Sunday, December 04, 2016

My Inner Madisonian

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  - James Madison, Federalist #51

When I was in grad school, Thomas Jefferson was all the rage.  His notions of localist democracy were taken as aspirational counterpoint to modernity.  (Reminders of his slaveholding, or even of his doubling the size of the country in one fell swoop, were considered in poor taste.)  I never bought it, which is probably why I was so happy to see Hamilton finally get some measure of his cultural due.  

But sometimes I wonder if we should give Madison a bit more notice.  

I was reminded of that in reading this piece in the Chronicle about academic search committees and implicit bias.  It’s a well-intended piece, if a little all-over-the-place, but in trying to suggest concrete ways for search committees to overcome bias in hiring, it quickly falls back on the psychology of individual members.  It recommends implicit association tests, apparently on the theory that if people’s thoughts can be purified, then their decisions will be purified, too.

Um, no.

I’ve studied enough political history to be wary of any claims that mandatory re-education will result in enlightenment.  Those approaches typically end in tears.  And I’ve seen enough people with high-minded politics to know that it’s possible to be altruistic and kind of messed up at the same time.  

Here’s where I’m thinking a little dose of Madison could do some good.

In the Federalist Papers, Madison addressed what we call “special interest groups,” or what he called “factions.”  He noted that in any society in which people are free to associate as they see fit, people who perceive a common interest with each other will join together to form factions.  Often, those factions will try to push the whole society in directions that will benefit the faction, even at the expense of the greater good.  Factions get into what he called “mischief,” and their mischief is typically based on their self-interest.

He noted that there’s no way to extinguish the mischiefs of faction without extinguishing freedom itself, which he considered too high a price.  He considered self-interest and provincial perspectives inevitable, and the wish to transcend them futile (“if men were angels…”).  Instead, his solution for maintaining political stability in the face of factions was to multiply them.  Allow factions to form all over, and they’ll largely cancel each other out.  That method was built into the structure of the proposed government, where we call it “checks and balances,” and into the larger society.  The one area where it wasn’t -- slavery -- generated a conflict that nearly brought the entire system down.

For me, the transferable insight is that Madison came up with a structural, rather than a psychological, solution.  People may be blinkered in all sorts of ways, but if you build with that in mind, you can compensate for it.  

What might that mean for search committees?

As a general rule, it means avoiding inbreeding.  When one faction controls a search entirely, its biases will go unchallenged.  In the case of faculty committees, having someone from outside the department on the committee can bring fresh eyes.  In the second round, I like to include the campus diversity officer in the interviews; she brings a needed perspective, and often picks up on things that the rest of us don’t.  At any level, more sets of eyes are likelier to get a full picture than fewer.  

I’m not looking to perfect anybody.  I’m looking for structures and processes that assume the presence of imperfections, but that cancel them out.  Yes, there are some basic rules of the road, and they’re there for good reasons.  But I’m much more comfortable -- both ethically and practically -- focusing on conduct than on subconscious attitudes.  And I’m just Aristotelian enough to think that over time, habits inform and even shape attitudes.  Do something long enough and it starts to seem normal.  Set up processes and structures that encourage productive behavior, and over time, productive attitudes are likely to follow.  But even if they don’t, you’ll still get productive behavior, which is what you really want anyway.

Madison’s solution is a little bit messy, but it has shown itself to be durable.  As long as we’re taking a new look at the founders anyway, let’s give him a moment, too.  Hamilton may have written more of the Federalist Papers, but Madison wrote the ones we remember.

P.S. - Curly, the dog I mentioned on Friday, found a foster!  Thanks to everyone who checked him out.