TENNESSEE—On our way through eastern Tennessee on U.S. 26 for the 40th time, give or take a few, we decided to visit the Gray Fossil Museum. It is one of the most extraordinary preserves of fossilized bones of long-extinct creatures ever found.
An excellent book describes how this sink hole that preserves thousands of whole skeletons of ancient creatures was discovered, preserved and exploited. The book is "The Bone Hunters: The Discovery of Miocene Fossils in Gray" by Harry Moore.
In some cases, the scientists can identify a species from a single tooth. Compare paleontology to political science. We know more about the life and death of creatures that lived three million years ago than we do about types of governments, which have died within the memory of living people.
The first fact a tooth can give us about a long-dead creature is whether it is an herbivore or carnivore. There is a simple characteristic that divides governments into two opposed categories.
When I taught American Political Theory in college, decades ago, I would begin the class opening night, before anyone had bought the books or begun the readings. I would ask a victim (excuse me, a student) to stand up and offer a definition of a government. Several students would offer descriptions based on justice, democracy, etc. Then I would ask them if the people who ran Nazi Germany, or Russia under the Bolsheviks, or Cambodia under Pol Pot, were “governments.” They had to concede that these were both governments and blood-thirsty tyrannies.
In short, a government is a group of individuals who have the permanent power of life and death over the residents in an area large enough to be called a nation. Notions such as justice, democracy, etc., come later, if at all.
We did have political bone hunters at the highest level of government in the United States at one time. The books that Thomas Jefferson loaned to his friend James Madison to prepare for a certain meeting in Philadelphia in 1787 gave a history of failed republics. When the Framers began their work at the Constitutional Convention, there were only a few dozen republics in the known history of the human race.
The Framers were students of governmental failures. By studying the deaths of other republics they learned the principles, which allowed them to create the longest surviving constitutional republic in human history. James Madison wrote in The Federalist, No. 51, "For what is government but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?" He continued, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
This is the exact opposite of a government which has, and uses, the capacity to drag any citizen into the street and shoot him, hack him to death with swords, or beat him to death with rocks, depending on the era and development of the nation or tribe.
In the PhD program at American University we read and discussed a book that posed the question of whether political science was really a science (like the hard sciences such as physics and mathematics). The conclusion was that it was not and could not be because of the difficulty of accurately quantifying the related variables.
The only hard numbers in poli-sci are election results. Various examples, such as Venezuela and Chicago, demonstrate that these are also variables.
But this is no excuse for modern theoreticians in poli-sci, whether professors in ivory towers or politicians in elected office, to ignore or worse, to falsify, the examples of history. There are almost no programs or policies being considered in the U.S. today that do not have a track record of prior use. And, those records are mostly of failures, as were the examples the Framers had before them in Philadelphia. Sometimes failures are the best possible sources of guidance for the future. However, this whole lesson is lost on entirely too many members of the Obama Administration, leaders in Congress, leaders in the American press, professors in college, etc.
We need bone hunters in politics today. That is the lesson I learned from a sinkhole full of fossils in Tennessee.