Field Experiments in International Relations by Robert O. Keohane — Lecture Transcript


Title: Field Experiments in International Relations
Presented by: Robert O. Keohane
Presented on: September 20, 2012
Presented at: The Wheatley Institution, Brigham Young University


  • The original transcript is available at the Wheatley Institution’s website. Click here to view it.
  • This modified transcript does not include the Q&A.

Introductory Remarks

More than ninety years ago, at the end of World War I, Max Weber gave two now famous lectures, published in English as “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation”. They well repay reading and rereading. They are short, so if you haven’t read them, I recommend you do so. Thinking of those lectures, it seemed appropriate to me to reflect on political science as a vocation. As the title of my lecture indicates, I am directing my comments both to my fellow political scientists in the audience and to students in attendance here who may be beginning careers in our field.

I am going to reflect on our vocation from the vantage point of someone who has been a practicing political scientist — teaching, reflecting, and writing about politics — for forty-seven years. It is hard for me say that and to believe that, but it is true.

I begin by pointing out that, viewed historically, you are in distinguished company. Aristotle was probably the first systematic Western political scientist, theorizing the relationship of politics to other spheres of life and creating a typology of regimes. He created what we would now call comparative politics. This was in the 4th century B.C. Machiavelli not only advised the prince but sought to analyze the nature of leadership, the characteristic hypocrisy of political speech (which is not a new phenomenon and is certainly still a current one) and the sources of republican greatness. Hobbes provided what is still one of the most compelling discussions of the causes of political violence and the sources of and justification for the state. Montesquieu and Madison developed a durable theory of constitutionalism, and Tocqueville put forth insights into the nature of democracy that remain vibrant today (for example, in the work of Robert Putnam). I have already mentioned Max Weber.

In the generation of political scientists born in the first three decades of this century, I will list (somewhat arbitrarily) Gabriel Almond, Robert Dahl, Elinor Ostrum, Judith Shklar, and Kenneth Waltz, all of whom profoundly affected our knowledge of politics. There are so many fine colleagues doing insightful work now that to mention a few would be to risk slighting others whose work is equally important. The point is that, to the undergraduates, if you decide to go on to join in the political science profession and become a graduate student and then a faculty member in it, you are joining a vibrant profession with a rich history. If you are studying it, you are studying in a profession with a rich history. I hope your instructors don’t start the syllabus in 1975. If I were conversant with classical Indian and Chinese sources, I could probably add to this list and extend this history even further into the past.

Following Virginia Woolf, many of you will probably notice that except for Ostrum and Shklar, this is a procession of men. Fortunately, however, this lamentable situation, which was characteristic of this profession as well as others, has changed. If I had listed contemporary political scientists of note, I would have had to include Theda Skocpol, Margaret Levi, Carole Pateman and Susanne Rudolph, all of whom have been president of the Association, as well as many younger women who are now leaders in the field. Although exclusion on the basis of gender and race was long a reality, our profession is increasingly opened to talented people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

What is Political Science?

What, then, is political science? What do we mean by it? I have an economist colleague who likes to say that any discipline with science in its name is not really a science and that it protests too much. Were one to adopt a narrow view of science as requiring mathematical formulations of its propositions, precise quantitative testing, or even experimental validation, political science would, indeed, for the most part, be an oxymoron.

Today, I will defend our nomenclature by taking a broader view. I would define politics as involving attempts to organize human groups, to determine internal rules, and, externally, to compete and cooperate with other organized groups, and reactions to such attempts. This definition is meant to encompass a range of activity, from the governance of a democracy such as Great Britain to warfare, from corporate takeovers to decisions made from the U.N. Security Council. It includes acts of leadership and resistance to leadership, behaviour resulting from deference and defiance. I define science as a publicly-known set of procedures designed to make and evaluate descriptive and causal inferences on the basis of the self-conscious application of methods that are themselves subject to public evaluation. As transparency, public evaluation, and criticism are inherent in science, all science is carried out with the understanding that all conclusions are uncertain and subject to revision or refutation. So, political science is simply the study of politics through the procedures of science. Most of my lecture will be devoted to an explication of how, in my view, political science should be carried out. That is, the process of thinking and research that yields insights into politics.

Teaching as an Intrinsic Part of the Political Science Vocation

I want to begin by talking about teaching. Teaching is sometimes disparaged. Colleagues bargain to reduce their “teaching loads”. The language is revealing, since we speak of research opportunities but teaching loads. National and global reputations are built principally on written work, not on teaching. But when we look around, we see that virtually all top ranked political scientists in the world today are active teachers. Some are not good teachers, but they are all active teachers.  Few of them have spent their careers at a research institutes or think tanks. In my view, there is a reason for this. Teaching undergraduates compels one to put arguments into ordinary language accessible to undergraduates, and therefore to smart people who have not absorbed the arcane language of social science, which can be evasive as well as it can be illuminating. Teaching graduate students exposes one to new ideas from younger and more supple minds, as long as the students are sufficiently critical of the professor’s views. I want to emphasize this point about criticism. In my experience, most students, rarely the best, are too deferential. In fact, one of the disappointments in my career is that students were less deferential in the 60s and 70s. They are more deferential now, and it is a bad thing.

In 1927, so the story goes (I think it is a true story that comes out of my father’s notebooks; he was an honest man), the Chief Justice of the United States, former president William Howard Taft, came to Yale Law School, where his host was a Chancellor of Yale Law School, Robert Maynard Hutchins. Taft was former president, chief justice, a man of ample girth (350 pounds), somewhat pompous as well as very intelligent and distinguished, and he was a conservative. Hutchins was dean at 28 years old; he was a radical. Yale was seen as a radical place. So, the Chief Justice said to Dean Hutchins, “Well, I understand that you at Yale teach your students that all the judges are fools”, to which Robert Maynard replied, quick as a wink, “No, Mr. Chief Justice. At Yale, we teach our students to find that out for themselves”. Like the Yale law students, you need to discover for yourself which senior political scientists are wise and which are fools. It doesn’t come from their CVs, their nominal reputations, or their titles. You have to do so by using your own critical facilities.

Teaching is rewarding other ways. I learned a lot from my colleagues and directly from my students, who come to me with insights or works to read that were suggested to them by other faculty members. In the long run, one might see former undergraduate students become politicians or even rise to other high positions. A former student of mine is now a U.S. Senator, and another one just retired as president of the World Bank. (Both undergraduates, of course. The graduate students are all professors.) With former PhD students, ties are much stronger, since they remain in the profession. Two of my most valued colleagues and best friends at Princeton are former students, including Helen Milner, who is co-running this conference, and the eminent student of the European Union, Andrew Moravcsik. Former students of mine are scattered at colleges and universities around the United States, with some in Europe or Japan. In my office, I keep a shelf of books that began as Ph.D. dissertations under my supervision.

Never disparage teaching. It is an intrinsic part of political science as a vocation. Furthermore, it provides much more immediate gratification than research. When I am working on a major project, I never know where the results will be worthwhile. I have left unpublished a good deal of work when I realize the premises or methods I used were flawed. Sometimes, even once-published work will be ignored. Like politics for Weber, research can seem like a long, hard “boring of hard boards”, in his phrase. Eventual awards may be substantial or may be meager; you never know until quite a bit later. If you give a good lecture or teach a lively, thoughtful seminar, the gratification is immediate. You know you accomplished something that day. During periods of self-doubt, teaching can keep you going.

The “Science” in Political Science

Now let me turn to the science in political science. Turning to research. What do political scientists do? What are the processes they go through in their search for knowledge? I am going to focus on four activities: puzzling, conceptualizing, describing, and making causal inferences.

Puzzling

First, puzzling. Interesting work begins, in my view, not just with a problem — for example, how does democracy work in the United States? — but with a puzzle. Puzzles are anomalies: what we have observed does not fit with our preconceptions based on established theory. Hobbes sought to make sense of civil war and regicide. Tocqueville wanted to understand how a decentralized, individualized society, such as the United States in the 1830s, could exhibit such overall cohesion and even suffer from oppressive public opinion, in his view. Barrington Moore and a line of successors have sought to explain why some societies develop stable democracies while others do not. Scott and others seek to account for great revolutions and their absence.

Great leaps forward in political science often take place when someone sees puzzles where others are only seeing facts. The great philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos say that science proceeds on a “sea of anomalies”, which certainly applies to political science. That is, science only really progresses when you find anomalies, puzzles that don’t fit either conventional wisdom or established theory, not when you just plug away, crossing the “t” or dotting the “i”.

Now, I am not very satisfied with much of political science today. It seems to me that it often just does call attention to relationships that conventional thinking expects to obtain. I think there is a herd instinct in political science. It has been quite marked in the last decade or two, where people follow the same lines of work, just adding small amounts to it. So, showing with more precision that democracies are relatively peaceful toward one another is an example. It is an important piece of knowledge that they are. The 150th article estimating in a little different way how they are, it seems to me, is not. That civil wars thrive in poorly-governed countries with places to hide, or that economic failure is bad for incumbents, resolves no major puzzles. It is important, then, I think, to begin with an interesting puzzle for which the answer is not obvious.

One implication of my point here is to find something puzzling to study. Don’t just stop when you find something that is a topic in political science, that is a subject matter. There is another implication of the importance of puzzles: never dismiss what appears to be a naïve question. This is true for teaching and also true in research. The naïve questions are often the most fundamental ones. I will give you a true story which taught me this.

I was at Stanford in the 1970s, teaching political science with no training in economics and trying to understand economics better. I was trying to pick it up on the fly by attending economics seminars. I would walk across the street and attended those. I remember one such seminar by an eminent student in a multinational corporation whose work I knew. He spoke very well in a highly-organized way. After about three minutes, in true economics fashion, a young bearded man asked a question which the speaker answered to my satisfaction. After three or four minutes, the same hand went up again, and then again a few minutes later with a different question, each seeming rather obvious to me. After three or four questions, I was getting annoyed and impatient saying to myself, “Can’t you let the speaker proceed?” After five or six questions, it dawned on me (perhaps I was the last person in the room to see it) that the questioner was the only person in the room who understood the topic and that his series of apparently naïve questions had dismantled the questions of this professor’s talk. There was literally nothing left.

I forgot everything else about the seminar, except I remember how the room looked and where the guy was. I know who he was now. But the apparently naïve questions of this questioner had dismantled the talk’s premises.  So, the lesson is that the apparently naïve questions are often the most fundamental. If you are puzzled, ask. In our field, there are no dumb questions. It is true. Probably 90%, maybe 95% of naïve questions are just that. They are naïve. You don’t understand what the speaker said, and then you can only gain by asking the question because you learn something about it. Maybe 5% of the time, you may be the only person in the room to see the anomaly and to sense, like a good detective, that there is something wrong about the story you are being told. The rewards for identifying the major puzzles, for the profession and for yourself, are very large indeed.

Conceptualising

After you have a puzzle, the next step is conceptualization and being clear about the meaning of concepts. Giovanni Sartori pointed out long ago that concepts get stretched out of shape by political scientists trying to do too much with too little. It much often depends on definitions. How we think about the relationship between democracy and liberty, for example, depends on how we conceptualize democracy and liberty. Are they in conflict or not? Likewise, whether democracies ever fight one another, or whether international institutions degrade or enhance democracy, depends heavily on how one defines democracy. Whether civil wars are becoming more or less frequent may turn on how we conceptualize what a civil war is, rather than a lesser form of civil conflict. Whether peace requires justice or is at odds, in conflict with, justice depends on how we define both of these contested terms. There are, in my view, no right or wrong definitions — I am a positivist in that way — but there are explicit and implicit definitions, those consistent with ordinary usage and those that are not. Authors can be consistent or inconsistent in their use of terms. At the conceptualization stage, it is our obligation to pull forward explicit definitions (I tried to define political science earlier in this lecture) and to seek to operationalize them consistently. The more definitions conform to ordinary usage, furthermore, the less confusion is likely to result.

