On January 30, 2018, Charles Lindblom died at the age of 100. His ideas on, among others, policy making processes, democracy, the limits and possibilities of social and political science, impairment, and usable knowledge play a pivotal role in Social Science Works. Together with Rune Premfors and Ross Zucker, Hans Blokland wrote an In Memoriam for the American Political Science Association for which Lindblom served as president in 1980-1981. The In Memoriam originally has been published in PS: Political Science & Politics (Vol.51, No.2, April 2018).  Below the article with some added pictures.

Charles Edward Lindblom, APSA President (1980–1981)

One of the great social scientists of the twentieth century, Charles Edward Lindblom, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at Yale University, died on January 30, 2018, at his home in Santa Fe, NM. He was born on March 21, 1917 and was thus approaching 101 years. According to his family he passed away quickly and peacefully, as if “he had decided it was time for him to go; so he did.”

A Prestigious Career

Charles E. Lindblom was born and raised in Turlock, CA, a small town founded and in its early days dominated by a group of Swedish, fundamentalist immigrants. Lindblom’s grandfather (on his father’s side), John Gustaf Lindblom had left a poor farmer’s life in western Sweden in the early 1880s and settled as a homestead farmer in Minnesota. In 1911 his son, Charles August Lindblom, now married to Emma Norman Lindblom, followed a large group of other Swedes to seek a better life in California. Soon after their arrival the family bought a small grocery store, an enterprise which eventually engaged the whole family—parents and their four children—including Charles Edward. The store provided the Lindblom family with a modest living for many years, but during the Depression in the early 1930s it went bankrupt, a catastrophic event particularly for the father, Charles August, who never really recovered from it and died in 1941, at the age of 57.

Charles Edward was a successful high school student in Turlock, and his mother Emma wanted her son to go on to college. She had even saved from the modest family income for that purpose. In 1933, Charles Edward was able to enroll at Stanford University. He was a successful student there as well, majoring in economics, and upon graduation in 1936, he went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago. To support himself he soon after began teaching economics at the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota faculty included a number of well-known economists but a special problem followed from the fact that they were part of the University’s Business School. To some mainstream faculty, young Lindblom soon stood out as an unorthodox and even dangerously radical teacher. Particularly challenging to many was his preoccupation with Oskar Lange’s ideas on market socialism. Eventually he was fired, as Lindblom put it, from the University of Minnesota. In 1945, he finally finished his dissertation in labor economics at the University of Chicago, and began his long career as a teacher and researcher at Yale University.

At Yale, Lindblom initially worked in the Department of Economics. Although he found Yale to be a more diverse place than the University of Minnesota, he was also viewed by many there as too unorthodox in both research questions and methods to fit in. He was soon told that the chances were slim that he would be able to pursue a successful career leading to a tenured position in economics. Fortunately he had early on teamed up with Robert Dahl in the Political Science Department. Together they developed and taught the graduate course that would end up as their landmark book Politics, Economics, and Welfare (first published in 1953). Lindblom was then offered a joint, tenured position in economics and political science in the Political Science Department, a position that was eventually upgraded to the most prestigious professorial chair at Yale, a Sterling Professorship. His successful career at Yale formally ended in 1987, when he retired at the age of 70. He had acted as chair of the Political Science Department (1972–74), and he had been director of Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS) from 1974 to 1980. Lindblom had very much inspired the creation of ISPS, the purpose of which was to stimulate interdisciplinary work in the social sciences at Yale and research issues of public relevance. Lindblom had also engaged in a wider professional setting, as president of the Association for Comparative Economic studies and also of APSA in the early 1980s.

Lindblom’s Thinking

Lindblom’s academic career runs parallel to that of Robert Dahl (1915–2014) and Robert Lane (1917–2017). The three of them arrived at Yale University in the late forties and together made its political science department the center of the discipline for a long time. Together Dahl and Lindblom established their name with Politics, Economics, and Welfare: Planning and Politico-Economic Systems Resolved into Basic Social Processes (1953), a masterly and highly influential book (in countries like the Netherlands as well) on societal organization or ordering. In it they exhaustively weigh the pros and cons of four different techniques of social control and coordination: market, hierarchy (in particular bureaucracy), polyarchy, and bargaining. The care they put into the examination of which technique or combination of techniques would optimize particular outcomes in different domains of society is second to none. The market technique is an impressive, extraordinarily powerful instrument with which to coordinate and control activities. Nevertheless, like the other techniques, it has important shortcomings and cannot be applied unconstrained in every sphere of life. The book strongly defends a social-democratic position since for Dahl and Lindblom it is in the end politics that decides which (combinations of) social instruments are to be used in which domains to accomplish politically-decided social goals.

