Russell Hardin has died

by Henry Farrell on February 26, 2017

Russell Hardin died last night. I’m not competent even to begin to assess his overall intellectual contribution. What I can do is talk about what his work meant for me. I read – like pretty well every political science graduate student of my generation, and others previous and since – his seminal book on collective action theory. But how I really got to know him was through his work on trust as an encapsulation of interest. Thanks to the kindness of Margaret Levi, I became involved in the project that she, Russell and Karen Cook were running on trust for the Russell Sage Foundation, and a larger orbit of left scholars interested in rational choice. It was the making of more or less everything that I’ve written since, both directly, and through the people it introduced me to. My dissertation and subsequent book were in large part applications of Russell’s ideas. The single cleanest paper I’ve written not only was a riff on Russell’s arguments, but came out of his suggestion that I should take up an off the cuff comment and develop it to see where it goes. He was far kinder to me than he needed to be.

There was a period at the University of Chicago when Russell, Adam Przeworski and Jon Elster were all teaching in the political science department, arguing with each other, and creating through their agreements and disagreements a vision of what the left should be. I think that vision still has an awful lot to say for it. Of Russell’s later work, the book I like the most is How Do You Know? It’s not as perfect in itself as his books on collective action and trust, but it’s quite characteristic of the ways in which (like Brian Barry) he mixed analytic philosophy with a very practical interest in concrete problems. The questions that he raises – of how our knowledge depends on social and collective structures that we do not really understand – seem very relevant now that many of these structures are behaving perversely or breaking down completely. He will be missed and remembered.



Peter Boettke 02.26.17 at 9:42 am

Thank you for this Henry. Russell Hardin was an exemplar of civil, honest and rigorous intellectual discourse in the academy. He will indeed be sorely missed.


Daniel Klein 02.26.17 at 3:57 pm

Sad to hear. I just bought his 2007 OUP book David Hume: Moral and Political Theorist, showing the importance of mutual-coordination ideas in Hume, particularly convention, a theme treated further in Andrew Sabl’s 2012 book Hume’s Politics.


Peter 02.27.17 at 1:43 am

Very sad. He was a a first-rate scholar. Like with his friend Brian Barry I will miss him greatly.
Maybe of interest: a lengthy interview with him about his work, from 2012:


Charles Lipson 02.27.17 at 2:08 am

Russell was a friend of many years. I was fortunate to be a junior faculty member at Chicago when he, Brian Barry, Jon Elster, Adam Przeworksi, Ira Katznelson and others were briskly batting around big ideas and taking no prisoners in the arguments.

Russell had suffered a debilitating neurological disease for some time.

Losing him is a blow.


Duncan Snidal 02.27.17 at 8:36 am

Russell was a wonderful person and a great scholar. I was hired at Chicago at the same time as Russell and co-taught my first course with him. I learned more than anyone in the class.
Russell’s work brought analytic philosophy to life by showing how it could guide us in understanding real world problems. He always had strong views on these things and used his incredibly wide range of knowledge to show that he rejected competing positions not because he didn’t understand them but because he did.
Ciao, Russell – we’ll miss you.


Elmer Offenbacher 02.27.17 at 9:36 am

Thank you Henry for posting this promptly.
May I add to the professional comments of Russell’s colleagues and students the vast vistas of knowledge he opened for me after my retirement from Temple Univesity’s Physics Department. He was a most outstanding example of a “Mensch”, a model human being
who will be remembered by my wife Dr. Esther Gladstone and myself as one the most generous, kind, understanding and loving true friends for the rest of our lives.
Elmer L. Offenbacher


Grahame Booker 02.27.17 at 11:46 am

I first had the pleasure of meeting Russell after I had returned to PhD work under Jan Narveson at Waterloo, having retired from my first teaching career. We had been reading Russell’s Liberalism, Constitutionalism and Democracy and Jan invited Russell up for a few days so we could benefit from a much closer encounter with the author. I recall at one point sharing with Russell our recollections of Oxford, where we had both spent time many years previously. It was a great experience to meet such a friendly and distinguished scholar. Ave taqueria vale.


Dali Yang 02.27.17 at 8:20 pm

Russell took me to breakfast at the Quad Club during my first visit to the University of Chicago. It was winter time, with snow everywhere as well as bright sunshine. Following breakfast we negotiated our return to the Department, Russell said to me: isn’t this glorious?!

These words, uttered in Russell’s inimitable style, continue to ring in my mind after 25 years. One might say that it’s in this spirit that he’s tackled some of the thorniest issues confronting humanity.


Keith Dowding 02.27.17 at 9:55 pm

It was about 1987, I had just finished by PhD, there were no jobs in the UK, Thatcher cuts. I had had some written correspondence with Russell over collective action (no emails then) and wrote to him saying I was touring the states looking for work and could I give a paper in Chicago! He arranged it, and arranged some expenses. I gave my paper at a Hardin, Jon Elster and Howard Margolis seminar. I remember the lunch with Russell and Jon was tougher than the seminar and how shocked he was when he found out I had walked through the neighborhood to get there. It was always a pleasure to meet him thereafter, a real gent.


