Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective

By Paul F. deLespinasse, Adrian College

Copyright © 1981 by Paul F. deLespinasse. Details of generous permission to make copies This chapter may not print or copy unless you have clicked here first.

Footnotes are at the end of the chapter.

To access other chapters, go back
to the Table of Contents

Chapter 17: Beyond Politics--
Thinking about the Human Predicament

Chapter Objectives

When you have finished reading this chapter you should understand:

1. The differences between the two concepts of human nature called here Model I and Model II.

2. Some implications of the fact that Model I is presumed by the present text.

3. Why people who assume Model I for some people and Model 11 for others undermine the conclusion that they seek to support.

4. How Model I's concept of free will does not imply that all human institutions are the deliberate creations of human action.

5. Why politics is unimportant, in the sense that it is not the most important thing in human life.

6. Why small-scale relationships are humanly more important than large-scale ones, so that justice, the highest political value, is not the highest human value.

Key Terms

aggregation of unanticipated consequences
Model I
Model II
behaviorist psychology
"unimportance" of politics
Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

If you really want to understand human beings, there are plenty of people to go to besides psychologists. There are men, and women, who have a wonderful understanding of human beings, without having acquired it by any official scientific procedure. Most of these people are incapable of communicating their knowledge, but those who can communicate it are novelists. They are good novelists precisely because they are good psychologists. . . . If one wishes to learn about psychology in a genuine, rather than a scientific, way, by far the best thing to do is to read masterpieces of literature.*


Since politics is the realm of large-scale human interactions, it is easy to forget that its basic element is individual people. People exist, act, and communicate only as individuals, but not as isolated individuals. Even Robinson Crusoe existed as an isolated individual only in a very limited sense. He brought along a great deal of civilized baggage including memories of other people. Conversely, even the most complicated interactions resulting from human coexistence can be analyzed into individual components. Just as its individual atoms determine the physical properties of an ice cube, so the nature of individual humans determines that of societies, governments, and politics.

Concepts of human nature are therefore an element in every theory of government. Usually, they are well hidden in the very foundations of the theory. Rarely are they expressed in so many words. Still, things in the foundation are usually fundamental, since foundations determine the contours of structures erected upon them. Although we have listed "What is the nature of man?" as the third basic question of political philosophy, if we listed questions in order of importance it might come first.

Presently, two general concepts of human nature are in intellectual circulation. These two models of man are alternatives. To accept one is necessarily to reject the other.

Model I

The traditional American concept of human nature emphasized the individual's freedom to choose among different actions and his responsibility for these choices. This model was strongly influenced by Calvinistic Christian theology. Human beings were seen as having exalted status in the divine scheme of things. They were also seen as highly corruptible and beset by diabolical temptations on all sides.

Model I of human nature is clearly expressed, for example, in James Russell Lowell's hymn, "Once to Every Man and Nation," written in the nineteenth century:

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side. Footnote 1

Decisions must be made, by individuals and by nations. These decisions should be made, not randomly, but on the basis of truth and virtue. There is good and bad, and these correlate with truth and falsehood.

Politically, Model I is implicit in the checks and balances built into the American Constitution of 1787: in the separation of powers, in federalism, in bicameralism, and in the Bill of Rights added in 1791. The founding fathers felt that individual liberty was important in order to allow the development and expression of the moral virtues. But they also wanted strong government in order to suppress the more outrageous actions permitted by human nature. Since the same human nature applied to political leaders as to the masses, the checks and balances were necessary in order to prevent government from being hijacked by an occasional bad leader and used to create hell on earth.

Checks and balances are indeed a "reflection on human nature," as Madison admitted in Federalist No. 51. Still, Model I is a comparatively flattering view of man, even though we may not perceive this from looking at it in its own right. To appreciate Model I, it is necessary to consider Model II.

Model II

Model II is the "scientific" view of human nature which has become fashionable in the thinking of some very high status Americans--the behaviorist psychologists of whom B. F. Skinner is only the most explicit and extreme case. The overtures to this outlook, however, were played in the nineteenth century by far-sighted philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, reacting to developments in modern physics and biology.

As many observers have noted:

The behavioral sciences in general--and social science in particular--have long suffered from an inferiority complex relative to the "harder" sciences, notably chemistry and physics. Footnote 2

As the spectacular accomplishments of these physical sciences have multiplied in the twentieth century, the temptation has grown ever stronger for social scientists to succumb to this inferiority complex. The surrender has taken the form of the assumption that to be "scientific" one must employ all of the methods and assumptions used by physical scientists.

A prime assumption underlying the physical sciences is that present motions were caused solely by previous conditions in the physical universe. Thus, it is assumed that the results of a properly controlled experiment will always be equivalent, and the controls consist of an effort to assure that only specific physical conditions are allowed to vary. The motion of a billiard ball is seen as the result of the speeds, directions, and masses of other balls which have come into contact with it, and of friction against the table and air on and in which it is moving. The results of all these factors affecting the motion of a given ball can be calculated, in principle, with differential equations applied to the various vectors representing the relevant motions of the other balls. The ball does not make choices that affect its motion.