The attention of Dahl has always been primarily focused on the political theory of pluralism; Lindblom has mainly dealt with the policy processes within the societies described by this theory, and, as usual within pluralist thought, he assumes that citizens do not agree on a definition of the common good and that society consists of a large number of competing and cooperating groups and institutions trying to reach their own objectives. Like pragmatists James and Dewey, Lindblom further believes that values and goals cannot and should not be defined abstractly, but only in a specific context. Also, despite differences of opinion about the goals of policies, agreement can often be reached on their instruments. Closely linked with pragmatism is his belief that policy makers have too little knowledge and information about society to make responsible comprehensive and far-reaching decisions. Therefore, it is better to try to solve manageable, short-term problems through cautious processes of trial and error. In this spirit, Lindblom makes a powerful plea for incrementalism: piece by piece, in an endless, continuous stream of marginal policy adjustments and enhancements, policy makers should seek to improve the existing situation, in the awareness that our knowledge and skills are extremely limited and that consequently large leaps forward are almost always doomed to failure. Lindblom defended this position among others in “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’” (1959) that is one of the most cited and reprinted social science articles of all time. Critics of Lindblom have often confused incrementalism with conservatism. A plea for incremental steps, however, says nothing about the speed at which these steps should follow up, about their direction.

Another characteristic of Lindblom’s thinking is that he extends the analogy between the economic market of goods and the electoral market to the formation of policy. Stakeholders negotiate with each other on a market about the instruments and goals of policies and in a manner similar to the economic market. Individual actions are unintentionally coordinated. This process will also by and large ensure that the different values held within a community are proportionally represented by the resulting policies. The structure of the policy market, however, is again not given for Lindblom: politics can and should regulate this market. It needs to be regulated which parties are active, and how strong their relative positions are. If, in existing negotiations between stakeholders, particular interests, values, or goals are not adequately taken into account, it is the job of politics to strengthen the position of those groups that represent these interest, values, or goals.

Consequently, for Lindblom policies are not always the outcomes of decision-making processes in which the preferences of electoral majorities are decisive. Instead, policies habitually come about in an ongoing negotiation process between passionate minorities. Nevertheless, the resulting policies to a large extent reflect the prevailing values and beliefs in society and usually can count on the support of majorities. In addition, Lindblom argues that a political decision-making process in which many independent civil organizations participate, not just prevents the concentration and abuse of power, which is the usual perspective of the pluralists; he argues that such a decision process also brings forth significantly more rational, more balanced and legitimate policies than hierarchically-controlled systems. The elaboration and justification of these theses is the leitmotif of Lindblom’s work in the 1960s and 1970s. This happens especially in his A Strategy of Decision: Policy Evaluation as a Social Process (1963), The Intelligence of Democracy: Decision Making through Mutual Adjustment (1965) and The Policy-Making Process (1968).

It is noteworthy that many of the ideas on policy making that Lindblom developed in the 1950s and 1960s became almost commonplace in the 1980s and 1990s. Lindblom himself, though, got in another state of mind. Manifestations of this are Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems (1977), his APSA-presidential address “Another State of Mind” (1982), Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society (1990) and The Market System: What it Is, How it Works, and What to Make of It (2000).

In the sixties, Lindblom seemed to suggest, along with many other pluralists, that there were no groups or institutions on the policy market that possessed significant privileged negotiating positions. When this would be the case, a new interest or pressure group would almost automatically develop to recover the balance. In his later work, this suggestion goes unequivocally off the table. Corporations in particular have incomparably more political resources (money, knowledge, organization, networks) and therefore political power, than other interest groups. In addition, and importantly, their representatives will always find a more than willing ear at the government, which for its public legitimacy has become highly dependent on the functioning of the private sector. Governments fall at high unemployment rates, and in their communications with government, corporations therefore have a “priviliged position.”

Lindblom also considers it naive to assume that companies are entirely at the mercy of the market and that therefore ultimately consumers decide their policies. Entrepreneurs take many decisions with far-reaching consequences for individuals, groups, and even societies, on which the market, or the consumers, hardly have any influence. This includes decisions about the location, the technology to be used, the product development or innovation, the staffing of the management, the remuneration structure, or labor relations. In our liberal political systems, the decision authority over these social issues has been largely transferred to individual entrepreneurs. Consequently, according to Lindblom, these systems have two de facto elites: a political elite that still somewhat, but much too limited, can be held accountable by the citizens, and an economic elite, that largely has free rein. The economic elite has a huge influence on the values and ideas in which people are socialized, values and ideas which invariably confirm the power position of the elites.

