What Is Politics?

In a comment on the DADT Open Thread, Will H. wrote;

Politics is really more about building coalitions rather than staking out a position.
Staking out a position is activism, and that sometimes gets mistaken for politics.

In response, I wrote;

“Politics is who gets what, when, how.” Harold Lasswell (American political scientist). When staking a position is the “how” that helps you get something, it certainly would count as politics by Lasswell’s definition (which is arguably the most commonly accepted one in the discipline).

And there ensued a brief exchange on whether the definition was too broad to be meaningful or not. I would like to make my argument in more detail, so I have promoted the exchange to a top-level post. No criticism of Will is intended by doing so. It’s just an excuse for me to ramble on about my topic.

Two Definitions of Politics
Political science is such a broad and ungainly discipline that there is some doubt about what our core is, or whether we even have a core. Once upon a time the discipline was about law and government. Then it came to include the study of social movements. And then it came to include the study of the effectiveness of policy. And about voting. And about decision-making and rational choice. And now it has come to include the evolved psychology of social interaction. So what is this thing we call “politics,” that we are attempting to study (more or less) scientifically?*

In an attempt to pin down what all of us political scientists are collectively about–if we are in fact collectively about anything–two definitions of politics have been proffered that vie for supremacy in the discipline. One is by David Easton, who said that politics is “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” Easton’s definition is widely accepted, but I dislike it for two reasons, one pragmatic and the other conceptual. My pragmatic objection is that I get hung up on the word “values.” I’m not sure just how far that extends, and since I take a very broad definition to that word, I remain uncertain that my definition of values would actually fit Easton’s definition of politics. Is he referring to just collective values, or to personal values as well? Is there such a thing as collective values? Is he referring to material values? Or both material and non-material? I just think the use of the word “values” opens up too many questions for the definition to be very functional. My conceptual objection is in the word “authoritative.” I think it’s too restrictive. “Authoritative” implies “official,” which is not always the case. At any rate, politics certainly existed before humans developed “official” authority, or formal authoritative institutions. Well, to be fair, that criticism requires reliance on a different definition of politics, but let me reword it to say that those behaviors that we frequently consider political pre-date the invention of formal authoritative social institutions.

The other definition that commands allegiance is Lasswell’s “who gets what, when, and how.” From my perspective, this is the only good definition of politics, and its value is in its broadness. There is a necessary but unstated assumption within it, though, and that assumption is “when there are two or more people.” In a hypothetical state of nature where I am all alone, my choice to climb a tree to pick apples is not a political decision. But if you are also present, and the options that exist are to work together to pick the apples, then figure out how to divide them, or to try to pick the apples surreptitiously, or to try to exert sole despotic dominion over the apples and keep the other away–then we have politics. To take a literary example, when Robinson Crusoe was alone on the island there was no politics, but as soon as “Friday” appeared, everything became political.

Politics and Coalition-Formation
Will suggests that coalition-formation is politics, a claim with which I not only agree, but which is meaningful enough that I am going to keep it and build my analysis around it. But then he says, “staking out positions is activism, and [activism] sometimes gets mistaken for politics.” But if coalition-formation is politics, then how can staking out positions not be politics? One cannot form coalitions without staking out positions. Position-taking is an activity that is wholly inseparable from coalition-formation. First, you are forming a coalition around some particular position. Second, you must take into account the positions that others are taking, and consider how close or how far they are from your own position, and whether you must adjust to get closer to them, or whether there is some way you can bring them closer to you. And of course you are forming the coalition as a method (the “how”) of trying to “get” something (the “what”). And each potential coalition-member is also trying to “get” something–part of position-taking is the purposeful overclaim that forces the coalition-builder to offer you more, allowing you to “get” more.

And what about activism in general? Activism is in part, although not solely, about setting the grounds for coalition-building. If I am an activist, I am trying to persuade people to join me–to build a coalition–by moving them away from some positions and toward other positions. If I am a WTO protester in Seattle, I am trying to encourage the public to oppose free trade and globalization–I am trying to grow a loose-knit coalition of people who will call and write their legislators saying, “hell, no!” to economic globalization.” Or to take a more famous example, can the activism of the civil rights movement seriously be sharply separated from the process of coalition-formation? Not only was the activism an effort to expand the coalition, the expansion of the coalition was crucial to the success of the activism! We can, mostly, distinguish between the two concepts themselves, but we cannot distinguish between the purposes and aims for which they are deployed.

Let’s take this out of the governmental/public policy realm now. What about “non-political” organizations, like a church or a university’s physics department? Each of those–and those who are familiar with either of those, or anything like them will know this intimately–are political in the sense that there are people who are trying to “get” something (influence, respect, more office/lab space, the ouster of the current preacher, a shift from communion wine to grape juice, different hymnals, etc., etc.), and because they can almost never do it solely on their own they are trying to build coalitions. A great readable example of coalition formation outside government, in fact outside the human species, is Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics. De Waal explicitly calls chimpanzee social behavior political, and in the 25th anniversary edition to the book he notes that after writing it he learned about Lasswell’s definition and he eagerly accepts it as the appropriate definition for what he observed among chimp societies.

My children are inveterate coalition-formers, natural political animals. I have three kids, and at any given time two of them are ganging up on the other to exert power and control. When that doesn’t work, or when there’s only two of them, one or another is always running to mom or dad to get one of us on her side. When things are, in my estimate, out-of-control, I’ll usually step in (although it doesn’t always work out the way the would-be coalition former intends), but as often as not I’ll simply refuse to join the battle, and leave them to work it out without a coalition.

So what about when coalitions aren’t possible because there are only two people involved? Does it make sense to say that the two of my children who are engaged in battle over who gets what, when, and how are not being political, but the moment one turns to me for support they’ve suddenly become political? Admittedly that provides a bright-line distinction, but is it really a meaningful distinction? I argue that it’s not, because the coalition-formation effort is just another means for my kid to get what she wants. It’s not a fundamentally distinct activity, but a particular strategic approach within the same activity.

So accepting Will’s focus on coalition-formation–which I want to re-emphasize is a good focus, as it’s a fascinating and important issue–we still end up with politics being who gets what, when, and how. There’s no clear, meaningful, and strongly defensible point at which we can say, “this activity geared toward getting what I want within a social context is politics, but this one is not.” Sure, we can draw lines in there, but on what basis other than wanting to make finer distinctions can you defend them? And while wanting to make finer distinctions is important (the root of the word science is said to have originally referred to dividing or separating things), there are more defensible terms to stick to them. Coalition-formation is itself a good defining term, so clarity in it isn’t enhanced by sticking the less precise term politics to it.**

In other words, the more we try to limit the word “politics” the more we run into the question, “but why only that (set of) activities?”. “Politics” as a term is best used for a broad class of human activity, with the more specific behaviors, strategies, and tactics within that broad class being identified with more precise, less arguable, terminology.

Politics and Economics
I was told a story (I no longer remember by whom) of an economist who objected to Lasswell’s definition by saying, “that’s not politics, that’s economics!” Yes and no. Certainly economics studies how people get things. But this economist apparently did not understand that this was also what political scientists studied. So where does the distinction lie? As a first pass at it, one might suggest that economics focuses on market activities, while politics focuses on non-market activities. That is, if I am selling a used car, and you are shopping for a used car, and we strike a deal, that is a market exchange and is within the field of economists and not political scientists.

But that first pass will invoke the ire of economists. They study crime, punishment, war, and all sorts of non-market exchanges, including the incentives and behavior of government actors. And when you have economic analyses of the law, and economists studying the incentive bases of social movements…well, you’ve pretty much wiped out any subject matter distinction. And while that pass probably won’t invoke any wrath from political scientists, it’s nonetheless true that political scientists will ask about the relative bargaining position of the two actors, whether there was deception involved, and whether there ought to be regulations on such transactions. Some will even question whether there is such a thing as a purely market transaction that is wholly voluntary with no-coercion at all.

