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Towards a Systematic Conceptualization of Politics

29 September, 2015 - 12:42

Political science is the systematic study of governments, of the methods by which governments seek to control people, and of the techniques through which people try to influence government. It is a science that attempts to connect the "micro" level of individual lives and actions with the "macro" level of collective circumstances and consequences.

Like the other social sciences, political science focuses on all three basic types of social power: the pen, the purse, and the sword. Unlike the other social sciences, it gives special attention to the power of the sword: wielded collectively in the form of war and threats of war, wielded against individuals—ideally— in the more civilized form of laws.

Every body of knowledge has at least a few basic words that students had better understand in the fullest possible sense. For the physicist, "force" must equal mass times acceleration. Accountants must understand that "assets" are equal to liabilities plus owners' equity (capital) and must be able to classify particular transactions into the proper categories. Music theorists must know the difference between a second inversion and a secondary dominant. Political science is no exception to this general need for fundamental concepts.

Unfortunately, political scientists and lawyers—the two main professions concerned with analyzing government —have not identified a small set of simple, core concepts whose permutations and combinations get to the essence of the matter. Instead, both professions are blessed (or cursed!) with a great multiplicity of terms and concepts, all of roughly equal importance, whose mutual relations and meanings are extremely complex.

As a result of its lack of fundamental conceptual clarity, political science increasingly suffers from an inferiority complex. Chemistry and physics have produced a continuous and accelerating stream of spectacular accomplishments which are reflected, for better or for worse, in the everyday material environment: computers, synthetic fabrics, lasers, microwave ovens, TV, atomic bombs, pesticides. . . . A similar takeoff in biological science appears to be shaping up. But where do we see any signs that political science is having an impact on the world?

It is true that in the political sphere, too, many new techniques and institutions have appeared, but our professional inferiority complex is nevertheless based on an embarrassing fact. Major innovations in 20th century government have not originated in political science. The pattern is quite unlike that in the natural sciences, where breakthroughs in fundamental analysis (e.g. Einstein's E = mc squared) are placed on a practical basis by the engineers (e.g. the Manhattan Project). In public life, by contrast, the breakthroughs are made by the "engineers" (active politicians: elected officials, administrators, revolutionaries) and later, often much later, political scientists get around to noticing them, describing them, and criticizing them.

The goal of Basic Political Concepts is to provide exactly what the title suggests: a small set of carefully defined and interrelated words that can be used to describe and analyze a wide range of political phenomena and issues. Chapter 1 focuses on concepts useful in analyzing individual decisions and actions, which surely are the basic "stuff" of politics. Chapter 2 introduces concepts related to associations, the relationships between individuals that are created by their actions. Chapter 3, "Developing Conceptual Acuity", illustrates some ways in which we can systematically increase our ability to think systematically about politics. It is an invitation for the student to think creatively, to join in the continual rethinking of political issues that is a prerequisite of progress.