Did Bob Dahl Really Say That? (Updated)

by Corey Robin on February 9, 2014

As many of you probably know, the Yale political scientist Robert Dahl has died. The Monkey Cage is promising to post personal reflections from a former student next week, but in the meantime they have a roundup of the various obituaries. The Times obituary was quite good. I found this passage especially arresting.

Professor Dahl, who taught at Yale for 40 years, provided a definition of politics memorized by a generation of students: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”

When I first read that, I thought to myself, “Wow, Dahl was more of a Nietzschean than I realized.” I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books, but I hadn’t ever stumbled across that particular statement or sentiment in any of them. I posted it on Facebook with the header, “Bob Dahl, Nietzschean.”

But then I googled it and couldn’t find Dahl saying it anywhere, save in the Times. And then I got suspicious. Wrongly attributed statements, as readers here may remember, are a bit of an obsession of mine. So I asked around on Facebook, and thanks to the efforts of Harrison Fluss, who’s a philosophy grad student at Stonybrook, and Rafael Khachaturian, who’s a poli sci grad student at Indiana University, I was able to piece together the following letter to the writer of the Times obit. I hope they manage to make a correction. If they don’t, they might be unwittingly inaugurating decades of misconception.

If I’ve gotten any of it wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments. As I say, I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books; I’m by no means an expert.

• • • • •

Dear Douglas Martin:

Many thanks for your wonderful obituary of Bob Dahl, who I knew distantly when I was a grad student in political science at Yale. I believe, however, that there may be an error in the obituary. You write:

Professor Dahl, who taught at Yale for 40 years, provided a definition of politics memorized by a generation of students: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”

That definition of politics is commonly understood to be David Easton’s, not Dahl’s. In his 1953 book The Political System Easton said that political science ought to be the study of “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” Dahl reviewed Easton’s book in 1955 in the journal World Politics. In that review, Dahl characterized Easton’s view as follows: “Political science is (or, at any rate, ought to be) focused on the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” It is important to note that this is not Dahl’s view; he is merely characterizing Easton’s view. And indeed, he goes onto criticize that view (and the general desire to find a definition of politics or political science) as “curiously metaphysical” in the succeeding paragraphs of his review.

As for the specific phrase that you cite in your obituary—”the process that determines the authoritative allocation of values”—I believe that’s a quote from Karl Deutsch’s textbook Politics and Government, which came out in 1970. You can find the passage here, where he is summarizing a common view of politics. But again I don’t think it’s Dahl’s view.
Corey Robin
Updated (February 12)
From today’s New York Times:
An obituary on Saturday about the political scientist Robert A. Dahl…mistakenly credited a concept to Professor Dahl. The political scientist David Easton — not Professor Dahl — wrote that politics involves “the authoritative allocation of values.”



Peter Hovde 02.09.14 at 1:57 pm

It could become one of the quotes intoned at the beginning and end of Criminal Minds.


Peter Hovde 02.09.14 at 1:58 pm

Nice catch, BTW.


LFC 02.09.14 at 2:19 pm

Kind of surprising, imo, that the NYT made this mistake. A lot of people could have told them that the ‘authoritative allocation of values’ line is David Easton’s — it’s a famous definition and it’s always attributed to Easton whenever I’ve seen it mentioned.


LFC 02.09.14 at 2:26 pm

P.s. I don’t know that much about Nietzsche but not sure why you think the line is Nietzschean. Easton’s general outlook, afaik, was positivist and he was into systems theory. Nothing much Nietzschean there.


Anderson 02.09.14 at 2:33 pm

LFC, Nietzsche was preoccupied with the creation and promulgation, distribution if you will, of values.

But I would have guessed the Easton line was sloppy socialese for “things of value.” No?


Corey Robin 02.09.14 at 2:41 pm

LFC: What Anderson said (in the first graf). Also, being slightly ironic and arch. The idea of either Easton or Dahl being Nietzscheans is kind of funny. Or so I thought. That said, the distance between the Nietzsche Anderson describes accurately in the first graf and Nietzsche the, well, not positivist, but natural scientist, is not necessarily as big as you may think. Brian Leiter makes a strong case for thinking of Nietzsche as a kind of natural scientist. Not a positivist, which he thought of as vulgar scientism, but as a scientist.


LFC 02.09.14 at 2:53 pm

Thanks for the responses.


LFC 02.09.14 at 3:11 pm

I have heard of ‘the revaluation of values’ in connection w N.
Just so you don’t think I am 100% ignorant. Only 99%.

