judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view

  1. Judgment or practical reason (i.e., deciding what is right to do) means forming beliefs about facts, values, and strategies. It is sometimes worth trying to isolate the factual beliefs in order to test them empirically. But no claims are purely empirical, and the goal of distinguishing facts, values, and strategies is ultimately misplaced. (See right and true are deeply connected.)
  2. Individuals hold many opinions at once, and often some of our opinions are connected logically, causally, or in other ways. This means that we have structures of opinions. The form of our structures matters as well as their content. For instance, a structure can be too scattered or too centralized. These structures are better modeled as networks than as foundations plus superstructures. Only some networks of beliefs have nodes that function like foundations. (See an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory.)
  3. Individuals develop their opinions in constant interaction with other human beings, living or dead. We start with no explicit views of the social world and borrow most of what we think from other people. Whenever a person influences us, that reflects a link in a social network. And those who influence have their own networks of opinions that are linked by logic, causality, or in other ways. Therefore, developing judgments is a matter of participation in a network of people and their networked ideas. (See what makes conversation go well: a network model.)
  4. A culture is a name for a cluster of individuals with overlapping networks of ideas. It is a useful simplification for a world in which each individual at each moment has different ideas from the same individual at another time and from all other individuals. Some cultures hold foundational beliefs about some questions (e.g, monotheism is a foundational belief in a monotheistic culture); but in general, it is misleading to define a culture in terms of its foundations. (See everyone unique, all connected.)
  5. Often, we must judge institutions as opposed to concrete acts. (See Moral Foundations theory and political processes). For instance, we may need to assess the United States or marriage rather than an individual statement or action. Institutions also generate the material for our judgments, including most of what we take to be facts. (See decoding institutions.) Institutions exhibit patterns that are not intended or designed. (See the New Institutionalism.)
  6. Institutions are not best modeled as networks of individuals, because they have salient features–such as rules, incentives, and boundaries–that are not like nodes and links. (See a template for analyzing an institution.)
  7. The whole system of networked individuals, networked beliefs, and institutions is dynamic, not static. Individuals develop over their lives; institutions are founded, decay, and change; social networks form and shift; and networks of ideas change. (cf. Dewey’s pragmatism.)
  8. Power operates at all points in this system: e.g., when one individual influences another, when one person is put in contact with or separated from another person, when an institution is designed, and when its norms change. (See decoding institutions.) Power is not intrinsically bad; it just means that A can affect B. But some power is bad, and power shapes the materials of judgment.
  9. Liberty is a genuine value (see six types of freedom), but it should not be understood as freedom from others’ power or a right of epistemically free individuals to act according to their own judgments. Our judgments are formed by the communities we belong to (see the truth in Hayek).
  10. There are better and worse individuals, ideas, judgments, and institutions, but telling the difference between better and worse is a deeply social and iterative process. (See structured moral pluralism [a proposal].)
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talking about gerrymandering and political reform on WCAI (Cape Cod and Islands)

I was on Mindy Todd’s show The Point yesterday, for a program on “Strengthening our Representative Democracy.” The other two guests were David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy,” and Judy Zaunbrecher, co-president of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters. The audio is here. If you start at 42:00, you can hear Mindy ask Judy whether Massachusetts has been gerrymandered; Judy accurately summarizes the research by my colleagues at Tisch College. (Spoiler alert: not really, although it would still be better to use a nonpartisan districting commission.) I join shortly after that to discuss why our state government is so dominated by white men.

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two important opportunities through APSA

The American Political Science Association’s Research Partnerships on Critical Issues program offers up to $20,000 for “proposals aimed at developing research-based projects that bring academics and practitioners together to tackle critical issues concerning citizens across the globe.” The first one, issued last year, was for a Congressional Reform Task Force that worked closely with Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. However, APSA is interested in a wide range of partnerships. A strong proposal might have nothing to do with the federal government or, indeed, American politics.

