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Why Don’t Political Philosophers Generate New Ideas For Governance?

May 11, 2010

It’s remarkable how unoriginal most political philosophers are. In a design space that offers a multitude of possibilities, we find a lot of conflict over a handful of shopworn issues. Many purportedly respectable philosophers spend whole careers on adding the tenth decimal place to already existing views. How come there are so few bold philosophers? And how come so many tow the line rather predictably?

The philosopher John Rawls is perhaps the most famous political philosopher of the last century. And yet his most well-known ideas offer nothing new in the way of design. Indeed, they are the most elaborate and sophisticated post-hoc rationalization for the welfare state to date. His philosophy–and all its accoutrements, the “veil” and the “difference principle“–are nothing but an echo of the institutions and policies already put in place in the U.S. and elsewhere (most notably, Sweden, the geographic lodestone for Rawls’s disciples). First came the New Deal, then came a Theory of Justice. Not vice-versa. This is odd to me–he is famous for offering a justification for old models, not for innovation. It’s as if Harvard decided to honor Walter Mossberg over Steve Jobs.

On the other hand, uneducated, illiterate pirates of the 18th and 17th century were better constitutional innovators than any of the philosophers of that period. Why are we, as Nassim Taleb said in an EconTalk, better at acting and doing outside the box, rather than thinking outside of it? Take a look at this list of unsolved problems in philosophy. You’ll notice an absence. Evidently all the hard problems in political philosophy have been answered.

The truth is that academic political philosophy is not about political philosophy. It is about pleasing superiors. Like other academics, political philosophers start out as undergraduates grubbing for grades. Without creative thinking or ingenuity, they are rewarded for how well they can parrot and please their professors, the gatekeepers whose “recommendations” carry more weight than any other item in their grad school application. As a career progresses, the filters of ideological conformity only strengthen, particularly all the worse for political philosophy, since there is no empirical check on its practitioner’s biases. Why propose an idea that might undermine your career? Better to discuss footnote 124 in the Theory of Justice. Like the cops in the Wire, your overwhelming concern is the chain of command. Instead of generating ideas about how to design better political systems that people may actually want to live in, you live year after year in peer review servility, obtaining credentialist pats on the head.

Writing on Elena Kagan’s SCOTUS nomination, David Brooks similarly laments:

About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.

If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged. As one admissions director told me at the time, they were prudential rather than poetic…

I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.

Universities are uni-bot replicators, even more so at their highest levels. Political philosophers write and think to gain membership in an institution, not to design government rule-sets that people want to live under. Academic political philosophy is so useless because it rarely creates something people want. Which is why we should expect a market in governance to provide more innovation, more bold and new ideas in governance, than any university department could. Markets are good at giving people what they want–a thought philosophers by nature will all recoil at. But so much the worse for them!

HT IOZ

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14 Comments
  1. October 5, 2010 1:54 am

    I might suggest: http://www.cascadianow.org

    It shows exactly the thoughts that you often find lacking

  2. May 16, 2010 3:24 am

    I hadn’t heard of any connection between Rawls & Sweden before. Are you just generalizing from standard proggle admiration for Sweden?

  3. Brad Taylor permalink*
    May 15, 2010 11:19 am

    I agree that most professional political philosophers don’t contribute very much in terms of practical outcomes. Mostly, they’re just doing regular philosophy which happens do deal with political concepts like authority and freedom. It’s a bit unfair to criticize them for doing something they’re not trying to do.

    Also, I think you overplay the relative success of practical rule-makers versus academics in coming up with interesting ideas. Sure, illiterate pirates found creative ways to solve their problems, but thinking about systems to govern interaction at a larger scale is a much harder problem. It’s true that political philosophers proper haven’t done much to help on that front, but there has been some great political philosophy done by social scientists with more practical value. The work of Hayek, Buchanan, D. Friedman, and E. Ostrom springs to mind here.

    Don’t get me wrong: I think innovation needs to take place in a market for governance, but the ideas of ivory tower types will be important as well.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      May 16, 2010 4:25 am

      Brad, all good points. I was deliberately trying to be provocative and so played a little too fast and loose. However, if we define “academic political philosophy” as only referring to professors in philosophy departments, their published work, and its wider influence, I’ll stand by my criticisms.

      The admirable social scientists you mention would not count as “political philosophers” by my definition. Even tho I agree with you that their contributions to real political philosophy is of the first rank.