I would have guessed the Easton line was sloppy socialese for “things of value.” No?
I’m pretty sure he was talking about more than the distribution of material goods, but I’m not the right person to answer this. (I know the definition, not the exposition. ;))


bob mcmanus 02.09.14 at 3:24 pm

5:The gap between the first and second paragraphs express my confusion. I followed the links and visited a dictionary, but “values” as “things” is pretty rare. So is really meant that politics is the authoritative allocation of greed, caritas, familial love, loyalty, patriotism, industriousness…so much here, more for that section, a little less for a special individual? That’s…interesting. And I am not sure how Nietzschean, who talks more about hierarchies of values rather than distributions, though I suppose they are related.

Also, of course, use-value, exchange-value, and Value. But the third value-form is hard.


oldster 02.09.14 at 3:43 pm

Also, isn’t “authoritative” doing some of the weasel work?

My worry is that if we were to show him clearly non-political process (scientific, technological, natural, religious, you name it) that determined an allocation of values, Easton would reply, “but that’s not an *authoritative* allocation.”

So then we say, “sure it is. It has the authority of science/the Church/ethnic tradition/nature/you name it.”

And he says, “Oh. Well I meant *political* authority.”

At which point the definition has lost a lot of content.


William Timberman 02.09.14 at 3:56 pm

bob mcmanus @ 9

But the third value-form is hard.

Harder in theory than in practice, I think. When I look at values in that sense, it seems to me that for most people, in most situations, they’re like Topsy, they jes grew. No doubt theories get embedded in our values/practices at points along the way, but I’m not sure that even when one can identify a point of crystallization — Paul with Christianity, say, or Lenin with Communism — the practice isn’t richer, and older, than the theories we use to describe it.

There’s an old movie The Wind and the Lion, in which a Berber chieftain, played by Sean Connery, as I remember, condemns as cowards the Western generals opposing him, because they employ guns which fire promiscuously, and at a distance. Today, a century later, one hears similar complaints, from roughly the same regions of the world, about U.S. drones. How do we adequately unpack that fact without leavening our economics with a sizeable dollop of philosophy?


bob mcmanus 02.09.14 at 4:01 pm

Andrew Kliman …pdf, long, he’s good, on “intrinsic value” or the third value form. There are a lot of economists and even Marxians who don’t quite get this stuff, although it is critical. Including or especially me.

Cheaply and wrongly, I suppose one might say that within the commodity use-value is personal, exchange-value is determined by the market, and Value is the socially-determined remainder that is the surplus available for accumulation, i.e., Capital. Like important, and the alternative to subjectivism.

Under this kind of analysis, “politics is the authoritative allocation of values” starts to make a little sense, politics defined very broadly, and a very advanced 21st century understanding that everything has been commodified.


David Zacuto 02.09.14 at 7:16 pm

Wow, we were just talking about (and roundly critiquing) his conception of power in my political soc seminar.


Tom Hurka 02.09.14 at 7:21 pm

The “authoritative allocation of values” phrase seems multiply ambiguous, for the reasons given in comments above, and I have no idea what it means. Are “values” things of value, beliefs about value, or truths about value? Only the latter would be Nietzschean, in the common (in my view mis-) intepretation of Nietzsche. But then why “allocation”? That goes better with things of value.

Without some explanatory context, which Easton may have given it, the phrase seems just a mess.


David Zacuto 02.09.14 at 7:46 pm

Tom: I would guess that Easton’s using “allocation” to refer to political processes and their results (e.g. elections, debates, legislation, and material outcomes) and “values” to refer to socially-mediated evaluation. So in this reading he would be referring to politics as the taxon for processes whereby, for instance, it is formally decided that the wealthy deserve tax cuts while the poor deserve to have their SNAP benefits cut, and the desert of those two things necessarily involves evaluation both of the money that would be retained or lost by the government and of the character of the groups affected. I’m guessing he probably wasn’t thinking of things like prices. If that’s true, I guess one could argue that this is circular, since outcomes could seem to be determining value even while evaluation would be implicated in causing outcomes. This might be countered by pointing out that social processes are inherently iterative.


LFC 02.09.14 at 7:55 pm

Searching on “easton authoritative allocation of values” turns up several things on the first (Google) page, incl. this 2013 working paper at SSRN:

which presumably goes into the context etc.