The economic elite did not like Politics and Markets. The oft-cited final words of the book are: “The large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed it does not fit.” When democracy means that those who exert power should be democratically accountable, then corporations should also be put under democratic control. Likewise, democracies should not allow corporations to use their resources to influence public opinion. Corporations are not citizens. There was considerable irony then when Mobil Oil Corporation bought a lengthy ad in the New York Times on February 2, 1978 to criticize the book and its author. Lindblom wrote a response, but was informed that it would only be published if he paid for the ad.

The same willingness Lindblom demonstrates to rethink earlier positions is also shown when contemplating the kinds of knowledge that the social and political sciences are able to produce. He was years ahead with his severe criticism on the ways the social and political sciences have made themselves socially and politically irrelevant and with his inquiries into what kinds of usable knowledge would really contribute to the needed changes in our societies. Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society (1990) and Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving (1979), written together with David Cohen, exemplify this.

As part of his overall examination of the uses of knowledge in society, Lindblom had an abiding concern about the impact of defective knowledge upon citizens, students, voters, and consumers. This concern stemmed from several sources, prominent among them a skepticism, long developing in him, toward authority and presumed-to-be authoritative knowledge. In Slices, his self-published memoirs from 2004 (free available at www.lulu.com), Lindblom writes that while in college at Stanford, he “abandoned faith . . . as a disposition to believe in anything without some empirical tests, and, in addition, faith considered as a virtue. I opted for skepticism and inquiry” (71).

Many years later, in Inquiry and Change, Lindblom thoroughly laid out the complex process of impairment of knowledge in various areas of life, including politics and political science. Regarding the current mass media, he stated that they mostly amplify the power of elites to disseminate, misrepresent, deceive, and obfuscate on a vast scale; and, in so doing, they transform the power of elites to influence people and impair their knowledge (1990: 100–117). In an interview Blokland had with Lindblom in November 2000, he powerfully summarized his position on elites and impairment:

”[I see] a long, long historical process of an intermittent, unending struggle of masses trying to restrict elites and elites trying to preserve their advantages. This is not a unusual idea, but a very standard interpretation…. Obviously there is much more to social history than this, but it is a crucial element. Elites maintain their advantages most effectively by pretty crude threats of violence and violence…. These methods, though, are rather costly and relatively ineffective. So the elites have to find more humane, less objectionable, less conspicuous, and less, now outright illegal, methods. And so, as a principal device for maintaining their advantages, they try to capture the mind. They preach the gospel of deference, competence, obedience, the merits of hierarchy, the merits of inequality, the dangers of equality, the dangers of skepticism, and the need for faith….It all adds up to, not a deliberate conspiracy, but a kind of tacit understanding of what elites perceive are the messages that are most effective for maintaining their favored position in society. And you see the efficacy of it in the extent to which it succeeds. We have a society, which…. is deeply suspicious of equality, even though it seems obvious that having more equality would be very much an advantage. A society today can be easily stirred up by fears of more equality. You see societies committed to a deep respect for hierarchy and deference to political leadership. You see it in the both irrational and deeply dangerous commitment to nationalism and patriotism…. My argument is that nobody escapes the onslaught, the unilateralness of the messages, subtle, explicit and implicit, hidden and open, to teach these alleged virtues. That the elites come to believe them, of course, themselves, I mean they impair their own capacity to think straight. And that these impairments, these incapacities to see the world clearly, to appraise such alleged virtues as hierarchy, obedience, faith, inequality, representing a kind of floor-level, ground-level impairment of our capacity to act straight even in political and economic policy. We don’t have good economies, we don’t have good political systems, we do not have good policies because we are so impaired in our capacity to appraise and design good policies.”

Even later in life (2013), Lindblom commented on the ”mammoth corruptions and denials of today,” suggesting that he perceived a new regime of political dishonesty and indoctrination from what he had subsumed under the heading of “circularity in polyarchy” back in 1977. He leaves behind an illuminating paradigm for exploring processes of impairment of knowledge; but great increases in recent years in the production and magnitude of defective information and disinformation may call for revsions that ratchet up this framework.

The Phenomenon of Polyarchy

Among his contributions to pluralist theory, we would be remiss if we failed to mention his contribution, along with Dahl, to giving a name to democracies as they exist in the real world. They felt it important to distinguish such systems from ideal democracy or the direct democracy of ancient Athens. And they made the impactful decision to call this phenomenon “polyarchy,” meaning pluralistic rule. Language’s power is such that the term was fixed in the mind as an essential connection between democracy and pluralism. And the term gained considerable currency in the field. How well has it held up in recent years? Increasingly, extreme political inequality in the US could render continued use of the term polyarchy problematic. Since extreme political inequality could undermine pluralism or overwhelm it, some scholars now limit their use of the term “polyarchy” or even abandon it, applying instead terms like oligarchy or plutocracy to the United States.