Also, please nominate people for the APSA Distinguished Award for Civic and Community Engagement. “This award honors significant civic or community engagement activity by a political scientist, alone or in collaboration with others, which explicitly merges knowledge and practice and goes beyond research to have an impact outside of the profession or the academy.”

These are both fruits of the APSA Task Force on New Partnerships.

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discuss impeachment in high school–but not only impeachment

As impeachment dominates the headlines, many social studies teachers are assigning it as a topic of discussion and analysis in their classrooms. That is appropriate. Since students and their families are already discussing impeachment, it is a great “hook” for teaching about the US Constitution and the media.

Students should learn how to analyze the issues of the day, and impeachment is a leading current example. If young people learn to make sense of impeachment—to understand the rules and institutions, select reliable news sources, and assess diverse opinions—they will be able to process current events for years to come.

The impeachment debate is also an opportunity for discussion in classrooms. A moderated conversation can model respect for facts and alternative views much better than the polarized and often superficial debates in the national media. As such, it can impart skills and values that are in scarce supply today.

On the other hand, the immense attention given to impeachment reflects deficits in our civic life. Although impeachment may be one good topic of discussion in a social studies classroom, it should not be allowed to dominate or convey the impression that all politics is like impeachment.

Many Americans perceive politics as being a struggle between powerful politicians in Washington, DC. Impeachment is a perfect example of this kind of politics.

Local and state-level journalism is near collapse; about half as many people work in newspaper newsrooms today as in 2008. But the national news media still draws huge audiences, particularly for commentary on national issues. Impeachment is just the kind of issue that plays best on cable news.

Americans identify strongly with political parties and often seem to act like fans of one party against the other. Impeachment is polarized on partisan lines, with almost all Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

National political leaders increasingly resemble celebrities—none more so than the current president, who was a celebrity for forty years before he ran for office. He is at the heart of the impeachment case.

Finally, the issues that draw the most attention are often the ones that give ordinary citizens the least to do. Impeachment is basically a matter for 535 members of Congress and the President and his staff. For everyone else, impeachment might be one factor that influences their vote in 2020, but most voters have already made up their minds for or against Donald Trump.

My Tufts political science colleague Eitan Hersh describes “political hobbyism” as “consuming and participating in politics by obsessive news-following …,  by feeling the need to offer a hot take for each daily political flare-up, by emoting and arguing and debating.” He cites survey evidence that political hobbyism is extremely common, consuming two hours of every day for millions of Americans. Impeachment is a perfect issue for political hobbyists: every day’s headlines offer new fodder for opinions and emotions, but there is little actually to do. I would add that political hobbyists love to forecast elections and predict the results of today’s news, not to change the results by organizing. (I know this from personal experience, having some unfortunate hobbyist habits myself.)

The factors that make impeachment the dominant news story today—partisan polarization, a national storyline, celebrities, limited expectations for citizens, and appeal to political hobbyists—also prevent other issues from receiving the attention they deserve.

For example, last week, in the city where I live (Cambridge, MA), a new council was elected. The main issue was affordable housing, which had divided the previous council. This issue matters to students in Cambridge schools. Some come from families that face rising rents and could be forced out of town by gentrification; others could see their families’ wealth diminish if more affordable housing is built. Reasonable people who care about affordable housing disagree about the best solutions. The debate is heated and polarized, although not partisan in a city dominated by Democrats.

Each vote really matters in this local election with 22 candidates and only about 20,000 voters (about 24% of adult citizens). And there are other ways, apart from voting, for residents of all ages to influence the city’s housing stock. People can volunteer to build homes with Habitat for Humanity or bike to work instead of driving to address the parking shortage.

Yet the Cambridge council election received little coverage. No one has published an analysis of the impact of the recent election on the main issue, affordable housing. Even if social studies teachers in Cambridge Public School wanted to focus on the council election and the issues at stake, there would be no professional journalism they could assign as readings.

With these considerations in mind, I would make the following recommendations.

Social studies teachers should address impeachment, if only because teenagers will discuss it anyway, and students should be challenged to apply rigorous thinking and reliable information. But impeachment should not be the only issue they discuss during this academic year. It would be wise also to select other issues that are more local or otherwise offer more for students to do. These issues may also be less polarized or less partisan than impeachment.