GiT 02.09.14 at 8:11 pm

“Allocation” seems like a pretty bizarre verb (you get some dignity, you get some autonomy; a little social solidarity for you, a little individual responsibility for you). But the definition to me just suggests something like, ‘are we going to emphasize rehabilitation or retribution; liberty or equality? Sovereign sez…. Now make it so, with laws and stuff.’


GiT 02.09.14 at 8:13 pm

Well not verb of course. It’s a noun. But it suggests a verb.


LFC 02.09.14 at 11:03 pm

Past tense @4 perhaps inapt: acc. to Wiki, Easton is still alive.


bob mcmanus 02.09.14 at 11:39 pm

I suppose it could work like this:

Instead of (authoritative) value allocation it is (authoritative value) allocation. Then, what are the “authoritative values,” maybe like the legitimate sources and uses of uniquely political power. I guess I could work with this, but it does seem to be a lot of unrewarding and unnecessarily confusing effort just to separate political science from sociology and economics.


Steven 02.10.14 at 12:11 am

“Easton’s general outlook, afaik, was positivist and he was into systems theory. ”

There is a pretty direct line from Nietzsche to systems theory, via Weber and Parsons – Weberian notion of value-rationality is appropriated from Nietzsche and then taken, in turn, by Parsons to develop his theory of socio-cultural integration.


LFC 02.10.14 at 1:07 am

@b mcmanus
Instead of (authoritative) value allocation it is (authoritative value) allocation. Then, what are the “authoritative values,” maybe like the legitimate sources and uses of uniquely political power.
Except that’s not how the phrase reads — “authoritative” modifies “allocation.”
It would not be difficult to find out (more or less) what Easton meant but apparently no one here is esp. interested in doing so (incl. me, I’m afraid).


john c. halasz 02.10.14 at 1:09 am

Eaton’s definition doesn’t sound Nietzschean at all to me. It seems like some combination of liberalism and positivism. “Values” are criteria for individual choices, (which purportedly give “values” their value), and the contests between individualistic “values” determine political “allocations”, (assuming political processes determine such allocations “authoritatively”).

My own view is that it is better to distinguish between types or modes of activity/action, than to bounded domains, whether academic or “real”. Hence political action/activity is concerned with the resolution of social conflicts and the securement of authoritatively binding agreements, whereas economic action/activity is concerned with the seeking out, realization and distribution of more-or-less material surpluses. Obviously, political activities permeate economic organization and economic conflicts absorb much of the political domain. Without either mode being quite reducible to the other.

But it is the issue of “authority” that is key, (often titled “legitimation”), since, not only is it “pragmatically” necessary or inevitable, but it is without any prior foundation, whether in authoritarian appeals to traditions, (which have long since lost their binding “force” in modernity), or in appeals to some form of theory. Many years ago, Gregory Bateson remarked that there is always both a report/command aspect to any statement. That is in many ways an inadequate formulation, but the basic intuition is correct. (And one can find the same sort of thing in Heidegger, read in a certain way). Our language and communication are riddled with imperatives, multiple, perhaps contradictory, or even sometimes paradoxical, without being derivable from any prior or natural conditions. So “authority” is as much an “internal” as an “external” requirement, even though both are equally groundless, “an-archic”. Given human finitude in a material world, all norms that we might arrive at and “legitimate”, whether cognitive or ethical, are solely a collective human responsibility. But political-economy, “power”, runs through all the issues we might face.


LFC 02.10.14 at 1:27 am

Steven @21
ok, forget I said that @4 if you like. I’m not up right now for a discussion of Nietzsche, Weber, and Parsons (though I know more about the second and third than the first). Brubaker’s 1984 book (reprinted ’06, Amazon informs me) is pretty good, iirc, on Weber and ‘rationality’. Though no doubt oceans of ink have been spilled on it since then.


geo 02.10.14 at 2:00 am

“Authoritative allocation of values” does seem to be a solecism. As jch says @23, “value” usually means “criterion for individual choice”; or as the dictionary says, “utility,” “merit,” “worth,” “usefulness,” “importance.” “Allocate” means “distribute according to a plan.” How do you allocate (much less “authoritatively” allocate) importance/usefulness/worth/criteria for individual choice?


oldster 02.10.14 at 2:17 am

So we have agreed that it is obscurantist at best, definitely confused, and probably incoherent.

No wonder that generations of Yale students treated it as gospel.


otpup 02.12.14 at 12:44 am

Wow. Dahl is an important critic of American political institutions and how they fail to live up to democratic ideals and norms. I would have thought that merited more discussion on CT (though the OP, with all due respect, channeled the discussion in a particular direction).

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