Roderick Bell 02.28.17 at 3:01 am

I’ve known Russell since about 1970. He was a graduate student at the University of Texas before he transferred to MIT to write his dissertation; I was an assistant professor in the same department (government), and we were basically colleagues. Then, as ever, he was the best colleague. @Daniel Klein mentions that he just bought Russell’s “David Hume: Moral and Political Theorist,” which I consider his best book, and it may interest Daniel and perhaps others to know that Russell considered it his most representative work. Here is my review in Amazon; not a prestigious venue, but Russell was extravagantly pleased with it, because the book was so important to him:


Christopher Morris 02.28.17 at 3:38 am

“Collective Action” was one of those works that I thought about and reread and taught when I was young. Russell’s work, along with Barry’s and Elster’s (and for me, Gauthier’s), was formative for several of us in philosophy in the late seventies and eighties. “Interdeterminacy and Society” may be neglected, but i think it splendid. I don’t know if many knew of Russell’s fiction. He gave me a copy of his “Dmitri Esterhaats” the las time we had lunch together, but I have not gotten to it yet. Most of all, I want to say what a nice man he was, someone I was always pleased to see and someone I’ll really miss.


Henry 02.28.17 at 12:28 pm

To my great shame I hadn’t known about the Hume book until it was mentioned by Daniel – I’ve ordered a copy.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 02.28.17 at 2:34 pm

What follows is but a taste of Hardin’s argument from Liberalism, Constitutionalism, and Democracy (Oxford University Press, 1999), confined to Chapter 3, “Constitutionalism: Contract or Coordination?” I think this book has not received the attention it deserves (I could be wrong, and would welcome ample evidence to the contrary). Hardin’s book should interest anyone interested in the plausibility or possible persuasiveness of the “Constitution-as-contract” story, theory, or metaphor, perhaps the most sophisticated if not the strongest argument for which is found in the work of Gerald F. Gaus.

Our Constitution should be viewed as a coordinating mechanism that differs from the “Constitution-as-contract” theory or metaphor in fundamental ways: “We generally coordinate on creating institutions for constraining certain classes of behaviour and then the institutions implement the constraints. [Stephen Holmes, on the other hand, has written about the ‘enabling’ capacities of the Constitution.] In an extreme statement of this dual structure of choice, James Madison argued that an advantage of the particular form of representative government proposed for the United States in its new constitution was ‘the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from any share’ in the government. That is to say, popular sovereignty stopped at the adoption of the constitution.” I would put this differently: direct democracy was abandoned in favor of representative democracy (the best account of which I think is found in the work of Nadia Urbinati).

Constitutional arrangements are not at all the product of agreement in the sense in which contracts—based on promise or consent—are, hypothetical or not (cf., however, Hobbes’s ‘mutual covenant’ to obey sovereign authority,’—Hardin argues that Hobbes was ‘not genuinely a social contract theorist,’ he explains again why in his book on Hume cited above). A constitution is prior to a contract insofar as it creates the institution of contracting, an institution that seems to depend upon a constitutional or other order for its existence: “We all coordinate in having a practice of promising and a law of contract that make life better for us.” Unlike a contract, a constitution does not resolve a particular exchange or prisoners’ dilemma problem. Instead, a constitution “regulates a long-term pattern of interactions. It establishes conventions in the sociological or strategic sense that makes it easier for us to cooperate and to coordinate in particular moments. Creating a constitution is itself primarily an act of coordination on one of many possible ways of ordering our lives together, not an act of cooperating in an exchange or prisoner’s dilemma. In the general case over the long term, roughly speaking, we must have one regime: for example, general enforcement of contracts or no enforcement, general protection of property or no protection. [….] One can renege on any given contract and plausible still keep open the opportunity for mutually beneficial contractual relations with other potential partners. But one cannot will away the whole institution of enforcing contracts and then still expect mutually beneficial contractual exchanges with anyone to work.” It is the constitutional order that allows us to prosper through our own efforts and through contractual exchange.

“There are at least three major ways in which a constitution fundamentally differs from a contract. [….] First, the strategic structures of the modal interactions governed by contracts and constitutions are different. A contract typically resolves an immediate prisoner’s dilemma interaction (usually, an exchange between two parties); a constitution typically resolves an immediate coordination interaction (the creation of a particular set and form of government institutions). Secondly, a constitution has a far less significant element of agreement behind it than does a contract. This problem has given rise to a remarkably obtuse and unenlightening literature on tacit consent, hypothetical consent, implied consent, and so forth. In practice, acquiescence is more important than agreement for the working of a constitution, while agreement is crucial for obligations under a contract to make sense. Thirdly, and finally, the sources of support for a contract and a constitution differ radically. A contract is generally backed by external sanctions; a constitution is more nearly backed by default, by the difficulty of re-coordinating on an alternative arrangement. A constitution, if it is to work in bringing about and maintaining social order, must be self-enforcing. [….] If a constitution is to be stable, it must be self-enforcing, it must be a coordination, because the nation cannot go to a supranational agency to enforce its citizens’ contractual agreement with each other and their government.”

Wonderful stuff!