      The main point I want to make is that the institutions of academic political philosophy are not geared towards truth-seeking. The incentives of the profession push and pull in other directions, unfortunately.

  4. May 13, 2010 2:28 am

    David Brooks said that!? Based everything I’ve ever heard from him, I’d have assumed that was a description of him: a conventional, boring, kiss ass.

  5. Jayson Virissimo permalink
    May 12, 2010 2:58 am

    Most of political philosophy seems to be misguided. It is basically an attempt to justify the state even though it violates basic conventional rules against torts like murder and theft. That round peg is simply never going to fit in the square hole.

    Imagine if instead of trying to find ways to cure diseases or lessen their effects, doctors were trying to justify them. This seems to be what is happening in political philosophy.

  6. thepassingofdays permalink
    May 11, 2010 9:20 pm

    “The truth is that academic political philosophy is not about political philosophy. It is about pleasing superiors. Like other academics, political philosophers start out as undergraduates grubbing for grades. Without creative thinking or ingenuity, they are rewarded for how well they can parrot and please their professors, the gatekeepers whose “recommendations” carry more weight than any other item in their grad school application. As a career progresses, the filters of ideological conformity only strengthen, particularly all the worse for political philosophy, since there is no empirical check on its practitioner’s biases. Why propose an idea that might undermine your career? Better to discuss footnote 124 in the Theory of Justice. ”

    Sounds like you’re just bitter about not being good enough for academia.

    • May 11, 2010 9:24 pm

      Not “good” enough, eh?

      • Jamiemc permalink
        October 2, 2010 8:37 pm

        It really does sound like that, regardless of how true it is. It sounds like he is objecting to scholarly work, like examining footnotes and sources. That’s what some people call intellectual discipline. Those people are academics. That’s a feature, not a bug. That’s what it is. You read a bunch of stuff, do research (or simply think and analyze), and situate your findings against the stuff you read. That’s the job.

        The post directly claims that this work is bullshit and it’d be better if we spent our time sitting around trying to conjure up controversial ideas. That’s what the internet is for. Enjoy the blog.

        I don’t know the author is, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he was in the academy. Academics can be cranky and absurd as well as laypeople. It’s possible that political philosophy in the academy is, in fact, moribound. I have no idea, as I’m not a professional political philosopher. But this is an argument against intellectualism altogether.

        Without that attention to detail, how do you even know if your controversial idea is even new? It’s really, really hard to think of a new idea. That’s why you immerse yourself in what’s been said. Sorry if it’s boring for you.

        This is a common trope in libertarian leaning folks, and it’s lazy and silly. There are certainly problem with the way we’ve defined academia in this country, but this isn’t an argument that’s useful. And lord almighty, if you want to get tenure, the best thing you can do is publish something controversial. Journals love it because then they get cited a lot when people respond, even if it’s bashing. Then you can respond to the responders and so forth and so on.

        Participating in conversation is how you are evaluated in academia. If you can piss people off, you can generate a bunch of formal, documented, peer reviewed or editor solicited chunks of participation, and then you can get a bigger office, or at least a nice new desk chair.

    • Drew P. Sachs permalink
      May 15, 2010 10:09 pm

      TPOD, If a cheap personal attack is the best argument you can come up with in defense of academic political philosophy, then why should anyone even care if they’re “Good enough” (by academia’s own standards, of course) for academia?

  7. May 11, 2010 6:31 pm

    This may sound cynical, but politics — as opposed to economics — is fundamentally about us/them distinctions. Politics is how we make decisions as a group when consistent ideological bases for decisionmaking cannot be reconciled. We must then fall back on reciprocity norms and more basic likes and dislikes of others personal characteristics, forming and breaking coalitions over time in order to foster or choke off social orderings that we find amicable or unhappy, respectively.

    Thus, at bottom the most successful political theories — if success is judged by number of adherents — must provide for (even appeal to) the lowest common denominator of ideology and instinct. More might have been more morally coherent, but even he recognized utopia on earth as a dream, and not a pragmatic one. Rawls has been elevated because his attention was focused on social causes that have consistently attracted sympathy over the ages. Nobody likes to see widows and orphans suffer.

    All that said I am in favor of more diversity of thought within academic institutions, and don’t see the current set of institutions as optimal in that regard. Care must be taken to ensure that any transition to a new equilibrium does not wash out the things we all like about the current set of institutions, however. And I don’t know that untrammeled competition is necessarily the best way to catalyze that transition.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      May 11, 2010 10:26 pm

      Very sensible. Definitely not cynical.

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