In current physical theory, calculations of motions at the subatomic level cannot be made with the same confidence that applies to billiard balls. But even the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle does not postulate that electrons have any choice. Their motions are still entirely caused by their circumstances and by what is done to them. As Bertrand Russell put it in 1935, several years after Heisenberg published his uncertainty principle: "The discovery of causal laws is the essence of science. . . ." [Footnote 3] Actually the Heisenberg principle dealt with limits on our ability to measure and to know, not with limits to the relationship between cause and effect. As Stanley Jaki has noted, it has consequences for the cause-effect relation "only when taken jointly with the methodological assumption that only what can be observed in a laboratory is endowed with reality." [Footnote 4] And Jaki quotes J. E. Turner's trenchant reply to the more gullible fans of the Uncertainty Principle:

Every argument that, since some change cannot be "determined" in the sense of "ascertained," it is therefore not "determined" in the absolutely different sense of "caused," is a fallacy of equivocation. Footnote 5
Physics, in other words, is based on analysis of cause-effect chains with no cutoff points, no new departures, and no choices. In principle, everything that happens in the physical universe (if we ignore the existence of life) depends on what was going on earlier, just as with billiard balls. Everything at one point in time is explained by reference to an earlier time. If the age of the physical universe is finite, then if we push inquiry back far enough we reach a time when there was no previous state of affairs in that universe because there was no universe. Precisely at this point, physics bows out of the discussion, leaving the field to theology and metaphysics.

Modern behaviorist psychology is "reductionist" in the following sense: Human actions are reduced to questions of psychology; questions of psychology are seen as nothing more than complicated questions of biology; biology is reduced to nothing more than extremely complex chemistry (with "biochemistry" as the common denominator or link); chemistry in turn is reduced to physics. And physics, of course, is the realm of the billiard ball. According to this, the Model II image of man, people are fundamentally like billiard balls. Everything that you think, feel, and do is determined completely by some combination of your heredity and your environment. If you feel that you are making choices, this is an illusion itself caused by circumstances beyond your control.

Just as the spirit of Model I is expressed by Lowell's hymn, that of Model II is dramatized in the nineteenth-century writings of Friedrich Nietzsche:

We do not complain of nature as immoral because it sends a thunderstorm and makes us wet--why do we call those who injure us immoral? Because in the latter case we take for granted a free will functioning voluntarily; in the former we see necessity. But this distinction is an error. . . . In looking at a waterfall we imagine that there is a freedom of will and fancy in the countless turnings, twistings, and breaking of the waves; but everything is compulsory, every movement can be mathematically calculated. So it is also with actions . . . . Footnote 6
Lowell, thinking in terms of Model I, tells us we must choose between good and evil. Nietzsche, anticipating Skinner and the behaviorist psychologists, tells us we must move "beyond good and evil." [Footnote 7] We must, in fact, abandon these concepts in any fundamental and serious sense if Model II is correct. It is obviously ridiculous to blame or to praise a billiard ball for its behavior; so, too, is it ridiculous to blame billiard ball men for theirs.

Scientific Critique of Model II

The prevailing psychological fashions have not gone unchallenged. Stanley Jaki lists a number of distinguished physicists who have objected vehemently to the uncritical uses to which their ideas have been put by philosophers and psychologists:

J.C. Maxwell: "As soon as we plunge into the abysmal depth of human personality we get beyond the limits of science."

Lord Kelvin: "The mystery of radium, no doubt, we shall solve it one day, but the freedom of the will, that is a mystery of a different kind."

Max Planck: "It is a dangerous act of self-delusion if one attempts to get out of an unpleasant moral obligation by claiming that human action is the inevitable result of an inexorable law of nature."

R.C. Tolman: "I must caution you . . . that the opinion of one good physicist [Eddington] that the uncertainty principle brings free will and moral responsibility back into the world can hardly be regarded as sensible. As far as I know, moral responsibility has never left the world and, indeed, could hardly be helped by a principle which makes physical happenings, to the extent that they are not determined, take place in accordance with the laws of pure chance." Footnote 8

One disgruntled critic defined a behaviorist as a person who has made up his windpipe that he has no mind. More specifically, Noam Chomsky has argued vigorously that it is impossible to account for the known facts about the human ability to learn a language if one uses behaviorist assumptions about human nature.[Footnote 9] Although not wanting "to read too much into a terminological innovation," Chomsky finds it significant that "we live . . . in the age of 'behavioral science,' not of 'the science of mind"':

No sane person has ever doubted that behavior provides much of the evidence for this study [of man and society]--all of the evidence, if we interpret "behavior" in a sufficiently loose sense. But the term "behavioral science" suggests a not-so-subtle shift of emphasis towards the evidence itself and away from the deeper underlying principles and abstract mental structures that might be illuminated by the evidence of behavior. It is as if natural science were to be designated "the science of meter readings." Footnote 10

