantiate a hunch and stimulate a discussion, I think there is value in trying to demonstrate this very real correlation between the price of oil and the pace of freedom, even with its imperfections. Because the rising price of crude is certain to be a major factor shaping international relations for the near future, we must try to understand any connections it has with the character and direction of global politics. And the graphs assembled here certainly do suggest a strong correlation between the price of oil and the pace of freedom — so strong, in fact, that I would like to spark this discussion by offering the First Law of Petropolitics …The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in oil-rich petrolist states. According to the First Law of Petropolitics, the higher the average global crude oil price rises, the more free speech, free press, free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, and independent political parties are eroded.

So! It’s not Science, because Friedman isn’t trying to do anything as serious as getting tenure. All he wants to do is put an idea into circulation, with, one presumes, the dual motives of influencing policy and getting rich. Clearly, of course, such trivial goals excuse bad methods–even allow you to mock the people who devote their careers to getting things right.

And how bad are the methods? Bad enough that if you assign the Friedman article in an undergrad course you should immediately yank it from the syllabus.

I am not going to get into a debate about the larger issue of the resource curse, a topic about which I now (somewhat to my surprise) have firm and moderately well developed ideas. Rather, I simply want to note the efforts of two scholars who, playing entirely by Friedman’s rules, prove his point to be badly wrong.

The first entrant is Steve Townsend in European Peace and Security Journal, who writes about the many flaws in Friedman’s methodology. Friedman used nominal, not real prices; he did not actually present his correlations, instead preferring graphs; he did not use replicable data; and so on. The amazing thing is that when Townsend adjusts for these and other factors, he finds a strong and robust positive correlation between freedom and oil prices in most countries.

The second is Romain Wacziarg in Economica,  who employs much more sophisticated measures in his tests of the First Law of Petropolitics and, again, finds not only no evidence for the Friedman postulate but an overwhelming amount of evidence against it. Damningly:

The correlation is positive across all these countries, suggesting that the inverse relationship between oil prices and democracy in Friedman’s graphs was simply the result of an adequate choice of a shorter time span (for Venezuela and Iran) and/or of alternative measures of freedom (for Iran, Nigeria and the Russian Federation). In addition, the choice of these countries was rather arbitrary, and the chosen cases were not representative of the larger sample results discussed above.

There is, in other words, no support for the Friedman Law–but I would bet a lot of money (if not quite $10,000) that what policymakers believe is nearer what Friedman posits than what academics argue.

The alternative to good social science is not no social science. It’s bad social science. And even though practicing social scientists often commit very bad social science, the institutions of the discipline at least restrain those tendencies.