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Commentary: The Founding Fathers in Defense of Social Science

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 07 July 2011

Certain members of Congress continue their attacks on social sciences within federal agencies, including attempts to remove funding from the social and behavioral sciences division of the National Science Foundation. Their main argument is that social sciences are not as useful to society as the "hard sciences". I won't belabor the fact here that many of the social sciences are just as technically sophisticated as natural sciences and engineering, but are dealing with much more unpredictable forces. Instead, I would point out the we need to look no further than the founding fathers of the United States and the drafters of the Constitution to find social science usefully at work.

The most impressive example is Federalist #10 by James Madison, Fourth President of the United States, the leader of the Virginia delegation to the constitutional convention, and often called "Father of the Constitution". Federalist 10 focuses on the causes and effects of social factions, and the role of representative democratic institutions in moderating conflict. Social science is at the heart of the causes of faction, including the relationship between reason, self-interest, and emotion:

"As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves."

Madison rejects remedying the causes of faction, and instead recomments representative democracy as an institutional mechanism for remedying the effects of factions. Factions are a problem when they act in their own self-interest to the detriment of the broader public good or other groups. The difference between direct and representative democracy, according to Madison, rests in the capacity of elected representatives to balance factional conflict with the public good:

"The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people. The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal."

Here Madison evokes another classic topic of social science: the relationship between institutional and social structure, and individual choice. The institutional arrangements of representative democracy shape the choices of citizens and elected officials in ways that enhance the public good. This crucial relationship between structure and individuals is at the heart of all public policy analysis, which seeks to set up social rules that shape individual behavior towards public goods and away from public bads.

Hence, social science is at the foundation of our country and its usefulness extends back in time to classic political and social philosophy, and forward in time to the most technical social science research on human behavior. I shudder to think what would have happened if James Madison had his NSF funding pulled (fortunately, he was rich!). Note also that Madison places a great deal of emphasis on the wisdom and virtue of public officials. Officials of "factious tempers", who currently seem to abound on both sides of the aisle in Washington DC and other political institutions, are not good for the country. Let us hope that wisdom prevails, and the value of social science to understanding and improving human society continues to be recognized.