NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
Student Involvement in Political Change
Jason Sorens, 4 May 2005, Whittier College
Thank you for having me to your Pi Sigma Alpha induction dinner. I've been asked to speak on the topic of student involvement in political change. What I want to investigate here is whether and how the study of political science relates to the practice of politics.
Is the study of politics a science at all? The proposition that "political science" is a coherent and meaningful concept grows less controversial by the year, but it meets challenge in some quarters yet. The argument seems to be that politics involves mostly or solely practical knowledge, and does not follow general laws.
Following the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, we could make a distinction between two types of knowledge: propositional and non-propositional. Oakeshott called propositional knowledge "technical," and non-propositional knowledge "practical." Practical knowledge cannot be learnt from a book; it is something one can acquire only through experience. For example, one could learn the proper techniques for skiing from a book, and one would then enjoy technical knowledge of skiing, but all the technical knowledge in the world won't make one a champion skier. One has to actually ski, and learn through experience the un-stated and un-stateable knowledge that comes from practice. In the same way, just studying political science cannot make one a great political activist; there is a certain knowledge of "how to do politics" that comes only through experience.
Since science means nothing more than "knowledge," it is obvious that there are also two kinds of science, which depend upon each other. Oakeshott believed that the key error of modern social science was "rationalism," that is, reducing all science to technical knowledge and ignoring practical knowledge. While Oakeshott was correct and ingenious to point out the importance of practical knowledge, he was incorrect to argue that technical knowledge cannot be separated from practical knowledge of the object of attention. I'll demonstrate this by means of another example.
The automobile engineer designs automobiles, drawing on a wealth of technical knowledge. The successful specification of how an automobile should be constructed does not require any prior experience in driving, or any prior experience in manufacturing a car. Certainly, there is a great deal of practical knowledge involved in the actual manufacture of a car that factory floor workers learn on the job. But the engineer needs no experience on the factory floor to be able to design a car flawlessly. The technical knowledge of automobile manufacture can be divorced completely from the practical knowledge of automobile manufacture.
In the same way, political science can be viewed as a kind of political engineering. One need have no experience in politics to be a good political scientist, although it may help. Now, certainly, there is practical knowledge involved with the political science research process, just as there is practical knowledge involved with the automobile engineering process. But the practical science of doing political science is a science of doing science, not a science of doing politics.
Thus, we can have a science of politics in propositional formpolitical science. The goal of political science is ultimately to develop the knowledge that allows us to design or engineer public policies and political institutions to serve the ends in which we are interested. You are students of political science. Through your study, today you have a better idea of the types of institutions that tend to yield the outcomes you value than you did before you began your study of political science.
Political science doesn't tell us the ends we should value. To know the proper ends of politics, we need to study first moral philosophy, then disciplines such as economics, social psychology, and sociology. Moral philosophy gives us a good idea of the obligations we have toward other human beings, including both the rights that others have and the values that would prevail in a good society. Once we know the proper ends of politics, economics and the other social sciences tell us what sorts of public policies tend to support those ends. Political science, finally, tells us the kinds of political institutions and patterns of behavior that tend to yield the right policies.
Political science is a relatively mature discipline, in the sense that it tempers idealism and respects complexity. Studying political science can be a bit dangerous for undergraduates. Dangerous not because it gives one wild ideas, but because it tends to discourage wild ideas. My view is that undergraduates should let their minds run riot with idealism. Take the theories you support and run with them to their logical conclusions. Stand on principle; be a radical. There must be a time in your life to do that, and if you haven't done it yet, you'd better get started. Later in life, you're liable to turn into a cynic if you don't have a firm grasp of the Ideal, both for yourself and for your wider society.
Some of the findings of political science seem tailor-made for cynicism. We know that most voters choose their positions on an issue based on the political party to which they belong, not the other way around. We know that most voters are deeply ignorant of politics. Centrist independents the people who determine the results of most elections in the U.S. are woefully uninformed and usually cast their vote on arbitrary, irrelevant, or inconsistent criteria. The relatively informed part of the population is little better, as a whole tending toward extreme, knee-jerk partisanship. Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I say that the reason I decided to study and observe politics is the same reason that people like to watch coverage of tsunamis and train wrecksmorbid fascination.
But of course, I'm actually at least half-joking when I say that. To my mind, the reason to study political science is to find out ways to limit the damage of politics. We have no alternative but to develop a sophisticated political science as quickly as we can. We need to know whether federalism or a constitutional right of secession can stop or prevent bloody ethnic conflict. We need to know whether proportional representation makes governments more representative and less likely to violate the rights of citizens. We need to know whether the European Union will assure economic prosperity or economic sclerosis. These are all valid topics of controversy, and every informed student of political science has a right to participate in the conversation.
Political science does temper some of our naÃ¯Â¶Â¥ assumptions, but in doing so it simply provides further ground to explore, to let the mind run. If you're a free-marketeer, political science tells you that rapid, radical privatizations cause an ideological backlash. So how do you craft privatization to appeal to people who would otherwise oppose it? If you're a socialist, political science tells you that if you tax capital too much, it will flee to another country or simply stop investing. So how do you fund new social programs while assuring continued investment and growth?
Political science poses provocative questions, but in answering them, I'd encourage you not to lose sight of the end goal. Don't let the politics of the day get in the way of idealism; don't let it limit your view of what might be possible. The fact that an idea is unpopular or weak today does not mean that it will be tomorrow. Political scientists tend to disparage the radicals and the idealists, to downplay the contributions of a William Lloyd Garrison or a Patrick Henry while lionizing the so-called "realists" like Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton. But it's the idealists who have always pushed the debate forward, who have eventually made fence-sitting so intolerable that the moderates have been forced to act.
There is a related fallacy among some political scientists, that to be a good scientist one should not be a practitioner. While I have defended the view that one can be a good scientist without being a practitioner, the two are by no means incompatible and are more often complementary. I'll just use an example from my own life, simply because it's the one I know best. In graduate school, my research focused on movements for secession or autonomy in advanced democracies, such as the movements to separate Quebec from Canada and Scotland from the U.K. One of my findings was that almost all advanced democracies, even ones without secessionist movements, are decentralizing, sending more powers back to their regional governments. In the U.S., the historical trend has been in the reverse, with more central consolidation over time, but if these findings hold true, that trend may reverse in the U.S. as well. Because of my research, I thought it would be exciting to found an organization dedicated to finding the best state in the country for people supporting the libertarian philosophy to live with the idea that if many libertarians move there over time and become politically active, they will help create a very distinctive political environment in one state. Thus was the Free State Project born, and today we have over 6500 people committed to moving to the state we eventually selected, New Hampshire. It's an idealistic and ambitious movement to be sure, but I think it has a real chance of making a difference, and it's an example of how the study of political science and political activism are more complementary than contradictory.
My congratulations to those of you who have earned induction into Pi Sigma Alpha tonight, and I offer you hearty best wishes on your lifelong intellectual and practical journey. Thank you.