The spirit of the times, however, appears to be thoroughly in tune with Model II. David Barash specifically refers to "behavior as a branch of biology," [Footnote 11] a reductionist position. Van den Berghe proclaims that:

We are not disembodied spirits. We are a very special kind of self-conscious animal, but an animal all the same. And we run the risk of making asses of ourselves if we should forget that at some very fundamental level we are mortal conglomerations of billions of cells that evolved as camal envelopes for the transmission of potentially immortal genes. Footnote 12
And Pamela McCorduck informs us that:

the humanities are demoralized because they are no longer adequate for us in the world as it is. We are hard up for a Copernican revolution, which will take man from the center of the universe and put him someplace more appropriate. Footnote 13
When physical scientists and humanities professors can talk like this, it is no wonder that social scientists can go so far as to tell us that "we do not need to take individuals into account; indeed we may disregard human beings entirely." Footnote 14


Each of the conflicting models of human nature has implications for ethics and politics. If we cannot accept the implications, we cannot accept the model of man that produces them. If we insist on accepting a model, we cannot reject its implications.

The analysis presented in this introduction to thinking about politics rests squarely on Model I of human nature. As noted in Chapter 3, we have assumed that human actions are not caused, except in the sense that they are caused by the person who takes them. They are thus different in kind from the characteristic motions of the physical universe. The physical universe behaves strictly at the cause-and-effect, billiard ball level of Nietzsche's waterfall. Human beings do not just behave. They act. And while we live within physical and social circumstances that make some actions impossible, these circumstances do not cause the actions that we do take. Social causation, as we explained earlier, is therefore the causation of possibilities and impossibilities, not the causation of actions.

Obviously, Model I presumes that the physical universe is not all of existence and that human beings have an aspect that is not physical. Human freedom, creativity, and ability to learn a language are accounted for by the nonphysical dimension of our existence in which we are not forced to live solely by the rules of the physical universe. Rather than being passive pawns of our nature and nurture, of our heredity and environment, we are thus responsible actors. We are not produced like a pocket calculator or bushel of wheat, but are faced with the challenge of producing ourselves. Our bodies, to be sure, we do not produce ourselves, though we may destroy them by unwise actions. But we are not our bodies.

Human beings can be studied at many different levels. Our bodies can be seen as physical aggregates which for some purposes behave exactly like any other physical aggregate. For example, our bodies gravitate exactly like the pocket calculator or bushel of wheat. Seen at another level, our bodies behave according to the principles of chemistry and biochemistry. If we ingest a certain quantity of arsenic, heroin, or plutonium, for example, the inevitable biological consequence will be to make it impossible for our body to continue performing essential functions: we die. Likewise, we can be studied at the more strictly biological level, or at the psychological level as a processor of information. That we can be studied at any one of these levels, however, does not mean that we can be studied adequately at any one of them. Nor does it allow us to rule consideration of other perspectives out of scientific bounds. Excluding the additional perspectives introduced by human freedom of choice, actions (in the uncaused sense), and responsibility makes any science of man inadequate. These important human characteristics cannot be ignored in seeking the overall picture.

The theory of associations introduced here is firmly grounded in Model I. We have defined an association as the relationship existing when one person's net satisfaction is increased or decreased by another person's action. If one person's actions were caused by those of another, nothing but mischief could result from this definition. Under Model II, an association would have no boundaries. The person whose satisfaction is affected by your action is associated not only with you, but also with the person who caused you to act, with the person who caused him to act, ad infinitum. Such a mushy concept of association would be nearly useless for analytical purposes.

Human Freedom and Law

Law is clearly based on the premise that human nature is as depicted by Model I. If a person only acts as he must because of his heredity and environment, punishment for some actions cannot be defended. (As we will see, it also cannot be attacked!) It offends our sense of justice to punish someone for doing something he had no power to refrain from doing. Punishment only makes sense if people have a choice in how they act and can thus be held responsible for making the wrong choice. Nietzsche therefore had a very valid point when he proclaimed that "Christianity [with its Model I image of man] is the metaphysics of the hangman." [Footnote 15] However, his general analysis of the reasons people have for believing in Model I is quite inadequate:

Wherever men try to trace responsibility home to anyone, it is the instinct of punishment and of the desire to judge which is active. . . . The doctrine of will was invented principally for the purpose of punishment, that is to say, with the intention of tracing guilt. . . . Men were thought of as "free" in order that they might be judged and punished- -in order that they might be held guilty; consequently every action had to be regarded as voluntary. . . . Footnote 16
How did Nietzsche know what other people's motives for believing or asserting something were? Further, even presuming that he had correctly identified these motives, what have they to do with the truth or falsity of beliefs or assertions? We judge the truth of a belief by the extent to which it is compatible with our experience and by the extent to which it helps us make sense of our experience. Our motives simply have no bearing on whether something is true, one way or the other.

