How George Washington Helps to Remind Us of the Purposes of the Social Sciences

When George Washington stood on a New York City balcony, in April 1789, to take the oath of office as the president of a newly established democratic republic, he was said to have been trembling. He had repeatedly established a reputation for bravery (& maybe foolhardiness) under fire on battlefields, but the thought of becoming the new nation’s first chief executive worried him deeply. Like other founders, he knew history well, so he was acutely aware of the fact that no prior republics, much less democratic ones, had survived. They had all succumbed, one way or another, to authoritarian rule.

The academic social sciences would not be founded until about a century after his death, so we are fortunate that Washington possessed a sound understanding of some basic social science concepts. He used the word ‘institution’ much as we do today — to describe patterns of organized behavior that are based on precedents which people emulate as being the right thing to do.  Consequently, his writings reveal that he was almost preoccupied with assuring that he set the best possible precedents. Unfortunately he had little guidance to go on.

Historians have written that Washington could be described as a ‘Man of the Enlightenment.’   Philosophers like John Locke, Frances Hutcheson, David Hume and Montesquieu had written extensively about how to structure representative legislatures and checks and balances to prevent usurpation of governments by tyrants. The American Constitution reflects those ideas. But Enlightenment philosophers had said almost nothing about how to actually make a democratic government work. Nor did our Constitution give guidance. Washington was essentially on his own in deciding things like whether there should be departments and how they should be organized, the processes for hiring people and awarding contracts, and assuring that objective analysis be done to inform policy makers. “Public administration’ was the term Washington used to describe the activities of making a government work.

This ‘man of the Enlightenment’ had an extraordinary insight – that the primary purpose of administering the affairs of a democracy is to do so in ways that encourage and enhance the trust and support of the people for their democratic institutions. Each of his precedents was intended to earn and enhance the trust of the public in their newly created democratic republic. Our research has identified how Washington’s precedents can be summarized in several categories.

• Rule of Law – public servants should exemplify acceptance and adherence to it.
• Civilian Control of the Military – now a fundamental norm in every democratic nation.
• Accountability – to both the people and their elected representatives.
• Obligation of Efficiency – waste undermines trust.
• Merit selection – every citizen has an equal right to compete for both jobs and contracts.
• Public Service Motivation – seek to hire people who are motivated to serve others.
• Representativeness – administrators should reflect the origins of the people.
• Community – public servants should promote a sense of ‘community.’
• Education for Public Service – young people should be well schooled in the arts and sciences and civic values.
• Objective Policy Analysis – public servants should do solid, preferably empirical, analysis of problems.
• Promote Economic Growth – public servants should enhance trust in democratic institutions by promoting economic opportunity; this can include partnering with businesses so long as the public interest is protected.
• Enhance Liberty – government should be made to work in ways that enhance liberties.

In 1991, an historian at Johns Hopkins University named Dorothy Ross published an important book titled, The Origins of American Social Science (NY: Cambridge University Press). She explored the origins of several social sciences in the USA, primarily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the industrial revolution was transforming the lives of people in fundamental ways. She concluded that the goals of the founding social scientists were quite different than the goals of natural scientists. Natural scientists seek to discover and explain what already exists in nature. But social scientists, Ross explained, seek knowledge that can be applied to enhance the functioning of social institutions. Sociologists, for example, seek knowledge that might enhance the functioning of social institutions such as families. Economists seek knowledge that might enhance the functioning of institutions that are collectively called an economy. Political scientists and public administration scholars seek knowledge that might enhance the functioning of governments.

George Washington began his presidency two centuries before Ross published her book. But he would likely agree with her conclusion that “the central problem of American social science (is) the fate of the American republic in time.” We who are scholars and practitioners of public administration can be thankful that we have the theoretical framework of Washington’s precedents to work from. And we social scientists can be thankful that our predecessors have given us such solid underpinnings from which we can seek knowledge to enhance the functioning of the social institutions to which we are devoting our lives.

Dr. Earle Klay is a Professor in the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy.

The feature image is from Wikipedia.

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