May 2, 2023 Reading Time: 8 minutes

As a political scientist for more than two decades, I have concluded that the discipline is badly flawed, not because of the all-too-cutesy claim that it is not truly scientific, but because it is largely built on a critical, foundational error: political scientists are too sanguine about the state.

Rightly understood, political science should be about social organization, particularly for governance. And there we should be in awe, as chemists are in awe of the spontaneous organization of chemicals, biologists in awe of the organizing power of natural selection, and economists (ideally, at least) in awe of the spontaneous organization stemming from human exchange.

But few political scientists are in awe of the human capacity for spontaneous organization for the purposes of governance. One of the notable few is Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, but while she is greatly admired across the discipline, she is rarely emulated. Instead, at the center of political science is, most often, the state — or at least its effective organ, government — an intentionally organized construction (even if, as Hayek suggested, it is over the long run more the product of human action than human design).  

Of course humans can often build upon and improve what is spontaneously organized. We regularly employ human intentionality to organize chemicals into more valuable compounds and structures, and we can intentionally manipulate biology to enhance health and create new variations on existing creatures. 

Whether economists can really use human intentionality to improve on the spontaneous organization of markets is perhaps a more contentious question, but there are certainly a large number of economists who put their efforts toward identifying supposed flaws in self-organized exchange and proposing intentional — centrally planned and directed — improvements. 

In contrast, political scientists rarely begin with even a smidgeon of respect for the self-organizing abilities of humans. They may recognize small tribal units as an early and organic form of human organization, but they don’t see those as relevant for the development of political theory in general. Nor do they share economists’ respect for the spontaneous order of voluntary exchange.

Too often, they at least implicitly agree with Hobbes — however much they may dislike social contract theory in general — that a stateless society will degenerate into chaotic anarchy, if not actually a war of all against all, then, inevitably, exploitation of the weak by the strong. 

So unlike chemists, biologists, or economists, political scientists see the central concept of their discipline not as spontaneous order, but as a directed, intentional construction. And they see that construction as necessary to understanding political order, which is to say, governance.

Why this is the case is not entirely clear, but I suggest at least two reasons. First, humans are predisposed to interpret the world through the lens of intentionality rather than undirected spontaneous processes. Our instinct is to believe, in physicist Carl Sagan’s phrase, in a demon-haunted world. Even the natural sciences took time to break away from the idea of creation by a directing intelligence. 

Second, the state has been the prominent focal point of human organization for over two millennia. It is arguably no more central to human organization than voluntary exchange, but it is more highly visible and, to refer back to the first point, it is a better match to our predisposition to view the world through the lens of intentionality. 

Along with this, many political scientists enter the discipline because they perceive profound social problems, but — like economists who fret over imperfect competition — they generally see solutions only in terms of intentionality and state action.

Political scientists often become experts in the various designs of states, or of state-approved and implemented public policy, or the intentional organization of members of society for the purposes of gaining control of the apparatus of the state. But they rarely consciously question the state itself.

They may do so implicitly. Arguably, most political theory is directed in various ways towards not just explaining, but justifying the state. This is perhaps a quiet recognition of its problematic nature. It’s certainly a recognition that the state is not natural in the sense of being with humanity from its inception, and therefore, as an innovation requires explanation. But political theory rarely questions the state itself. The beginning assumption is that it is, somehow or other, justified, that it is necessarily central to human organization, and so most political theory is a rearguard action against the threat of anarchy, a.k.a spontaneous order.

But political scientists should be less sanguine about the concept of the state itself and more welcoming to the concept of governance through spontaneous order. And that is because non-state organization entails less coercion.

Spontaneous governance depends on voluntary action and little coercion. Property rights originally arose not through government assignment but through collective and undirected social agreement. Peaceful adjudication of disputes was often accomplished by opposing parties agreeing to mediation by some mutually respected third party. Punishment, while sometimes violent, was often accomplished simply by turning away from the offending party or declining to voluntarily associate with them, a harsh punishment but not in itself coercive.

In contrast, the essential nature of the state is coercion, or violence, as Max Weber starkly put it. Its very origins are steeped in coercion, whether we accept Robert Carneiro’s circumscription theory, Mancur Olson’s theory of stationary bandits, or the plausible claim that states arose as a means of controlling populations through control of agricultural surpluses. All of these theories, by the way, are compatible with each other. 

Understood as an essentially violent institution — and Weber’s definition remains the dominant one for the discipline — it should be shocking that political scientists center it in the discipline. If they centered it as an object of interest simply because it exists and — for now, at least — this seems inevitable, this centrality would be more justifiable. But the discipline centers it not just as a thing that exists and has tremendously important implications, but normatively as a good thing. 

Coercion, if ever necessary, should never be seen as anything better than a second-best solution, to be deployed only in the case of failure to achieve euvoluntary solutions to critical social problems that, inarguably, must be solved. Of course that assumes there are such cases, which is itself arguable.