That’s not too surprising if we consider the history of the two fields. Before there was either, there was political economy, which evolved out of moral philosophy, which evolved out of philosophy, which was originally most heavily focused on politics. Without intending any disrespect towards economists (for the most part I like them better than I like political scientists, after all), I think it’s not inaccurate to say that economics can fairly be considered a subset of political science. Or perhaps a better term would be the political sciences. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be separate departments of economics in colleges and universities. Everyone who’s looked at the issue recognizes that most disciplinary divisions are based on a mixture of logical distinction and purposeful turf-building. Some schools have separate departments of international relations, even though that is a standard subfield of political science. Small schools have Biology departments, while big schools have departments of zoology, microbiology, etc. etc. And truth be told, I think all of the social sciences, properly speaking, are subfields of biology, since what we’re studying is the behavior of a biological species. Lines of greater or lesser arbitrariness have to be drawn somewhere, just for purposes of functionality in organizing educational institutions and professional organizations, so an official line between economics and political science doesn’t really bother me as long as we don’t make the mistake of reifying it and seeing it as reflecting a distinct division between the disciplines.

“Politics” as a term should not be limited to any one set of activities, but should be applied to a class of human behaviors that have a common purpose. In grad school I knew a student who was upset about the narrowness of what counts as legitimate political options (e.g., real socialism wasn’t on the agenda). This meant we just quibbled about small matters around the edges of a consensus about the basic political/economic structure, rather than considering wide-ranging social reorganizations. “That’s not politics,” he fumed, “that’s just civics.” That’s one of those moments that stuck in my head because it struck me as wrong, but I wasn’t able to work out a satisfactory analysis at the time (this was before I encountered Lasswell’s definition). Ultimately, the problem with his argument is it doesn’t rest on a conceptually defensible restriction of the word “politics.” How can politics be restricted to discussion of large issues when there’s no dividing line between large and small issues? Issue size is a continuous variable, rather than a discrete variable. There’s no point at which there is some step-function distinction between small and large issues, so there’s no point at which you can say “this issue is political, but that one is not.”

It’s true that definitions can be so broad as to be meaningless. But that’s not the case here. We haven’t defined all human activities to be political, only those that involve the pursuit of goals and value in conjunction with others. Within that, others can be used toward gaining our goals, or they can be obstructions to be neutralized, and doing either of those things is political behavior.

*As a pre-emptive warning, I’ll respond badly to anyone who trots out the pseudo-intellectual line, “politics isn’t a science.” Such people only demonstrate their ignorance of both political science as a discipline and the concept of science in general. First, a great amount of political science is studied scientifically, using the definition of science as hypothesis testing. We’re admittedly hampered by the fact that ethics prohibits some of the very interesting experiments we might otherwise like to carry out, but that doesn’t change the basic approach taken by many political scientists. There is also the fact that science is about cumulative knowledge, and while our discipline is indeed slow to develop this, it is developing. Third, the word science comes from the Latin scientia, which meant simply, “knowledge.” Those who would insist that only, say, chemistry and physics are sciences are required to justify their restrictive use of the word.
**To be fair, Will never said that “only” coalition-formation was politics. I’m taking some artistic license in interpreting him here, and I can only hope that by confessing to my sin I’ll earn his forgiveness.

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75 thoughts on “What Is Politics?

  1. I’m glad to see that we have the same objections to Easton’s definition.
    A coalition!

    Two points to consider:
    1). you are forming a coalition around some particular position.
    I believe the word “agreement” works better than “position;” and,
    2). I believe the distinction between “politics” and “political science” is a good one, with the former being more limited.

    My own definition of politics (just for you, because I know you like these):
    A system of arriving at agreement.


        • I don’t recognize this “the system” that you’re talking about. There is human society, which incorporates multiple systems. And within human society there is never-ending political behavior that is within, between, and across, all those multiple systems.

          And your analogy makes me think that you are basing your definitions on normative grounds, so that politics can be defined as something good, and whatever you consider bad as “not really politics.” I won’t engage in such normative cherry-picking. Politics is what people do–sometimes they do it for good purposes and sometimes for bad.


          • It must be one of those multiple systems you’re talking about there.
            I don’t define terms according to my likes or dislikes, but according to my understanding.
            And my understanding tells me that you want to include things as “politics” which are not essentially political, but are only incidentally political.
            The hamburger I just ate is political? It involved the actions of two people. I ordered it, and someone brought it to me. It was all about who got what, when, and how.
            Doesn’t matter if I like things or not. I’m not that self-important. I know darned well I’m just a pissant in the big scheme of things. So I’m not going to consider that set of likes and dislikes above all the other pissants. They have a right to be pissants too.
            Some things are political in their essence. Others are political only as a veneer.
            The two are not the same.


            • You’re very quick to respond with rhetorical questions. May I encourage you to try to work out the logic of your own questions first?

              E.g., Why on earth did you trust a stranger to give you a hamburger that’s safe to eat?

              But if you want to focus on that marginal area of market transactions, which even I admitted was out on the verge, then you’re working very hard to attack the periphery of the definition and not its substance.


              • No one gave anyone anything. It was paid for.
                But seriously, if the entirety of biological activity (because even if I am “alone” there’s always someone else down the street) can be considered political, then the study of things political is baseless and without merit.
                Zoologists study the politic of the animal kingdom far better than any political scientist ever could.
                Doctors study orthopedics far batter than any political scientist ever could.
                Engineers study aerodynamics far better than any political scientist ever could.
                If Lasswell’s definition of politics is true, then political scientists must surely be the most worthless of all things to walk the face of the earth.
                I believe in Book I of The Republic, Plato goes through this thing about the pruning hook; the proof that virtue necessarily exists.
                According to what I see here, political science is without virtue.


                • No one gave anyone anything. It was paid for.

                  OK, and with that we’re just about done here.

                  But seriously, if the entirety of biological activity (because even if I am “alone” there’s always someone else down the street) can be considered political, then the study of things political is baseless and without merit.

                  Neatly inverting my nesting of categories–I said political science was a subset of biology, not the other way around. And with that further evidence of your unwillingness or inability to carry on a fruitful discussion, adios.


                  • I’m sorry you feel that way.
                    I truly am.
                    But I feel the inversion was explicit in the statement.
                    You can paint Truth with a pretty face if you want.
                    But when I turn her around to get a look at her backside, I want to see the same Truth I saw up front.


                    • You feel the inversion was explicit in my statement? Or in your own? The latter I would agree with. The former would be a gross distortion of what I argued. Since I’m not sure which you mean, I can’t really respond. But your prior response certainly gave me the impression that you’re not interested in a serious discussion of my argument–only in throwing out quickie responses that misrepresent it.

                      As to “Truth,” I don’t recognize such a thing. Only “truths.” I know some people have a deep and sincere need for “Truth,” but I’ve never seen a persuasive argument that such a thing exists. There are any number of very fascinating “truths” worth examining, though. I know this rejection of “Truth” sincerely upsets some people, and causes them to think I’m missing out on what’s really important. All I can say is that we’re coming from very different epistemic perspectives. But that’s not the reason I would cut off debate.


                    • As I read through this again, your insincerity becomes more and more apparent.
                      While you insist that your terms be taken on their face, you read meaning into my own words which are simply unwarranted.
                      When I comment on the consistency of your argument, you reply that some mumbo-jumbo about mulitplicity.
                      And looking at the manner of logical fallacies that you’ve littered the thread with below sort of ticks me off.
                      I really don’t see how you can say something like, things which smack of politics is politics in some way, without recognizing that things which smack of phoniness are phony.