While discussing impeachment, teachers should raise not only detailed issues about rules and processes in the US Congress but also broader and deeper questions: What is the rule of law? Why is power separated among branches of government? What does “due process” mean in a criminal trial, and should similar norms apply in impeachment?

An issue that interests me is the role of judgment in politics. Impeachment is not the straightforward application of law, because the Framers intentionally gave Congress the power to decide what should count as a “high crime or misdemeanor.” Cynics would say that if impeachment is not determined by law, then it is simply an exercise of power by partisan politicians, who will demonstrate bias and vote according to their political self-interest. But can responsible politicians exercise judgment (as opposed to bias), and what does that look like?

Impeachment is an opportunity to understand the intentional design of the US Constitution and the principles that undergird it, such as separation of powers. Studying impeachment may therefore increase appreciation for the Constitution. At the same time, an intellectually serious study of impeachment raises critical questions about our founding documents. What should we conclude from the fact that no president has ever been impeached in the House and convicted in the Senate? Or the fact that the last president to be impeached, Bill Clinton, saw his popularity rise and paid no tangible price? Is impeachment useful?

More generally, are checks and balances working now that the parties are fully polarized, with no conservative Southern Democrats or liberal northeastern Republicans ready to vote with the other party? The Framers objected to the very idea of parties and might have expected a polarized two-party system to destroy their design. As the late Juan José Linz of Yale noted, no other system with a separately elected president and legislature has survived when the branches belong to different parties. Are we heading for dysfunction?

Finally, impeachment is a topic for deliberative discussion in classrooms that can impart worthy values and skills. But whether and how it works for deliberation may depend on context.

Given the deep polarization of the American public, students in some classrooms may hold unanimous opinions either for or against impeachment. In those cases, teachers should introduce alternative perspectives through readings and other sources. One goal is to break down stereotypes about the other side in the national debate. Liberal students should understand that not all opponents of impeaching President Trump are his enthusiastic supporters; some have concerns about the process. And conservative students should learn that some proponents of impeachment are conservatives who are concerned about the rule of law.

In other classrooms, opinion may be split, and then it is important to create a context for thoughtful, respectful discussion—deliberation more than debate. As national leaders model point-scoring, name-calling, blatant partisanship and self-interest, selective application of facts and principles, and mutual disrespect, we should expect more from our students.

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new Civic Engagement section for the American Political Science Association

Elizabeth Bennion (Indiana University – South Bend), Richard Davis (Brigham Young University), and I have proposed a new APSA Organized Section on Civic Engagement. It will promote the teaching of and scholarship about civic engagement through sponsorship of civics education and civic research panels and/or short courses.

“The Civic Engagement Section would serve as an institutional home for a diverse, growing and important group of scholars. It would create new opportunities to showcase the best new research at APSA’s annual meeting, promote subfield collaboration, and serve as a focal point for coordinating the various projects being undertaken by civic engagement scholars. Indeed, we welcome scholars working with diverse methodological backgrounds and in diverse institutional settings including research intensive universities, teaching intensive colleges and universities, HBCUs and HSIs, community colleges, and in the nonprofit sector.”

If you are an APSA member, you can sign the petition here. We are on course to have enough signatures for formal review of the proposal, but we still welcome more support, which will strengthen the petition.

If you’re not an APSA member–or a political scientist, or an academic–you may still want to keep an eye out for opportunities to work with the new section.

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an agenda for political reform in Massachusetts

Today at the Boston Foundation, MassINC & Tisch College released our report on reforming state government in Massachusetts.

The major theme is that a small number of people who lack the diversity of our state dominate the process of governance, which includes voting, running for office, assessing problems and possible solutions, consulting stakeholders, and building coalitions.

State government is very powerful because of a lack of county governments and weak home-rule for our cities. Within the legislature, especially in the House, power is strongly concentrated in the leadership.