Describing

Now I come to description and interpretation. The core of what most political scientists do most of the time is descriptive inference. Inference means drawing more general conclusions from established premises plus a particular set of facts. For example, from known facts, such as that each of 150 countries has a different form of government and economic characteristics, we may infer that there is a correlation between wealth and democracy. That is a descriptive inference. Properly speaking, though, such a conclusion rests on a chain of inferences. It is often necessary to probe those. For instance, we may have inferred from a sample survey of tax returns what per capita GDP is for the country, or from observations of three elections where the country is democratically governed. These inferences are subject to error. People might systematically falsify their tax returns in one country, for example, and not in another. The incumbent government might conceal decisive manipulations from election monitors. Other examples of descriptive inferences in political science are the generalization that democracies don’t fight one another, the claim that international institutions typically provide information to governments but other governments compliance with rules, and the claim that the European Union was formed more about economic gains than security benefits.

These examples indicate that descriptive inferences can be generalizations about a wide set of cases or statements about a particular set of events at a particular time and place. We can make inferences about individuals; for example, the sincerity or hypocrisy of leaders or our perceptions about other leaders’ behavior. We can also make inferences about the behavior of collective actors that may have subunits pulling in different directions: what the “United Kingdom” or “China” did in a situation, or whether the “United States” (or, rather, unauthorized individuals) engaged in torture at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. We can make inferences about relationships: were there backchannel communications during the Cuban Missile Crisis between the Soviet Ambassador and Robert M. Kennedy, and, if so, what were they about? Are the informal conversations between Israeli and U.S. leaders today as hostile as might be inferred by their public comments? Often, political scientists try to make their descriptive inferences more precise by attaching numbers to whatever process they are seeking to understand. Precision is certainly enhanced by numbers that are both reliable and valid, and so such activities are to be encouraged.

It is important to recognize the importance of both reliability and validity. Reliability essentially means that, using the criteria publicly employed, the number could be replicated by an independent observer. If by criteria defining “wars” as organized violence involving 1,000 or more deaths, one team of observers finds fifty wars at a given period of time, another team using the same criteria should also find fifty wars. That is the reliability side. Get the same answer to the same question if you do it again.

Validity is different. It refers to whether the measurement used — in this case, 1,000 battle casualties — fairly reflects the underlying phenomenon being discussed — that is, war. Are all conflicts involving 1,000 deaths war? Even if some involve small societies so that 1,000 deaths is a large portion of the population and some involve very large societies that suffer more deaths by traffic accidents in a couple of weeks? Should all wars, from the skirmish that took 1,100 lives to World War II, be counted equally? Are they all wars? You see right away, these are constructions. These aren’t factual descriptions. They are dependent on an interpretation of what we mean by a term, what we mean by a war. How are we going to categorize something? Very often, our conclusions rely on these, and all too often, people don’t interrogate the interpretations that lie behind the supposed descriptions. So, these are questions of validity that can’t themselves be solved by clarification, but for which one has to think hard about how one’s conceptualization relates to the phenomena that can be measured. Are we measuring what we are meaning to measure? So, before we accept a descriptive inference, we need to have asked questions of validity as well as reliability.

This issue is highlighted by the famous philosophical distinction between a wink and a twitch. As Clifford Geertz writes, “The difference between a wink and a twitch is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to take the first for the second knows”. I want to add vice versa — if someone who is attractive to you is moving her eyelids rapidly, you need to engage in an interpretation before moving to a descriptive inference. If you interpret the eye moving as a wink, you may infer: She loves me, too! But what if you act on the interpretation and it was only a twitch?

Political scientists engage in interpretation all the time. When states “reject” a public offer, as Spain has rejected loan terms from the European Central Bank, are they really rejecting it entirely, or are they establishing a bargaining position? When the United States brings an auto trade case against China, as it did this week, is it seeking to maintain a level playing field or to help President Obama’s reelection chances, in Ohio in particular?  When Hillary Clinton was overseas during the Democratic National Convention, was she merely following non-partisan tradition for Secretary of State, or was she signaling disinterest in a run for the presidency? Or, perhaps, sealing interest in the run for the presidency through an odd twist of logic? My point of this inference is twofold. It is not the same as simple description. We may think we are describing something, like I am describing that I am hitting this table. It involves an inference from known to unknown that can be incorrect or otherwise flawed. Both description and descriptive inference often rest on the interpretation of inherently (sometimes deliberately) ambiguous actions such as the wink-twitch.

Making Causal Inferences

Now I come to causal inference. Causality necessarily involves consideration of a counterfactual situation. If Charles II had not been executed in 1649, would Great Britain have a different political system now? If nuclear weapons had not been invented, would the United States and the Soviet Union have fought World War III in the 1950s? If the United States had not supported democratization in Egypt, would the Muslim Brotherhood be in charge there now? Since we inherently cannot observe at the same time what actually happened and what didn’t happen, making causal inferences is always difficult. The descriptive inferences are hard enough, but causal differences are really difficult because you can’t observe both the action and the non-action. You can’t observe two situations. So, we do not observe causality. You never observe causality. You always infer causality, and it is always a problematic or uncertain inference.

Now, if we can find and measure many highly similar instances of the same action — for example, votes for parliament or expressions of party preference in surveys — we might be able to make quite good causal inferences through the use of quantitative methods. If it is a common unit (unit homogeneity, in the jargon word), a vote is a vote is a vote, as opposed to being different kind of actions. Even then, our procedures may contaminate our findings. For example, people often make up answers to public opinion polls because they don’t want to seem to not to know something. We know they recall having voted for winning candidates more than can actually have been the case. You can prove, with high significance, that more people report voting for the presidential winner than actually voted for the presidential winner, which of course is a contradiction.

More seriously, our inferences may be flawed because of omitted variables: something else changed that we failed to measure. This change, rather than the one on which we focused, may explain what we want to understand. Or we can confront endogeneity: what we stipulate as the effect is actually in wholer part a cause. There is a reciprocal relationship, for example. Furthermore, anticipation of consequences may create false impressions of causality. States may comply with international law, not because they have incentives to follow it or because they believe they are obliged to do so, but because they have carefully agreed only to rules with which they intended, in any event, to comply. If that is the case, it might appear to be causal, that the law leads to the action, but it would not be true, given my assumption. Conversely, real causality may be obscure. Political scientists seeking to determine the effect of deterrence threats in international crises did not find any significant effects. But critics point out that the states that would submit to deterrence threats should have anticipated the threats and their submission and therefore would not have stimulated a crisis in the first place.

The difficulties of causal inference seem endless. Indeed, I am here at BYU today because of an attempt led by some members of your faculty to explore another approach to the problem of causal inference: experiments. Experiments are standard in medicine, not yet in political science. Now, it is not possible to experiment on some issues. We can’t replace the Egyptian military regime a year ago with, on the one hand, a military dictatorship, and, on the other hand, a second democracy and see how they would react differently to attacks on the American Embassy. For problems on which we can use experiments, the method has enormous advantages. At this conference, we are going to will talk about those.

There are also limitations of this and any other method. The one limitation of experimental methods is what is known as external validity. You may be quite sure that you got the right answer and that you have a causal inference for this particular set of people at this time, at this place, in this context. There is no guarantee that, if the context would have been a little bit different, you will obtain the same results. With respect to large scale problems, like the ones I am mostly interested in, experiments will probably always remain unavailable. Unfortunately for science (but probably fortunately for the human race), we cannot manipulate large scale political phenomena for our convenience, even if human subjects-committees would allow us to do so. So, on these issues, our causal inferences are always likely to be problematic. We could not construct a French Revolution for the treatment and have no French Revolution be the placebo.

Aspirations to causal inference are often linked to hopes for prediction. Our causal knowledge of gravity helps us to predict the movement of planets and other celestial objects, and our causal knowledge of biology and, increasingly, genetics help us to predict the incidence of disease. Sometimes we can make predictions of election outcomes on the base of economic conditions, but even our best predictions are imperfect. For my own subject of international politics, the situation is even worse, because it revolves around conscious strategies of reflective actors: I act as I do because I anticipate what you will do. But you, knowing this, act differently than I expect, and I, in turn, anticipating this, change my behavior. This is an infinite regress about which no prediction can be made. One would have to know how many cycles the players would go through, but if this could be ascertained, smart players would learn it and go one step further.

Why Choose Political Science as a Vocation?

So, why choose political science as a vocation? If causal inferences in our field and predictions are as intractable as I have argued, why should we choose our profession? My short answer is that we study politics not because it is beautiful or easy to understand, but because it is so important to all fields of human endeavor. I readily admit that I cannot prove that politics is important. Weber, in “Science as a Vocation”, says that “[the] presupposition [of something as worth knowing] cannot be proved by scientific methods. It can only be interpreted with reference to its ultimate meaning”.

Without governance, though, as Hobbes said, life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Democracy is, in my view, however flawed it is (and I will mention that in a minute), immensely better than autocracy, much less tyranny. Making democracy work is hard, and imposing democracy seems close to impossible. Ironically, around the world, the flaws of democracy are becoming increasingly evident in the wake of the spread of democracy worldwide. At the same time, we have a celebration of democracy; the last fifteen years has probably been the period of the greatest celebration of democracy in the history of the world. And yet, you can’t pick up a newspaper or a political science journal without seeing the pathologies of one democracy or another.

One of the interesting experimental papers for this conference by Dan Nielson, Helen Milner, and Mike Findley purports to be about foreign aid in Uganda. It shows that people in Uganda seem to prefer multilateral or even bilateral foreign aid from foreigners to government projects of a similar type from their own government. What the paper doesn’t observe is how devastating that is for theories that say that democracy is the best form of government, because Uganda is a democracy (at least nominally), and foreign aid by the World Bank or U.S. Government is not democratic. The people of Uganda have no accountability or control over it. Yet the situation where they have no influence, they can’t hold the provider accountable, they regard in a higher esteem than the situation in which they have (at least in principle or nominally) some ability to hold the providers to account.

We are going to see, I think, in the next ten or fifteen years, a lot of soul-searching about democracy. We have been through a period of celebration and, as C. Wright Mills said a long time ago of the United States, periods of celebration are usually overdone, and there is an underside. I think we are going to see more critical attention to democracy rather than the assumption that has, in fact, dominated public policy but also much of the profession, that democracy is necessarily and, out of context, the best form of government. I am kind of with Churchill that it is the worst form of government except for all others. That is a somewhat different orientation toward it.

Back to political science. Without a political science, it would be hard to have effective democratic leadership because it depends on accountability, and that is based on critiques of action which are realistic with respect to what is possible. Without a vibrant political science, leaders would be guided only by their limited personal experiences, historical analogies, and folk wisdom — all highly unreliable as a basis for inference. Publics would be deprived of a scientific basis for criticism. We should therefore judge our work not according to some idealization of science or by the standards of the physical and biological sciences, in which case we fall short and will for a long time fall short. Unlike Newtonian physics, we cannot properly aspire to knowledge of grand, covering laws that explain a myriad of disparate events. Instead, we should ask the more modest question: whether knowing the political science literature on a given topic has prepared us better to anticipate what could happen, to assign probabilities to these various scenarios, and to judge actual results.

Are the findings of political science superior as a guide to historical analogies, extrapolation from the very recent past, and common sense? The answer is not always affirmative, unfortunately. Indeed, as I already criticized the herd instinct in political science, I think we need to widen our focus to topics that we haven’t focused on enough. For example, I would say one of the most important questions in politics right now is, “What is the impact of new social media on politics, comparatively and internationally?” We don’t know very much. We know virtually nothing, scientifically, about that subject. I think that is fair to say. That is not surprising; it is new. What is surprising is that almost nobody I know in political science is studying that question. I don’t know why every graduate student in the country is not after that question. The only answer I can think of is that their professors aren’t asking that question because we are too old to understand social media. That is not a good reason. So, we need a lot more boldness and imagination in the pursuit of our field.

Democracy and Political Science

At the outset of this lecture, I praised criticism and counsel of one’s elders. I hope that all of you, from students to middle-aged professors, are dissatisfied with the accomplishments of earlier generations, sceptical about their inferences, and sceptical about what I am telling you right now. I hope you see puzzling anomalies in some of the conventional wisdom, issues that need to be unpacked, and I hope that you have objections to express to what I have just been saying. Many of you will have noticed that my sources and examples come almost entirely from Europe and the United States and from international politics, which has been dominated for five centuries by Europe and its offshoots. There is a sort of parochialism, therefore, about the way I have interpreted and presented this subject. This parochialism is presumably due, in some measures, to my own limitations, but also reflects the discipline, which is heavily American, to some extent European, with relatively few genuinely important, independent contributions from scholars on other continents.

