Political Scientists Bow to the Laws of Nature

After some hesitation, the American Political Science Association (APSA) has cancelled its annual four-day, pre-Labor Day convention, with Hurricane Isaac bearing down on its New Orleans venue. Even proud contemporary political science must eventually submit to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” in practice, while remaining resistant in theory.

Causing consternation for several days, the APSA, which was founded in New Orleans in 1903, had wanted to defy the laws of nature and proceed to meet in the city of its makers. (To be fair, several hundred convention participants, of the 6000 or so anticipated, were already in New Orleans prior to the long-scheduled Thursday, August 30 formal opening.)

Musing on a catastrophe of Katrina proportions, one person involved in organizing the Annual Meeting joked about a political science version of “Hunger Games.” However satisfying the vision of political scientists spearing each other might be (after making rational choice calculations), the APSA finally acknowledged the sovereignty of the laws of nature and likely averted disaster.

But the confrontation with brute nature brings attention to how political science scholarship set out to manipulate human nature.  The first two decades of the APSA produce shocking examples of open assault on the American founding and the Declaration of Independence in particular.  The APSA’s first presidents sought counterrevolution against the natural rights and the limited government that flows from them.

The first President of the APSA, Frank Goodnow (1903-05), made clear his basic distinction between the real world and the speculative one. Political science should study the real world of the state and its activities, not mere thought about the state.  And thus he contrasts the work of the political scientist with that of the “mere political philosopher.”  It is not an exaggeration to say that the ultimate purpose of the APSA is to marginalize and destroy political philosophy, including the political philosophy of the founders, as a legitimate part of political science.

This attempted eradication of political philosophy becomes even clearer in the Presidential Address of W.W. Willougby (1912-13), in which he wildly asserts, among many dubious statements, that the Greek and Oriental views of an oppressive relationship between the state and the individual are essentially the same. Thus he cannot even make the elementary distinction between Greek and barbarian. All this comes to a head in Willoughby’s Hegelian “acceptance of the socialist’s general theory that it is the proper province of the state to do whatever it can to secure the true interests of its people, unrestrained by an a priori limitations growing out of the essential nature of political philosophy.”

This means that a civilized politics must reject natural rights (“a priori limitations”) such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.   It gets worse. In advocating a “scientific” understanding of politics, the distinguished University of Chicago political scientist, civic activist, and APSA President (1924-25) Charles Merriam rejects archaic concepts such as natural rights and natural law. Justice and liberty are mere creations of the state, which has the duty of bringing about “the apotheosis of man.” But because human equality is a self-evident lie, the Teutonic races have the duty of civilizing mankind and, if necessary, wiping out the barbaric races. In this view, which would of course have terrifying consequences, there is no single human nature.

Although sophisticated political scientists agree that the natural rights, limited-government standards of the Declaration of Independence are antiquated, Merriam continues, they unfortunately still seem to have a hold on the American people.  Progressive scholarship has much work to do! Merriam spoke in his APSA Presidential Address of  a “freer spirit” who will “go on to the reconstruction of ‘the purely political’ into a more intelligent influence on the progress of the race toward conscious control over its own evolution.”  This “freer spirit” is the divinization or “apotheosis of man” he had promoted in his earlier writings.

Merriam’s immediate successor as APSA President, Charles Beard (1925-26), was of course notorious for his view that the founders devised the Constitution to protect and advance their economic interests and that it represented a reaction to the humane Declaration: democratic and fraternal Declaration, oligarchic and commercial Constitution.  Yet this gesture toward the Declaration only masks its use as an instrument to attack America, a technique quite familiar from the books of Barack Obama, among other contemporary intellectuals.

But the most successful blending of the theory and practice of Progressive political science is Woodrow Wilson, the only man to be both President of the APSA (1909-10) and of the United States. He became the first American President to attack the founding.  Evolutionary Darwinian science should replace the old Newtonian premises that required the separation of powers. Nature is in flux. A renewed Constitution would enable active governments to attack corporations and other special interests and transform America into “a perfected, coordinated beehive.”  Politics, for Wilson, embraced both the “statesmanship of thinking and the statesmanship of action.” It had no use for documents or doctrines that limited the power of intellectuals to transform the country.

Following the lead of its Progressive founders, the political science profession has indeed marginalized the study of political philosophy. Yet in recent decades the study of political philosophy and therewith of natural law, natural rights, and American political principles has made a comeback. At the APSA itself “non-affiliated groups” like the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and the Voegelin Institute are permitted to host numerous and heavily attended panels that feature political philosophy in its rich and varied splendor. It would seem that the “laws of nature of nature’s God” have an enduring significance lost on the founders of the APSA.

Ken Masugi is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He teaches in graduate programs in political science for Johns Hopkins University and for the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University. He has edited Interpreting Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, co-edited The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science, and co-authored and co-edited several other books on American politics and political thought. In addition, he has worked ten years in the federal government as a speechwriter and on policy issues, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was a special assistant to Chairman Clarence Thomas, and the Departments of Justice and Labor.

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