Strong leadership is not necessarily problematic, and it is typical of large legislative bodies, such as our House. But centralized control is problematic if the leadership lacks diversity. In our case, of the 76 legislators who hold leadership positions, four are people of color.

And centralized control is problematic if people outside the center lack the capacity to play their own important roles in governance In our case, most state representatives employ just one staffer–not enough to play a meaningful role in legislating. The parties are shells, employing very few people. And state and local newspapers are near collapse.

As solutions, we propose:

1. Synchronize state and local elections. Holding local elections in odd years dramatically reduces turnout leading to an electorate that is unrepresentative and vulnerable to influence by special interests. To attract more voters, Massachusetts should follow other cities and states that have moved municipal contests to even years.

2. Provide public funds for candidates and parties. Public financing increases the racial, economic, and gender diversity of those running for office. Massachusetts should join a growing number of cities and states that provide public funding to both candidates and parties.

3. Increase the capacity of the whole legislature to legislate. All legislators should have the capacity to consult with citizens and experts, analyze legislative proposals, develop their own proposals, and build coalitions. Massachusetts should follow the practice of 46 states and create a research office to provide nonpartisan analysis of pending legislation. The Legislature should also provide rank-and-file legislators with more professional staff and ensure that they are adequately compensated.

4. Invest in the press. Concerted effort is needed to find new business models for state and local news. The legislature should act expediently on pending legislation that would establish a commission to examine policy options to ensure that residents in all of our communities have access to quality state and local news.

We also endorse civic education, lowering the voting age, Ranked-Choice Voting, Election Day Registration, and the Citizens Initiative Review.

Read the whole thing here. It can be cited as: Peter Levine, Benjamin Forman & Laurel Bliss, MassForward: Advancing Democratic Innovation and Electoral Reform in Massachusetts (Boston: MassINC, 2019)

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in defense of (some) implicit bias

I hope that if there were an implicit bias test for Nazism, I would demonstrate a strong negative bias. Shown rapid-fire images of swastikas and Nazi leaders, I would be unable to associate them with positive words without strenuous effort. The reason is that I learned a deep aversion to National Socialism, based originally on reasons and evidence. It is now no longer efficient for me to use conscious effort to assess Nazis, their pros and cons. I have rightly translated a very well-founded judgment into a habit, which works like a constructed instinct. That way, I can reserve my limited attention and cognitive capacity for other issues.

In 1970, Charles Fried proposed as a philosophical thought-experiment a situation in which two people are drowning, one of whom happens to be your spouse. It was “absurd,” said Fried, that you should be impartial about which one to save. Fried was developing an argument against pure impartiality. But Bernard Williams famously replied that you shouldn’t even have to think about which person to save. That would be “one thought too many.” If you must reason about whether to save your spouse as opposed to someone else, you do not love your spouse. The problem with having to think in this case is not mere inefficiency (it might slow you down and increase her chance of drowning). It’s more basic than that. You do not have a “deep attachment” to another person unless—here I extend Williams’ argument—you have turned your preference for that person into an acquired instinct. Your ability to act on that instinct instead of reasoning is proof of a process that we call love.

In a really interesting new paper, “Rationalization is Rational,” Fiery Cushman argues that human beings, since we have limited cognitive resources, have evolved several different modes of representing things in our environment: reason and planning, habit, instinct, and norms. These modes require varying amounts of cognitive attention. Cushman also proposes that we have evolved mechanisms for shifting representations from one mode to another for efficiency’s sake. For instance, we intentionally learn the way home and then form a habit of walking home so that we no longer have to think about it. But we can also make a habit conscious and practice until we change it.

Many people are currently worried about two specific “representational exchanges,” in Cushman’s terms. One is rationalization. We think that we are making a conscious and reasoned choice, but we have actually formed an instinctive reaction that we then merely rationalize with explicit words. This phenomenon is widely taken to be evidence of human unreason and inability to deliberate. But Cushman sees it as an efficient process. We can’t go through life assessing everything explicitly, so we develop habits of reacting to categories of things and then justify our reactions when reasons are needed. So long as the learned habit was based on good thinking in the first place, it is an efficiency measure rather than a limitation. In turn, rationalization (giving reasons for something we have already decided) serves a useful purpose: it puts a habit into verbal form so that it can be debated.