Some modern students of crime, inspired by Model II's billiard- ball man, conclude that punishment cannot be justified. However, they generally proceed to contradict their own premises by condemning judges, juries, jailers, and even hangmen, for participating in the crime of punishment. Of course these critics cannot be allowed to have it both ways. If we use Model II to understand criminals, we must also use it to understand judges, juries, and hangmen. If criminals are billiard balls, so too are the authorities. It is no fairer to blame a policeman for his behavior than it is to blame a criminal. Condemnation of the public authorities is only possible if we apply Model II to criminals but Model I to those who enforce the law. Any such distinction, however, produces conclusions that would be horrifying to most critics of modern law enforcement. If some people operate by Model I, making choices, being responsible, and others are merely Model II billiard balls, the latter are clearly not human beings at all and there can be no moral objections to doing anything to them. There are no moral limitations on how we can treat billiard balls.

Equally peculiar results can be seen when psychiatrists-- professionally devoted, for the most part, to Model II---become involved in law with its inherent Model I foundations. According to Dr. Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who has violently criticized his own profession, psychiatrists perform a perverse function in legal matters. They muddy up the issues so that judges and juries feel free to indulge their own feelings towards litigants instead of having to decide according to the usual legal rules. "Expert" psychiatric testimony that a person was "incompetent" when he drew up a will, for example, allows judges who are offended by the terms of the perfectly valid will to give the estate to close relatives who were deliberately excluded from it. And in criminal cases, defendants--especially upper class ones--for whom judges or juries or prosecutors are sympathetic can be excused from the usual criminal penalties for their actions if they are found to be insane or mentally ill.

Szasz concludes that "mental illness should never be accepted as a release from criminal responsibility," and that "it should never be the ground for a refusal to try a person charged with an offense." [Footnote 17] Logically enough, Szasz has a Model I concept of human nature. One wonders what premises and logic produce the widespread reluctance in American society to punish the insane or mentally ill for their actions. Apparently, they are regarded as incapable of actions (in our sense) at all. They can only behave, but do not act, for human actions as we have defined them are uncaused but their acts are caused. While this is certainly a possible philosophical position, it is hard to see how the prohibition against punishing the mentally ill follows from the premise. For if the lawbreaker cannot act, he is not a person but just a thing or an animal. And in this event, what objection can there be to doing anything to it? Perhaps these considerations explain the popularity of temporary insanity, a weird concept at best and one raising intriguing problems of proof. In any event, the results of the clash between Model I and Model II in the courtroom are most unedifying. Szasz, obviously disgusted by all the nonsense psychiatrists get mixed up in at trials, concludes sarcastically that:

The current American style of playing this game is characterized, among other things, by the ethical premise that only healthy persons should be punished, tortured, or killed. Thus, the psychiatrist's task is to ascertain and declare whether the accused is healthy enough to be punished. Footnote 18

The Aggregation of Unanticipated Consequences

If, as we are assuming here, Model I of human nature is basically correct, this by no means implies that all human institutions are the products of deliberate actions. Although we exist, act, and communicate only as individuals, we do so in the context of other individuals who can influence the consequences our actions will produce. Many of our actions cause possibilities as well as actualities, and whether these possibilities will be actualized often depends on other individuals over whom we have no control. When many individuals interact, the causal relationships are so complex that unsuspected and unwanted consequences may occur. It is therefore almost possible to say that groups have an existence independent of the individuals who make them up and that groups are thus entities greater than the sum of their parts.

Predicting actual consequences is one of the biggest problems facing the decision-making individual. As we have seen, rational action not only requires that individuals try to anticipate consequences, but it also forces them to limit this effort. Since each individual must make many decisions, too much time spent figuring out one problem means he will have to give proportionately small attention to other decisions. This is not rational and is sometimes called "penny wise and pound foolish." Since it is impossible to forecast every consequence that may follow any action, one does best to try to see only the most important consequences. What is important depends on the actor's values, but it is likely that most individuals will concentrate on consequences that directly and immediately affect themselves and those for whom they care. Only secondary, if indeed any, attention will be paid to consequences that are only indirect.

Frequently, no doubt, the unanticipated consequences of individual actions will tend to cancel each other out in the manner of two waves which are 180 degrees out of phase with each other. Thus Mr. B's decision not to dine at his usual restaurant but to try a new one may be accompanied by Mr. C's quite independent decision to go where Mr. B usually eats. Neither restaurant then is troubled by violent surges of good and bad fortune from one night to the next. In a large enough statistical universe such cancellations can often be counted on. Thus insurance companies can depend upon mortality tables to ensure their solvency even though they cannot predict whether a particular buyer of life insurance will be living three minutes after they have sold him a policy.

