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Ostrom Memorial Lecture: Scholar to discuss political rule breaking

Apr 7, 2017

Elinor Ostrom, Douglass North and other scholars of the ”new institutionalism” described how institutions structure and constrain rational behavior. But what happens when they don’t? That’s the topic political scientist Kenneth Shepsle will address in the 2017 Ostrom Memorial Lecture.

Shepsle, the George Markham Professor of Government at Harvard University, will speak from 5 to 6 p.m. April 12 in State Room East of the Indiana Memorial Union at Indiana University Bloomington. A reception will follow in State Room West.

Kenneth Shepsle
Kenneth ShepsleUniversity of Warwick

The lecture, Rule Breaking and Political Imagination, will draw on Shepslebook of the same title, due out this year from University of Chicago Press. Both book and lecture, he said, will include stories about political figures who werent constrained by rules and institutions.

In some cases, the stories involve political figures who found ingenious ways to bend the rules to their advantage or who used tactics that no one had previously imagined.

“I think of that as untying the Gordian knot,” Shepsle said. “On the other side, there are politicians who say, ‘Why should I have to abide by the rules?’ and who just cut the Gordian knot.”

Shepsle takes an eclectic approach to political science, incorporating American politics and political history along with game theory and mathematical modeling. He grew up in Washington, D.C., studied under Richard Fenno, a leading scholar of Congress, and spent time on Capitol Hill conducting research for a book on congressional committees. That background gives him a respect for the creativity of some politicians, regardless of whether he agrees with their objectives.

“I admire politicians who get things done, whether their behavior is commendable or not,” he said. “Politics is a craft, and I admire people who practice the craft in interesting ways.”

One story of rule-benders and rule-breakers goes back over 2,000 years, to when generals Julius Caesar and Lucius Cornelius Sulla led their armies into ambitious and unprecedented battles. The constraints of the Roman Republic were broken; the Roman Empire followed.

He also discusses 19th-century legislators Henry Brand, speaker of the British House of Commons, and Thomas Brackett Reed, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Both broke or reinterpreted the rules to prevent their minority opponents from using procedural tactics to block legislation.

Their influence continues today and runs parallel to the long and twisted history of the U.S. Senate filibuster, which minority senators use to thwart the will of the majority. Just this week, Senate Republicans exercised the so-called nuclear option, changing rules to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court with a simple majority vote, foiling Democratic attempts to block a vote on the appointment via the filibuster.

Another politician Shepsle admires is Henry Clay, speaker of the House for 15 years in the early 1800s, who overcame considerable setbacks: He was a three-time loser in campaigns for the presidency, and he advocated for the War of 1812, which didn’t produce the desired outcome for the U.S. But he developed the House committee system, which gave Clay and his successors control of legislation.

“He was a brilliant, imaginative man,” Shepsle said. “I think not enough attention or credit is given to people who lose in politics. Losers provide the dynamic. It’s losers who want to become winners who engage in experimentation.”

The Ostrom Memorial Lecture honors the memory of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, founders and leaders of the Ostrom Workshop at IU Bloomington. Shepsle and Elinor Ostrom were longtime friends; they met in the 1970s when he was on the faculty of Washington University and she was conducting research on police departments, including those in St. Louis. Both Ostroms died in June 2012.

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