Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma swooped in on the National Science Foundation budget, offering an amendment that would ban the organization from “wasting any federal research funding on political-science projects.” The assumption that the money was better spent on “real science,” seemed to cause the entire quarrelsome field of political scientists to rise as one in righteous opposition.
Querulous academics often are their own worst enemies in these funding battles. They quickly wax hysterical, unaware that platitudes about supporting “free inquiry” do not cut much with the general public. Should NSF be spending $188,206 to support a study of “candidate ambiguity and voter choice,” designed to ascertain how politicians benefit from being vague?
Still, the political scientists have a point. The program has been going since the early 1960s, and the dollar amounts have always been relatively small—the money for political science projects have amounted to $112 million over a 10-year period, compared to NSF’s budget request for 2010 of more than $7 billion. While it is true that, as one of Mr. Coburn’s aides wisecracked to the Washington Times, “professors across America will hardly be thrown on the streets with only their tweed jackets to keep them warm,” the tininess of the dollar amounts cuts both ways and suggests that budget hawks may be wasting their time.
There are other reasons to think that this battle may be ill-chosen. The very program under fire supported the work of Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize in economics this year for her work advancing the role of free institutions, rather than governments, in managing natural resources—an analysis Mr. Coburn might find valuable.
Yet there is a deeper question raised by this quarrel, and that is the Faustian bargain by which the study of politics is joined to “science.” As Indiana political scientist Jeffrey C. Isaac has observed: “We political scientists can and should do a better job of making the public relevance of our work clearer and of doing more relevant work.”
True enough. And Mr. Isaac might have added that political science could benefit from embracing “science” less intently and instead seek to recover its identity as a discipline rooted in canonical works, such as Aristotle’s “Politics,” that combine empirical observation with moral and philosophical reflection.
Modern political “science,” however, beginning with such figures as Machiavelli and Hobbes, set out to make the subject of politics more “scientific” precisely by freeing it from its moorings in moral philosophy and abandoning such formative goals as the cultivation of moral virtue in the citizenry. Instead, it focused on the value-neutral, quantitative study of observable political behavior. The definition of politics offered in 1953 by University of Chicago political scientist David Easton—”the behaviors or set of interactions through which authoritative allocations (or binding decisions) are made and implemented for a society”—can be taken to typify the behavioralist, functionalist and “scientistic” outlook that came to dominate American political science for most of the 20th century. That dominance reached a pinnacle of sorts in the “rational choice” approach, which exceeds all its predecessors in setting the production of precise (and experimentally testable) mathematical models for political behavior as the only goal worthy of political science.
That a higher status is routinely accorded to the “harder” sciences is nothing new in American history. Alexis de Tocqueville claimed in 1840 that Americans were “addicted” to “practical science” while indifferent to any “theoretical science” that could not promise a concrete payoff. The historian Daniel Boorstin went even further in 1953, asserting that the U.S. was “one of the most spectacularly lopsided cultures in all of history” because the amazing vitality of its political institutions was equaled by “the amazing poverty and inarticulateness of [its] theorizing about politics.” Boorstin seemed to think that this unreflectiveness was a virtue, a built-in protection against such revolutionary ideologies as Nazism and communism.
Perhaps so, but in putting it this way Boorstin was selling short the very American political tradition whose principles have underwritten the nation’s political vitality and longevity. True, it is not a tradition upheld by massive tomes. In fact, it more closely resembles a patchwork of occasional pieces, composed in response to particular circumstances—Tom Paine’s “Common Sense,” the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” The Federalist Papers, the writings of John C. Calhoun, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and much more. Most were produced in the white heat of political exigency; none was the product of systematic and detached reflection on a par with the great treatises of European political thought. It is a rich tradition of reflection and intelligent debate on certain recurrent themes, a political midrash devoted to the endless reconsideration of such matters as sovereignty, the separation and division of powers, the meaning of federalism, the sources of political authority, the proper place of religion in public life, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals. None of this is reducible to “science” in the National Science Foundation’s sense of the word. Whatever his intentions, Sen. Coburn may be doing political scientists a favor by reminding them of that fact.
—Mr. McClay is a visiting professor at Pepperdine University this year.
Published in the Wall Street Journal: