Social Science, Camelot, and Other Evils of the American Half Century

Court Historians, Court Intellectuals

In his long career as a revisionist historian, which only ended with his death in 1968, Harry Elmer Barnes found himself constantly opposed to what he called Court Historians. He coined this term to describe those historians who could always be counted on to put the deeds of reigning politicians in the best possible light, especially in foreign affairs. As a skeptic on World Wars One and Two, as well as the Cold War, Barnes had his work cut out for him.

For Barnes, the Cold War came down to the perfection of the system described in George Orwell's 1984. Thus, "wars – hot, cold, or phony, but mainly cold and phony – are being used to an increasing extent as the basic instrument of domestic political strategy in order to consolidate the power of the class or party in office…. The real enemy is not nations or forces outside the borders, but parties and classes within the country that are antagonistic to the party and class which hold power." Further: "According to Orwell, there is no desire to defeat the foreign enemy quickly and decisively, for to do so would undermine the propaganda campaign of fear, curtail or end the armament boom, threaten a depression, invite social discontent, and jeopardize the existing social, economic, and political order" (An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World, III (1965), p. 1325).

Barnes believed it was the duty of non-Court Historians to spotlight the transnational, ruling class collusion made possible by the Cold War.

The late Murray N. Rothbard broadened Barnes's concept into that of the Court Intellectual. As Rothbard pointed out more than once in his writings, intellectuals' income is an uncertain thing on the free market. As a result, many intellectuals will seek a safe berth and a steady living as servants of state power and apologists for state policies and interests.

As Rothbard put it, the Cold War era was marked "by the reappearance on a large scale of the u2018Court Intellectual' – the Intellectual who spins the apologia for the new dispensation in return for wealth, power, and prestige at the hands of the State and its allied u2018Establishment'" ("Harry Elmer Barnes as Revisionist of the Cold War," in Arthur Goddard, ed., Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader (1968), p. 314).

This explains Rothbard's interest in the Reece Committee hearings in the early 1950s. In this rather misunderstood episode, Congressman Carroll Reece (R., Tenn.), assisted by staff member René Wormser and consultant George de Huszar, looked into the grant-making policies of the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. In the end, the effort ran aground on accusations of intellectual "McCarthyism" and the disruptive antics of Congressman Wayne Hays (D., Ohio). Nonetheless, the Committee shed light on the big foundations' promotion of empiricism, centralized "team research," big universities over small colleges, moral relativism, internationalism, and social engineering. (See Tax-Exempt Foundations: Hearings, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1954).)

Rothbard, who had already given much thought to problems of methodology in the social sciences, saw the Committee's critique of empiricism as right on target. The kind of empirical research sponsored by the foundations lent itself straightforwardly to endless demands for state expansion to "solve" newfound social problems. It was the downhill slide into the kind of "piecemeal social engineering" called for by the Mr. Wizard and social-democratic method guru of the period, Karl Popper, whose impressive writings undermined even F. A. Hayek. In this connection, I should mention Hans-Hermann Hoppe's chapter on empiricism, which establishes beyond any doubt empiricism's role as the stalking horse of non-Soviet socialism (A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, and Private Property (1989), "The Socialism of Social Engineering," pp. 95–125).

Hoppe writes that "as soon as the idea of formulating a principled case either in favor of or against socialism is dropped" and empiricism is taken up, it becomes impossible to make any case at all. Socialists will immunize all criticisms of specific policies by claiming that unknown "variables" have muddied the experimental waters. Had it not been for unusual sunspot activity or tornadoes in Arkansas, the price control on zinc might have been successful. (Hoppe, pp. 101–102.) The piecemeal socialist experimentation must go on.

Soon enough, Rothbard parted ways with the Reece Committee, objecting to the tone taken by the Congressmen. They had begun to speak as though "the people's" money was at issue, on the assumption that a tax exemption was the same thing as a subsidy. However much Rothbard objected to the foundations' policies, he could not agree that letting Rockefeller or Ford keep and spend their own money amounted to taking anything from the public.

Social Science Serves the Pentagon, and Therefore, All Humanity

Of course the High Cold War created a great stir amongst the scientists, both natural and social, as they chowed down at the State's generous buffet. More was afoot than boring old empirical studies of juvenile delinquency. Now a whole mob of outright civilian militarist ghouls were in full cry.

The paladins of Stuff Lore – I'm sorry, physics – had something to answer for. Why Werner von Braun came in for so much criticism for his apolitical mode of doing "science," I'll never know. It was American scientists, with help from immigrants, who made possible the prospective mass murder of, say, 60–80 million non-combatant Russians by providing the rockets with warheads made of something better than poor old TNT. Living with that responsibility unhinged many a "defense" scientist. Edward Teller somehow comes to mind.

One might have expected more from the fellows in the humane studies, but no, they were committed to pretending that the study of human action could proceed on the same "empirical," math-heavy plan as physics. Anyway it was a good job and they were all right, Jack. So many got involved that one writer dubbed them the New Civilian Militarists.

Pride of place amongst the defense intellectuals and Cold War ghouls necessarily goes to Herman Kahn, who could "think about the unthinkable." This would have been an early example of a Hoppean performative contradiction, had it not been so easily seen as an elaborate rationalization for mass murder by government. (The "democide" scholars might want to look into this sometime, as a premeditated crime that never came to full fruition.)

There were also Bernard Brodie (leaving to one side his wife's "psycho-biographies" of Joseph Smith and Thomas Jefferson) and the high-powered RAND Corporation gang, to scratch just the surface of a phenomenon that made the lives of my generation so, er, interesting. For sheer effrontery, arrogance, and intellectual hubris you couldn't beat it, even if you had squeaky Teddy Roosevelt's big stick. (Perhaps the psycho-biographers should investigate that last item.)

These were people some of whom could think of the 60 or more million dead Russian civilians as a "bonus" over and above the destruction of military targets.

To be fair to these overqualified lunatics I should note that not all their work rested on empiricism. There wasn't any empirical data on nuclear war, unless you count Japanese cancer patients, and so despite their commitment to Big Science, the would-be global behaviorists often retreated into the high-theoretical absurdities of game theory and other snares and delusions. Thus the federal science fair managed to reproduce, within the five walls, the deep split between useless grand theory, on the one hand, and meaningless empirical trivia, which C. Wright Mills and Murray Rothbard deplored in sociology and economics, respectively.

Further, out of all this angst-ridden world-saving there rose two schools of thought, but I am saving that for later.

Desperadoes Waiting for a Grant

The whole matter of model-building, statistics-running, grant-accumulating social scientists on the federal teat made for an interesting, if short-lived, crisis in the middle of the 1960s. This was the famous flap over Project Camelot. Briefly, sundry genii in the Pentagon reasoned that communists thrived on revolution and if you could find out what "caused revolutions," why, Hell, boy, you could stop those communists, right there in Latin America.

The project went down the drain for a number of reasons. For one, it was seen as ham-handed and inept in conception. A few social scientists actually criticized it from the standpoint of disciplinary ethics. And, shockingly enough, to many in Latin America (especially Chile), it looked like the social science arm of US imperialism, or at best Poncho and Lefty with PhDs.

I realize I'm not supposed to mention that last notion in polite company, but rightly or wrongly, Latin Americans are touchy about it, and anyone with good sense might have factored it into the model. I suppose the specter of Yanqui social scientists taking their temperatures and airing their dirty laundry for them at the seminar was too much. Not to mention the implied threat of armed intervention as needed.

The controversy mushroomed to the point that the Defense Department cancelled the project and the State Department created a decent interval between itself and this stepchild. Sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz edited a collection of essays on the matter, The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot (1967). For my money, the two best essays are by Johan Galtung and Robert Nisbet.

Galtung, of course, brought a certain Scandinavian naïveté to things best left to us experienced Pan-Americans. As a socialist, he could hardly argue that social science in the service of government was the problem, but he thought the design of this particular project was grossly flawed. In addition, cooperation of the locals was not invited (bad manners). He soon scored a palpable hit: "A major aspect of scientific colonialism is the idea of unlimited access to data of any kind, just as the colonial power felt it had the right to lay its hand on any product of commercial value in the territory" (Horowitz, Project Camelot, p. 300).

Exactly: an Open Door for US social-science imperialism!

Nisbet was content to call the project "the worst single scientific project since King Canute dealt with the tides" (ibid., p. 313). He wrote: "For Senator Fulbright, Project Camelot was one more indication of the generally reactionary character of the modern behavioral sciences with their consecration to methodology and repudiation of values"! (p. 314). Shades of the Reece Committee! The project had also managed to look like an "odious intervention in the domestic affairs of a country with which the United States was at peace" (ibid.).

Like Galtung, Nisbet did not say categorically that a social scientist should never take part in a government venture. He did, however, write that the "right of the individual – whether he be a sociologist, chemist, or engineer – to hold back from the military, to the best of his abilities, the efforts and contributions he has made as a scientist is, I should suppose, incontestable, however vain and illusory it might be" (p. 319, my italics). If such federally funded social science became commonplace, "the number of foreign areas [of research] will increase… only arithmetically, but the population of American behavioral scientists with questions to ask of foreign areas will increase geometrically" (p. 336).

Nisbet added, "If one were a Marxist-Leninist, he could say that the American research industry is just beginning to enter its imperialist phase" (p. 337), now that the scientists had exhausted the domestic market – urban life, divorce, the middle classes, etc.

At least one essay applauded projects of the Camelot type. Naturally, this was the work of the ineffable Ithiel de Sola Pool. For the latter, the choices were clear. Donning, however legitimately or otherwise, the mantle of Max Weber, he wrote that one must follow the true path of Science! ("I can hear machinery…. Poetry in motion….") The only other path was that of "ideologies, dogmas of one sort or another. That is essentially the choice that we face, the choice between policy based on moralisms and policy based on social science" (p. 268).

Is the Reece Committee's concern with method beginning to seem relevant yet?

Pool proceeded to sing the praises of McNamara's Band at the Pentagon, where "cost-effectiveness analysis" now reigned, and "we" could, I suppose, although he does not say this, kill off those 60–80 million unneeded Russians more cheaply. Yes, indeed. McNamara was bringing in Big Ideas developed in the RAND Corporation by "Schelling, Wohlstetter, Kahn, and Kaufmann." This "humanization" (sic) of the DOD – which means Department of Defense, or "death" in Old Saxon – made it a great promoter of psychology, linguistics, and whatnot (p. 271) – not to mention area studies of all those furriners out there.

Happiness reigned in Social Science Central, or would, but for the carping criticisms of fanatics of Left and Right "representing counterattacks by ideologists who recognize that the power of pragmatic social analysis is a threat to them" (p. 273). Yes, method, not ripeness, was all, and all Vergangenheit was just a Gleichnis. Only "a kind of neo-McCarthyism" spoiled the fun. Pool thought it revealing that "the research being attacked by witch hunters is that done for the U.S. Government" (p. 277). Imagine that!

You'd have to be Joe McCarthy or Carroll Reece to believe "that the power of pragmatic social analysis is a threat" to you, wouldn't you? Get out of here, you dogmatic ideologue. Everyone knows there's no such thing as a rational ethical system.

The Limits of Free Speech in the Land of Freedom

Actually, you could be another fellow, a man so hated that saying his name is the moral equivalent of shouting "Movie!" in a crowded firehouse. I refer, of course, to Noam …….. He was the bane of the Cold War Liberal technocrats, back when they were struttin' their stuff in Vietnam, and he is still their bane now that they come repackaged as "conservatives."

Naturally, it was the essay by Ithiel de Sola Pool that just brought the dangerous fellow to mind. Chomsky's American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) gave an unmerciful portrait of the federalized intellectual classes at work. In these essays the worst that the author did was to quote liberally from the social engineers and savor the implications of their words from an implicit – and doubtlessly dogmatic and moralistic – perspective. If the good Professors called for finding out how to starve millions of Chinese in order to destabilize their government, or if they advocated indiscriminate bombing of South Vietnamese peasants to drive them into manageable strategic hamlets (euphemized as "urbanization"!), Chomsky recorded it.

Chomsky's critique centered on the morally bankrupt application of behaviorism to imperial management problems. Ignoring values (mistaken or otherwise) and other merely "ideological" factors, the planners focused on changing the enemy's behavior via rat psychology. Vietnam was just a big Skinner box, and the scientists, as disinterested technicians, allocated rewards and punishments according to a rational schedule.

(Having mentioned the dreaded Chomsky, we break now for a cartoon segment:

FREAVIS: "He said u2018Chomsky'!"

