Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Californians Love Political Theory

In the post below, Jim Dow claims below that Californians--actually, he says "most people"--don't care about political theory. I don't think that he could be more wrong. Californians may not realize that they care about political theory but they do (at least if they care about maintaining their "Californian" lifestyle).

I spent a not-insignificant amount of time studying political theory specifically and so I may be biased, but let me try and justify why I think political theory is really important. I went to school expecting to study politics but not necessarily theory. Actually, I didn't even really know what theory was. But after taking some introductory classes and talking to some professors I respected, I knew that this was the interesting part of politics, the "head" of the political science.

People live in different ways in different countries in a large measure because of politics. Why should we suppose that life on one side of the Baja peninsula (in California) is so different than life on the other side (in Mexico)? Is it because of the genetic make-up of the people? We know too much science to believe that. Is it because of pre-existing cultural conditions? Perhaps there is some of that. Do natural resources and geographic circumstances make a difference? Sure. But much of the difference can be attributed to the laws and institutions that exist on different sides of the border. And while not all of that is attributable to planning, deliberation, and public reasoning--some of it is spontaneous--much of it is attributable to paths that we have taken consciously. So politics matters. What governs politics? Political theory, of course. While political philosophy may be more rigorous, it is too abstract and rigid to carry into the process of formulation. Political theory discusses what we want from society, defines our vision of the good life, makes claims about what human beings are like, and tries to delineate our obligations to one another. It also does 1,001 other things.

Why is life so much different in North Korea than in South? In the former East Germany than in former West Germany? In South Africa vs. Zimbabwe?

Our instinct might be to turn towards institutions, laws, cultural norms, natural resources, geographic situation, historical records--anything that we can touch.

But we ought to focus our attention elsewhere, turning our gaze somewhat higher. What motivates men to govern each other in such-and-such a way? What is their organizing principle? Do they believe in laws that apply equally to all or do they believe in commands given by rulers to subservients? Do they value individuals? Do they value groups? Which groups are valuable to them? Do they have an organic or a positivist vision of the state? Do they even believe in states or do they believe in the unity of their ethnicity or fellow religious believers?

Political theory studies their beliefs, which in turn governs their political actions which, for better or worse, provides the framework for their society in which to flourish or whither.

To answer Jim's final (and probably rhetorical) question: I hear that the weather's great in Cuba but I still wouldn't want to live there.

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