Monday, July 19, 2010

Political Science 101: Keeping it Simple, Part 1

Political science is not just political tactics or political organization. It is also about getting things done that are in the national interest. It is about governing a humane, productive, and relatively stable society. If you don't share that point of view, don't bother reading further.

Two things ought to be abundantly clear: any "science" that deals with human beings is not yet very well advanced and whatever institutions we have, or think we have, are not nearly ideal. We need to do some critical thinking, particularly, about the necessary compromises. First of all, we need to identify and define these compromises. In addition, We shall need to be objective and pragmatic about what we already know, or think we know. This is not an attempt to create yet another wacky ideological cult. Ideology can constrain thought to the point of egregious stupidity.

There are many wacky ideologies and some of them are widely held. I'll name just two of the less bizarre examples. One of them is the notion that the human species is the product of "intelligent design." Just open your eyes and see our world as it is.

Another one is based upon the confusion between free, meaning unregulated, markets and fair markets. It is true that "free" and "fair" are both four letter words beginning with "f", but we know that words fitting that description can have widely divergent meanings. The belief that the invisible hand of unregulated markets can produce beneficial economic and social consequences is a wacky triumph of deceit and delusion over bitter experience. As Thomas Hobbes wrote, the lives of men unregulated by law are likely to be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Well, what do we know fairly reliably about most human beings?


I first heard this important principle about half a century ago from an MIT professor of engineering. I do not claim the truth of this assertion solely upon his authority; I have had about 50 years in which to evaluate it, based upon my own experience and that of others.

There is nothing mysterious about this. We are all the descendants of individuals who survived, reproduced, and evolved under the competitive rigors of natural selection and sexual selection during the roughly 200 million years of mammalian life. Pain and pleasure seem to have been the primary psychological driving forces during this period and we are immersed in them today. This shows up very clearly in the competition among teenagers for status in their groups by bullying and by setting up pecking orders. It also shows up clearly in the considerable prevalence of crime and in addictive sexual behavior and in drug addiction.

Obviously, the human psyche, left to its own devices, is not yet ready for prime time as a social entity. There is a clear contradiction between the needs of society and the innate needs of the individual. This is the salient point at which compromise is necessary.

Cultural evolution moves at a faster pace than biological evolution but, recently, technology has outpaced culture. Technology today is not what it was during my formative years. Therefore, we have yet another disconnect: we are reasonably well equipped for a tribal society of hunter-gatherers but, individually and culturally, not nearly so well adapted to a technologically modern and dynamic society.

Until we learn to engineer better people, our principal sociopolitical tools will have to be law, cultural engineering, and education. The principal use of these tools needs to be to develop personal motivations that more closely parallel what is socially desirable than is the case today. We have a long way to go.

Part 2 will address what seem to be some necessary compromises and massive political obstacles to achieving beneficial changes.