In The Federalist No. 51, James Madison develops a political analogue to the way Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” in the market channels self-interest to promote the public good. Akin to Smith, Madison argues that the structure of political institutions in separation-of-power systems channel ambition and self interest so that they reduce the risk of tyranny rather than promote it: But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. . . . Ambition…
The first problem with the phrase “political science” is that “science” is a god-term in the U.S. Perhaps not as much as it was in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but many folks still hear “science” and think it’s a claim to a settled body of True Knowledge. (This is the regrettable way science is still often taught to students in elementary school and above; that, or as a cook-book approach to investigating the physical world, which is almost as sad.) Plus natural scientists and engineers held extremely high standing in the U.S. from the late 19th Century through most of the 20th century. So in choosing to name the discipline “political science” over a century ago, disciplinary scholars were no doubt aiming to crib some of the divine aura of “Science!” for themselves.
Further, during this time, “Science!” was tied up with the Whig narrative of ever-increasing Progress, human achievement, and human liberty; with the expectation of extending human control over the very forces of nature itself. “Social science” and “political science” aspired to share in this scientistic teleology, with disciplines purporting to develop scientific expertise regarding the human subject with the goal of improving (and controlling) human life and humanity itself.
We tend to forget how much pull terming something as “Science!” had during this period. Indeed, one of the real pulls of Marxism for American intellectuals in the first half of the 20th Century, as the Coen Brothers’ recent movie, Hail Caesar, hilariously reminds, was its claim to be a scientific theory.
Volume 2 of historian John Ashworth’s discussion in Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic touches on a shift in Americans’ views toward wage labor. This shift anticipated the rise of the Republican Party’s “free labor” ideology, and then continued to develop concurrent with it. Prior to this shift, Americans widely viewed wage labor as invested with little dignity, as scarcely preferable than indentured service. If one worked for wages, respectability required that one aim to work out of this form of employment, saving toward property ownership or work as an independent artisan. Only those who couldn’t or wouldn’t move out of wage labor remained in that condition permanently. Lifelong wage labor was for losers.
We usually assume that legislators write laws to be understood. But cases exist in which legislators write less clearly rather than more clearly. Well known and often discussed are the whys and wherefores of legislative delegation to executive agencies. Without intending a comprehensive list, here are a couple of other reasons why legislators write more ambiguously rather than less.
The Pew Research Center reports median net wealth in 2013 of households headed by African Americans was less than a tenth of net wealth of households headed by whites; $11,200 for black households and $144,200 for white households. This difference exists even when controlling for education and other demographic characteristics. The impact extends inter-generationally, with reduced opportunities for children and grandchildren in African-American families because of limited assets, and the implication that today’s racial disparities will continue into the future.
Wages for American working men got a double whammy during the last fifty years. First, starting in the late 1960s, American women entered the paid workforce as never before. This added significantly to the supply of labor in the American workforce. Secondly, just as the American labor market had started to move beyond the economic shock of increased entry of women into the workforce, the uptick in globalization – easier mobility of capital and labor across national borders – effectively increased the supply of labor competing with U.S. workers a second time. Many of these workers were willing to work for wages significantly below wages for American workers. There are other causes as well, but these factors certainly contributed to stagnating wages for working men in the U.S. over the last 50 years.
But this is not simply a story of loss; there are tradeoffs.
James Madison famously sketched an invisible-hand theory of institutional competition in The Federalist No. 51.
In games of “chicken”—canonically, two teen boys drive their cars toward one another at breakneck speed, the one who swerves is “chicken” (and if neither swerves, then both lose and it’s small consolation to either that neither is “chicken”)—there are two ways to make the other guy swerve. One is a commitment mechanism: Tie down the steering wheel so it won’t swerve, jam the accelerator full down with a broom stick, and jump into the back seat. The second is to have the reputation of being crazy, as in being crazy enough not to swerve.
Acting crazy gets less respect than it should as a winning strategy in politics and other areas. North Korean dictators are given a wide berth in international affairs because the international community thinks they’re crazy. Overseas, George W. Bush was widely decried as a crazy belligerent. I often wondered whether he invited the reputation intentionally.
I met the late Michael Novak as the lone Protestant attending the first Tertio Millennio Seminar. The first year it was a month-long seminar held in Liechtenstein. The basic form continues today, with around ten U.S. students joining around twenty European students. The European students that first year were mainly eastern Europeans; it was just a few years after the wall fell. Joining Novak in organizing the first seminar were George Weigel, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Rocco Buttiglione, and Fr. Maciej Zieba, OP.
The centerpiece of the seminar was focused study of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus and, more broadly, Catholic social doctrine and teaching. Several American works were included at the time as well, including a couple of essays from The Federalist and a few selections from Novak’s book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.
The Chronicle of Higher Education published the speech Kevin Birmingham delivered last October upon receiving the Truman Capote Award for his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. In his speech, Birmingham decried the widespread employment of adjunct faculty members, particularly in the humanities, as “exploitation” and “injustice.”