Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Conflating categories in Political Science. . . .

Reading the thoughts of some bloggers I continue to be amazed by the degree of confusion that exists concerning the basic concepts usually associated with political science. People are continually conflating different categories within the canon to the detriment of our basic understanding of the central concepts. For example, I read one blogger who claimed that Canada is ‘not a democracy’ but a constitutional monarchy. Here is a basic misunderstanding; a conflation of categories if you will. Constitutional monarchy refers, or course, to the central ways in which a government functions on a technical level. Democracy, on the other hand, refers to the method by which the government is chosen. You could, in theory, have a non-democratic constitutional monarchy, or a very democratic one. (Some one might, of course, try to make the argument that any form of constitutionalism implies some form of democratic process but suffice to say, given the history of constitutional monarchies, this level of democracy could be, like 18th century Britain, barely considered democratic).

Similarly some people seem to think that any form of democracy implies a priori some form of ‘market economy.’ Again this is a conflation of separate categories. If the constitutional monarchy refers to the technical functioning of government, and democracy refers to the method of choosing a government, a so-called ‘market economy’ refers simply to the way in which the production and distribution of the goods is organized. You could have a, for example, a Socialist Constitutional Monarchy with a high degree of democratic representation. You could also, as is the case with China, have a capitalist system of production with very little democratic process.

One of the most common conflations in this regard is that of ‘Capitalism’ with a so-called free market.  Even a close reading of Smith will make clear this conflation. Capitalism is a generalized system of commodity production in which firms employ labor in the production of goods or services and make a profit from this process while the state ensures the smooth running of these relations. A market, on the other hand, refers specifically to a system of distribution. People love to throw the words ‘free market’ around even though there is very little that is actually ‘free’ in our so-called market. This is because to ensure the smooth running of ‘capitalism’ the markets must be tightly controlled and regulated. The conceptual proof of this argument is found in the fact that you could have a fairly free market without actually having ‘capitalism’ per se. People could come to a market selling goods and services that they have produced on their own without the profit of surplus value procured from excess labor and make sales in this market. This would be a free-market without capitalism.

Anyway, no time now to expand on these issues. Just wanted to make the observation that the concepts of political science are becoming terribly muddy and this is resulting in some shabby analysis. 

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