The other problem that worries many of us implicit bias, particularly in the form of racial stereotyping. Tests of implicit bias show that various forms are common in the population as a whole.

Implicit bias research sometimes seems to flatten crucial moral differences. A subject might have a 3% bias against African Americans and a 24% bias against Millennials. This does not mean that generational bias is eight times more important, even in this individual’s case. Racism is structural, historical, connected to laws and institutions, and literally deadly. Generational bias is just one of those things we should probably think about. To assess the empirical data about bias, we need judgments about what is just and unjust.

Applying Cushman’s insight, I would go further. An implicit bias is not necessarily bad at all. It is actually a virtue (in the Aristotelian sense) if it reflects a process of reasoning and learning that we have stored as a habit. Being biased against Nazis and in favor of your spouse are virtues. Being biased against people of color is a vice. The difference lies in the content of the judgment, not the form.

It’s true that any bias can mislead. For instance, your appropriate abhorrence of Nazism might distort your views of justice in the current Middle East. Your appropriate bias in favor of your dearly beloved family members might cause you to treat strangers in unjust ways. It is characteristic of virtues that each is insufficient; we need a whole suite of them. And one important task is to bring even our best biases into conversation with other ideas and principles. But it wouldn’t be progress to temper your bias against Nazis or in favor of your spouse. That would just weaken your virtues. Progress means combating bad biases, developing good biases, and combining your good biases with more abstract principles of judgment.

See also: the era of cognitive bias; marginalizing views in a time of polarization; Empathy and Justice; Jonathan Haidt’s six foundations of morality; and don’t confuse bias and judgment (which is incompatible with this post).

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on baseball as an analogy for civics

(DCA) Yesterday at the “Future of Civics” event presented by The Atlantic and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, I got to hear Paul Finkelman present the same argument he had made recently in The Atlantic under the heading, “Baseball is a Civics Education.” 

Baseball, Finkelman says, is “a wonderful example of a functioning legal system, one that teaches the millions of Americans who play or watch it fundamental principles of American law and constitutional theory.”

Finkelman analogizes baseball to law, meaning primarily the judicial process. It was only the headline writer who called baseball a “Civics Education.” That raised the stakes, because civics is about much more than law. Civics is also about partisan politics, social movements, social capital, identities, ideologies, and a range of other issues that look much less like baseball.

Still, I have made analogies between games and politics (why learn game theory?; work and play and civic life). As Finkelman argues, baseball is rule-guided. It channels individual and group competition into an event that serves a larger public; ambition is harnessed for the public good. The rules are explicit but have evolved (informally as well as formally) and are interpreted by human umpires who are trained to be neutral. In addition to explicit rules and penalties, baseball depends on norms.

These are some similarities between baseball and some desirable aspects of politics. On the other hand, politics is not only about who plays better. It’s primarily about ideas, decisions, or policies. To the extent that better play determines the outcome, a political or legal system (unlike a game) is flawed.

In democratic politics and in a jury room, the audience doesn’t just watch; they decide the outcome. And their decision is not about who did a better job, but what about is most true or just. That is a high ideal; in reality, we also decide what will serve our own interests. That is both inevitable and also justifiable, within limits. Politics is an instrument for obtaining the ends we want.

In baseball, the identities of the two teams are sharply defined and are fixed for the duration of the game. In politics, one of the important dynamics is the ability of players to choose and change identities. Baseball is a two-team sport, but even in the dysfunctional partisan duopoly of US partisan politics, there are many more than two teams on the field at a time. And players are constantly changing sides. There is (or should be) no sharp distinction between the audience and the players. Everyone plays. Even apathy has an effect.