As the economic and political centres of gravity shift away from Europe and the United States, and as we move into the “post-American era”, as Fareed Zakaria calls it, this is bound to change. Political science will become a global discipline; it will, however, only prosper if liberal democracy, for all its weaknesses, thrives. If we are doing our job, we political scientists will be irritating to political leaders since we illuminate their deliberate obscurities and deceptions, point to alternative policies that could be followed, question their motivations, and dissect the operations of organizations that support them and the governments over which they preside. They will try to buy us off or, failing that, if not prevented from doing so, to shut us up. As a result, we have a symbiotic relationship with democracy. We can only thrive when democracy flourishes, and democracy, in a smaller way, needs us, if only as a small voice of dispassionate reason.

Our symbiotic relationship to democracy means that political science cannot be value neutral, nor can we be neutral with respect to order versus chaos and war versus peace. In our particular investigations, we need to seek objectivity, a goal that is never realized but that we should strive for. Otherwise, people with other preferences or who do not know what our values are will have no reason to take our findings seriously. In the absence of a serious culture of objectivity, no cumulative increases in knowledge can take place. But the overall enterprise, despite what I have said about objectivity, can never be value neutral.  We should choose important problems because we care about improving human behaviour and human politics. We should explain those choices to our students and readers, and we should not apologize for making value-laden choices even as we search unflinchingly for the truth, as unpleasant as the truth may be.

I hope you will consult your values as well as the literature in deciding what to work on. Try to work on things that are important, where the answer matters to you.  It is not simply a puzzle, like you might solve a crossword puzzle; it is something that really matters, and if people knew the right answer to this puzzle or this anomaly, we would have a better world in one respect or another. In conclusion, let me express the hope that younger political scientists will see openings where we older political scientists see closure, and that you have ideas about how to move through those openings to the insights that surely lie behind them. There are certainly productive, new interpretations to offer and new descriptive and causal discoveries to be made. Some of you have already been formulating some of these new views. I look forward to your questions and to a stimulating discussion.


https://youtu.be/zBEvfIaWM88


A Genealogy of the State by Quentin Skinner — Lecture Transcript


Title: A Genealogy of Liberty
Presented by: Quentin Skinner
Presented on: November 9, 2011
Presented at: Nicholas D. Chabraja Center for Historical Studies, Northwestern University


  • This transcript is a highly sanitised version.
  • Sections in square brackets are (mainly) digressions which can be skipped. Those between curly brackets are additions made to ensure proper grammatical sense.
  • The video lecture is embedded at the end of the post.

Why Genealogy?

In the modern world, we are all citizens of specific states and I am going to talk about the state. But before I get going, I do need to make three remarks as quickly as possible of a methodological kind. First, it seems to me that the best way — not the only way but the surest way — of getting at concepts is through their verbal expression and that is what I am going to do. So, I am very specifically going to talk — this is really important to my talk — historically about just those writers who talked not about the concept of the state but who talked about the ‘state’, who used that term to express a concept. Of course, you could be in possession of the concept without being in possession of the term. That raises large questions and I am evading them very deliberately. I am talking about those people who talked about the ‘state’. The second point — and this is to keep the material under control — (is that) I am going to concentrate exclusively on the Anglophone tradition. And this happens to be a story in which the Anglophone tradition, especially the contemporary American tradition, is of supreme importance.

Third, I am going to talk genealogically. If you ask why, I feel strongly that — [I have goten into so many muddles about this and genealogy has been a method that has really helped me. I want to say (that)] — it is not a choice. That with certain concepts — and the state is one of those — there’s no option but to proceed genealogically. And the reason that this method is forced upon us is that there has never been any agreed concept to which the term state has referred. And that is one of the things that I am going to try to show. It continues to be an aspiration in political science to provide neutral operative definitions of the state. This is an illusion. That cannot be done. Everything you’ll find out to have done is ideological. And the danger of political science becoming ideology is ever present and a way to avoid it is by genealogy.

What I am really saying is that what genealogy shows you is that there is no essence to the concept of the state. It doesn’t have natural boundaries. It has been in continuous contestation how we should think about this concept no less than the closely associated concept of political liberty. That is not at all to say that one understanding of the term and thus of the concept has not come to predominate because of course it has. There is a very strong tendency in recent times, and I think especially in Anglophone thought, to accept that the term state is simply a synonym for government. The issue is whether our political thinking has impoverished as a result of that. A genealogy of the state will bring to light other highly normative understandings of the state. Is there any loss in our having abandoned those? Or does genealogy free us to reimagine the state in more fruitful terms than the ways that we currently talk about it. I think that the answer to that has got to be yes and I am going to return to that explicitly at the end.

But let me first turn to my genealogy. I very aware that the strands of thinking that I am going to talk about are in origin in the early modern world and they are, by origin, mainly European traditions of political theory. We reach an international stage and we reach the shores of the United States about halfway through the lecture. Genealogies don’t have clear beginnings. But the nearest to a clear beginning in talking about the genealogy of the state — the earliest moment, as far as I can see, in which you come upon widespread discussions of statehood, the state, the powers of the state: that whole vocabulary — is at sometime around the very end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries. That is more or less firm.

The Absolutist View

Where we begin is that the term state in this first period is used to refer to a specific type of civil association in which the community of people live in subject to the sovereign authority of a recognised ruling group, usually a monarch, who is designated as head of state. That is not to say that, in this period, the term state is the only or even the most usual one used to refer to this kind of civil association. Some writers prefer to speak about realms; some even talked about nations in this context. But eventually the concept of the state and its expression in those terms wins out. And it does so by quite a simple process which is a kind of semantic drift — this is very common in terms which have very strong normative content — (which) works as follows: in Renaissance discussions about advice to princes which is a very large scale genre in Renaissance political philosophy, the most famous example being Machiavelli’s Il Principe (1513)… what these discussions are about, and this includes Machiavelli, is how a ruler, a prince, a principe, should act in order to maintain his state. This phrase echoes through Machiavelli. An example is mantenere lo stato which means your status. The question is how should you act in order to maintain your status, your standing, your stato, your state as a prince.

It is generally agreed that one of the things that you got to do as a prince if you are going to maintain your standing, your status, your stato as a prince, is to look after the body of the people. Even Machiavelli is extremely keen on that: if you don’t do that you’ll be hated; if you are hated, you will lose your stato… you will lose your position as a prince. As the French have it, there will be a coup d’etat, a blow against your state i.e. your state as a ruler, your condition as a ruler [etat, stato, just meaning your condition, status].

But if you can’t hope to maintain your status as a prince unless you keep the people in the body politic in good health, in security and in prosperity, then there is something that you have to maintain in order to maintain yourself: you have to maintain that body politic in good health and prosperity. The semantic drift is that mantenere lo stato, to maintain your state, comes to mean your maintaining your position and your maintaining your position by maintaining this thing, the state. And I think the Italian language is the first one in which — stato, which is what the Italians still use as their word lo stato, meaning the state as we would say — we see that semantic drift. It then happens very quickly in French and in English. And much later in German (staat).

So, the term is originally used as a head–body metaphor. There is a head of state and he is head of the body of the state. Now, there is a very celebrated work of history that we come upon at exactly this moment, Ernst Kantorowicz’s masterpiece, The King’s Two Bodies. Kantorowicz’s saw himself in this great work as tracing the emergence of the modern idea of the state. And he traced it in the idea which you find in late 16th century English discussions, specifically English law discussions, that kings have two bodies. They have the natural body but they also have an official body as head of state.

I am going to call this view the Absolutist View of the state. It is the idea that the proper metaphor for thinking of the state is that it is the head of a body: the body is the state; the head is the head of state, and that is the ruler. This is the first way of thinking about the state that develops in European political speculation and it develops in two strands of absolutist thought in the early modern period. On the one hand are writers on sovereignty (souveraineté, summa potestas) of whom the pioneer is Jean Bodin in the Six Books of the Commonwealth published in 1576, first translated into English as early as 1606. In the 1606 translation, Bodin begins by asking, and I quote it: “What makes a city or state?” And Bodin answers: “It is not the walls and not the subjects that make a city or a state but the union of the people in submission to a single sovereign as head of state”. Absolutely unambiguous and an extremely influential statement there.

The other strand of thinking in which this head–body imagery is taken just as seriously is in the theory which we’ve tended to call the Divine Right of Kings. (It is found) in the speeches of some monarchs themselves and most notably, King James I of Great Britain who is very fond of haranguing his own parliament on his role.He tells his parliament in the speech of 1605 and I quote:  “Kings are appointed by god himself with supreme authority over their states, over the whole body of our state.” You’ve got that semantic drift but it has moved because he is head of our state and that is what gives him the state of being a king.

Kantorowicz supposes that with those two strands of absolutism, we have the modern concept of the state: the idea of a head of state and the body of which he is the head. The absolutist view is one view — [Kantorowicz was writing in Germany in the 1930s and that is certainly one view of the state and in our current vocabulary we speak of people as heads of state]— but I am bound to say, although this is to criticize a masterwork of history, that Kantorowicz should have continued. He stops just around 1600 and if you do that, then this is indeed the only concept of the state that was current in political speculation. He would only have to go on two generations to find it vehemently denounced by a completely different and rival view about the state to which I now want to turn.

The Populist View

I am going to call this rival view the Populist view of the state as opposed to the Absolutist View. Populists agree that when we speak about the state we are referring to a civil union: that is to say, a union of people under a government. But what it is to be a populist in my terminology is to repudiate the head–body metaphor. You want to say: The people is not this kind of torso without a head so that it can’t act without a head. Of course, that is the persuasive force of the metaphor: without the head, the body can’t act. What the populist wants to say is that sovereignty — they are all talking about sovereignty and the state is sovereign — is possessed not by the head but by the body. The body of the people is itself sovereign. There’s the rival claim. You don’t have to have a head. The body is the sovereign power.

So, you find the term state being used in this rival way to refer not to a sovereign head of a body but to a sovereign body. Who speaks in those terms? We need to single out two completely distinct but convergent views about the state which I am calling Populist. First, although early modern Europe is largely monarchical — [it is amazing how Europe is still monarchical: Scandinavia, Britain, Netherlands, there it all is] — but there were some very important republics and they have their own tradition of political speculation, especially in Florence and in Venice in the 16th century, not merely describing institutions of republics but vindicating the idea of the Populist theory of the state. And I suppose the most important of all these treatises in the 16th century is Machiavelli’s Discorsi written about the idea of the Florentine republic. Just to say a word about Machiavelli, he grounds his preference for self-governing republics — [which is very strong: although he wrote a book about the prince, really his major work is vindication of self-governing republicanism] — on a view about how it is possible to remain free as a citizen of a self-governing state.

And the view of freedom that he puts forward — [it is written all over the Discourses] — is the one according to which you lose your freedom if you become dependent upon an arbitrary will. But of course, what Machiavelli wants to say — [Discourse II, the two opening chapters, that is the crucial passage] — is that if you live under a monarchy, you do live in dependence upon somebody’s arbitrary will. So, all monarchies enslave. If you want to live a vivere libero — as he wants to say in the Italian, if you want to live a free way of life — then you must live without dependence politically and that can only be achieved if you rule yourself.

What is the constitution under which you can rule yourself? Only a very broad based republicanism. And that story becomes fantastically important in its Anglophone version in James Harrington and then Algernon Sidney and for the Founding Fathers of the United States. That is why in Early modern political discourse republics are called free state to contrast them with monarchies; the vivere libero, because you can live free if and only if you live in a state by contrast with a monarchy i.e. a free state. So, there’s another very important pun: if you want to live in a free state, you’ve got to live in a free state.

Secondly and yet more important as a challenge to view that I began with is the challenge that arises actually out of the religious wars in France — [and then you could think of the English Revolution of the 17th century maybe as the last of the great religious wars of early modern Europe] — in which the attempt is being made to stop the forcible imposition of just one religion upon bodies of people.

The way in which that politics was challenged, first in France and then in Great Britain, was to insist that although governments may be invested with sovereign power, such sovereignty was originally the property of the people. So, you get this contractarian tradition emerging in which what is envisaged is an ‘as if’ story — of course, but there’s a thought experiment going on here — that if you envisage us without government, how are we? You’d have a body of the people, a society or societas of people and they would of course have all power to dispose of themselves as they wish. Now, they can set up any form of government they want but the governments they set up are mere delegates of their sovereign authority and if they find that those delegates are not acting for the good of the sovereign body, they can remove them.