Did astronomic rise in political inequality in recent years lead Lindblom to doubt that polyarchy is still the right word for designating the American political system? Did he think polyarchy could still be maintained under such extreme conditions of political inequality? Comments that he made in recent email exchanges—like “Every day becomes more frightening . . . What is in store for great grandchildren?”, and “down, endlessly down” do not leave one sanguine on the matter.

As a “Marketist”

Conservative critics of Lindblom have found it informative to point out that Lindblom is a closet collectivist, socialist, or communist. In fact, Lindblom did not have much use for the terms capitalism and socialism. He preferred instead to devise a different set of economic system types, including market-oriented private enterprise systems, socialist market systems, planner sovereignty market systems, consumer sovereignty systems, among others. These alternatives show that he distinguished the basic alternative systems into different forms of markets rather than different forms of property; and that he distinguished these forms of markets by the extent to which authority replaced market in each one, not so much by the extent to which they either relied on social or private property, though this was still a factor to some degree. Thus downplaying property, both private and social, he could not have been in the vanguard of socialism. Moreover, he was non-committal as far as private and socials forms of property, neither arguing for private property nor for social property; and you cannot be a socialist or a capitalist if you do not take a stand on property. As disappointing as it may be to anyone seeking to provoke ideological conflict, the closest Lindblom gets to being a Marxist is in being a “Marketist,”—someone with a deep faith in markets, despite serious qualms arising from their many defects. As a political economist, what he was promoting was careful, judicious, non-ideological—that is, pragmatic—consideration of the extent to which market should replace authority, or vice versa. By setting forth a slew of alternative political-economic systems, rather than seeking to prove the superiority of one over another, he laid the foundations for two new fields of inquiry: varieties of democracy and markets, and varieties of capitalism.

An Outstanding Character

When Lindblom discussed academic topics, he was ruthlessly looking for answers and truth. He could not always hide his “disappointment” when people came up with views that did not really make sense. He always asked the next, and ultimately the last question: “How do you know?” You need a stomach to endure this, and many people did not always have it, as Lindblom himself realized. When he was at work, he did not have much patience, but as soon as work was over, he was one of the kindest and most attentive men we ever met. Also for this reason, he was celebrated by his students. He was known for commenting in great detail on papers and thesis drafts, making himself available for one-on-one meetings, writing eloquent recommendations, assisting them in their job search, and in general, sticking by them for the duration. Lindblom was invaluable to his students for the knowledge of the subject matter that he would impart. But students would also learn how high academic standards could be—which was no less valuable to them intellectually. In conversation, Lindblom would train his cold gray-blue eyes upon them with an intensity of concentration that made the gaze of other people seem idle. His look conveyed that you were expected to do your very best work; that, if ever you could say something profound, this was the time to do it; and that, if you couldn’t, don’t even think about wasting his time. Students quickly found that they were being taken more seriously than they had ever been before. This respect and seriousness inspired students to go beyond their known capacities.

Lindblom and Blokland in 2005

In his private life, Lindblom was cherished for his capacity for friendship. Most important here, obviously, was his wife Rose Winther, who was the love and inspiration of his life. “I have neither had nor wanted my own life since Rose and I wed over 60 years ago,” he wrote in Slices (2004: 10). “Life with Rose,” he wrote after her death in 2003, “was life in a garden now closed” (2004: 10). She was his companion, confidant, restorer, adviser, and friend. The death of Rose after 50 years of marriage was devastating to him. But after an extended period of intense grief, he somehow managed to pull through, enjoying a good part of his final decade and a half of life.

“Ed” was a person of absolutely outstanding character. He believed in “mutual adjustment” and he was appreciative of his colleagues’ talents and accomplishments, but, in the end, he made his own judgments no matter what anybody else thought and no matter what convention stood in the way. He always went with what he thought was right and true, not just in the world of ideas, but also in personal life. He was no bending reed. Integrity was the path he’d chosen in life, and, where most people are corruptible to some degree, straying from this path was out of the question for him. Honesty was his policy. The current era of mendacity, he must have found appalling, so antithetical to him it was.

One has to reach for extremes if one wants to capture who this man was. Ordinary just was not him. He was a kind of extremist—not of the sort we see in politics today, but one who was extremely good, kind, generous to a fault, objective as a person could be, extremely learned and able, and yes, acutely aware of the need for mutual adjustment.

We, like many others in his wide circle of colleagues, friends, and former students, sorely regret his passing even as we rejoice in having had the privilege of knowing him.

—Hans Blokland, Social Science Works

—Rune Premfors, Stockholm University

—Ross Zucker, Touro College and University System

Originally published in:  PS: Political Science & Politics, Volume 51, Issue 2, April 2018, pp. 454 – 8.

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