                  • According to what I see here, political science is without virtue.

                    Will H., that’s an explicit philosophical objection made by many others: political science [or any social science], beyond physical well being [the “relief of man’s estate”], cannot tell us “what is good.”

                    Which, in the olden days, was perhaps the primary philosophical question.


                    “… you’ve often heard it said that the form of the good is the
                    most important thing to learn about and that it’s by their relation
                    to it that just things and the others become useful and beneficial.
                    … And you also know that if we don’t know it, even the fullest
                    possible knowledge of other things is of no benefit to us, any more
                    than if we acquire any possession without the good of it. Or do you
                    think that it is any advantage to have every kind of possession
                    without the good of it?”

                    Now, this isn’t strictly true: we acknowledge that justice is good and it’s vitally important, and social science can tell us that Policy X might feed more people than Policy Y. [Might.] If the social sciences have any “virtue” atall, it’s in their self-defined commission to be value-free. Just the facts, ma’am.

                    The problem is when it science is asked to answer a question mostly beyond its purview: what is good?

                    Is “income inequality” good if it feeds more people in the end, that the question isn’t whether the rich have too much, but that the poor have enough? Certainly there are those who hold that “income equality” is good for its own sake. Why, I dunno. That’s politics.


                    • I agree, definitely, that these things are useful, but only within their own field.
                      That’s why people don’t cite their credentials as oceanographers when it comes to shoeing horses.
                      I dislike the use of ordinary words as arcane terms.
                      I think most high school sophomores already know what politics is.
                      If we have to make the term so arcane that no one can ever truly grasp it, then it’s complete bs.

                      And there is no general consensus on the definition of “politics” among political scientists.
                      My younger brother is a polsci prof as well, and he told me he doesn’t even use Lasswell’s definition in class, because it’s so vague.
                      He gave me some other definition, something about using power.
                      Which means, basically, a bunch of people coming together to do something.

                      Again, the issue is whether a thing is political only if it is political at its essence, or if a thing is truly political if any manner of politic might only be observed in the most tangential of intangibles.


                    • Curiously, I thought I was making the word politics less arcane, by giving it a less esoteric definition. So did Lasswell. It seems to me that saying “politics is this particular thing that relates to the political realm, but not that particular thing that relates to the political realm,” is far more arcane than simply saying, “everything that smacks of politics in some way is politics in some way” (which is essentially the meaning of Lasswell’s definition).


                    • That’s it in a nutshell.
                      The difference is, where you see a car that is green, I see that the car is not green, but the green is only some superfluous coating.
                      Earthly kingdoms have natural barriers; and I believe politics is no different.
                      I say that some movements are natural and others are unnatural.
                      You can paddle a canoe with a guitar, but that’s not really natural– not in boating, not in musicianship.
                      The boundaries should be divided according to natural movements.


            • It is impossible to determine from the given information if eating a hamburger is political or not. It certainly can be.

              For example, a convict in Oklahoma, some years ago, was sentenced to death using the method of his choice. He chose hanging by the neck. Then he proceeded to eat something like five thousand calories per day. This is because hanging someone over approximately 300 lbs can result in ripping their head off and decapitation has been ruled cruel and unusual punishment. In his case, eating a hamburger was political.

              Suppose you showed up at the Militant Vegans Convention for a protest. What could be a better political protest than handing out Wendy’s hamburgers?

              Suppose you live in India, where the cow is venerated. Visiting a Hindu shrine and chowing down on a hamburger would be very political (and stupid).

              There are certainly a lot of political decisions involved with getting the hamburger to your house. Regulations determine what can be called hamburger (thankfully). Politics decides what substances can introduced into the animal. Politics decides who can kill it, and how. Politics decides how to process the animal and package it and transport it. Politics determines the value of the money you use to purchase it. Your preferred method of cooking also has a ton of political choices behind it (natural gas vs. electrical regulations).

              And this isn’t even discussing the very real possibility that the meat came from another country.

              Eating it isn’t political. But there are a lot of politics involved in eating it.


      • First, I can’t believe you made it to grad school without encountering Lasswell’s definition of the subject you were studying (well, I believe you – I’m just incredulous that it could be so). Lasswell effectively created the academic discipline of Political Science, and his definition should be included in every intro course. As should the very long list of problems with it. VO Key, Theda Skocpol, Theodore Lowi, and any number of notable poli-sci-ers have seriously questioned, refined, or simply tossed out the window that definition. While Lasswell’s definition is a good starting place, no serious political scientist would put it into practice without severely limiting its operational definition.

        Second, at more to the point, within a governing system, politics can best be seen as the ability to force governmental action – and, in a democracy, that means building a coalition. Building a coalition, of course, means mastering the processes by which the institutions are ruled. So it isn’t an either/or choice. In fact, process is a subset of coalition building. Certainly game theory would look as the processes as the rules of the game and the coalition as the objective.

        In effect, the disagree between Will H. and Prof. Haney is best described as a disagreement over the scope of investigation. Will wants to limit his discussion of politics to effective governing. That puts activism outside of his scope of investigation. Prof. Haney wants to include activism, since it only occurs within a specific political context. So neither are incorrect, so long as they operationalize their definitions properly in their discussion.


        • Mr. Hart,

          Actually I exaggerated a bit. It was my undergraduate prof in my last year, a student of Lasswell’s, who told me the definition. It just didn’t really stick and make sense to me until grad school. And I do teach it in every one of my introductory courses.

          And while I agree that to begin discussing anything specific, we have to narrow down what we’re talking about, I am fervently in disagreement about politics best being seen as the ability to force government action. That limits the world of politics to the world of government. But there’s a vast world of politics outside government, and such a limitation would dramatically impoverish our intellectual understanding. The eminent political scientist Elinor Ostrom, for example, won the Nobel Prize for her work that primarily focuses on political interaction outside the scope of government.

          If your particular interest leads you to focus solely on government interactions, go for it. But the restriction of the term politics that one particular arena isn’t justified. When you operationalize, you don’t want to artificially restrict the broad concept to mean something very narrow–that’s bad methodology.

          As for Skocpol, Key, and Lowi—you hang with a different crowd than I do. They’re all eminent political scientists, to be sure. Key’s word was ground-breaking, and I keep wanting to find time to re-read Lowi’s End of Liberalism. But while Skopcol is thought-provoking, I’ve never found the political science new institutionalists to hold a candle to the historical new institutionalists. And just a few days ago I was re-reading Lowi’s APSA presidential address and thinking what a crock of shit it was. Herbert Simon and Randall Calvert had some pretty brutal rebuttals that I agreed with. Yeah, I’m familiar with those folks from grad school–they were very popular with a set of our profs. But I’m a public choice guy, so mostly they don’t seem very meaningful to me. To the extent they throw out Lasswell’s definition, it always seems to be based on an ideological conception. They want politics to be something good, in that Platonic sense, a noble action.


          • When you operationalize, you don’t want to artificially restrict the broad concept to mean something very narrow–that’s bad methodology.
            You need to take a scope and methods course again. That’s exactly what you do when you operationalize a concept. You have to do so in order to even begin an investigation. Try and do any sort of research using Lasswell’s definition as it is and you’ll never make any progress anywhere.

            Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Although she is political scientist, it’s important to understand how her work applies – that independent groups can form ad hoc governmental groups for specific purposes. It’s also important to understand that, even in her model, the groups have to convince governments to give them the room to operate – so they are still forcing governmental action.