So, there you have the whole structure of radical contractarianism running right through to John Locke at the end of the 17th century in the Anglophone tradition where tyranny is the usurpation of the sovereign power, the original sovereign power that is granted for good use to the common good to a government. The property of sovereignty is here seen as the property of the people and the people are equated with the state. That is what you find in the most important founding text of this tradition, the so-called Vindication Against Tyranny, the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, published at the height of the French religious wars as an attack on French monarchy in 1579. And it is the light of those same arguments that travels to Great Britain and becomes the foundation of the parliamentarian case against the Stuart monarchy in the 1640s and in 1649 when the British not only execute their king but abolish the institution of monarchy by an act of parliament — [they abolished monarchy forever in Great Britain and it lasted 11 years but they had a republic]. The great exponent of this exact view is John Milton whom we know as one of the greatest poets in the English language but he was also secretary to Oliver Cromwell and who was employed to write propaganda in favour of this radical image of the need to live in a free state and he publishes only months after the execution of the king his amazing tract called The Tenure of Kings and Majesties — here, we really do come to some of the texts which the Founding Fathers treated with such reverence especially this one. Of course, that is a joke in American universities because the point is kings and majesties don’t have tenure. You can get rid of them whenever you want. The tenure just means that they are tenants, they are not free holders. Who is the free holder? We are the free holders and I quote: “Sovereign power is held at all times by the body of the people or state nor can it be taken from them without a violation of their natural birth-right and it leaves them the authority to remove from power any ruler they judge to be a rebel to law and an enemy to the state.” So, there’s the Populist theory of the state. But what I want next to note is that no sooner has that vindicated the evolutionary in France and then the revolutionary movement in England than it in turn is vehemently attacked and we move into a third phase of the genealogy.

The Fictional View

Now, there are two prongs to this attack. One is that a number of writers just go back to the story about the Diving Right of Kings. The greatest exponent of that ideology, Sir Robert Filmer in the Anglophone tradition, has a final burst of energy after 1649 and writes his most important treatises between 1649 and 1651 — [not the one that John Locke replies to, Patriarcha, that is not published until much later] — denouncing the republic from the position of Divine Right theory. But I am more interested in the fact that there are some writers who denounce both the Absolutist theory and the Populist theory. They have nothing to do with either of these rival views about the state and the most important of those writers writing in the immediate aftermath of the English revolution — [think of this extraordinary confluence with John Milton who is his archenemy] — is Thomas Hobbes. And I want to talk about Hobbes’ theory of the state. It is his greatest contribution to Anglophone philosophy and it turned out to be fantastically influential. It is somewhat intricate and it will take me a few minutes to give you an exposition of it because curiously, it is not part of his philosophy that I think has been well handled in the voluminous literature.

Hobbes opens his Leviathan — [1651, you see he writes at breakneck speed. He doesn’t begin writing until 1649. After the regicide, he has it published. He writes it in a year! He has it published by April 1651] — (or at least) the political part, Chapter XIII, by reflecting on what he calls the natural condition of mankind. And what that chapter is, and this isn’t often enough said, is a scathing attack on the populist theory of the state. The Populist theory of the state says, by origin, that there was a society of people who had all sovereign power. Hobbes’ way of attacking that is to say that it can’t be that there is society of people with all sovereign power because there wasn’t a society. The natural condition of mankind is not a social condition. It is an anti-social condition. And he uses that vocabulary, he says — [of course, he’s famous for saying that it is nasty, brutish and short; it is a condition of war] — it is a non-social condition. It is asocial.

What’s wrong with the populist theory of the state is that it is grounded on an illusion, according to Hobbes. There’s no such thing as a body of the people. That is just a construction. There’s no such thing in nature. In nature, there’s just each one of us at war with everyone else. So, there was no original possession of sovereignty by the body of the people because there was no original body of the people. Hobbes is a complete enemy of the Populist theory of the state. But also, a complete enemy of the Divine Right of Kings. He doesn’t like anyone! Because what Hobbes wants to say about sovereigns is that they’re just representatives. You’ll never find in Hobbes any of this genuflection towards monarchs — indeed he accepts a republic — that you find in theories of Divine Right. For Hobbes, there is no lawful authority unless you consent to it. He is a radical thinker. No lawful authority unless you have given your consent. And it has to be explicit consent. You have to have a covenant before you can become a subject. So, the notion that your subjection is owed to God having placed a political apparatus from heaven upon earth — Filmer’s kind of story — is, for Hobbes, a mere superstition. Politics is artifice; we make it. It is not God given; it is man-made. That fundamental distinction is what we are seeing in the mid-17th century.

So, Hobbes repudiates both theories of the state and he has a rival view. His fundamental view is that a sovereign is just an authorised representative. That is what he wants you to understand. Sovereigns are very important: he’s an absolutist, no question. But sovereigns are just authorised representatives. So, he has to begin by telling us what he means by an authorised representative. What does it mean to be a representative? He has a very good answer. He is not interested in the visual notion of representation at all. For Hobbes, a representative is just like a court of law. A representative is someone whom you have authorised to speak in your name. Not just on your behalf but in your name. And the importance of the distinction is that when I authorise someone — [you know, I am in a court of law and I have committed a murder, this is a fiction of course, and I say to my counsel: Look, get me off. I don’t know how to do this. Speak for me. That is representation. And the judge says to me: Who represents you? I say: He’s the man. Listen to him. That is representation. It is as simple as that for Hobbes. It has to be an authorisation. I have to say: He is my representative. Now, what’s crucial about the notion is that] — he is not just speaking on my behalf but that he is speaking as me; his speaking in my name is that his actions are attributable to me. I am the author of his actions. So, I authorise him. I can only authorise him if I am his author. So, his actions as a representative are attributable to me as the represented person. That is sovereignty. The sovereign is an authorised representative and we do the authorising.

Now, here’s the question: if sovereigns are authorised representatives, what’s the name of the person they represent? It is very clear in a court of law. The judge says: Who do you represent? And he (the counsel) points to me. If a sovereign is the representative, who does he represent? You can’t say he represents the body of the people because there’s no such thing as a body of the people. So, Hobbes wants you to see that it is a big puzzle. To solve the puzzle, you have to focus on Hobbes’ idea of the political covenant. What he denies is the traditional idea of the political covenant which is the body of the people on the one hand and a designated and agreed sovereign on the other and they contract with each other on (certain) terms. [You can be king on (the) condition that ____. And in the famous Spanish oath which they gave to their kings, it ended with ‘and if not, not’ meaning you can do this if you are the king but if you (don’t) you’re not the king. That was the form of the oath.] That contract, Hobbes says, is just based on an illusion that the people is a legal entity. Of course, it is not. So, how can there be a covenant? Hobbes says there can be a covenant between each of us. [This is how you get a representative. You agree that way on a representative — you covenant with you and you and… or it could be some group of you or you could covenant… that is us, all of us are sovereign, that is called democracy that you can do; Hobbes thinks that is not a very clever idea because there’s too many of us but there’s nothing wrong with having a democracy, it is just that it is very hard to operate.] You covenant with each other as to choose and designate someone to be a representative. That analysis brings Hobbes to his central contention about the implications of the political covenant. And here’s the implication: when you do that (i.e. make the covenant and make a person the authorised representative) — [you each agree with the other that it is me, that is one possibility… probably not very wise but you might do that… by the way Hobbes has a mild preference for sovereigns being women because he says women are more prudent than men and that is what you want in a sovereign but men are stronger and that is why you get got kings. Here is what happens when you make that decision, man or woman, if it is a monarchy now you have decided. In making that person your authorised representative, you do something to yourselves] — from being a multitude, you (become) one, e pluribus unum. You were a multitude and now you’re one. What does that mean? It means you have one will because there’s one person here but his will now counts as your will because you authorised him to speak in your name and act in your name. His will in action is yours but that means that you now have one will. But if you have one will, then you are one person. I quote Hobbes: “A multitude of men are made one person when they are by one person represented”.

Now, I can go back to my original question. If the sovereign is a representative, what’s the name of the person he represents? Because it has got to be a person you’re representing. You can’t represent a multitude because they have a multitude of wills. You can only represent one will; one person. Hobbes gives an epoch-making answer to this question. He says: The person whom the sovereign represents is the person of the state. I quote: “The multitude so united in one person is called a Common-wealth, in Latin, civitas.” So, the sovereign represents the person of the state and that is what Hobbes calls it: the person of the state, quoting and translating Cicero, persona civitatis. Now, this person, Hobbes says, is a fiction. He’s not a real person. The state is not a real person. The state is a person, as Hobbes says, by fiction but, nevertheless, this fictional person is the sovereign, is the seat of sovereignty. The sovereign, the person we call the sovereign, is just a representative of this person. So, Hobbes categorically distinguishes the state not merely from the sovereign, who is the representative of the state, but also from the unity of the people, which changes all the time. Sovereigns come and go, individual members of the multitude or even the unus of the people are born and die, that is never unified, but the person of the state is always there. We have created, Hobbes says, a person with “an artificial eternity of life”. Or he says… it doesn’t actually work, states are not eternal but you want them to be eternal. You want them to be an artificial eternity.

Kantorowicz would say, and he does mention Hobbes, that this is precisely what the claims about kings in virtue of their having two bodies. So, Kantorowicz wants Hobbes to be in his story. He thinks it is a two-bodied story but if you have been following me, Kantorowicz is completely wrong here because we have got three bodies and that is what’s so crucial. This is why it is a separate theory. The first is the body of the sovereign, the man or woman in his or her natural person, that is to say of a certain age, of a certain demeanour [and that is actually quite important because kings should look like kings… the problem with Charles I was that he was only 4 foot 11; did you know that? It was a bit of a problem. Van Dyck had to be brought in with these enormous horses and then he was on top of the horses to make him look alright. So, there’s the king in his natural person.] But the king is sovereign, of course. So, he has, what Hobbes calls, an artificial person; that is to say, he is a representative. But he is a representative of a third person, it is a three-person story because the person he represents is the person of the state.

I am going to call this the Fictional theory of the state and before I leave it — [Hobbes’ great founding, it is a great moment in early modern political philosophy; massively taken up, as we are about to see, in continental European public law] — I want to underline two points about it. Notice that if you ask: What is the seat of sovereignty? On this account, the seat of sovereignty is the state not the sovereign although we call him/her sovereign. Secondly, notice that sovereigns are people with offices; they are representatives and just like in the court of law (where) my counsel has the duty to try to get me off, they have clear duties — Hobbes has a whole chapter on the duties of the sovereign. And what is the duty of the sovereign? The duty of the sovereign is to look after not the people — [you can’t look after all the people because they have different wills and different aspirations, but you can and you must look after the person of the people] —  but to look after the common good. Amongst the multitude, there is this person, there are things we will as citizens, there is a common good, there is a public interest. And the fundamental duty of the sovereign is to act in government such that all government actions are for the common good. If they are not, they are not acts of state because they do not procure the good of the person of the people. So, this is a view about what makes governments legitimate and that is what’s crucial about it. Government actions may or may not be legitimate. They are legitimate if and only if they are for the benefit of the person of the state i.e., for the common good of the people.

Alright, there’s Hobbes’ Fictional theory, I’ll call it. It is quite difficult to understand. It is quite intricate. I think it has been poorly understood in literature. But it was extremely well understood in European public law. And a group of absolutely crucial European writers on the jus gentium come forward with this theory. The first and in some ways the most important is Samuel Pufendorf in his great treatise on international law, the De jure naturae et gentium, 1672, in which he says: “My study is based on Mr. Hobbes’ ingenious draft of the person of the state.” I am quoting from the Eglish translation of 1717. I quote Pufendorf again: “The state exists as one person endowed with its own understanding and will and performs particular acts distinct from those of the private members who make up its subjects. It is true that the state is just a moral person.” What Rousseau is going to call a personne morale, quoting Pufendorf. “So, cannot act in its own name and stands in need of being represented. But the duty of the representative is to preserve the safety and tranquillity of the state which is not merely the bearer of sovereignty but guarantees the legitimacy of government over time.”