Although it is often possible to assume that unanticipated consequences of individual actions will cancel each other out, it is not always possible to make this assumption. Sometimes these consequences may add to each other rather than subtract, as happens when waves are not completely out of phase with each other. Let us imagine, for example, a group of soldiers marching along a road. They come to a bridge and begin marching over it. Since they are marching in step with one another, with all the left feet coming down on the bridge together, then all of the right feet, they may set up violent vibrations in the bridge and may even cause the bridge to collapse under them. Some of the soldiers may drown because they do not know how to swim. Certainly nobody desired this result. Or let us recall the economic system in the United States of the 1920s. Nobody intended to become poor. Indeed, everybody was trying to get rich. And yet, as a direct result of people's actions the stock market crashed and a great economic depression set in.

Nobody wills, nobody necessarily intends to destroy the bridge or to cause a crippling economic depression--yet these disasters may be the result of actions taken willfully by individuals. 'the individuals in the examples were presumably merely trying to reach the other side of the river or to make money. We thus arrive at the very heart of a key problem in political analysis. Abraham Kaplan has written:

[T]he wholesale imputation of motives generates the so-called "conspiratorial theory" of society: whatever happens, it is because someone wanted it to happen.

. . . There is nothing "pseudo" about such explanations: they are just manifestly false, overlooking the enormous role of unanticipated and even unintended consequences of most actions, to say nothing of natural processes apart from our actions altogether. What sustains these explanations is not evidence but the secondary gain of personification. . . . "The Hoover depression" thus constitutes, not merely a distinguishing label, like the "Victorian age," but an implied assignment of responsibility, as in "the Napoleonic Wars." Footnote 19

As Kaplan indicates, many people find it easier to blame the world's political troubles on the machinations of a few highly evil men rather than trying to understand what is happening in all its complexity. Thus many people found a motion picture such as Dr. Strangelove, which implies that the cold war and the threat of the total destruction of civilization are the fault of a few very bad men, to be highly realistic. Another film about the end of the world by nuclear war, On the Beach, was regarded as sentimental and soft-minded because its characters were all basically decent people. But as Herbert Butterfield has put it,

Civilization may be wrecked without any spectacular crimes or criminals but by constant petty breaches of faith and minor complicities on the part of men generally considered very nice people. Footnote 20
Although Butterfield sees men as creatures who make history, he maintains that:

The pattern of the history making which we shall carry out will not be the product of my will or of yours or indeed of anybody else's, but will represent in one sense rather what might almost seem to be a compounding of these wills or at least of their effects--something which sometimes no single person will either have intended or anticipated. Footnote 21

Butterfield is probably quite correct as far as he goes, but he would probably not deny that at least some of the connections between apparently innocuous individual actions and social catastrophes or disturbances may be discernible, at least after several recurrences of the particular catastrophe, and that a general awareness of the causal relationship may make it possible for individuals to modify their actions slightly in the future so as to avoid further examples of these particular disasters. In fact, one of the fundamental tasks of the social scientist may well be to try to sort out the interconnections between individual actions and social consequences and to make enough people aware of them so that they may act more successfully in the future. The troops can break step crossing bridges.

Hans Morgenthau, a distinguished political scientist, was therefore being very ambiguous when he said that:

The intellectual possibility of a theory of international relations depended upon the recognition that the relations among nations are not something which is given to man, which has to be accepted as given, and which he must cope with as best he can, but rather that the relations among nations have been created by the will of man and therefore can be manipulated and changed and reformed by the will of man. Footnote 22

It would seem that Morgenthau's "will of man" is a very unclear concept. What he may really be trying to say is that to a great extent relations among nations have been the result of the aggregation of unanticipated consequences. In this sense international relations, and other political institutions, can be described as the unwilled result of willful actions by individuals who are pursuing other ends. They are thus an intermediate case between the physical universe, which we must indeed accept as given and "cope with" as best we can, and the personal arena in which we can fabricate our relationships rather deliberately. In this intermediate area of institutions and large scale interactions, there can be no doubt either that changes can be made or that they should be made. But it is clear that to change present patterns of international relations, for example, is not at all as easy as Morgenthau's words might imply, since there is no such thing as the "will of man," but only the wills of individual men.

This state of affairs is undoubtedly a mixed curse. It helps to explain why institutional inertia is perverse and why improvements do not come easily. But it also divorces the contours of human institutions from the fads and follies of the short run and allows them to evolve almost automatically in the light of accumulating experience. A kind of "social Darwinian" process unfolds in which less efficient institutions are relegated to the "dustbin of history" as a result of their inability to compete with more efficient ones. We find here a close analogy to the role of economic markets which, as Hayek notes, permit societies to act as if they understood masses of information which no single human mind or organization could ever grasp or process. The results of deliberate efforts to shape human institutions, largely by means of armed conquest from outside, revolution from within, and even peaceful reform, have not been entirely impressive or commendable. There is, therefore, at least something to be said for the unplanned approach to change which brought us things like the English Parliament and constitutional monarchy.