FREEPHEAD: "Heh heh.")

Of course Chomsky was right about the intellectuals in service to power, and in this he has been very conservative, even if he wouldn't see that as a compliment. As Bob Dylan said, in one of his phases, "You gotta serve somebody." Pool's little dodge about "value-free," non-ideological social science, as against backward, "McCarthyite" dogma, was just his way of saying that he recommended abdicating in favor of the values chosen by his employers. But value is not mocked.

Unlike the New Mandarins, Robert Nisbet was a sociologist of note and a real conservative, who believed that things of value should be conserved. Blind service to the centralized state was not, in his view, the best way to do that. But nowadays there are few real conservatives about. Instead we can imagine something like the following –

And now for something completely different:

ARTHUR, KING OF BRITAIN: Oh Knights Who Say u2018Freedom, Private Property, and Getting Government Off Our Backs,' we have brought you your shrubbery.

KNIGHTS: We are no longer the Knights Who Say u2018Freedom, Private Property, and Getting Government Off Our Backs.' We are now the Knights Who Say u2018Perpetual War and Security Before Liberty.' You must bring us another shrubbery. Indeed, (higher pitch amounting to a shriek) you must bring us all the shrubberies in the realm – for the war effort!"

(ARTHUR: (aside) I wish they would go back to saying u2018Nikh.')

State-Sponsored Social Science, Facts, and Values

It would be piling Pelion upon Ossa, or the other way round, to enter into the mournful tale of Wesley Fishel and the Michigan State University social science team that brought American Social Science to South Vietnam in the service of power. Nor is it possible, here, to go much further into the exciting and utterly mad world of the Deterrence mavens and their even crazier opponents, the "winnable nuclear war" theorists. Suffice it to say that the latter school put great faith in "civil defense." Great Plans would be made for evacuating cities on an hour's notice, or ordering the citizenry to bury themselves in "shelters" hundreds or thousands of feet below their towns. There they could wait until the damned fools who (hypothetically) had killed millions and torched a civilization, gave the signal to re-emerge into the radioactive rubble. (See Gregg Herken, Counsels of War (1987).)

All morality aside (we are all social scientists here), any ordinary fool could have told them this was not a workable plan. We were asked to admire the alleged Soviet superiority in the civil defense realm. Yes, a totalitarian system might get better results mobilizing and moving people around, if the leaders are crazy enough to do so.

This blast from the past may help us zero in on the present logic whereby we are asked to give up freedom for security by the very people whose policies, on which we are not consulted, have diminished our safety, that is, the very people who did not serve or protect some months ago. The whole constructed dilemma resembles those silly balancing tests that the Supreme Court pretends to perform. Oh, let's see, how do we "balance" the right of the people to this or that with the overriding state interest in better housing, improved dental care, wart removal, healthier cannon fodder, etc., etc.

It's a very safe bet that whatever is concluded, the state interest will prevail and, whenever that happens, the social scientists will not be long in telling us why that is a Good Thing.

Alvin W. Gouldner noted this justifying role of social science and linked it with the Welfare-Warfare State, a concept used – and pioneered – by Murray Rothbard. Goulder wrote: "[T]he sociological unity of the Warfare and Welfare State, the integration of foreign and domestic policies, is thoroughly visible on the political level, where both policy strands come together in the machinery of the Democratic Party" (The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (1971), p. 502).

Now, with George W. Bush emerging as the greatest domestic socialist since FDR or LBJ, we have to add the Republican Party to Gouldner's analysis.

The posture of the social scientists should hardly come as a surprise, however. As Leon Bramson, F. A. Hayek and others have shown, the very purpose of sociology, its very reason for existing, was an attack on 19th-century political economy. Sociology began as an attack on free society in favor of a new managerial elite allied to the State.

In America, sociologists devoted themselves to a naïve empiricism, and when that cupboard was revealed as bare, settled for equating statistical correlation with causation. As Stephen Turner puts it, "the long quest to create a quantitative science" is one "that largely failed intellectually and largely succeeded politically" ("The origins of ‘mainstream sociology,’" Social Epistemology, 8, 1 (1994), p. 42). This is more or less what the hapless Reece Committee suspected.

Non-empirical dogma, anyone?

July 11, 2002