Yet more important in the theory of International Relations, and indeed an absolute founder of the theory of International Relations and the greatest, according to Kant and Hegel, was Emer de Vattel in his book on the jus gentium called Le Droit des gens published in 1758, (translated into) English as quickly as 1760. I quote Vattel: “The state is a distinct moral person possessed of an understanding and a will peculiar to itself. This person is a fiction and may not act. If it is to speak and act, some agreed form of public authority must represent it. But the duty of that authority is to preserve the state i.e., the good of the people as a whole.” And that view of Pufendorf and Vattel comes into English common law and thus into American law with the extraordinary important date of 1765; (it is) beginning of the publication of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. These are philosophical preliminaries to that work which entirely take up this fictional theory of the state. The idea of a political contract, as Blackstone calls it, which issues in the creation of a sovereign state and he uses that vocabulary, of course. By that time, everyone is using this vocabulary. So, there’s the Fictional theory. And we have come to the mid-18th century.

Reactions to the Fictional View

But what happens now, and this is continuous dialogue I am talking about, towards the end of the 18th century (is that) this Fictional theory which holds the stage and is vital to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right — [in fact, it sort of is Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; the state as the name of a person with a real will of its own: that is the whole point taken, of course, from the tradition I have been talking about. But in the Anglophone tradition, it] — branches out very suddenly towards the end of the 18th century and an almost lethal attack is mounted on it. And the attempted murder is committed by Jeremy Bentham. Bentham’s first published work was an extraordinary violent attack on Blackstone and this whole tradition that Blackstone stood for in Bentham’s mind. The attack on the fictional theory of the state rolls forward in two successive waves. They overlap with each other but let me, for heuristic purposes, try to separate them out from each other.

And the first is associated not just with Bentham but with the rise of classical utilitarianism. Bentham’s first work, the Fragment on Government of 1776, is his scornful critique of the whole discussion in Blackstone’s philosophical preliminaries about the state of nature, the contract, the forming of the person of the state. What does Bentham want to say about this? I quote: “The season of fictions is over. The time has come to ground legal argument on observable facts about real individuals. And especially in their capacity for experiencing in relation to political power, the pain of restraint and the pleasure of liberty.” So, Bentham’s response to this discussion of the state of nature, the body of the people, the creation of the state is to say: It is not that I disagree with that. It is completely meaningless. There’s nothing to disagree with it. It is complete rubbish. It is an extraordinary violent attack on this whole tradition to say that fictions have no place in the law. And that is the whole burden of Utilitarian jurisprudence. No fictions in the law. And, of course, the greatest fiction in law, in public law, at the time was the fiction of the state as a person. That attack has an incredible influence on early utilitarian thought. Here’s something you can try for yourselves. Try this at home. I defy you to find in any of the early utilitarians, in James Mill, in Godwin, even in the early John Stuart Mill, any discussion of the theory of the state. They think of it as a fiction; they think they’ve got to keep away from it. The exception is John Austin’s Lectures on Jurisprudence — a classic text of Utilitarian legal philosophy published in 1853, very influential on the development of English common law and in this country in the 19th century. But Austin mentions the state in order to dismiss it. And I quote: “When we speak of the state, we must understand that we are merely referring to the actual bearer of sovereign power.” So, the state and the sovereign are just the same thing. The sovereign might be the people, it might be the monarch, or whatever you like but notice that he is already saying that the word state and the word government are just synonyms. Don’t get yourself tied up with anything fancy, is what they are telling you as strongly as possible.

It is true that in the generation after the high tide of Utilitarian legal philosophy in the mid-19th in England, there’s an interesting moment of reversal and that comes with something which also preoccupied me — very interesting moment in Anglophone political philosophy. A sudden insurgence of Hegelian theories of the state into Anglophone discourse. At the end of the 19th century, this suddenly becomes rather important. And by a curious irony, a theory which was Anglophone in origin — Hobbes’ theory of the state as the name of a person which will become central to Hegel’s theory of the Reichstaat — is brought back into Anglophone discourse as Hegelian theory and the leading exponent of it is Bernard Bosanquet in his book The Philosophical Theory of the State, 1899. The Philosophical Theory of the State, according to Bosanquet, is dual. This is where — of course he is a real Hegelian and not a Hobbesian — the state is the name of a person, a separate person. It is separate from the person. It is separate from the people. But it is not the name of a fictional person. It is the name of a real person. The state is a real person with a real will of its own and the will of the state is your rational will. So, it gets very sinister at this moment. If you’re thinking rationally, you will obey the state because you’ll thereby be obeying your own true will. And that in German philosophy… it is very interesting that Carl Schmitt uses this way of thinking as a defence of Nazism in his book on the state in the 1930s. His hero is Hobbes. He is quite right about that. This is Hobbes’ theory. But, of course, it is seen as a Hegelian theory. The distinction is that Hobbes is quite clear that the state is a fiction. Whereas this tradition is quite clear the state is a real person. By the way, what do we mean by a real person? Philip Pettit has just written an amazing book on the identity of corporate persons in which he thinks that corporate persons are real persons and that the state is a corporate person. And is that a real person? We really have to think what we mean by a person before we dismiss too easily the notion that the state might be the name of a real person.

What happened in Anglophone political discourse is — I am sure you know all of this — that this is regarded as really obvious and very sinister nonsense, and there is a huge reaction especially after the First World War. Leonard Hobhouse, in his book The Metaphysical Theory of the State, which is a kind of satire on Bosanquet, says: I read this book in London and as the bombs were dropping I saw myself realise the folly of the Hegelian theory of the state. There’s the idea of the state as a real person and look what it did to London. “It is positively sinister,” I am now quoting Hobhouse “to think of the state as anything more than the name of a governmental organisation and its apparatus of power. When we speak of the powers of the state, we are simply referring to acts of government.” So, there it is. So too does Harold Laski, very influential in the early 20th century, say in his major work, Authority in the Modern State. I quote: “When we talk about the state, we are merely referring,” now he’s been reading Weber, listen to this, “to a prevailing system of sovereign authority together with an associated apparatus of bureaucracy and coercive force which operates over some determinate territory.” So, there’s Weber’s definition of the state, an attempt to insulate it and make it purely operational. So, there’s the first wave of the attack on the idea of the state as a person.

The second wave of the attack that I want to talk about was already well underway by this time. Notice that Laski in 1919 is still content to assume something that no theorist of the state that I have talked about so far has ever doubted which is states are sovereign bodies. But by the time Laski was writing, it was exactly that union of the notion of the state and the notion of sovereignty which was beginning to be cast in serious doubt. If you think of early modern theories of sovereignty in relation to the theory of the state, what is the theory of sovereignty the Bodin initiates that Hobbes takes up quite explicitly from Bodin, is that what it means to be sovereign is to be able to command without being commanded. That is Bodin’s epigram. That is sovereignty. So, it is unitary. And it is absolute. And it is lodged with the state. The e’tat of the state. The state commands but it is not commanded within its territory. That is sovereignty.

It began to be noted after the First World War that if that is sovereignty then states are not sovereign. And the best example in here, the United States’ President played an extraordinary role, is the establishment by the League of Nations in 1922 of the Court of International Justice because that court — of course after the First World War which in a way had been sort of a civil war — was there in order to question the sovereignty of individual states and to insist that there was a legal authority threat had the right to infringe the legal sovereignty of states with its own superior jurisdiction. Reflecting on these changes, what you then find is that a growing number of political theorists in the 20s and 30s disjoin the notion of sovereignty from the state. They may be states but they can’t be sovereign, is what they are saying. I quote, for example A.D. Lindsay, a very influential programmatic statement of this in 1920. I quote: “The first thing to be said about the doctrine of the independent sovereign state is the political fact obviously outrun it We have lived on into a world where the state as the be all and end all of political theory is finally out of date. We now stand in need of a theory focussed instead in the international arena and on the prospects of a world state.”

If you think of the closing decades of the 20th century, you find the decline and the fall of the sovereign state as an absolute cliché of political theory and International Relations theory alike. And in the last decades of the 20th century, a large literature especially in International Relations theory emerges. Some really important figures, Richard Falk, for example, repeatedly draw our attention to the discrediting of the idea of state sovereignty. What discredited it? Well, various obvious things are pointed to, the most obvious being the rise of multinational corporations and other institutions of international reach. And multinational corporations especially in the developing world with their power to control investment and conditions of employment are visibly able to coerce local states into doing what they want and regularly demand special deals in relation to employment and, indeed nowadays, in relation to laws about the conservation of the local environment because if these special deals are not given, they will withdraw their capital. The state is powerless in the face of these in the developing world. The notion of state sovereignty has completely evaporated in the face of such international agencies.

But as well as these agencies, what we are continually observing now in our world is the extraordinary development of an overarching ideal of Human Rights (which) has played a very important role in the increasing development of international legal organisations. [The United States has rather resisted these and you are not actually signatories to the Convention on Human Rights and to the law that underpins that because … let’s not go into that. But all other civilised states are. That is all I can say.] The crucial thing about this is that this is a jurisdiction which totally supervenes upon the legal jurisdictions of the member states. It totally supervenes upon it. The International Convention on Human Rights, for example, totally supervenes upon the common law of the United Kingdom and they are regularly in collision. It is very important that… it is a highly reformist thing having a convention on human rights because the convention on Human Rights prevents the discrimination for example on grounds of sex or age or religion age so you can’t have compulsory retirement, sex and of course minimum wages. All of these are scheduled as Human Rights. All of these is jurisprudence which is international.

So, what has become of the sovereign state? It looks as if it has evaporated. And so, so great a writer as Richard Falk says, and I quote him: “The old statist categories that have informed diplomacy and statecraft for centuries are now so evidently superseded that we shall soon cease to describe political life in these terms at all. The power of individual states is in terminal decline. The state is shrinking, retreating, fading into the shadows and the concept has lost any theoretical significance.” Frank Ankersmit in an article last year — an extremely influential the Dutch political theorist — concluded, and I quote him, just to round of before I tell the moral of this tale: “Now, for the first time in more than half a millennium, the state is on the way out.” So, that was written last year and my genealogy comes down to today.

From Genealogy to Critique

I want to turn now from genealogy to critique. Genealogy is always critique. So, what is the relationship in this case? Isn’t it striking that we have an extremely complex intellectual heritage in talking about the state. And we have chosen to confront it in this extremely etiolated way in which what we want to say is: Well, it is just a way of talking about government if nothing else. This seems to be deeply unsatisfactory. Of course, states are no longer sovereign but don’t you feel that this announcement of the death of the state is a little bit premature. I mean the world’s leading states remain the principal actors on the international stage. How can that be denied? Furthermore, they are unquestionably the most significant political actors within their territories at least in the developed world. [It is a very different matter in the less developed world. But here states are more aggressive than they used to be. They’re patrolling borders with increasing attention and are maintaining unparalleled levels of surveillance and information about their citizens. They are also interventionist in interesting ways. I was in the United States under the Bush regime in September 2008 when the state — although he didn’t call it that, he called it a republic— stepped forward as the lender of last resort to save capitalism. It had to be done. Meanwhile, these states continue to print money; I mean more and more of it. They continue to impose taxes, the enforce contracts, to engage in wars, a lot of wars, to imprison and otherwise penalise errant citizens, they legislate with an unparalleled degree of complexity. What other institution in the world except states does any of those things legally? None. So, what is all this stuff about the end of the state? I mean it is pure inattentiveness. Where are these people living?

The state exists. But the question that remains is: Are we operating with the right understanding of the state? Have we lost something serious in political reflection by simply equating state with government? What about the Absolutist Theory of the state? What about the Populist View of the state? What about the Fictional View of the state?

I am quite clear that the Absolutist and the Populist View of the state are of no conceptual interest for us here and now. But the Fictional View of the state, in my view, should have never been set aside.  And that is a point that is being made now by a number of legal and political philosophers — Janet Mclean, Runciman, Philip Pettit, Brian Trainor. A number of legal and political and political philosophers just in these last four or five years have started to say that we really cannot do without the idea of the state as a fictional person. I completely agree.