            I don’t cite Key, Lowi, and Skocpol as a means of endorsing them, only to show that your view is simply that – your view. You are entitled to it, and you can expound upon it at length. But you are not entitled to force others to accept it as the only view. In the end, my major problem with public choice is that its proponents too often seem to convince themselves that the only reason others could possibly disagree is that they don’t understand public choice. Well, I understand it just fine. And I use it a lot. But only a fool goes to work with a single tool in their tool-box. And it takes an even bigger fool to look at someone using a screwdriver and say, “If they only understood the way of the hammer; they could accomplish so much more. Those silly normative, romanticized ideas of turning screws! When will they ever see the True Way?” If my say-so isn’t enough for you; then have a shot at James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock (in Calculus of Consent, no less), Bryan Caplan (especially his concept of “irrational rationality”), Donald P. Green, Ian Shapiro, and even Amartya Sen (who, incidentally, has contributed to public choice theories even while explaining how profoundly limiting they are when trying to understand society).

            As far as discarding Lasswell’s definition on “ideological conception” – I actually laughed out loud when I read that. I have no doubt that you do view Lowi’s address as shit because to do otherwise would force you to actually question the basis of your thoughts – and it is much easier to sling shit than to wonder if one might have made a basic error. I have to admit that I find Lowi to be a bit long-winded and tiresome, and I absolutely hate his American Government textbook. But I heartily endorse his call for political scientists to “meet our own intellectual needs while serving the public interest.”

            By the way, Elenor Ostrom is a new institutionalist. So you might try something other than citing her and then dismissing her in the next breath.


            • OK, Thurman, come to Jesus time.

              A) You misunderstood what I said re operationalization. You don’t artificially narrow the definition of the broad concept. You choose terminology that allows you to operationalize, but you choose terms appropriate to the narrower term.

              B) I studied under Ostrom. She’s a public choice theorist. She’s the best institutional theorist in the world, but she’s a new instituitional economist, she doesn’t really work in the political science new institutional tradition. That is, she’s not a historical institutionalist ala Skowronek.

              C) Lowi’s address is in fact shit, because it was based entirely on what he personally thought political scientists should study, and his claim that it all served the state was laugh-out-loud hilarious. Few political scientists are as critical as public choice theorists (who sometimes have interesting overlaps with Marxists, re: state/corporate power), but Lowi somehow reinterprets their intense skepticism about the bases of government authority as supporting the state.

              D) Nice little attempt to condescend to me on the scope-and-methods, Mr. MA-only. (Yes, snobbery can go both ways). Since I teach empirical methods each year, it’s almost certain that I more regularly address these concepts than you. But, hey, you’ve got the perfect arrogance to be a great academic. Keep it up.

              The one thing we do agree on is the absolute crappiness of Lowi’s textbook. The one that has his name, but was primarily written by Shepsle, however, is one of the best on the market. How Lowi and a good public choice theorist ended up working together I have no idea, but Shepsle managed to get Lowi’s name on a good textbook–to the extent any American Gov’t textbook can be considered good, which is a very limited extent.


              • So, are we supposed to believe that not one single ignoramus has ever studied under Ostrom? I subvmit to you as evidence Mr James Hanley.

                If Lowi’s address is shit solely on that basis, then isn’t everything you’ve said here shit as well? If that’s the line of demarcation, then both are the same.

                Some would cut the heads off of others in order to make themselves feel tall; but that doesn’t change the fact that they do it because of the awareness of their own shortness. You can cite your credentials all you want, and it’s nothing more than Vanity Fair! (appeal to authority). But when you attack another on the basis of their credentials, that’s simply ad hominem.

                It’s a pity, really; because you could be capable of better things.


              • There’s an old legal maxim – when you have the facts on your side, pound the facts; when you have the law on your side, pound the law; when you have neither the law nor the facts on your side; pound the table.

                I see you are very adept at pounding the table.

                Point A)
                “When you operationalize, you don’t want to artificially restrict the broad concept to mean something very narrow–that’s bad methodology.”

                “You don’t artificially narrow the definition of the broad concept. You choose terminology that allows you to operationalize, but you choose terms appropriate to the narrower term.”

                Oh, I see. What you meant was that you don’t “restrict” a concept and you don’t “narrow” it – you merely “narrow” it. How could anyone ever confuse your answers?

                Seriously. If you want to talk about coming to Jesus, the first thing you have to do is be honest with yourself about what you’ve already said.

                I said that Lasswell’s definition needed to be seriously narrowed to be useful – to be operationalized. You said that would be bad methodology. Now you are saying it isn’t bad methodology. Any reasonable person would see that as an admission of error. And it was an error. And your attempt to backtrack makes your statement even more twisted.

                Operationalizing requires that you “artificially” redefine a concept so that it can be measured. To say otherwise would be to say that we must limit our observations only to those groups which occur naturally (and, of course, that opens a debate about what, exactly, a “naturally occurring” group would be).

                Either you are narrowing a term or you are not. If you are doing so, then it is an artificial narrowing. It may be a logical reduction and it may be necessary to limit your research in order to be able to accomplish something, but it is still an artificial process.

                B) As far as Dr. Ostrom is concerned, I believe I pointed out that her work was in economics. I don’t know why you want to then make a separate point of it as if it had escaped my notice. I don’t know what you mean by “studied under” Dr. Ostrom. I’ve taken courses and written papers under the guidance of Marshal Berman and John Mollenkopf, and while I think they are both incredible men in their fields, I’m also able to say that they are not perfect, that I’ve disagreed with them at times, and they probably are busy doing work I’m not either familiar with or interested in.

                I’ll leave off on discussing the commonality of “new institutionalism” in various fields. Economists always like to pretend they exist independent of everyone else in academia, even though the developments often closely parallel each other.

                C) “Lowi’s address is in fact shit, because it was based entirely on what he personally thought political scientists should study, and his claim that it all served the state was laugh-out-loud hilarious.”

                Well, yeah. It’s his thoughts about what political science should be. That’s usually what APSA Presidential addresses are. Really, the major difference between his address and your post here is his position and audience were different than yours are. That doesn’t make his thoughts shit anymore than it makes your shit. And, just to be clear, I don’t think your thoughts are shit. They are not without flaw, but they are not shit.

                Lowi did not say that “all” of anything served the state interest. What he said was that political scientists spend a lot of time trying to uncover various layers of truth in what our governments do. Then we simply hide that truth in layers of statistical analysis and “think descriptions” so that they are inaccessible to the public. At least that’s the way I read it. I think he fell sway to the neoMarxist thought that anything not actively undermining the state is upholding it, but he has a point about political scientists hiding their expertise under a bushel.

                D) I’ve often found that the letters after a person’s name matter a lot less than what is going on in their head. Surely you have come across students who know more than their education level would indicate. But I didn’t mean my comment as snobbery, and I’m sorry you took it that way. But “empirical methods” is not the same as “scope and methods.” I don’t seriously question your knowledge so much as I am simply pointing out the arrogance in: 1) Condemning others for doing exactly what you are doing; 2) Making poorly considered off-the-cuff comments (limiting a definition is bad methodology); and 3) Being unable to admit that you have erred in the least.

                I’ve never found an American Government textbook that was worth using. Either they aim for a fifth grade level or they try to be all-inclusive (and thus lose any useful focus).


  2. I have reached the gloomy conclusion that in America, “politics” has filled the void left when everyone abandoned their “principles.” As just one example, look at the response to the TSA’s new “mandatory genital groping” policy: the right wing has been pretty good about opposing it … although they were fine with the TSA when it was still a Bush baby, and they will again be fine with it next time a Republican takes the White House. Conversely, there’s plenty of left-wingers who rightfully loathed the TSA when Bush was the prez, but now that Obama’s in charge they twist their minds into Mobius pretzel shapes to justify why there’s nothing oxymoronic about the free citizens of an ostensibly free country submitting to genital groping as a precondition to in-country air travel. Those left-wing whores will decide TSA’s behavior is a human rights violation after a Republican take the inaugural oath of office, and not one second before.