Politics is one manifestation of human nature, and one aspect of human life. It is clearly, however, not the most important part of human life. Politics is life on a large scale, but each of us finds significance and satisfaction primarily in our small- scale dealings with relatively few individuals. Politics is the realm of Gesellschaft, of the association in which others are regarded as means to more important ends. The protection and welfare of those for whom we really care--those in our own Gemeinschaft circle--can be seen as the ultimate end we pursue by means of politics. Thus criminal law helps to protect our lives and property, and those of our friends, from the depredations of strangers. Social services such as weather forecasts, highways, and schools are desired because they are conveniences in our private lives.

Private Lives

It is at the level of the very small group in which we confront one another face to face that we live the most significant social portions of our lives. More inclusive levels of social organization are justifiable because they make possible a continuation of the Gemeinschaft's fundamental personal relations with a minimum of disruptions from others. The state is thus a setting for life, not the essence or epitome of life. It exists only as a means to the private ends of the individual; the individual does not exist as a means to the glory of the state. Politics is thus of vital but never of ultimate importance. Like the heart in the human body, whose beat is necessary for the individual to continue living, a failure at the political level can have fatal consequences. Decent people will, therefore, do well to be interested and involved in politics rather than abandoning it to scoundrels. But politics is also like the heart in that as long as it is functioning adequately it is not the most important thing in the lives of individuals.

It is therefore not surprising that political apathy is rife throughout the world. Even voting, hardly an intense form of political participation, does not evoke mass enthusiasm. It takes a Soviet-style election to turn out 99% of eligible voters. Even an American presidential election is hard put to bring 60% of those who have bothered to register to the polls.

Political scientists and politicians have trouble understanding mass political apathy. They are active in their professions precisely because they think politics is very important. It is only one further step for them to conclude that politics is fundamentally important. No doubt it is natural for political activists to inflate the importance of what they are doing. The size of the puddle he is in rubs off on the prestige and rewards accruing to the political frog. If politicians and political analysts do not blow their own trumpet, who will? But these natural tendencies are not harmless. There are serious dangers if we, the people in general, exaggerate the place of government and its politics in the lives of the people. These dangers are especially acute when we are trying to learn something about government.

Even a subject that is not fundamentally important can be worth serious study. But the student who regards politics as a fundamentally important part of life compounds the difficulties of understanding how things actually work. Instead of explaining facts such as apathy, ignorance, and nonvoting, he will have to explain away facts. Worse, those who exaggerate the importance of politics will find it almost (but not completely) impossible to face some of the most important facts. Many political facts are so nasty that a person who is emotionally overwhelmed by the subject just cannot stand to think about them. Failure to face up to these nasty facts may lead the student to fall back on fairy tales and "civics book" thinking.

Students are also potential political actors. The political actor who exaggerates the importance of politics risks developing a badly distorted style of life. He risks becoming an extremist. Putting third things first, he ultimately risks being a completely miserable person. The one thing extremists of all persuasions--the John Bircher and the Maoist, for example--agree upon is that politics is of ultimate significance and that if the political order is bad or fails in some respect all is lost. Mao Tse-Tung said: "Not having a correct political outlook is like having no soul." [Footnote 23] If the political order is defective, a decent life is regarded as absolutely impossible and politics is seen as the road to personal salvation. Thus the totalitarian philosopher Herbert Marcuse characteristically charged that the current American political system "isolates the individual from the one dimension where he could 'find himself': from his political existence, which is at the core of his entire existence." Footnote 24

Such an orientation can be particularly catastrophic in the lives of people who, in spite of exaggerating the importance of politics, are intelligent enough to perceive the full nastiness of politics. For if.- (1) politics is fundamentally important (first premise); and (2) politics is also nasty (second premise); then (3) present political institutions must be totally unacceptable. It would be intolerable to think that the universe might be so flawed that a fundamentally important part of it would be inherently nasty. As Jubal Harshaw says in Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land, that would be "a sloppy way to run a universe." [Footnote 25] If one accepts both premises, it does not take too many more assumptions before one is led quite logically to become a revolutionary. In spite of the vast amounts of evidence for the second premise, however, the revolutionary conclusion does not come as easily if the first premise is untrue.

The Necessity and Dangers of Thinking Big

It is impossible to develop a well-balanced perspective on life and self if we assume that the large-scale is more important than the small-scale in the physical universe. We must resist the notion that large groups are more important humanly than small groups. We must remember that:

History is not like a train, the sole purpose of which is to get to its destination. . . . If we want an analogy with history we must think of something like a Beethoven symphony- -the point of it is not saved up until the end, the whole of it is not a mere preparation for a beauty that is only to be achieved in the last bar. Footnote 26

There can be no doubt of the necessity of thinking big. It is necessary to use general categories and high abstractions merely in order to think at all about the complex universe and society in which we live. For many purposes, the details are not important. For the purpose of running a life insurance company, it does not matter which purchasers of its policies will live less than the average number of years and which will live more. The coldly impersonal actuarial tables are meaningful only in dealing with a large statistical universe, in dealing with large numbers of people. They are one form of "thinking big." The fact that no two snowflakes are the same does not have the slightest importance for the snowplow operator.