I’ll make two points. One arises from the fact that, as we saw, a key contention of the fictional theory is that the person of the state is by intention at least immortal. It is possessed, you remember Hobbes’, with an artificial eternity of life. It seems to me that in the present state of contract law — we can imagine contract law very different, but in the present condition — I do not see how you can coherently do without that idea in talking about the actions of states. Let me take the most obvious example. It is very interesting how this example is now being talked about, it is only three years old, this example. But it is of overwhelming importance to all of us now. Something that is now being called sovereign debt. Interesting. Sovereign debt. Who owns this debt? That is the question. We have these unbelievable burdens of debt in Europe and in the United States and who is the debtor? You can’t say well it must be the body of the people.  Perhaps the most important fact about 2008 in the western world was that the people were not asked. There was no contract with the people. We cannot be the debtor. Furthermore, if it is claimed that we are the debtor, then it is very important that we can’t pay. The level of debt is such that it will have to be repaid over the lifetime of our children’s children. The people cannot pay. But also, they didn’t enter into this debt. So, who is the debtor? Not the people.  So alright we say: Government debt. Obviously, it is government debt. Well that would be nice. Because if the government was the contracting force when the government changes the debt goes. That would be good. But that is ridiculous. That is not going to happen. Changes of government do not produce changes of debt. That is why they are calling it sovereign debt. But sovereign debt is a very stupid way of thinking about it. It is state debt. That is the debtor. The state is the only person who can claim to be the debtor. Because the state has artificial eternity of life. We are all going to be dead long before this money is paid back if it is ever paid back. So, there must be a debtor who is there to do the paying. That can only be the person of the state.

But there is another point. And it is far more important than the first. Remember that the Fictional theory did not equate government with state because the reason it wanted to hold those apart was that it wanted to be able to judge the legitimacy of the actions of government. When we talk of the state as a fiction, we are not introducing any new material into the world. We are seeing ourselves under a special description. We are seeing ourselves as a union who have many different interests within the union but who have certain common interests. Those common interests of the people as a union are the interests of the person of the people. The person of the people is the name of the state. Government action is legal if and only if it is for the benefit of that person. And that is a view about how to judge the legitimacy of democratic governments which so powerful that I simply can’t imagine why we ever gave it up.



What is Political Theory? by Andrew Hacker — A Summary


Title: What is Political Theory?
Author: Andrew Hacker
Publication: Andrew Hacker (1961) Political Theory — Philosophy, Ideology, Science


Science, Philosophy, Ideology

In order to say anything on a subject, one has to be either an “expositor” or a “censor”. The former explains what is and the latter tells us what ought to be. This Benthamite observation, though his remarks were confined to the study of law, brings out the distinction between the two branches of political theory: political science and political philosophy. The theorist engaging in political science describes and explains political reality. Meanwhile, the theorist engaged in political philosophy prescribes the goals that should be pursued in the political reality.

However, every respectable political theorist fills both roles and divides his efforts between both pursuits, although which role gets more attention will vary. The important point is that without both ingredients, a lasting contribution to knowledge cannot be made. Because there is no “pure” or “objective” political science. The grounds for selecting the aspects of reality to be studied must eventually be philosophical. Equally, political philosophy is always informed by an understanding of political reality. As such, there is no “pure” or “objective” political philosophy. It is up to the student of political theory to determine where the scientific part stops and where the philosophical part begins.

There is a third variety of theory in which the theorist may prescribe a course of action, or means, if a certain result is to be achieved. This sort of prescription that specifies the means and leaves the ends to the reader may be called “policy science”. Such if-then statements are prescriptions only in a technical sense.

Theorists tend to be Utopians or ideologues. While the former build castles in the air, the latter are stuck in the soil. As beings of emotion and interest, all theorists are inevitably ideologues.

A theory, in ideal terms, is dispassionate and disinterested. As science describe political reality without trying to pass judgment on what is being depicted wither implicitly or explicitly. As philosophy, it will prescribe rules of conduct which will secure the good life for all of society and not simply for certain individuals or classes.

As such, we have distortions and rationalisations instead of disinterested description and prescription.

Andrew_Hacker_1.jpg

But despite the inevitability of rationalisations and distortions, there emerges theorists who are able to transcend the ideological limitation and achieve a broader perspective and provide generalisations that stand the test of time. Those who achieve this may legitimately be called theorists.

The Search for Significance

The theorists of yesterday, as opposed to the theorists of today, are not much concerned with methodological rigor. When Rousseau declares that we must put the facts aside because they do not affect the issue and Machiavelli pushes only the unpalatable qualities of men, it is not because Rousseau fails to realise the value of facts or because Machiavelli is unaware of the complexity of human nature. It is because they are willing to stress dominant tendencies and speculate on major trends. The problem with too much rigor and too much information is that they make any significant contribution to political theory impossible.

A theory which says that men have equal proportions of good and evil in them is, in the final analysis, no theory at all. Generalisations are always risky, but to be meaningful they must come down on one side or another.

If theorists claim that their theories, their words should be viewed with suspicion and not taken seriously.

The problem with facts concerns their role in theory. Should they be used as evidence, as contemporary theorists do, or should they be used simply as illustrations, as many historical writers[1] did? The argument for the former is that facts lead to convincing and conclusive substantiations that supports the generalisations. The argument for the latter is reality is so subtle and complex to be factually verified.

But if the pursuit of significance requires the loosening of methodological standards, what is to stop the theorist from abandoning caution altogether? What is to stop him from creating fantastical edifices where all problems are solved or where everything is explained? There are a few of those in political theory. “Nevertheless, it must be remembered that if important issues are to receive discussion, then standards of logic and even veracity must be relaxed.”

Also, even if the full system propounded by a theorist may be untenable, it should not devalue the importance of “middle range” theories — theories that are a part of the general framework of a theorist. Examples are Aristotle’s theory of class, St. Thomas’ theory of law, Locke’s theory of property, Mill’s theory of representation. It is impossible to find a satisfactory all-embracing theory by a single theorist in this day. So, in the meantime, students of political theory must be willing to collect whatever they can from any source they find. Only, they must be sufficiently sceptical in temperament.

The History of Politics and
the History of Ideas

A knowledge of history understood in its broad conception as a growth and evolution of social classes, productive forces, and political institutions is essential for the political theorist. Without such historical knowledge, there can be no perspective for analysis or standard for judgement no matter how complete his knowledge of the present might be.

An illustration of this is the idea and fact of political liberty. Liberty as freedom from state and social restraint took birth in the context of a particular social structure and at a certain stage of economic development. The theorists who propounded this idea were situated in a certain point in time. The student of political theory cannot ignore these facts any more than he can deny that the social structure and the level of economic development has drastically changed today.

History in political theory is also pervaded by ideology. The ‘historical’ constructions of Rousseau, or Marx and Engels, or even Burke and Tocqueville, are filled with ideological overtones and are often distorted to make their arguments clear. These misdirections notwithstanding, the theories so created need not become valueless.


There is another form of history crucial to political theory, that of the history of ideas which concerns the political ideas set down in writing by men of ideas. The active relation between the history of ideas and the history of political action is stressed by most students. This gives rise to the common refrain that men of ideas must always be put in their proper historical context. But that amounts to wrongly denying that what they had to say has value and application that transcend their peculiar contexts.

The works of historical writers (see footnote), regardless of when and where they were written, can increase our understanding of the world. And their theories can and should be studied independent of the role they might have played in the ‘histories of ideas’. To defend this claim, seven points may be raised in the form of a rebuke against the ‘histories of ideas’:

1. “Capital” and Carbuncles

Biographical approaches tend to concentrate on how a particular work came to be written. Marx’s carbuncles are said to have make his attack on the bourgeoise more vehement. Rousseau’s constricted bladder is said to have affected his writing in the Social Contract. It is not advisable to completely divorce the man from his work but to concentrate solely on the man and not what he wrote, as these biographical approaches do, is to do a great disservice to political theory.

2. Lost Laundry Lists

There is a tendency to look at everything that an author wrote — even laundry lists! — as important to the work of the author. An obscure Hegelian essay on the English constitution is thus criticised for not bringing anything original to the discussion. These are the lengths historians of ideas will go to. Obviously, if one wants to learn about the English constitution, Hegel is not whom he should be reading. In any case, those who look at laundry lists or incidental essays have ceased their study of politics.

3. The Pursuit of Pedigrees

Similarities in phrasing and emphasis in the writing of two or more writers are taken to imply the direct influence of the ones who came before on the ones who came after other. Hobbes is thus positioned as the precursor to the Utilitarians when there is no evidence to prove that this is actually so. Such positioning is highly speculative. It is not to say that ideas emerge in a vacuum but it is at the same time naïve to think that an intelligent theorist cannot come up with conclusions on his own.

4. Nothing New Under the Sun

A commentator pointed out that there is nothing new in the Communist Manifesto. It might be true. But the point is that Marx took the thought of the others and put them together in ways that had never been done before, much as Shakespeare used existing English words in ways that had never been used before. That Plato or Aristotle has already said a few generalised remarks about most, if not all, aspects of political theory need not discourage the theorist from exploring further and digging deeper.

5. Meaningful Misinterpretations

One historian of ideas bemoans the fact that Bodin’s legacy has been built upon a false reading of his theory of sovereignty. So what? What a work gains in truth by a thorough scholarly reading, it loses in significance. The significance of theory lies in the eyes of the reader. Historical texts are more useful if they are read as texts alone. The obsession with hidden intentions and hidden meanings contributes very little to the study of politics.

6. Representative Reflections

Historians of ideas try to understand through the works of historical writers what was going on in people’s minds. But political texts are rarely representative of the thinking of their times. Often, they are unorthodox, even radical, positions adopted by only a small minority. The great books of political theory do not tell us what happened. They show us how some people chose to view what they imagined had happened.

7. Influential Intellectuals

Historians of ideas are quick to suggest that works of theory have a direct influence upon political action. This contention is a serious one and it is true that men of action read in political texts — Jefferson had read Locke’s Second Treatise, and Lenin was highly influenced by Marx. But we must also realise that many significant events in the world were not inspired by any theory — Genghis Khan overran Asia without a theory to guide him.

The point is that instead of the theorist directing the practitioner, it is usually the practitioner who (ab)uses the words of the theorist to suit his purposes. Theory, in other words, gets diluted into ideology in order for the practitioner to use it to stir people into action. A serious student ought to recognise this fact and learn to negotiate the difficult terrain of ideology without becoming an ideologue.

The historical texts have their greatest allure in that the theories they offer transcend the times and the personalities which produced them. In this sense they are timeless and, in an important respect, anonymous.

Politics and Conscience

Political theory requires a political conscience — deep concern for the world in which we live. A student must be ready to be driven by emotion and to work conscientiously. The important matters are not historical erudition nor methodological precision. Too great a concern with the history of ideas will only limit him. Politics has timeless problems. Only a sustained and intense discussion of theory will help resolve those problems.


Footnote

[1] By ‘historical writers’, Hacker means the writers of classic works on political theory who were not too concerned about methodological questions. He specifically mentions Burke and Tocqueville. He is not referring to historians.


For a differing view on the history of ideas, look at Quentin Skinner’s “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas


The Law of Peoples by John Rawls — A Summary


Title: The Law of Peoples
Author: John Rawls
Publication: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Autumn 1993)
Publication: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343947


  • Before proceeding, make sure you are familiar with Rawls’ concept of justice as fairness.  For an interesting and broader discussion on the concept, check out Michael Sandel’s lectures from his course: “Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do?” The topic is  introduced here and continued here.)
  • Sections under square brackets can be skipped on first reading.

Introduction

The essay seeks to develop a “law of peoples” out of “liberal ideas of justice”.[1],By a “law of peoples”, Rawls means a “political conception of right and justice that applies to the norms and principles of international norms and practice”.[2]

The essay seeks also to determine the attitude of political liberalism to non-liberal societies once a law of peoples has been developed from liberal principles. Briefly stated, liberal societies will respect non-liberal societies provided they adhere to the law of peoples. More specifically stated, liberal societies will tolerate a specific type of non-liberal societies: “well-ordered hierarchical societies” (see Section IV.1–3).

I. How a Social Contract Doctrine in Universal in its Reach?

1

The conceptualisation of a liberal conception of justice begins with a hypothetically closed and self-sufficient liberal democratic society and covers only political values and not all of life. How can a “historicist” liberal conception determined in this manner be extended to non-liberal societies? How can it be extended to future generations? How can it be extended to non-cooperative individuals? How can it be extended to animals and the rest of nature? In short, how can such a conception be universalised?

Reasonable answers may be forthcoming to only the first three questions. In any case, a political conception of justice cannot be expected to handle all these questions.

