Public Policy professor Andrew Sabl’s latest book, Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the “History of England,” reads David Hume's classic overview of English history as a primer on political theory. He answered a series of questions about the work and his research.
Why David Hume? What about his writing appealed to you?
Hume's work has always struck me as fascinating: at once profound, learned, and, in fact, great fun. Hume was both the greatest philosopher of his age and the greatest historian--a combination probably never equaled before or since. When a philosophic mind as penetrating as Hume's turns his attention to narrative history and to judging particular characters and situations, the result is bound to be both striking and illuminating. And so I found it, over many years of studying what he wrote. I can't imagine anything more interesting than making sense of what Hume discovered about politics.
In this country (as I write in the book's Preface) Hume's work has the added appeal of being neglected. It almost qualifies as forbidden knowledge. Political theory in America is dominated by neo-Kantian theories that focus on what the ideal political and social order would be, rather than trying to understand politics and morality in all of their actual messiness. Hume's empiricism and realism unlock entirely new ways of thinking about just about everything I study.
What can we learn from studying England's history, as opposed to that of America or other countries?
I see Hume as teaching general and universal lessons about politics in all countries. But learning about politics through the history of another country provides valuable intellectual distance (my first book used exclusively American examples) as well as useful lessons about the different paths to things we all value like equality, democracy, and liberty. England--and later the United Kingdom, which has common political institutions though legal and educational systems differ among the parts--never had a revolution. It doesn't have a Declaration of Independence, a Constitution, or a Bill of Rights. In Britain, popular control of government came from parliament gradually wresting powers away from the monarch, and liberty came from conventions that deepened and widened over a great many centuries: Magna Charta, habeas corpus. These things have become part of England's identity and serve it well. It's important for Americans to realize that other countries took different paths to enshrining cherished values. They have reasons to cherish their conventions of authority and rights, just as we have reason to cherish ours.
Can you give a brief explanation of what "coordination" is in political science? How do you expand upon that concept to define "dynamic coordination?"
A coordination problem exists when lots of people would benefit from doing the same thing as one another but have a hard time knowing what that should be or agreeing on what it will be. Examples include find a common language or languages (which doesn't seem a problem to us, but sure is in Canada, or India, or Belgium) or a common currency. Or take the problem of simply figuring out what side of the street to drive on. Again, that doesn't sound like a problem to us but, as Russell Hardin has documented, different American states and localities took years, sometimes decades, to agree on what the convention would be when cars were first introduced. You can imagine that this was a problem: until we settled on one solution, traffic had to move slowly and there were lots of accidents. Now imagine that what we're trying to agree on isn't driving but which government we're going to regard as authoritative, as able to make laws that we'll observe. If we disagree, we won't just crash a car; we'll fight a war.
Dynamic coordination is my term for situations in which the solutions to coordination problems are shifting: either they’ve never been quite settled but are starting to solidify, or they’ve always been controversial or disputed, or social conditions have destabilized the old solutions but have yet to produce new ones. Think of the U.S. during the Civil Rights movement: lots of people knew that the old order, based on second-class citizenship for African-Americans, couldn’t survive, but what would replace it wasn’t clear and a peaceful or legitimate outcome wasn’t preordained. In the book, one example is the period leading up to England’s civil wars in the 17th century. As early as James I’s accession towards the beginning of the century, lots of people could see that economic and cultural shifts had rendered untenable the absolutist governing style of Queen Elizabeth and her Tudor predecessors. But what would count as a legitimate form of rule, and of limitations on rule, in its place was hotly contested: the occasion of constitutional crises and wars that consumed the whole country, until a new set of conventions was finally settled on in 1688/89, and stuck.
What is a present-day example of a dynamic coordination problem?
Sweden in the 1970s moved from driving on the left to driving on the right. The joke was that they switched cars over on one day and trucks the next, but of course they couldn't do that: they had to adopt an intricate plan backed by pervasive communication, and did the switchover in the middle of the night. But actually, every daily newspaper contains modern examples—will French-speakers in Flanders be able to educate kids in their language? Will Greece keep the same currency as Germany? Most important: which regime, or set of actors, has the authority to issue orders to the army in Egypt, or Syria? Eventually each of these questions will be answered. In the meantime, the uneasy period in which old solutions are controversial but new ones have not yet been settled on is exciting to watch but very dangerous to live through. That's the kind of situation my book is all about.
What are some ways that political scientists can apply the theories you identify in the book to practical situations? What lessons does Hume provide for modern day practitioners of politics and public policy?
Modern day practitioners of politics should--and pretty much do; political theorists are playing catch-up with real world actors here--realize that their power to shape events may be real but faces serious constraints. When there's a coordination problem or the conventions that have previously solved such problems are in flux, the solution will probably involve one of a limited set of conventions that already have a certain amount of support or plausibility based on history and accustomed mental habits. Peaceful, legitimate solutions will have to embody these existing conventions--or at least appear to. As for public policy practitioners, thinking about coordination and convention can help in various ways. Various problems of "leadership," for example, can be seen as instances in which people are looking for coordination and are willing to grant a certain amount of power to whoever's in a position to provide it. Political scientist Randall Calvert has said that it's wrong to think that leadership results from power: in fact, power results from leadership. I think that's a profound insight. A lot of what’s in the book builds on that.
What was your favorite part about getting this book together?
All of it! I enjoyed the research, which involved everything from moral philosophy to game theory to English history to repeated readings of Hume's texts. I enjoyed the many drafts, which required moving back and forth between general theory and historical examples that proved a particular point (or didn't, and then I had to change the point). I even in some sense enjoyed editing and cutting, as I had to: it's always hard to lose material you've worked on, but I think the result was a much tighter book and one that will have much more of an impact. There's no way that in one book I could capture all the insights of Hume's History, which has well over a million words. There's plenty of room for drawing more lessons, as I already have in separate articles and will continue to do.
How does this book build on your earlier work in Ruling Passions?
The books are actually pretty different in most ways: different style, different subject matter, different approach. While I love my first book it was, looking back, in some ways a child-of-immigrant’s project: I was trying to understand America by coming to appreciate the varieties of its politics. As I’ve matured as a scholar I’ve become less anxious about the “what does it mean to be American?” question, more willing to study a different country and seek general insights. But the two books also have a lot in common. They both dissent from the “ideal”-oriented kind of political theory that I talked about before; they’re concerned with real politics, seen as a realm of action and strategy. They both show some sympathy with the so-called “rational choice” model of life long known to economists and recently very influential among political scientists. And in a deep way they’re both trying to understand how political change, even quite radical political reform, might be consistent with conserving basic constitutional forms or structures—in fact, you sometimes can’t achieve lasting change unless you’re willing to accept those structures, so that those leery of change don’t get too spooked. One way to understand the connection between my first book and this one is through this last theme. In my first book I largely took constitutional forms of politics for granted, as being both durable and desirable. In this one I seek more fundamental explanations of where they come from and what they accomplish.
What are you working on next?
A book on toleration. I’m for it. But once again, I think we’ll only understand toleration if we’re willing to look at how people act on the ground, not just how some abstract moral theory imagines they should be acting.