The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Stuff Political Scientists Like #2 — The Strategic Logic of…. well, Everything

April 18, 2011

Before I begin, I should thank those who have offered encouragement to continue the series and note, to those few who have not, that this is satire. Like all satire, it is an exaggeration of things that nevertheless have a kernel of truth. I myself am guilty of some of these things, like collecting original data. It is not an indictment of the field of political science, only a send-up of its pretensions. OK, here we go.

Political scientists like discovering the strategic logic behind all political phenomena, reducing everything to the self-interested calculations of individuals. They particularly like finding the strategic logic behind those things that seem to defy rational explanation, such as mass killing or war. Or the European Union. That is because political scientists like taking the mystery out of anything that might possibly be fascinating, inspiring, enigmatic or thought-provoking. You should never leave a political scientist alone with your little kids. He or she will tell them the truth about the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus just to watch the crushed look on their little faces.

The idea that the way people decide to blow themselves up for a political cause is the same way we decide to shop at Costco is somehow comforting to political scientists. They have discovered a law of human behavior and they can sleep better at night knowing that in the right circumstances we all might become genocidal maniacs. No one is better than anyone else. Political scientists are true egalitarians.

Political scientists generally think people act strategically to maximize their material resources, which is a fancy way of saying that everyone wants your stuff. And your wife is looking good these days too. Has she been working out?

The great thing about strategic logic is that no one can really prove that a political scientist is wrong. The only people who are not self-interested and instrumental are masochists and lunatics. And sexual arousal surely counts positively in a utility function, so we are really just left with crazy people. Charlie Sheen is admittedly a tough case for strategic logic. But warlocks with tiger blood are not part of the population of interest. If you ask a political scientists what the strategic logic of a particular situation is, give him some time. This is not easy. Let him see how it plays out. He will tell you after it is over what the rational thing to do was.

No one listens to political scientists, because if they did, the world would be a very different place. There would be no democracy because political scientists know that there is no reason for someone to spend their time voting. And political campaigns are pointless because they all know is all just about the economy. There would be no nations because no one feels a bond with anyone else. We are all just atoms. And everyone would wear body armor. In fact, holding political scientists at bay is the only thing keeping us from the Thunderdome. On the plus side, there would be a well functioning global finance system.

If you liked #2, see Stuff Political Scientists Like #1.

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Rathbun is a professor of International Relations at USC. Brian Rathbun received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 and has taught at USC since 2008. He has written four solo-authored books, on humanitarian intervention, multilateral institution building, diplomacy and rationality. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in International Organization, International Security, World Politics, International Studies Quartlery, the Journal of Politics, Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, International Theory, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution among others. He is the recipient of the 2009 USC Parents Association Teaching and Mentoring Award. In 2019 he will be recognized as a Distinguished Scholar by the Diplomatic Studies Section of the International Studies Association.