But for most political scientists, the state and its coercive powers are not seen as inherently morally problematic. Instead, they implicitly see the state as a human triumph, the greatest problem-solving tool humans have ever developed. And they hand-wave away concerns about coercion with smoke-and-mirrors arguments about consent.

Never mind that no one signs a document signifying informed consent, or that consent can logically be limited to a set of specific objectives of the state and not others, or that there is no effective avenue for withdrawing one’s supposed “implicit” consent from at least some state. Even the person who would consistently vote against all state policy and, if allowed, ”none of the above” for public officials is somehow presumed to have consented, merely by his participation, which perversely means that objecting to the state proves consent to it.

This is what political scientists teach their students as the essence of political theory, that the state is, through one argument or another, inherently legitimate. Despite its foundation in violence, they decline to teach truly critical perspectives on the state. They will teach critical analyses of this or that state, of particular states’ design, and of whomever successfully controls the apparatus of the state and how, but not skepticism of the very concept of the state.  

The essentially coercive nature of the state is itself bad enough, but attendant to that is how that coercive authority affects and attracts those who would wield it. As author J.R.R. Tolkien said, the job of bossing others is an improper job even for saints. The most famous statement about the danger of power is Lord Acton’s claim that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But writer Frank Herbert was even more on point when he wrote that, “All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.”

The attractive nature of this coercive power is an inherent and ineradicable danger. It will corrupt the saints, and will be irresistible to those who seek power over others for its own sake. And this is true regardless of how we design the institutions, circumscribe their authority, or structure the process of selecting our bosses.

Perhaps one of political scientists’ darkest secrets, which surely almost all know, but few talk publicly about, is that the pathological seeker of power always has a competitive advantage over the saint. He is willing to do whatever it takes, make any false promise, speak any lie, pretend to be anything and everything to anyone, in order to gain power, while the saint is constrained by at least some values and principles. 

The false promises take the form of claiming only good intentions, a desire to provide for the common good, to represent we, the people. But these claims function, in Vincent Ostrom’s felicitous phrase, as cryptoimperialism. They hide the true purpose of controlling the public, often supposedly for the people’s own good, misguided children that they are, but always for the satisfaction of the boss.

Political scientists are very uncomfortable with the idea that there is no common good, that there is no consistent public preference order when there are multiple policy options, many issue dimensions, and numerous individuals with their own preference orders. Arrow’s impossibility theorem, to the extent it is even known, may be the most despised concept in the discipline. While few explicitly believe in the Roussean notion of a common good, it is a more comfortable idea to cling to. After all, we believe ourselves to be good persons, intelligent, educated, and well-intentioned, so surely the true public good is synonymous with our own ideals.

Perhaps least of all do political scientists give thought to the possibility that their imagined good solutions can go terribly wrong. All know of the law of unintended consequences and the challenges of policy implementation, but rarely, if ever, is the blame with their ideals or their program. Rather, the fault, in their mind, lies always with the people whom they seek to control. If only they would do what we think is right, if only they wouldn’t make use of the loopholes inherent in our policy design, my ideals would work out admirably.  

For a group that studies human organization, they are inexcusably inconsiderate of Adam Smith’s admonition about the “man of system” who cannot see that individuals necessarily have their own principles of motion, not simply those that the planner would impose on them. For most political scientists, it is that individuality, that independent purpose of motion, that is the most infuriating fact of humanity. 

Ultimately, there is but one justification for the state, and that justification is further evidence of the inherent wickedness of the institution. Once a state has been created, its organizational structure gives it a competitive advantage over the less hierarchically organized societies around it.

If that competitive advantage were only in human flourishing, the state might have a more plausible claim to legitimacy. But the evidence indicates that the origin of states was correlated with worse outcomes for ordinary people, including reduced life expectancies and conscripted labor.

The real competitive advantage of the state is in warfare. Once a state is established nearby, the only defense is a state of one’s own. 

The state, then, is a suboptimal equilibrium. And the nature of equilibria is that they stick, absent some change in the nature of the game. So in the absence of a vast degree of further social evolution — an evolution that would demand the virtual elimination of humans’ desire to control others — we are stuck with the state; it will never wither away.

As noted above, this alone makes the state worthy of continued intensive study by political scientists. But they should, as a discipline, move beyond the study of comparative statehood. They should abandon any state-centered ideals or the idea that a state can be perfected, or even improved enough to become essentially good. To be sure, they should study how to ameliorate the worst aspects of the state. But even more they should critically examine the nature and foundations of the state itself, not just of this or that individual state, and they should seek to maximize the degree to which we can replace the state with alternative forms of human organization, striving to have governance without government whenever and wherever possible. 

Then it would be a discipline built on moral integrity, a discipline worth taking pride in. Until then, the discipline of political science should be viewed as wholly complicit in the violence of the state.

James E. Hanley

James E. Hanley

James E. Hanley is a Senior Policy Analyst at the non-partisan Empire Center for Public Policy. He earned his Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Oregon, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship under 2009 Economics Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, and nearly two decades of teaching Political Science and Economics at the collegiate level. The ideas expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer. He can be followed on Twitter at @empire_hanley.

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