Competing baseball teams may be unequal in the sense that one team has better players. But they have the same number of players, opportunities at bat, and other basic resources. In contrast, politics is always unequal, often brutally so. That often makes the game less enjoyable to watch, but nobody designed politics for the audience’s appreciation. It is a manifestation of power.

Most importantly, the stakes are different. Baseball is about who wins. Politics is about who pays or receives, prospers or suffers, lives or dies.

I can see the pedagogical value of analogizing politics and baseball. The sport teaches certain values that are worthy in civic life, such as rule-of-law, fair play, and the value of the opponent. But baseball and other games also differ from politics, and we risk mis-educating people if we drive the analogy too far.

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the Oberlin cultural appropriation controversy, revisited

(Washington, DC) In 2016, I began a blog post:

The Oberlin College Cultural Appropriation Controversy is almost certainly getting more attention than it deserves because it reinforces critiques of political correctness in higher education. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting case to consider the general questions: What is cultural appropriation, and when is it bad?

Some Oberlin students criticized Oberlin’s dining hall’s bánh mì and General Tso’s chicken as cultural appropriations. …

I tried to offer a nuanced response to the general topic of cultural appropriation. Although I see some legitimacy in some critiques of appropriation, I am worried about the stance that cultural products belong to ethno-cultural groups and cannot be borrowed. I find that view empirically untenable, because culture is always borrowed and shared. And I can think of unsavory examples–like Richard Wagner’s decrying classical music composed by European Jews, partly on the ground that music belonged to Germans and not Jews. I start with enthusiasm for a global cultural commons and opposition to all forms of “enclosure.”

However, we now know that I shouldn’t have been writing about the Oberlin episode at all. No Oberlin students organized to criticize the campus food on political grounds. Instead, the college newspaper asked some individuals their opinions of the college bánh mì and sushi. A majority of those interviewed thought these dishes were poor examples of their genres. The bánh mì was made with ciabatta, and the “chicken sushi” wasn’t sushi at all. It’s not clear that even the individuals who were quoted had political or ethical objections to the food. And even if they did, they were responding to a question. There was no student movement against cultural appropriation.

This story fit some people’s prior assumptions and went viral without being fact-checked. In this case, it was about allegedly spoiled PC students on a liberal campus, but we are all subject to being fooled by virally contagious anecdotes. This phenomenon can happen accidentally, but it can also be made to happen by people with nefarious motives. An example is the shadowy Twitter account that “posted a minute-long video showing the now-iconic confrontation between a Native American elder and the high school students.” This misleading video was carefully designed to play on the ideological priors of liberals.

Looking back at my post, I am relieved that I hedged my opening and I didn’t criticize any students. But I did file away the memory that Oberlin undergraduates had mobilized against the bánh mì, which did not happen. And my post, despite its caveats, played its small role in spreading that misperception. We all need to pay more attention to the reliability of the alleged facts that we use as opportunities for arguments.

See also: what is cultural appropriation?; notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding; when is cultural appropriation good or bad?; V.S. Naipaul’s view of culture; cultural mixing and power; a political defense of Hamilton; Maoist chic as Orientalism; and “a different Shakespeare from the one I love”

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the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right

In public debates about issues and problems, we typically consider institutions in two ways. On the one hand, we discuss their explicit purposes and missions, as reflected in the laws that create and govern them or (if they are autonomous) their mission statements and express goals. We ask whether these purposes are good and, if not, how we should change them. On the other hand, we discuss the institutions’ outcomes: what they actually achieve.

For instance, in public debates about public schools, we debate what they explicitly strive for (producing citizens? boosting the economy?) and what they really accomplish in terms of outcomes for students.