    • Jennifer,

      Principled action is a subset of politics, per Lasswell’s definition. You can seek to pursue principle as the “what” that you are trying to get, or you can use principled action as the “how” you try to get something. Politics being a larger set than principle, it can’t fill the void of disappearing principle.

      Also, you’re assuming people once acted on principle, which is a hypothesis that itself remains to be tested.

      (Not that I don’t sympathize with how you feel about the groups you criticize.)


  3. This quote from Rothbard might be helpful:

    “Surveying the attributes of the proper science of man as against scientism, one finds a shining, clear theory separating one from the other. The true science of man bases itself upon the existence of individual human beings, upon individual life and consciousness. The scientistic brethren (dominant in modern times) range themselves always against the meaningful existence of individuals: the biologists deny the existence of life, the psychologists deny consciousness, the economists deny economics, and the political theorists deny political philosophy. What they affirm is the existence and primacy of social wholes: “society,” the “collective,” the “group,” the “nation.” The individual, they assert, must be value-free himself, but must take his values from “society.” The true science of man concentrates on the individual as of central, epistemological and ethical importance; the adherents of scientism, in contrast, lose no opportunity to denigrate the individual and submerge him in the importance of the collective. With such radically contrasting epistemologies, it is hardly sheer coincidence that the political views of the two opposing camps tend to be individualist and collectivist, respectively.”


    • I just think the use of the word “values” opens up too many questions for the definition to be very functional.

      This of course, begs the question and shuts off all further disagreement and inquiry outside its self-defined borders.

      The Rothbard quote puts a stake in the heart of such “scientism.” Well cited.


    • I have to put this on my list of “Dumbest Things I’ve Ever Heard.”

      I have never come across a biologist who denies the existence life. And I share an office with two of them.

      As far as “submerging” the individual into some sort of group – from what I’ve seen, individuals do that to themselves. For example, the “Democratic Party” was not created by academics so they would have something to study. It was created by like-minded individuals who wanted to accomplish a specific set of goals. Academics then decided to study the group, because individuals gave up their individual goals in order to pursue group goals.

      I think this shows exactly what anarchism is the last refuge of idiots who like to sound educated.


  4. 1. It certainly does not beg the question or shut off all further disagreement. It only means there are more productive definitions that do not involve unnecessary entanglements with words that require yet more definitions. The Easton definition has two such words, “authoritative” and “values.” Before you can make real progress using his definition, you have to further define those words, plunging you into a world of nested definitions that gets very messy. If you want to go there, and wade through all that, you’re welcome to do so. But in the end I don’t think it gets you anywhere that Lasswell’s definition doesn’t, because it ultimately works out to subsets of Lasswell’s definition. That’s a lot of effort to not really get anywhere.

    2. However correct Rothbard may once have been (and I’m dubious), he at best refers to only a subset of today’s “scientistic” world. (And–oh, lord–“true” science vs. “scientistic”? There’s some convenient definitionalism going on there.) Biologists deny the existence of life? I’m no big fan of Rothbard, but I never imagined he’d said anything remotely as ignorant as that. Economists deny economics and focus only on groups? How could Rothbard be unaware of micro-focused economists? (Although, to be fair, this quote probably pre-dates public choice theory.) The psychologists deny consciousness? Actually most don’t, and those who do make a pretty damn good case for it–in the end you can’t prove “consciousness” is anything more than a perceived state resulting from neurons firing in response to external stimuli, you can only assume it. It’s no good citing Rothbard on psychology and consciousness at this point–he never had to engage with someone like Dennet. And political theorists deny political philosophy? Utter nonsense. Rothbard should go to a scholarly meeting of political scientists–there are, in my own personal opinion, far too many doing (or trying to do) political philosophy. But the best political theorizing, in my opinion, is rational choice theory, which–oh delicious irony–puts individual humans at the epistemic center while having no interest in political philosophy! What would ol’ Murray do with that? In fact today the more scientifically-minded political scientists are the ones who are most likely to put individuals at the center of the process, and the anti-sciency po-mos, very non-“scientistic” who reject that approach.

    Sorry, Mike, not attacking you, just laughing uncontrollably at Rothbard’s wild overstatements. Yes, there are collectivists, but the relationship between being a collectivist and being a scientific social scientist simply doesn’t exist. And his whole “true science” bit…that just leaves me speechless in its utter meaninglessness. Who the hell couldn’t claim “My way is the true science”? It’s a way of trying to seize a moral high ground without actually being able to empirically demonstrate that you’re right. I’ll give Rothbard some leeway given the time period he was active, but this quote bears almost no relationship to the scholarly world today, and to the extent it does, Rothbard come out looking like a rube who’s not ready to take on the real experts in the field.

    A quote so wildly inaccurate can’t put a stake in the heart of anything. But how not surprised am I to see Mr. Van Dyke eagerly leaping to the battlements when he hears the trumpets blowing, and the rallying cry to wage battle against social science? It’s almost a self-parody at this point. Come see the man who repeatedly demonstrates a complete failure to understand what social scientists actually do, say, and believe, making his predictable pretense of knowing critique!


      • And once again, Van Dyke, you make vague assertions instead of actually responding to the substance of the argument. I’m sure that’s a lot easier for you, but it gets really damned annoying to have you trolling my posts and repeating the same mindless platitudes over and over.


      • Greetings, Tom! Professor Hanley’s “response” seems to keep disappearing. I imagine these words would also apply somewhat to you.
        Are impersonations allowed at LOG?

        Okay, here goes–I’m going to pretend I’m James Hanley responding to this.

        Heidegger, once again you fail to deal with the specific issues as stated. Your bigotry is only outweighed by your stupidity and frankly, I find you to be one of the most loathsome, worthless human beings I’ve ever the misfortune of coming in contact with. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I mean no offense when I say this, but if I were one of your parents, I would seriously seek legal remedy to have you aborted, regardless of your current age. If that fails, and considering you are a resident of Michigan, I would advise you to seek out the services of Dr. Kevorkian. I would even be more than happy to drive you there. And, for that matter, I would gleefully pay for the entire “operation”. If I’m not mistaken, I think his success rate for curing insomnia and every other known malady to afflict a human being, is close to 100%. Do consider. Again, please do not take this the wrong way. I bear no ill will or animus toward you.I’m sure you understand your utter valuelessness in this world and your exit just can’t come soon enough. You are a dishonest, lying, despicable, repugnant, ignorant, human being who has the existential value of a gnat. (Forgive the insult all you gnats out there.) Please, please, please, make all of us at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen happy, and just die. I would also be more than happy to provide you with 874 philosophical arguments (all in Latin if you prefer) for why your right to existence ended the day you were born. Merry Solstice.

        With all due sincerity, Professor Hanley


          • James, just trying to infuse in you a little self-deprecating humor–it’s sorely needed .I also am making an attempt to save your poor nervous system–it’s been taking a beating in the last couple of weeks. I think you’d be immeasurably rewarded if you could just learn how to laugh at yourself. I was hoping Tom’s compromise to go the extra mile to “square two” would resolve the problem–he seems gracious enough to extend the olive branch to you, and put all of this in the past. Oh well, do try and stay cool, Dr. J!