2

In most philosophical positions, the universalising factor is often a source of authority: God (Gottfried Leibniz, John Locke) or human reason (utilitarianism, rational intuitionism, perfectionism).

3

However, liberal conception of justice is “constructed” through a “reasonable procedure” by working with “relevant subjects” at different levels. The principles of this conception are first arrived at for closed democratic societies, then to future societies, and then to a law of peoples until all the requisite principles are discovered. This constructivist doctrine becomes universal when it produces the law of peoples that applies to the most comprehensive subject, “the political society of peoples”.[3]

II. Three Preliminary Questions

1

There are two parts to the liberal conception of justice. One applies to the domestic realm of liberal societies and the other, to the general realm of the political society of peoples. The principles of justice for both are derived from the “original position”. In the first, the relevant subjects are the citizens. In the second, they are representatives of the domestic (liberal as well as hierarchical) societies.

Doesn’t this accept the state (the domestic society) as traditionally conceived, with all its familiar powers of sovereignty?

No. Because, in the first use of the original position, domestic society is seen as closed, since we abstract from relations with other societies. There is no need for armed forces, and the question of the government's right to be prepared militarily does not arise and would be denied if it did. Also, the war powers of governments, whatever they should be, are only those acceptable within a reasonable law of peoples. We must reformulate the powers of sovereignty in light of a reasonable law of peoples and get rid of the right to war and the right to internal autonomy.

[2

Why start with liberal societies and not, say, the global society? For one, the attempt to chart the concept of “justice as fairness” began with domestic society and it has proved to be a reasonable starting point. For another, domestic societies organised by governments exist all over the world.

3

The law of peoples provides the conceptual tools with reference to which the law of nations (or international law) can be judged. This is the distinction between the law of peoples and the law of nations.]

III. The Extension to Liberal Societies

1

The liberal conception of justice contains: (a) a list of basic rights, liberties and opportunities; (b) a high priority for these fundamental freedoms; and (c) guarantees to ensure effective use of these freedoms.

Justice as fairness is typical of these conceptions except that its egalitarian features are stronger. To some degree the more general liberal ideas lack the three egalitarian features: the fair value of political liberties, fair equality of opportunity, and the difference principle.

The extension of the liberal conception to the law of peoples proceeds in two stages: ideal theory and then, non-ideal theory.

In the first stage, it is assumed that all relevant societies comply strictly with the principles arrived at. These societies may be liberal or hierarchical but they are similar in that they are all well-ordered.[4]< The examination of liberal societies is followed by the consideration of hierarchical societies. The feature of consequence is that both kinds of societies will comply with the principles of the law of peoples.

In the second stage, the case of societies that refuse to comply and societies that are unable to comply due to unfavourable conditions are very briefly considered.

2

The first original position behind the veil of ignorance is a device of representation that specifies fair conditions the participating parties, the representatives of free and equal citizens in liberal societies, in that they fairly represented (all are equal in the original position), understood as rational (they do the best they can for their interests) and assumed to choose to choose the principles for the appropriate reasons (the veil of ignorance prevents the use of “unsuitable” reasons).

3

In the next level, the participating parties as representatives of liberal societies are to determine the law of peoples. As with the first original position, the representatives are reasonably situated (the representation is symmetrical), they are rational (principles of law are determined with reference to the interest of liberal societies), and they decide in accordance with appropriate reasons (the veil of ignorance hides information regarding the size of territory or population, the relative strength of the people, the extent of natural resources, the level of economic development and so on).

4

The principles arrived at by liberal societies will be familiar ones. They will allow cooperative association but not lead to a world state.

I … (think) that a world government — by which I mean a unified political regime with the legal powers normally exercised by central governments — would be either a global despotism or else a fragile empire torn by frequent civil strife as various regions and peoples try to gain their political autonomy.

The principles of justice between free and democratic peoples will include “certain familiar principles …, among them the following:

  1. Peoples (as organized by their governments) are free and independent, and their freedom and independence is to be respected by other peoples.
  2. Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements.
  3. Peoples have the right of self-defence but no right to war.
  4. Peoples are to observe a duty of nonintervention.
  5. Peoples are to observe treaties and undertakings.
  6. Peoples are to observe certain specified restrictions on the conduct of war (assumed to be in self-defence).
  7. Peoples are to honour human rights.”

The list is incomplete and some of its contents may appear, to differing eyes, either too superfluous (#6) or too contested (#4). The point however is that such principles will constitute the charter of association of liberal societies.

[5

The government of a society is the representative[5] and effective agent of its assets, i.e., the people’s territory and its (the territory’s) capacity to sustain them. Without such an agent, the asset would “deteriorate”. Irresponsible management of the asset does not give them the right to conquest by war or migrate without consent.]

6

In addition to the three requirements of the original position (See Section III.3), there are two further requirements. First, the society of liberal societies should be stable in the right way. This means that it should remain stable by generating respect through the merit of its principles and judgements with regards to its ideas of justice and not because of some “fortunate balance of power — it being in no people’s interest to upset it (the society of liberal societies)”.

7

The historical record suggests that, at least so far as the principle against war is concerned, this condition of stability would be satisfied in a society of just, democratic peoples. …since 1800 firmly established liberal societies have not gone to war with one another. …This being so, I shall suppose that a society of democratic peoples, all of whose basic institutions are well ordered by liberal conceptions of justice (though not necessarily by the same conception), will be stable in the right way as above specified.

The last condition is that the citizens of liberal societies accept the principles and judgments of the law of the society of liberal societies after due reflection.

IV. Extension to Hierarchical Societies

1

This section (the second step of ideal theory; see Section III.1) considers hierarchical societies. Such societies are usually, but not always, religious.

A well-ordered hierarchical society fulfils three conditions. First, it is peaceful and gains its legitimate aims through “ways of peace”. Its comprehensive religious doctrine is not expansionist. It respects the civic order and integrity of other societies. If it seeks greater influence, it does so in a way that respects the liberties of other societies.

2

Second, it imposes moral duties and obligations upon its members. It not only insists on a common good conception of justice, i.e., it takes into account what it thinks are the fundamental interests of its members, but it is also willing to administer its legal order, and defend and justify its decisions publicly. A well-ordered hierarchical society constitutes a “reasonable consultation hierarchy”.[6]

3

In view of this account of the institutional basis of a hierarchical society, we can say that its conception of the common good of justice secures for all persons at least certain minimum rights to means of subsistence and security (the right to life), to liberty (freedom from slavery, serfdom, and forced occupations), and (personal) property, as well as to formal equality as expressed by the rules of natural justice (for example, that similar cases be treated similarly).

Third, it recognises basic human rights. If it insists on a common good conception of justice (as the second requirement specifies), it must recognise and protect those rights. Otherwise, such an insistence would be unreasonable.

A hierarchical society may have an established religion with certain privileges. Still, it is essential to its being well ordered that no religions are persecuted or denied civic and social conditions that permit their practice in peace and, of course, without fear.

4

Fulfilling these conditions, even hierarchical societies can agree to a law of peoples that recognises human rights.  Their representatives will also, when positioned in the original position, adopt the same principles that liberal societies would. (see Section III.4) Why? Because they care about the good of their societies (meaning they are rational) and also because they respect the civic order and integrity of other societies (meaning they are reasonably situated).

[5

(This subsection only clarifies some methodological questions and does not introduce any substantive material.)

There is no inconsistency in assuming that hierarchical societies are equally (or reasonably) situated along with liberal societies, even though the former might allow basic inequalities among its members because it is “not unreasonable”[7] for an inegalitarian society to insist on equality in making claims against other societies.

Although, the first original position incorporates a political conception of the person rooted in a liberal society, the second original position that determines the law of people does not (do not confuse this with the “political conception of justice” introduced in the Introduction). This enables the more specific liberal conception to be extended to a more general law of peoples the encompasses even non-liberal societies.

Why not start from global original position (see also Section II.2)? For one, it is not certain that proceeding in this manner would yield a different set of principles. Also, starting from such a position is troublesome for the use of liberal principles since it means narrowly assuming all persons as rational based on liberal conceptions.]

6

But how can a liberal conception of justice be applicable to hierarchical societies? Because they fulfil the same conditions as those specified for liberal societies in Section III.6­–7. They will honour a just law of peoples for the same reasons that liberal societies do.[8] In short, they fulfil the conditions of well-orderedness (see Subsections 1–3).

V. Human Rights

1

Human rights are not derived from comprehensive moral or philosophical doctrines. They only express a minimum standard[9] of well-ordered societies available to all members.

2

The imposition of moral duties and obligations (see Section IV.2–3) makes the existence and acceptance of human rights possible. The requirement of human rights is that members of societies be responsible, cooperating, and obedient to the moral duties and obligations, all of which are fulfilled in hierarchical societies. Human rights are therefore not exclusive to the liberal tradition. They are “politically neutral”. The basic human rights can be protected in a well-ordered hierarchical state.

3

One role of human rights is to circumscribe state sovereignty.[10] They are universal and non-controversial. They are integral to a law of peoples and specify the limits on the domestic institutions of societies.

Human rights (a) legitimise regimes, (b) prevent forceful (even if justified) intervention by other peoples, and (c) “set a moral limit to pluralism” among peoples.

VI. Nonideal Theory: Noncompliance[11]

1

All discussion up to this point has assumed strict compliance to the principles of the law of peoples, i.e., ideal theory (see Section III.1).  But to complete the sketch of the law of peoples, the case of noncompliant societies will have to be considered, i.e., nonideal theory.

Nonideal theory presupposes ideal theory[12] and seeks to work towards it (ideal theory) in gradual steps. There are two kinds of nonideal theory: outlaw regimes which refuse to comply with the law of peoples, and societies with unfavourable conditions that make their achieving well-orderedness difficult if not impossible.

2

Outlaw regimes are often built on a system of terror and coercion (Nazi Germany, for example) and they may recognise no conception of right and justice at all. There are also expansionist regimes (Spain, France, the Hapsburgs) that recognise no geographic limits to their authority (see Section IV.1).

With expansionist regimes, the well-ordered societies can at best establish a modus vivendi. With outlaw regimes, for the short term, the well-ordered societies are in a state of nature and they have a duty to protect and defend their own peoples as well as those innocent peoples subjected to outlaw regimes but not the rulers and elites of those outlaw regimes.

3

But in the long term, the aim is to bring all societies to honour the law of peoples. How to do this is a matter of foreign policy and calls upon political wisdom and success depends on luck too.It is not for political philosophy[13] to intervene.

For well-ordered peoples to achieve this long-term aim they should establish among themselves new institutions and practices to serve as a kind of federative center and public forum of their common opinion and policy towards the other regimes. … This federative center may be used both to formulate and to express the opinion of the well-ordered societies. There they may expose to public view the unjust and cruel institutions of oppressive and expansionist regimes and their violations of human rights.

VII. Nonideal Theory: Unfavourable Conditions

1

This type of nonideal theory applies to societies that “that lack the political and cultural traditions, the human capital and know-how, and the resources, material and technological, that make well-ordered societies possible.” The goal here is to raise the societies with unfavourable conditions towards conditions that make well-ordered societies possible.

[2

Can the difference principle[14] be used? No. Because, it applies only to liberal societies. It also deals with ideal theory. And with the diversity of societies that are in existence, not all of them can be reasonably expected to accept a liberal principle of distributive justice.]

3

But how may the project of helping societies burdened by unfavourable conditions become well-ordered societies proceed? This question shall remain unanswered at the moment for the problem of giving aid is extremely tricky and also because the problem is often not of lack of resources but the political culture and social structure (oppressive government, corrupt elites, subjection of women, unreasonable religion etc.)

VIII. Concluding Reflections

(The following will be extracts and must be read along with the essay or not at all. In any case, they are non-substantive “reflections”, important from a critical perspective but not crucial to a preliminary understanding of the ideas being put forth.)

1

“… (the) respect for human rights is one of the conditions imposed on any political regime to be admissible as a member in good standing into a just political society of peoples. Once we understand this … it is perfectly clear why those rights hold across cultural and economic boundaries, as well as the boundaries between nation-states or other political units. With our two other conditions (see Section IV.1­–2), these rights determine the limits of toleration in a reasonable society of peoples. …These conditions indicate the region of bedrock beyond which we cannot go.”