The broad perspective taken by political leaders, who must deal with large numbers of people, is a legitimate and necessary one. We even pay homage, in saluting the value of a government of laws and not of men, to the desirability of impersonality in governmental treatment of individuals. Similar cases should be treated similarly, without regard for the personal connections of the individuals involved. The high officials of a government think big, and it is a very good thing indeed that they do so. In a world in which the side effects of individual actions may aggregate to cause disasters, it is important for somebody to be concerned with the overall picture. It is important for somebody in the Federal Aviation Agency, for example, to feel satisfaction if fatalities from plane accidents are cut from 1.5 to 1.1 persons per 400,000,000 passenger-miles and to work to try to make air travel still safer.

Thinking big is necessary and desirable. It is also dangerous in the same way that a medicine that is beneficial when properly used can be deadly under other circumstances. Daniel Burnham once said: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." But W. A. Orton has noted the danger of big plans:

Once you start working backward from abstractly conceived ends to the policies and problems of actuality, there is no telling to what enormities your logic may drive you. Rationalism of the a priori type always ends by being inhumane and antidemocratic, because it can see nothing in the folkways and traditions of ordinary people except obscurantism. They get in the way of the ideal scheme, and that becomes a sufficient excuse for impersonal harshness and well-intentioned brutality. Footnote 27
And George Kennan puts it to us bluntly:

I have seen more harm done in this world by those who tried to storm the bastions of society in the name of utopian beliefs, who were determined to achieve the elimination of all evil and the realization of the millenium within their own time, than by all the humble efforts of those who have tried to create a little order and civility and affection within their own intimate entourage, even at the cost of tolerating a great deal of evil in the public domain. Footnote 28

Thinking big is necessary and desirable--but not all the time. In order to keep a sense of proportion, we need to devote a fair amount of time to "thinking little." We must be as concerned with the quality of our thinking as we are with its quantity. We need to remember what lies behind the abstractions whose use we find so necessary and convenient. As Bishop Richard Emrich has said:

In an age of vast organization, stupendous budgets, and great impersonal forces, it is easy to forget that human character and honor must always stand at the center of our concern. . . . History reveals that most calamities and disasters are caused by the vices, arrogance, and stupidity of human [individuals] . . . . Footnote 29

We need also to remember that politics is basically a Gesellschaft activity, a pattern of I-it relationships, a means to more important ends. Politics provides (at best) the framework of stability and security within which the personal life of the individual-among-friends is possible. But politics does not and cannot make the good life inevitable. Some people still could and would be miserable even in the best of all possible societies. Politics, like the heart, must be regarded as vital, but not as all-important, if we are to keep things in perspective.

Finally, we need to remember that in large scale human relationships justice and not love is probably the ultimate value (although large scale relationships are not themselves ultimate), and that people claiming to love humanity in general (rather than respecting it) are probably deceiving themselves if they are not indeed lying. A parable along these lines is presented in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. Father Zosima is speaking:

It's just the same story as a doctor once told me. 'I love humanity,' he said, 'but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular, that is, as separate individuals. . . . I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity in general.' Footnote 30

If we remember these things, that discrete individuals lie behind the highest social abstractions, that politics is only a means to more important ends, and that justice rather than love is probably the appropriate goal for such large-scale relationships as politics, then it may be possible to study political science and still keep a sense of proportion. We cannot hope for more than this. We can ill afford to settle for less.


Since human beings are the ultimate subject matter of political science, all political analysis rests on assumptions about the nature of man. We must apparently choose between two models of human nature: Model I sees people as free actors; their actions are not dictated by previous situations and events in the physical universe but constitute, instead, new beginnings in the chain of cause and effect. Model II sees people as complicated aggregates of matter that "behave" according to the same rules that govern a billiard ball. Model II is presently fashionable among psychologists and is considered the "scientific" view of man, but ideas are not validated by labeling them "science." Model I is presumed by law and ethics, and it is the model employed in the present text.

Model I does not indicate that human institutions are deliberate creations of human action. The consequences of one person's action depend on the circumstances in which it was taken, and these include other people and their actions and reactions. One reason for their awful inertia is that institutions are unintended results of intentional actions. But the resistance of our political and social organization to deliberate changes is no reason to despair. The quality of our lives depends primarily on the small groups of intimates with whom we live and interact personally. While we cannot afford totally to ignore politics, neither can we afford to be obsessed.


1. Is it presumptuous for a political scientist to base his political analysis on a view of human nature (Model I) which is generally rejected by psychologists, the experts in the study of human nature? Explain your answer.

2. Do you agree that we must choose between Model I and Model II? Why or why not? If you disagree, propose a Model III and justify your proposal.