            “”Laughter is an effect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing.” Kant


    • Mr. Hanley writes:

      The psychologists deny consciousness? Actually most don’t, and those who do make a pretty damn good case for it–in the end you can’t prove “consciousness” is anything more than a perceived state resulting from neurons firing in response to external stimuli, you can only assume it. It’s no good citing Rothbard on psychology and consciousness at this point–he never had to engage with someone like Dennet.

      We can safely ignore Dennett because by his own admission he’s not conscious. Why bother arguing with an automaton?

      More seriously, what would proving either that consciousness exists or does not exist be like? Is the thought here that giving a complete scientific explanation of how it is — because it definitely is the case; unlike Dennet, I really am conscious — that combining matter in just the right way under just the right conditions results in that configuration of matter in some sense being aware of itself would mean that such consciousness awareness “really” was an illusion? (And how could a nonconscious being harbor an illusion?)

      Now, I know that the Church of Empiricism is ever vigilant in its eternal battle against anything even vaguely smacking of Cartesian dualism, and I’d even support their holy crusade if I didn’t think (or be under the illusion I was thinking) it was so conceptually confused, but I can’t for the life of me see what possible difference a preference for an ontological desert landscape makes back here in the, um, real world.


      • “More seriously, what would proving either that consciousness exists or does not exist be like?”

        This is basically the exact question that Dennett pursues on consciousness. That and, Exactly what is being conscious like? If you read him to be on a mission to deny that consciousness exists, then I think we can safely ignore your views on Dennett. In explaining what, through is investigations, he has found consciousness to be, he, entirely predictably, finds that, like many natural phenomena people have examined over the years, the closer one looks the more the concept dissolves into constituent parts, and so he ends up with an explanation that leaves some unsatisfied with what is left over. But this is not a denial that consciousness exists. It is merely the view that consciousness is a perception that arises from many things. “Sì, abbiamo un’anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot.” “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots!”

        Dennett does not say that he is not conscious. He says that an automaton with all the same brain states as him is conscious in just the same way as him – and that that consciousness in both beings involves all manner of internally created illusions and self-deceptions, along with many other concrete processes. Indeed, Dennett’s concept of consciousness, far from being nonexistent, is, if anything, at times nearly absurdly over-copious, as when he admits that the direction of his analysis is one that could lead him to conclude that a thermostat is conscious, and that he could in fact conceive of accepting that conclusion.


        • This is correct. If I gave the impression that Dennett denies consciousness, then I should have been more careful. I only meant that anyone who wants to talk seriously about consciousness today would–I think, from my position outside both psychology and philosophy–need to engage the Dennett debate, both him and his critics. And it’s not to Rothbard’s discredit that he was born too early for that. It just means that whatever Rothbard had to say about the state of the field of psychology back then is not, it would seem to me, relevant today.


          • That’s certainly fair, Mr. Hanley, and I mostly agree. Certainly, as between Rothbard and Dennett, that would be a contest between someone almost entirely ignorant of the issues and someone who understands them very well but whose position, I believe, is nonetheless seriously flawed.

            ETA: This comment, subsequent in time to my comment immediately below, is a pretty good example of why I HATE NESTED COMMENTS!


            • I don’t consider myself qualified to comment on Dennett, other than to say that the bit of him I’ve read I’ve found thought-provoking. I am quite willing to stipulate that you are more qualified to evaluate his arguments than I. And the prospect for a debate between someone wholly ignorant and someone very knowledgeable but wrong is in itself an intriguing thing to ponder.


        • Oh, well, I actually have read a fair bit of Dennett, including Consciousness Denied, er, Explained and, on balance, I think Searle and several of his other more prominent critics are correct in their criticisms of what I think of as Dennett’s philosophical sleight of hand. That’s not to say Dennett is all wrong (no, of course there is no such thing as a Cartesian Theater as Dennett describes or caricatures consciousness) or that Nagel or Searle are entirely correct (it isn’t merely a matter of Dennett committing, pace Ryle, a category mistake, either) .

          On balance, though, like Singer’s ethics and Dawkins’ grasp of theology, there is less to Dennett’s philosophy of mind than the fanboys would like to believe.


            • *shrug* Were you laboring under the impression that I was ready to engage in a protracted discussion about Dennett with you at the drop of a hat?

              I’ll repeat the question that does interest me by repeating the entire paragraph from which you quoted an excerpt:

              [W]hat would proving either that consciousness exists or does not exist be like? Is the thought here that giving a complete scientific explanation of how it is … that combining matter in just the right way under just the right conditions results in that configuration of matter in some sense being aware of itself would mean that such consciousness awareness “really” was an illusion?

              Look, even in their disagreement, Dennett and Searle are both physicalists. As, by the way, am I if (but only if) all that means is that explaining how consciousness works does not / will not require positing Mind as some ontological category or substance distinct from the physical world. Nor will it go toward proving that such an ontological category does not, in some intelligible sense, exist. (Occam’s Razor is, at bottom, an aesthetic principle.)

              Finally, I think I’ve thread-jacked on this matter far enough. Feel free to get in the last word for this round. Rest assured that I will eventually post something more on point and you can then take me to task all you like.


              • As far as I can tell, you were willing to engage in a discussion far enough to say that Dennett says consciousness doesn’t exist. So I responded. I’m not sure why my response elicited an affirmation that you have indeed read Dennett; I certainly believe that you have. I don’t claim to have any way of anticipating how extensive any discussion you are willing to have on him might be ahead of time, but I do know that whatever it is we do say in such a discussion can be evaluated for its merit.


        • I believe DAR is speaking of qualia, rather than consciousness more generally, when he says that Dennett denies its existence; and of these he does, quite clearly, deny existence. This is of course why he talks about automata with the same brain states being conscious, because this directly answers not an argument for the existence of consciousness, but an argument for the difficulty of it as a philosophical/scientific problem (though we should use the highly technical and esoteric term of the literature, even if it’s a slight anachronism for discussions of Consciousness Explained: zombies).

          There’s much that’s wrong with Dennett’s view of consciousness, in part because the science has advanced well beyond where it was back when Dennett was writing extensively about consciousness, but also because, well, given everything we know, first person experience is not only real (and therefore a real problem for materialism, even if we don’t dig bats, zombies, or two-dimensional semantics), but given everything we know now and knew then, which includes the best conceptual and empirical evidence available to us, it is logically impenetrable from a third-person perspective. The only way to deny this, which is what denying the existence of qualia amounts to, is to deny that consciousness itself exists (at least, this is the only way to deny the impenetrability of first-person experience from a physicalist perspective — it’s apparently perfectly penetrable by god under some non-physicalist views). At least, I think this is what DAR was getting at, and if so, then he and I agree on this point.

          Also, Dennett looks like Santa Claus. Given the season, I think this needs to be pointed out. That is all.


          • We do agree on that point, Chris, but in the interest of full and honest disclosure, I wanted at all costs to avoid getting into the weeds of qualia, etc.

            As you know, the “Consciousness Denied” quip has made the rounds more than once and it was not I in this thread who first raised the notion of the nonexistence of consciousness, whatever the hell that may mean.

            My take on such questions is largely Wittgensteinian (in this particular case via John Wisdom), which is why I keep harping on what it is “in the real world” that is being denied or affirmed, what is at stake either way, etc. , but if I were to pretend for the moment that philosophical questions are capable of satisfactory answers, I’d note my deep skepticism about naive reductionism, my suspicion that qualia is an irreducible aspect of consciousness, and my reassertion that quarks and leptons can be and hereabouts often are so configured as to be capable in some significantly true sense of being aware of themselves. (This being so, I find it no less hard to believe that they could also be capable in some significantly true sense of directing their behavior, a conclusion that affords me the luxury of not having to pretend to believe some sort of compatibilism. But that’s another kettle of fish, isn’t it?)


