When I am left to my own devices, I don’t distinguish politics from government. I don’t even distinguish public from private. I would be happy to call it all “politics” and to define politics as “the authoritative allocation of resources,” (David Easton) His colleague, Harold Lasswell made it catchier when he said politics is the study of “who gets what, when, and how.”
When I came into the field of political science in the early 1960s—I didn’t actually become a practitioner of electoral politics until the early 1980s—the best people I could find were backing away from the idea that studying “politics” meant studying “government.” This was the era of “the politics of…” You know, “the politics of marriage, the politics of infrastructure reform, the politics of fashion design.” I was attracted to the breadth and flexibility of that notion and, in fact, my own commitment to studying political psychology would not be possible without it.
I like Easton’s definition, provided I could make two small reservations. The first is to add “risks” to “resources.” Politics is as often about who runs the risks as it is about who gets the resources. You could squeeze them together by saying that “indemnification” is a “resource,” but I don’t want to. The second is to point out that “preventing resources from being allocated at all” is politics just as much as allocating them is politics. When I look at the way problems are defined so that they are “not public” or “not urgent” or “not necessary” or “someone else’s fault”—and there are more such—I touch the approach to politics that I have described as my own on the Page given over to my own subfield, political psychology.
Most of my posts on politics are probably going to come from something I read in that morning’s New York Times or that I heard on NPR or that I read in a recently released poll—I really do like to read polls. Here are some samples of the kinds of things I am going to be calling “politics.” What responsibility does the United States have to bring the blessings of democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan? Or peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors? Why? What should we do about companies that produce greenhouse gases? A carbon tax? A cap and trade bill? Nothing? Does the Constitution give the right to be married to any two people who choose it? Is there any way to end the current partisan gridlock?
That’s not much of a list, I grant you, but I did manage to include foreign and domestic issues, economic regulatory issues, cultural and constitutional issues, and political system issues. Somewhere in my checkered past, I learned to run the complete series of political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and aesthetic (PERSIA) issues. I’m calling all of them “politics.”
I will assume, in my consideration of these issues, that people will do what they believe to be in their interest and that we ought not ask them not to. In the first place, they won’t. In the second place, it is a nasty ethical knot to say why they should. If my job is to increase the proportion of agriculture spending that goes directly to the largest agribusiness firms, for instance, on what ethical ground would you ask me to act otherwise? Or would you hold that no one should have the job I have? Or that, since someone will surely have that job, that it should not be me or any other right-thinking person?
In the third place, such an approach is futile. It may not be completely true that, as the old saw has it, “where I stand is determined by where I sit,” but it really is true that over time, everyone comes to see the world in a way that highlights these issues but not those, and that validates these positions on those issues, but not those. And “these” turn out to be vitally connected to that person’s self-interest—not necessarily to economic interest, but there are lots of other kinds of self-interest.
That may sound like an amoral and deterministic view of politics, but I don’t think it is. Here’s why. I think that the governing entity as a whole—polity, economy, and society—can find ways to encourage, assist, or compel people do what needs to be done. It may take both carrots and sticks in all three areas, but when what they want to do in their self-interest and what we need for them to do in the interest of us all coincide, “the political problem” will have been solved. For the moment.
Furthermore, public actors often act in what they think is their interest when it is not. In those cases, just clarifying what actions would meet their own present sense of their own interest is enough to bring about substantial changes. And no law of motivation or reinforcement requires any actor to choose the narrow over the broad interest, or the immediate over the long-term interest. All those have the same reliably selfish motivation that our Founders counted on, but today they have dramatically different outcomes.
So choosing the more beneficial outcome is the right thing to do. And public and private actors can be moved to change from responding exclusively to one set of potential rewards and punishments to another set. So my approach is, in fact, neither amoral nor deterministic. It isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s close enough for politics.