2

“(I)n working out the law of peoples we assumed liberal societies to look at how they are to conduct themselves towards other societies from the point of view of their own liberal political conception. … to proceed thus is not then necessarily ethnocentric or merely Western. … The liberal conception asks of other societies only what they can reasonably grant without submitting to a position of inferiority, much less to domination. … (it) does not ask well-ordered hierarchical societies to abandon their religious institutions, and adopt liberal ones. … (it) does not justify economic sanctions or military pressure on well-ordered hierarchical societies to change their ways, provided that they respect the rules of peace and their political institutions satisfy the essential conditions we have reviewed.”

3

“A liberal society is to respect other societies organized by comprehensive doctrines, provided their political and social institutions meet certain conditions that lead the society to adhere to a reasonable law of peoples.”

4

“…to affirm the superiority of a particular comprehensive view is fully compatible with affirming a political conception of justice that does not impose it, and so with political liberalism itself.”


Footnotes

[1] When Rawls says “liberal ideas of justice”, he is drawing upon the ideas expressed in his conception of “justice as fairness” which he wants to make more “general” in this essay.

[2] By a “political conception of justice”, he means a conception that: (a) applies to basic political, economic, and social institutions; (b) is independent of religious, philosophical, or moral doctrines; and (c) is expressed through fundamental liberal ideas.

[3] It means a society comprising well-ordered liberal and well-ordered hierarchical societies.

[4] “Here I understand a well-ordered society as being peaceful and not expansionist; its legal system satisfies certain requisite conditions of legitimacy in the eyes of its own people; and, as a consequence of this, it honours basic human rights.”

[5] The arbitrariness of the territorial boundaries of politically organised societies might be brought up to object to the validity of the agreements made by them but such a fixation would be “wrong” because their role in the law of peoples is not subject to whether they were properly defined territorially but only to what political values they serve in the system of the law of peoples.

[6] “It includes a family of representative bodies, or other assemblies, whose task is to look after the important interests of all elements of society. … (Its citizens) are seen as responsible members of society who can recognize their moral duties and obligations and play their part in social life. …there is an opportunity for different voices to be heard … and (the citizens) have the right at some point in the process of consultation to express political dissent.”

[7] That’s not to say that it is reasonable. Rawls thinks that space should be allowed between what is (fully) reasonable and what is (fully) unreasonable.

[8] Rawls thinks this “seems plausible” enough to not warrant argument and clarification.

[9] “Since they are to express a minimum standard, the requirements that yield these rights should be quite weak.”

[10] Based on considerations of human rights, the war making and population exterminating rights of the state has severely been limited. War is no longer an admissible state policy.

[11] “In actual affairs, nonideal theory is of first practical importance and deals with problems we face every day. Yet for reasons of space, I shall say very little about them.”

[12] Because without it, nonideal theory has no objective to achieve and no standard to adhere to.

[13] Rawls ventures to give some suggestions though.

[14] The most crucial principle amongst those that constitute the concept of justice as fairness.


Priorities of Global Justice by Thomas Pogge — A Summary


Title: Priorities of Global Justice
Author: Thomas Pogge
Publication: Metaphilosophy, Vol. 32, Nos 1/2 (January 2001)
Link: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24439448


Note:

  • As in the essay, all first person plurals (“we”, “us”, “our”, “ourselves”) refer to the developed countries while third person plurals refer, unless explicitly stated or obvious from the context, to developing countries;
  • The divisions are my own insertions and are not present in the original essay; and
  • Although I should not mention this, all facts and figures are dated to the time the essay was written (i.e., the dawn of the millennium).

I

Why have the affluent states done so little to alleviate global poverty? The demise of the Soviet Union not only enabled the availability of funds for such a purpose by reducing military spending but also facilitated the incorporation of moral values into foreign policy. But official development assistance (ODA) from developed countries has actually decreased.

To add to the puzzle, developed countries have been very willing to spend obscene amounts in military interventions to save, say, a million Serbs in Yugoslavia. Why not spend similar amounts without endangering anyone in order to save many millions of lives?

To put the importance of this question in perspective, consider the following facts: a quarter of all people live below the international poverty line[1]; 790 million people are malnourished; one billion are without safe water; 2.4 billion are without basic sanitation; 880 million lack basic services; one billion are without shelter and two billion are without electricity.

Deprivation not only leads to the underfulfillment of social and economic human rights but also civil and political human rights. Severe poverty is the greatest source of human misery today causing more suffering and deaths than all violent conflicts around the world combined.

Reducing severe poverty is not easy but it is easier than violent ‘humanitarian’ interventions which, unlike poverty reduction, have significant moral and economic costs that are hard to determine and often end up worsening the situation.


II

The position of the developed countries on global poverty can be summed up as under:

  1.  We are able to reduce poverty and hunger and diseases associated therewith at a modest cost, [2]
  2. We are willing to spend a tiny fraction of our national income toward such a reduction,
  3. But we are not legally or morally obligated to give any weight at all to this goal.

The denial of the obligation to reduce would be acceptable if the invisible hand of the market were doing the job on its own. But along with the ascendency of the “new economic architecture” consisting of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO as well as the healthy aggregate economic growth, there has been an increase in poverty in absolute terms.[3]

This new architecture has to be rethought if poverty is to be eradicated within an acceptable time span. It is completely dominated by a few countries and the openness of the global market has little positive consequence for poor countries whose lack of infrastructure excludes them from the ‘open’ market. A special effort is needed to jump-start development.

This is not an argument against globalisation. But it does show that the developed states must remove their protectionist barriers and make a considerable non-market-driven effort to get the poorest quartile to the point where they too can benefit from globalisation. Failing that, the new economic architecture will further increase global economic inequality or even aggravate the horrendous conditions among the poorest quartile.

Global economic inequality has persistently increased.[4] What has changed though is the capacity of the affluent states to effect massive and rapid reductions in severe poverty. It is economically feasible to wipe out poverty, hunger and disease without real inconvenience to anyone.


III

The conclusion from the foregoing paragraphs could be: “If we can make so huge a difference to hundreds of millions at so little cost to ourselves, we must not refuse to make this effort.”

The call for action, in this instance, is predicated on the fact that it can be done at “so little cost to ourselves”. This ground for action is misleading. It is a moral duty that requires serious effort toward reducing poverty. But not only that, the incidence of poverty among the billions in impoverished countries is deeply connected to us.

“First, their social starting positions and ours have emerged from a single historical process that was pervaded by massive grievous wrongs. … Second, they and we depend on a single natural resource base, from the benefits of which they are largely, and without compensation, excluded. … Third, they and we coexist within a single global economic order that has a strong tendency to perpetuate and even to aggravate global economic inequality.”

Given these connections, the failure to act on poverty is not merely a lack of beneficence (a line of thought popular among leaders) but an active impoverishing, starving and killing of millions of innocent people by economic means (an idea that is, unfortunately, rarely taken seriously). The harms were not intended nor foreseen, but now that the results are in, we have to realise that it was our mistake and act to rectify it.

(The next section explores the third connection between the affluent and the poor countries)


IV

(Note: Familiarity with John Rawl’s conception of “justice as fairness” especially the “difference principle” and, to a lesser extent, his conception of the Society of Peoples is recommended.)

Free and competitive markets are quite compatible with huge and ever increasing inequality. A principle, like Rawls’ difference principle for national economies, is needed that would help assess the distributive effects of alternative global orders. Rawls, for his Society of Peoples, insists on a universal minimum as a constraint on unbridled inequality. This principle is unobjectionable and hugely important. But it does not suffice. The inegalitarian tendencies built into the global market oriented order is not made right by keeping the losers of the system from falling below a certain minimum. Rawls downplays and obscures the causal role of the global economic order in perpetrating, aggravating and perpetuating poverty and inequality.

Against this criticism, it is often argued that it is not the economic order but the governments in poor countries that are to blame for they do not implement optimal policies. The success of the “Asian Tigers” and the state of Kerala in India are cited in defence.

However, what is true of the Asian Tigers or of Kerala cannot be true for all. If all poor countries took up manufacturing just as the Asian Tigers did, there would have been much less profit to go around. The Asian Tigers exploited a niche and once that niche was filled, it made no economic sense for many more to join in.

Also, there may be systemic reasons why poor countries are unable to implement ‘optimal’ policies. The incidence of endemic corruption in developing countries and the unwillingness of the elite in these countries may be consequences of the global economic order itself.

(The next section develops this second point.)


V

Bribery is an unavoidable menace in developing countries. The distribution of contracts is greatly influenced by bribes. Bribes not only generate non-competitive work but also weaken regulation and quality control. Enormous losses are incurred as a result.

While this might lead to the conclusion that it is the greed of officials in developing countries that is to blame, the conclusion is punctured by the fact the developed states have not merely permitted bribes but morally justified them (by deducting bribes from taxes). Fortunately, this practice is being phased out.[5]

One could also conclude that even if they were not bribed by foreigners, the ruling elites in developing countries would have enriched themselves anyway. Many of these countries are undemocratic and many are outright violent.

This conclusion is problematic for the crucial reason that any group or indeed person, regardless of its character, controlling a preponderance of the means of coercion within the country is recognised as the legitimate government of the country’s territory and its people. That group becomes the representative of the country with which international dealings takes place.

One pertinent example of such dealings is the international borrowing privilege which imposes valid legal obligations on the country at large. Given this feature, a democratic successor to an autocratic government has to uphold the borrowing burden incurred by the previous government.

This has important negative consequences for human rights fulfilment in developing countries: “First, this privilege facilitates borrowing by destructive governments … which helps them stay in power even against near-universal popular discontent and opposition. Second, the international borrowing privilege imposes upon democratic successor regimes the often huge debts of their corrupt predecessors which saps the capacity of such democratic governments to implement structural reforms and other political programs … Third, the international borrowing privilege provides incentives toward coup attempts.”

There is also the international resource privilege that grants the power to effect legally valid transfers of ownership rights of natural resources. Corporations that have purchased resources from ruling families in developing countries become legitimate owners and acquires all rights and liberties of ownership.

This has disastrous consequences for poor countries whose economies are dominated by the resource sector. It creates strong incentives for violent coup attempts and undemocratic exercise of political power and also motivates foreigners to corrupt local officials. The chain of poverty caused by corruption caused by natural-resource wealth brings us to the international resource privilege.


VI

These brief remarks on bribery and on the international borrowing and resource privileges show at least in outline how the current global order we uphold shapes the national culture and policies of the poorer and weaker countries. It does so in four main ways: It crucially affects what sorts of persons exercise political power in these countries, what incentives these persons face, what options they have, and what impact the implementation of any of their options would have on their most-disadvantaged compatriots.

In this global order, the developing countries are too weak to exert any real influence on the way the global economy is organised. The governments in these countries comprised as they are of elites have little incentive to alleviate the suffering of their poor counterparts. Their (corrupt elitist governments in developing contries) and our survival and flourishing are dependent on the continuation of the global order which therefore appears proper.

“The conclusion is once again that the underfulfillment of human rights in the developing countries is not a homegrown problem, but one we greatly contribute to through the policies we pursue and the international order we impose. We have then not merely a positive responsibility with regard to global poverty … but a negative responsibility to stop imposing the existing global order and to prevent and mitigate the harms it continually causes for the world’s poorest populations. … The reduction of severe global poverty should be our foremost moral priority.”


Footnotes

[1] “is one 1985 US dollar per person per day at purchasing power parity (PPP).”

[2] “Even if the FAO’s proposed annual increase of $6 billion (from the World Food Summit 1996) were to reduce hunger faster than expected, this should be no cause of regret… an extra %6 billion is not much to ask from the high-income countries, whose combined GNP in 2998 was $22,599 bilion.”

[3] “From 1.2 billion in 1987 to 1.5 bilion today (1999) and if trends persist, will reach 1.9 billion by 2015.”

[4] “The income gap between the fifth of the world’s people living in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest was 74 to 1 in 1997, up from 60 to 1 in 1990 and 30 to 1 in 1960.” Earlier estimates are 11 to 1 for 1913, 7 to 1 for 1870, and 3 to 1 for 1820.”

[5] “The first major step was the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, enacted after the Lockheed Corporation was found to have paid a $2 million bribe not to a Third World potentate, but to Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. It took another twenty years until thirty-two affluent states, under OECD auspices and under public pressure generated by a new nongovernmental organization (Transparency International), signed a Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Officials in International Business Transactions, which requires them to criminalize the bribery of foreign