    • Rothbard was talking fashions of thought at the time — but you are a literal man. I didn’t mean to upset you, but it’s easy to see the distinction between scientism and scientific pursuit, and between collectivist thought and understanding individualism — but, now, I am not talking about EVERYONE being involed in collectivist thought, just trends — not EVERY thinker.


      • Mike,

        I wholly agree it’s easy to see the distinction between collectivist thought and individualism. I don’t, however, think it’s so easy to see the distinction between “scientism” and “scientific pursuit.” I think it’s a false distinction.

        And while I recognize that Rothbard was talking about the fashions at the time–fashions I also dislike–I have to say that I worked at a hardware store for several years, and our stock never included a brush as broad as he’s using.


  5. James, you punk everyone who disagrees with you. Even Rothbard.

    I’ve actually been laying off your posts, not trolling, since you seldom get to an affirmative argument, and by the end, are full of ad hom and general unpleasantness.

    I thought it was worth noting that you shut off any potential avenues for disagreement or discussion by the way you framed the discussion. Not that empiricism or rational choice theory are unhelpful. But they do not necessarily provide all there is to the equation.

    I’m quite willing to move to Square Two in any discussion, but your scorched-earth tactics in both the OP and the ensuing exchanges make anything except the initial grenade-toss impossible.

    Will H.’s initial proposition has a workable seed of truth in it, in making the distinction between and then translating thought into action. One can grow that seed or plow it under.


    • Van Dyke,

      I don’t punk people who make sensible arguments. You repeat the assertion that I have shut off all avenue for discussion, but you don’t actually respond to my explanation for why I think I haven’t, and for why I chose that particular definition. This is what I despise about your style of argumentation–you repeatedly fail to actually demonstrate a case. Instead of taking the cop-out of just asserting I’ve cut off avenues for discussion, why not quit being such an intellectual lazy-ass and actually try for that discussion. Show why my definition is wrong. Explain where discussion could go more fruitfully if I hadn’t used that definition.

      But consider also this. If choosing a definition and arguing for it cuts off avenues for discussion, then how can we proceed intellectually? Do we continue discussion without ever defining things? That would be a stupidly unproductive approach. But if we must at some point choose definitions, and if doing so cuts off avenues for discussion, then cutting off avenues for discussion is a necessary part of every intellectual debate, and your complaint about it is utterly banal, like complaining that choosing to take I5 from L.A. to San Francisco eliminates the possibility of taking 101. It’s merely a truism instead of an insightful critique. Seriously, to some extent, all definitions, “shut off debate and inquiry outside their borders,” so what’s the value, what’s your purpose, in bothering to point out something so banally true here?

      I’m quite willing to move to Square Two in any discussion,

      Bullshit. You may actually think this, but as many times as you say it, you never actually do it. If you want to move to square two, here’s where I’d put square two. Explain just why my choosing a definition that constrains the terms of the debate is worth taking special pains to point out, when every act of defining does the same thing? Or conversely, explain how we can proceed meaningfully without definitions. I’ve made my position brutally clear, but yours is still artfully vague, allowing you to critique while not actually staking out any solid position of your own.

      Either engage in serious debate for once or quit trolling my posts.


  6. It’s Mr. Van Dyke, Dr. Hanley. Your rudeness is showing again.

    I’m not trolling your posts, I’m easily pointing out the flaws in your premises. You have posted them on this blog for discussion, and for public comment. Here it is.

    I’m flattered I can get you into such a prolix tizzy with a few deadly observations. I notice you have all the time in the world to diddle with people you think you can get the better of, but I get Special Treatment.

    Actually, your premises were quite effectively challenged by Will H. and DA Ridgely. You need not trouble yourself with l’il old me. The problem is with your argument.


    • Seriously? You call me by my first name, without invitation, then complain that I only use your last name, not “Mr.”? Seriously?

      And, no, you haven’t pointed out any flaws. Re-read this latest comment again. It’s nothing but vague assertions, no specifics, no analysis at all. You assert that Will H. successfully challenged my assumptions, but you fail to even make an attempt to show how he did it, and why my response to him doesn’t save my assumptions. You assert that DAR successfully challenged my assumptions, but make no effort to show how (it look more to me like an off-hand comment about a bit of a side-topic in the whole debate).

      Put up or shut up, Van Dyke. Make an argument, not an assertion. Or do you not understand the difference between the two?

      Better yet, stay the hell of my posts. You sure as hell do push my buttons, but it’s not because you ever actually make a meaningful challenge. It’s because your combination of smug superiority coupled with your repeated chickenshit failure to make a serious argument is nauseating. It’s like having an unwanted guest who shits on the furniture and sincerely pleads that he’s brought a bouquet of flowers. It’s becoming uncomfortably clear to me that as long as I participate on a group blog, I may not be able to get rid of you, but you’re not wanted on my posts. If you have a scrap of decency, please just stay away.


      • No such luck, Mussolini, unless you go crying to mother [management]. You have all the time in the world [100+ comment threads] for those you think you can beat.

        If you don’t like my refudiations of your theses, then ignore them. But you don’t because you can’t, so you try to bury them under ad hom and other assorted accusations. Damn right I’m “not wanted” on your posts. Not wanted by you, you mean, and I don’t really blame you.

        Fact is, Will H. was on to something in viewing politics as concerted action, not just talk or theory.

        And DA Ridgely—since you asked—successfully challenged your premise with this

        Now, I know that the Church of Empiricism is ever vigilant in its eternal battle against anything even vaguely smacking of Cartesian dualism, and I’d even support their holy crusade if I didn’t think (or be under the illusion I was thinking) it was so conceptually confused, but I can’t for the life of me see what possible difference a preference for an ontological desert landscape makes back here in the, um, real world.

        So, you ask, I give. Good day, sir, and welcome to the real world, where you write something and then see how well it holds up. Otherwise, repair back to your echo chambers, where you are judge and jury of your own arguments and their counterarguments. You don’t seem to have noticed how transparent you are outside your Bearded Spock universe.


        • I’d probably disagree with what I take to be your disagreement with me, Mr. Van Dyke, if only I knew what it was you were disagreeing with.

          ETA: Never mind, I finally got it. Still, you know, while I think Mr. Hanley’s claimed materialism is philosophically problematic, I can’t say I recall a single political opinion of his (whether I agreed with it or not) that struck me as affected by, let alone dependent on his metaphysics.


  7. Isn’t politics what people do to make rules, and economics what people do with the rules once you’ve made them? Of course, there are rules for rule-making, and one of the things people do with the rules is try to change them. But that at least seems to be the mindset of political scientists versus economists.


    • Simon,

      Most political scientists would disagree with you. For example, in the ’70s we made a rule that you couldn’t drive more than 55 mph on the freeways. Was the response to that rule purely economic?


      • On reflection, I think the answer is “yes”, economics is the appropriate discipline to study the reaction. This is, after all, about how people respond to a disincentive and choose between the alternatives, which is what micro-economics is all about. Does political science actually have anything to say about how people respond to speed limits?


        • Except that neither economists nor political scientists actually divide themselves up that neatly. Plenty of political scientists study the reactions–that’s what the whole field of policy analysis is about. Although I will say that not enough policy analysists grasp the concept of incentives/disincentives clearly enough–that is, some (too many) political scientists aren’t economics-minded enough. But as a practical matter, the distinction between subjects of study just isn’t respected by either discipline.


        • I’ve not seen anything about speed limits in particular. Within the sub-field of public policy, there is a specialty that looks at implementation of rules. As a general observation, any rule that has little or no penalty for being broken will be broken. Especially if there is any sort of immediate payoff for doing so and even more so if there is a cultural expectation of the behavior you are trying to outlaw.


