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Foundational Debates in Governance, Economics, Development


Admission requirements

Required course(s):

This course officially has no admissions requirements. Students should know that motivation to be an active rather than passive participant is the key to success in a course of this type. Students should be motivated to explore their own ideas and difficult and controversial arguments that rest at the core of disputes about questions about policy making in governance and development. This should be considered a global ‘trigger warning’ and students unsure that they are prepared for such frank and open discussions may prefer a different course.

Also, this course has a somewhat higher reading load of sometimes difficult to read texts (18th century English) and is a seminar that requires preparation and participation as core course components.

First years in their second semester are invited to enroll in this course as an elective only if they first seek permission of the instructor.


All of us have policy concerns and political commitments that we often let go unexplored and unreflected upon and thus leave the intellectual foundations and assumptions of one’s professed policy commitments unexamined. Worse, we too often find it easy to dismiss conclusions we disagree with without examining very carefully the real grounds for the disagreement, or the internal logic of the other’s position. It is easier to blame intellectual or moral failings for these differences rather abstractly.

However, one might expect that for each of us in a liberal arts college focused on Global Challenges, and as individuals faced with real life challenges thrown at us as citizens to consider are not only deeply concerned about policy change and good governance but would take the time to carefully think about foundations of our thinking and assumptions on these questions. Surely here we should strive to the highest levels of intellectual self-awareness and honesty!

As such, this course aims to introduce students to some foundational ideas and debates that form the roots of thinking about these problems in our post-enlightenment world by focusing our attention on a foundational debates between three great thinkers and practitioners of political agency - the debate surrounding the French Revolution. We will find that much of the ‘water in which we swim’ and ‘ideas and assumptions we take for granted’ were born in this debate, and represent the victory of one particular side, with insights about progressive thinking, and recent convulsions on the political right in recent years looking a little different when reflected in the mirror of these 18th century debates, which seemed to ‘set the stage’ for so many of our contemporary Global Challenge debates.

In following this ‘great debate’ we will try to find the root of the disagreements among it’s main participants, by exploring 6 ‘fundamental cleavages’ that lay at the root of these thinker’s different conclusions. In doing so we will find that we are accidentally exploring the critical questions and underpinnings of enlightenment progressive, and enlightenment-critical conservative perspectives on issues of political and social change and which still today animate many of the best arguments and grounds of dispute underlying contemporary practical and scholarly disagreements about policy change, government, economics, and development. But we will also learn a great deal about our own commitments.

As such, the course hopes to accomplish a few things:

1.) Shed light on some of the key fundamental questions and cleavages that still divide thinking today on key policy issues, which are often taken for granted for reasons of presumed intellectual homogeny, or because the intellectual origins of certain positions are so philosophically remote that you might not think to express them out loud. There is nothing wrong with holding a position, but there is arguably something wrong with not understanding the foundations of one’s own commitments, and thus the other commitments one it implicitly endorsing. Thus, we also hope in following this course to…

2.) Provide opportunities to reflect on your own answers the questions being wrestled with, as we come in contact with thinkers and perspectives that often don’t get as much attention in contemporary policy debates (for reasons we will discuss over the course of the block).

3.) Emphasize key fault lines where values, worldviews, and policy meet to challenge our conceptions of what ‘good policy’ even looks like the short, medium, and long term ideally providing greater appreciation for the diversity of respectable opinions underlying different perspectives. Too often, we only see the worst arguments for policies we oppose and neglect to try to discover the best arguments. We will draw on these debates and supplementary works to try to find some better arguments for positions we do not hold. And, perhaps….

4.) Developing a better idea of why liberal politics and policy are experiencing such pains in the past half-decade with little end in sight by exploring the problems identified in the beginning of this period in history during the Age of Revolutions in the 17 th and early 18 th century.

All together, we will find that these fundamental questions about the nature of the human person, nature generally, and attributes of history, the tension between concerns about justice and concerns about social order, different value systems regarding the primacy of choice versus duty and obligation, the challenges of using reason and idealized theory as a guide to practice, the perennial debate between the need for revolution or the preference of reform, and the responsibilities we have as participants in governing our own societies to those who came before us long dead, and those who will come after us.

The ideas and debates - and our participation in them - are far more important than the number of breadth of text covered. This is particularly true given that this is a 200-level course operating over a block.

Therefore, rather than develop a ‘canon’ for a field as interdisciplinary as Governance Economics and Development the ideas we will see our course text, and the debates over the French Revolution by Thomas Paine, Mary Wolstonecraft, and Edmund Burke form the core of the class, with supplementary excerpts and essays from the participants of contemporary debates that follow similar lines such as authors such as Michael Oakeshott, Steven Pinker, James Scott, or Jeffry Sachs and William Easterly. As such, students should be prepared to do a good deal of reading, but also expect to invest a bit of time engaging with these ideas on the class discussion board and during seminar
The seminar nature of this course bears a special note. I have designed this class to be reading, conversation, and idea focused. The only skills of interest to develop are clearer thinking, writing, discussion, and debate. The aim is for this to be fun and engaging; a class you look forward to participating in that will give you food for thought which will speak not just to your academic interests but how you think about the world. As such, more than in a typical course I would teach I am more of a guide-on-the-side of our seminars than a sage-on-the-stage. I want to spend some quality time with you throughout the weeks reading and thinking about great debates and discussions on issues that we think about all too little. Anyone who wants to do the same, and put in the work of contributing to a common classroom community to do so is very welcome!

Course Objectives

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the best foundational arguments undergirding perspectives on key questions of Governance, Economics, and Development (particularly those with which they a priori disagree).

  • Synthesize different positions on key divides in thinking about progress, governance, and policy intervention and argue for them convincingly (particularly those with which they a priori disagree).

  • Identify and express the grounding of one’s own outlook on questions of progress, policy-making, and intervention with reference to real-world challenges facing the world today.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2023-2024 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

The course we be run as a guided reading seminar. We will have tea and/or other beverages, snacks, and we should be prepared to engage in conversation on key issues and our own thoughts and experiences, as well as to entertain and explore arguments over difficult issues from perspectives we will initially and perhaps ultimately disagree with. We occasionally have semi-structured discussions where students are assigned positions to represent in discussion and to make the best possible argument for positions they not only may disagree with but believe to be problematic. We will meet in person when we can for fun or class.

Thus, this course will involve almost exclusively seminar discussion over the relevant texts and essays written about the texts by course participants. The reading load is heavier, and assignments involving regular argumentation.

Assessment Method

  • Participation 20%; assessed continually (weeks 1-7)

  • Two ‘Salon’ mini-pamphlets (30% (15% each), 1500 tightly argued words)

  • Two ‘Rebuttal’ to the Salon mini-pamphlets (20% (10% each), 1000 tightly argued words)

  • Pamphlet/Manifesto (20%, 2000 words)

  • Oral Defense of Manifesto (10%, 30 minutes)

Reading list

A DOWNLOADABLE PRINTABLE READER will be provided. We will aim to arrange printing before the beginning of the course, or coordinate among the class to deliver printed readers for all who want them.

Students are expected to acquire their own copy of the textbook The Great Debate by Yuval Levin.

OFFLINE READING and PREPARATION for seminar is strongly encouraged (and facilitated)!


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Dr. Brandon Zicha (convener),


Students considering enrolling are strongly encouraged to seek out prior students who have taken FDGED (previously, Foundational Texts in Governance Economic and Development) or contact the instructor for more information.