We are then frustrated because institutions do not seem to produce their intended outcomes, nor do reforms move them in the intended directions. This may be because of a set of well-known phenomena:

  • Path-dependence: Once an institution has developed in a certain way, shifting it is expensive and difficult.
  • Principal/agent problems: People in institutions have their own interests and agendas (which need not always be selfish); and there is a gap between their assigned roles and their actual goals.
  • Institutional isomorphism: Even when institutions are set up to be self-governing, they come to resemble each other. Witness the striking similarities among America’s 50 state governments or more than 5,000 colleges and universities.
  • Rent-seeking: People within existing institutions often extract goods from others just by virtue of their positions. Economists call these payments “rents.”
  • Bounded rationality: The individuals who operate within institutions have limited information about relevant topics, including the rest of their own institution. Information is costly, and it’s rational not to collect too much.
  • Voting paradoxes: No system for aggregating individual choices by voting yields consistently defensible results.
  • The Iron Law of Oligarchy: Even in organizations explicitly devoted to egalitarian democracy (the classic examples are socialist parties), a few highly-committed and tightly networked leaders almost always rule.
  • Epistemic Injustice: Knowledge is produced by institutions–not (for the most part) by individuals–and institutions favor knowledge that is in their own interests.

New Institutionalists emphasize and explore these phenomena. Their findings suggest either that citizens (meaning everyone who deliberates about how to improve the social world) should become much more attentive to these features of institutions, or else that we are incapable of social analysis because it is just too hard for millions of people to deconstruct millions of institutions. In the latter case, we should abandon ambitious theories of public deliberation and democracy.

New Institutionalism is heterogeneous. For one thing, it is ideologically diverse. Scholars who write about rent-seeking and voting paradoxes are often coded as right-wing, and sometimes they attribute rents mainly to governmental entities as opposed to markets. (Still, those of us on the left should take this issue seriously if we want to design governments that work for people). Scholars who write about Epistemic Injustice are often coded as left-wing; this idea emerged in feminism. The Iron Law of Oligarchy originated on the left, too, with Robert Michels.

New Institutionalism is diverse in other ways apart from ideology. For instance, the version that emerged from Rational Choice Theory is methodologically individualist. It models institutions as the result of interactions among individuals who have distinct goals and limited information. Some other versions of New Institutionalism are explicitly critical of methodological individualism. They attribute causal roles to institutions as opposed to individuals.

There is also a debate about determinism versus chance and choice. Historical institutionalists often emphasize the contingency of outcomes. Due to a random confluence of circumstances at a pivotal moment, an institution gets on a “path” that persists. In contrast, institutionalists who use rational-choice analysis often try to demonstrate that a given institution is in equilibrium, which implies that it almost had to take the form that it does.

Given this heterogeneity, we might begin to wonder whether New Institutionalism is a thing at all. Here is an alternative view: Institutions matter, but so do ideas, values, climates of opinion, identities, technologies, demographic changes, and biophysical feedback (e.g., climate change). Because many factors are relevant, there is often a moment when someone needs to say, “We have been neglecting institutions!” This person usually fails to find adequate resources in the “old” institutionalist authors: Weber, Veblen, Michels, et al. So she naturally calls herself a “New Institutionalist.”

In that case, New Institutionalism is not a movement or a phase in intellectual history. It is a recurrent stance or trope in debates since ca. 1900. As Elizabeth Sanders writes:

Attention to the development of institutions has fluctuated widely across disciplines, and over time. Its popularity has waxed and waned in response to events in the social/economic/political world and to the normal intradisciplinary conflicts of ideas and career paths. … Some classic works that analyze institutions in historical perspective have enjoyed a more or less continuous life on political science syllabi. Books by Max Weber, Maurice Duverger, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Locke, Woodrow Wilson, Robert McCloskey, and Samuel Beer are prominent examples.

Elizabeth Sanders, “Historical Institutionalism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (2008)

Still, a case can be made that we are in the midst (or perhaps the wake) of a New Institutionalist Movement. Sanders observes that classic theories of institutions were “increasingly sidelined … with the rise of behaviorism after the Second World War, particularly with the emergence of survey research and computer technology. …. However, after a hiatus of several decades, the study of institutions in historical perspective reemerged in political science in the 1970s, took on new, more analytical, epistemological characteristics, and flowered in the 1980s and 1990s. Why this reemergence?”