  8. I’m happy to be able to say that Prof. Hanley has written an essay with which I can agree more or less in full, with enthusiasm. One area of human behavior, though, that I think needs to be placed inside or out of this taxonomy of politics (not as an indivisible whole of course – it can itself be subdivided into various activities) is one that has taken up a good deal of the oxygen here at LoOG of late: the interpretation and execution of law. I’d welcome such thoughts.


    • Michael,

      I’d place it within politics. I think it’s very much about who gets what, when, and how. Who successfully influences the interpretation of law? How do they do it? (From that perspective, publishing in a law review may be seen as a very political act.) Who decides how the law will be executed? San Francisco, for example, doesn’t really execute/enforce their laws against prostitution. Why? Who made that decision? Who benefits from it (“gets” something)? Who opposes it (if some “get,” by exclusion, someone else doesn’t).


      • More holiday accord! Lovely. Having this view, it has to be noted though, does have big consequences for various debates in the philosophy of law that have been playing out (albeit in cruder-than-academic terms) here of late around topics like the individual mandate and, more broadly, enumerated powers and the reach of Commerce Clause jurisprudence.


        • The interpretation of law, on an individual level, is purely an analytical process. How a person learns those processes, and which school of thought one endorses, are largely dependent on politics.

          The execution of law is always inherently political. Take, for example, the double-nickel speed limit. There are a limited number of officers to set out for enforcement – which neighborhoods are chosen? Even once the officers are sent out, they do not stop every car – so how do they choose which ones get by? Even some of the ones they stop do not get tickets – so how do they choose which ones get tickets?

          There are some lengthy discussions on such things. Generally speaking, politically advantaged groups are less subject to enforcement activities. When they do fall under enforcement, they are generally given more leeway. This is not always true, obviously, but often enough to be noteworthy.


  9. So where does the distinction lie? As a first pass at it, one might suggest that economics focuses on market activities, while politics focuses on non-market activities. That is, if I am selling a used car, and you are shopping for a used car, and we strike a deal, that is a market exchange and is within the field of economists and not political scientists.

    But that first pass will invoke the ire of economists.

    Honestly, I can’t raise a lot of ire here. For an economist to accuse a political scientist of scope creep would require a truly heroic degree of hypocrisy, and I’m just not up to it right now. What can I say? It’s nearly Christmas and I’m tired.

    At this point I’m starting to lean toward the idea that the social sciences should be differentiated not by their subject matter, but rather by their core premises and methodologies. This is counter-intuitive at first glance, but it probably maps the actual disciplines better than a subject matter classification.


    • James K,

      Well, you and both partake of the feast of public choice theory. So you and I, whatever differences we might have in details, see the world in pretty much the same way. But I think perhaps you didn’t read me quite right–If I tried to argue that economics only applied to pure market transactions, I think you’d object, even if it wasn’t with ire, no? And I think that precisely because I would, and know that we mostly see the world in the same way.


  10. A final thought for me on this thread. I didn’t comment yesterday because I was partaking of my family’s least favorite, but apparently most persistent, Christmas tradition, battling intestinal viruses.

    But the definition of politics I’ve given here is the dominant one among those who are professional students of politics. To that extent, wholly distinct from my acceptance of it, it deserves a substantial amount of deference. It’s very analogous to the biologists definition(s) of species. They quibble some about the details, and they can’t always agree whether they’re seeing a single species with distinct variations, separate species, or subspecies. The same is true for politics about that fuzzy line between what’s political and what’s purely a market exchange–if in fact such a line even exists. The real world is more subtle and fine-tuned than our language and ability to categorize, so no broad definition can ever be precise.

    But just as the biologists’ definition(s) of species deserve deference, so do the political scientists definition(s) of politics. And what makes those definitions–even Easton’s, although I dislike it–better than others is that they are meant to be wholly objective, embracing the broad range of related behavior without making any normative justifications. That’s why I have to reject a definition such as “people working together,” because that excludes people working against each other, and the only basis for that distinction is a normative valuation. Notice that some people would take the oppose approach from that definition, saying people are being, for example, statesmanlike, or are governing, when they work together, but when they don’t they say they’re “just being political.” Again political is defined via a normative valuation, and in this case it goes the opposite direction of the other normatively based definition of “people working together.” That’s simply no good if we’re going to communicate meaningfully. And since each of those types of actions have in common that people are trying to get something, someway, in conjunction with other people, it is better to call all of those things politics. If you don’t like it, all I can really say is tough luck. You’ll have as much chance of changing the discipline’s view of it as you would have changing biologists’ view of how we should define species. You’re consigning yourself to being left out of the real discussions because you insist on using words in a way others don’t recognize.


    • Sorry about the bug, but I have to disagree with you. At least in part.

      Political scientists have never reached anything close to a consensus on the definition of “politics.” At best, you’ll get someone to sigh and throw up their hands to say, “Well, it’s about as good as we’re likely to get.” The accepted definition of “species,” however, has reached a pretty clear consensus (a group of organisms capable of breeding fertile offspring). DNA advances may change it, but until then it’s definitive in a way us poli-sci folks just can’t be.

      But you are right that using definitions that others don’t adhere to is a sure way to be ignored. That’s why Lasswell’s definition doesn’t work for general public discussions about politics. It’s just dismissed as idiocy because most people have a pornographic definition of politics – they can’t tell you what it is, but they know it when they see it. And it isn’t everything out there.


    • You betray yourself.
      First, you claim to be so perceptive as to see politics in all things; that H2O and O2 are identical because both contain the element of oxygen. That the notes: A C# E form a C# chord because it is a part of the chord, however the most important part of all is whether it is written in blue ink or black.
      Then after you ask this sort of stretch, you claim that all agreements are necessarily “good.” We’ve already seen that, “Let’s kill all the Jews!” is a perfectly workable agreement as a basis for political action, and yet you claim that this is necessarily “good,” solely because an agreement has been established.
      Where I come from, we call that “pissing down my neck and telling me it’s raining,” and I’ve been around long enough to see it done a time or two. And a lot better, actually.
      I think Lasswell’s definition states, in effect, “I am incapable of differentiation;” and nothing more.
      Not surprising that you were upset when I told you that standing upright involves a different set of movements than falling over.
      But it says that we really can’t trust your word on the matter when you tell us how many times a day you fall down.


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  13. I’m done talking about politics.
    I don’t care for politics so much in the first place.
    Two observations I would like to make.
    I know that you’re smart enough to know what the reductio ad absurdum is, and you know how to refute it; but you’re not self-aware enough to be able to see it in yourself.
    That’s going to hold you back unnecessarily unless you take care of that.
    Now, if you go to the place where you’re dressed up like a bobber next to the little bio, you’ll see something significant there.
    Everything from that point up was written by a man of a certain character; while everything from that point down was written by a man of an entirely different character using the name of James Hanley.
    That too will hold you back unnecessarily until you take care of it.
    You seem to have some difficulty in grasping the obvious, and that’s a shame.
    I want you to understand that I’m not downing you at all. It’s just that I believe you have things better than that within you.
    Take care, and God bless.


  14. Politics is the study of the proper principles and rules of social interaction, both in personal relationships and at the level of society. At the societal level political principles give rise to “government”.


    • This is precisely what I mean by people putting an ideological spin on the definition of politics. Why is it restricted to the “proper” principles and rules of social interaction? That’s an artificial restriction, the purpose of which is to try to constrain one’s definition of politics to include only that which is good. The efforts of certain people in Rwanda to (successfully) foment a genocide can hardly be said to be “proper principles and rules of social interaction,” but those efforts were political nonetheless.


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