3. Comment on the implications of the following news story:

Barbara Smith committed the assault, but police aren't likely to press charges. Her victim was a 1964 auto which failed once too often to start. . . .
When Officer Jim Fuda arrived at the scene, he found one beat-up car, a broken baseball bat, and a satisfied 28-year- old Seattle woman. . . .
"I feel good," Ms. Smith reportedly told the officer. "That car's been giving me misery for years and I killed it." (Toledo Blade, June 18, 1978)

4. To what extent is the following statement compatible with the arguments of this textbook?

A student was in to see me a couple of years ago. He said he was interested in the great harmonies of human affairs, the great unities. He wanted to think of those things in which mankind was all one, in which it was not divided, in which everyone could be winners. . . .
And I said, 'Man, you ought to go into theology. You are looking for something in this field of study that isn't there. Politics isn't like that.' (Charles Burton Marshall, Johns Hopkins Magazine [November 1973], pp. 23-24.)

5. Is the following a Model I or a Model II approach to human nature? Why?

"Man is an abyss and I turn giddy when I look down into it." (Georg Buechner, quoted by Ingmar Bergman, New York Times, October 17, 1976.)

6. If (as suggested in Chapter 1) you also have read a text on semantics in this course, perhaps S. 1. Hayakawa's Language in Thought And Action (4th Edition), to what extent do you find support there and in this text for the following?

The obscurity [in moral and political knowledge] is much oftener in the passions and prejudices of the reasoner than in the subject. Men, upon too many occasions, do not give their own understandings fair play; but, yielding to some untoward bias, they entangle themselves in words and confound themselves in subtleties." Federalist No. 31

Epilogue: The Constitutional Convention of 1987 Revisited

Let us return together briefly to Philadelphia and the Constitutional Convention of 1987. As you may recall, our intellectual journey together began in Philadelphia. We now go full circle.

Since you read the Prologue to this book you have thought about many things, political and nonpolitical. Important events have occurred in the world around you. Perhaps even more important events, as measured by a proper yardstick that does not confuse obscurity with unimportance, have happened in your own life.

In any literal sense, it is impossible for you to do what I am now going to ask you to do: reread the Prologue. It is not possible to read the same chapter twice. You are not the same as you were at the beginning of this course. You have now had the experience of this course and of many other things. When you reread the Prologue, you will see things that you completely overlooked the first time through. And some things that impressed you before may now appear trivial or just plain wrong. So be it. Agreement, with your instructor or with the author, is not of the essence. Growth is.

Perhaps you can draw some generalizations about strategies for personal growth by comparing your first and second reactions to the Constitutional Convention of 1987. These generalizations could be the most important things you will learn from this course. But I hope you have also learned to think more clearly about politics, and that you will continue to sharpen up your political vision in your future education, formal and informal.

Da capo.


To access other chapters,
go back to the Table of Contents.


* Anthony Standen, Science Is a Sacred Cow, New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1950, p. 128.

1. The Methodist Hymnal, Nashville: The Methodist Publishing House, 1939, p. 263.

2. David P. Barash, "The New Synthesis," Wilson Quarterly (Summer 1977), p. 108.

3. Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science, New York: Halt, 1935, p. 153.

4. Stanley Jaki, The Relevance of Physics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, p. 363.

5. Ibid., p. 363.

6. Geoffrey Clive (ed.), The Philosophy of Nietzsche, New York: Mentor, 1965, pp. 368-369.

7. Ibid., p. 399.

8. Jaki, pp. 382-383, 387.

9. Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972, p. 13.

10. Ibid., P. 65.

11. Barash, p. 109.

12. Pierre L. Van den Berghe, "Sociobiology, Dogma, and Ethics," Wilson Quarterly (Summer 1977), p. 126.

13. Pamela McCorduck, "An Introduction to the Humanities with Prof. Ptolemy," Chronicle of Higher Education, February 9, 1976, p. 32.

14. Leslie A. White, "Individuality and Individualism: A Culturological interpretation," in Gordon Mills (ed.), Innocence and Power.- Individualism in Twentieth Century America, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965, p. 14.

15. Clive, p. 424.

16. Ibid., pp. 423-424.

17. Szasz, p. 228.

18. Ibid., p. 113.

19. Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry, San Francisco: Chandler, 1964, p. 364.

20. Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, New York: Scribners, 1950, pp. 36-37.

21. Ibid., pp. 37, 93.

22. Hans Morgenthau, The Decline of American Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962, p. 68.

23. Anne Fremantle (ed.), Mao Tse-tung.- An Anthology of His Writings, New York: Mentor, 1962, p. 281.

24. Wolff, Moore, and Marcuse, pp. 114-115.

25. Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, New York: Berkeley Publishing Co., 1968, p. 120.

26. Butterfield, p. 67.

27. W. A. Orton, The Liberal Tradition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945, p. 27.

28. George Kennan, Democracy and the Student Left, Boston: Little Brown, 1968, p. 9.

29. Detroit News, January 17, 1965.

30. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, New York: Heritage Press, 1960, P. 40.