I’d give a slightly different answer from hers. I would note that several ideologies were influential from ca. 1945-1980. Here I don’t define an “ideology” as a form of invidious bias, nor as a mere basket of ideals. It is a more-or-less harmonious combination of ideals, causal theories, grand narratives, exemplary cases and models, and favored institutions. It makes sense of the world and motivates change, including positive change.

By that definition, liberalism, wealth-maximizing utilitarianism, democratic socialism, deliberative or participatory democracy, and Leninism were all ideologies. But none took sufficient account of the phenomena listed above. None was Institutionalist, in that sense. And all have been set back on their heels by the increasing strength and plausibility of Institutionalist research.

This my basis for claiming that New Institutionalism is a movement with consequences. Almost all of the ideological options available in 1968 or 1980 are less confident, less coherent, and less prominent today, thanks in significant measure to Institutionalist analysis conducted since then.

This account applies strongly to the stance that I grew up with: deliberative democracy. It originated in normative political philosophy plus small-scale voluntary experiments that succeeded in their own terms. It never attended enough to Institutionalism, and it now looks increasingly naive.

The main exception is classical liberalism/libertarianism. In the political domain, this ideology faces at least as much trouble as the others do. The libertarian-leaning (but never consistent) Republican Party has been taken over by authoritarian nationalists. However, in the intellectual domain–in the classroom–libertarianism has offered a coherent answer to New Institutionalism. It holds that all the flaws of institutions are worse in monopolistic state organizations than in markets. It can even explain why this insight is not more broadly understood: state schools and nonprofit colleges are run by rent-seekers who oppose libertarian ideas.

I dissent on several grounds (as do thoughtful classical liberals), but I’d still venture that classical liberals weathered New Institutionalism better than their rivals did, which explains a certain confidence in their ranks from ca. 1980-2008.

But now classical liberalism faces the same threat as all the other ideologies. The movement that is being called Populism (although I’d apply that word to other traditions, too) is perfectly calibrated for a world explained by New Institutionalism. Populism begins by denouncing all the institutions around us as corrupt because they unaccountably fail to generate their promised outcomes. It attributes this failure to the treason of elites: people well situated within existing institutions. It describes a homogeneous “us” (usually a racial or national group) that has been betrayed by “them,” the elites and foreigners. And it endorses a strong leader who fights for us against them. It dismisses specific institutional analyses as mere excuses and envisions a simple system that avoids all such Institutionalist problems. In this system, the authentic citizens constitute a unified majority; they select a leader in an occasional vote; and the leader rules.

In the face of this challenge, what are our options?

  • We could embrace the right-wing authoritarian populism. That is morally repugnant. Also, it won’t actually work over the long run.
  • We could ignore the findings of New Institutionalism and barrel ahead with an ideology like deliberative democracy or social democracy. I don’t think that’s smart.
  • We could count on elites to address the flaws of the institutions they lead. I don’t think that will happen, not only because elites are untrustworthy but also because these flaws are hard to fix.
  • We could beat the right-wing populists in other ways: by revealing their corruption, seizing on their missteps, or just running better candidates. This is important, but what happens after a Putin, an Orban, or a Trump?
  • We could re-engineer the institutions we care about by giving more attention to New Institutionalist insights. I think European social democrats have done so, to a degree. Social welfare programs in the Eurozone reflect concerns about path-dependence, feedback loops, principal/agent issues, etc. Deliberative democrats could, likewise, build deliberative institutions that take more account of such problems. This is a worthy approach but it requires compromises. For instance, social democratic systems may have to be less egalitarian to enlist the support of wealthy constituencies. And deliberative democratic forums may have to be made less democratic, for similar reasons.
  • We could enlist a wider range of people than just “elites” to work on the problems of specific institutions. We could make the solutions democratic. That is valuable but a long and slow process.
  • We could educate the public about the inner workings of institutions, their pathologies and solutions. That is important but hard.

I see our work in Civic Studies as a combination of the last two responses.

See also: teaching about institutions, in a prison; a template for analyzing an institution; decoding institutions; a different approach to human problems; fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; separating populism from anti-intellectualism; against methodological individualism.

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