Patrick S. O'Donnell 02.28.17 at 2:43 pm

I should have said Russell explains in his book on Hume why Hobbes’s is not a social contract theorist in the sense of having a “credible account of the initial empowerment of government.” The contract, in the first instance, if of course only between those in the hypothetical state of nature (as he says, the sovereign is ‘merely the enforcer of our agreement with each other’).


Patrick S. O'Donnell 02.28.17 at 10:39 pm

As it has been close to eight hours, I was wondering why my comment was not approved: just curious, so I’ll know whether or not I should spend time commenting (I got started a bit late on the grounds maintenance today because I took the time to post something). Thank you, Patrick.


Roderick Bell 03.01.17 at 12:41 am

Isn’t it?


Joan Rothchild Hardin 03.02.17 at 2:00 am

The Politics Department at NYU posted this obituary for Russell today on

HARDIN–William Russell.

NYU’s Wilf Family Department of Politics mourns the loss of Russell Hardin, whose insights as a scholar and generosity as a friend will be sorely missed. A political scientist who shed light on the limitations of morality, politics, and knowledge, Russell was also committed to free debate among diverse views and a beloved teacher devoted to the intellectual development of his students. Contributions may be made to the American Civil Liberties Union. A memorial will be held later in the spring. Alastair Smith Chair

– See more at:

The NYU Politics Department also published this longer obituary on their website:

Russell Hardin Obituary

William Russell Hardin, prolific scholar, admired teacher, beloved husband and father, died peacefully in hospice at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City, February 24, 2017. Professor Hardin was well-known for his path-breaking work in political science, moral and social theory, and public policy, as he fluidly integrated insights from diverse fields to shed light on the limitations of morality, politics and knowledge, in order to more powerfully make use of their potential without illusions. Russell_Hardin.jpeg

In May 2016, Professor Hardin had retired from his position as Professor of Politics and Helen Gould Shepard Professor in the Social Sciences at New York University. His two decades at NYU, where he came in 1993 to rebuild the Department of Politics, followed a nearly fifteen-year career at the University of Chicago, where he played the key role in establishing and heading the School of Public Policy. At Chicago, he also served as editor of Ethics, guiding the journal with a passionate commitment to rigorous interdisciplinary work and his cultivation of free debate among diverse views. In addition to institutional achievements at the University of Chicago and NYU, he spent time at Stanford, University of Virginia School of Law, Northwestern University School of Law, University of Maryland, and University of Pennsylvania, nurturing students in every location through his intellectual challenge, joy of learning and teaching, and openness. As one of his former students has remarked: “He was immensely generous in his support and encouragement of his students. He was devoted to their development even when they differed from him.” Another noted: “He had that calm way about him, that made you feel valuable.”

Russell Hardin was born December 11, 1940, in Bristol, Tennessee, one of six children. He attended the University of Texas, where he studied mathematics and physics. In 1964, he traveled to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, where he continued to pursue mathematics, and in 1971 received his Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Asked in an interview how he moved from science to politics, he explained: “The thing that was really important at that time was the Vietnam War … and I thought I was doing the wrong thing, studying math and physics. … I shifted into political science. And at first I thought that there would be no use for all that background. … But in fact, immediately I was in a course that did game theory, and game theory could be conceived as a kind of minor topological set theory.”

Professor Hardin was the author of more than fifteen books, including Collective Action (1982), Morality Within the Limits of Reason (1988), and One for All: The Logic of Group Conflict (1995), as well as hundreds of articles on topics including nuclear deterrence, constitutionalism, moral reasoning, trust, and “street-level epistemology” – the everyday knowledge humans construct and rely upon to make sense of political, social and cultural worlds. He repeatedly returned to a set of questions concerning social order: the relationship between self-interest and group identification, the nature of strategic action, the dynamics of conflict and coordination. His academic work provided an entrée to real-world engagement: he was Coordinator for Soviet-American exchange on ethics and the nuclear confrontation, sponsored by the USSR Academy of Science and the American Philosophical Association from 1988-1990, and a member and Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 1984-1993. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and a Guggenheim Fellow in the mid-nineties, among numerous other honors and awards. His fascination with the study of psychology and the complexity of human relationships extended itself to fiction: he also published three works, What We Go By, Perhaps It Was Never the Same, and Dmitri Esterhaats, all with Wings Press.

In 2004, Professor Hardin was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, which impaired his ability to read, speak and walk, and caused enormous pain and debilitating side-effects. His indomitable spirit overcame these hurdles and he continued to engage in scholarly life, teaching and traveling to conferences and making light of the brutal impediments. He brought to bear a capacious interest in the world and bracing demotion of illusions, and throughout retained his passion for classical beauty in opera and art. His brilliant mind, unmitigated humor, and warm heart in the face of difficulty at the end cap off a life supremely well-lived.
He is survived by his wife, Andrea Belag; his son from a prior marriage, Joshua R. Hardin; sisters Linda Langston, Pat Sporn, and Joni Hardin-Teague; brothers Ronald Hardin and Stephen Hardin; nieces Angela Weddle and Jalynn Moody; nephew Trevor McClain, and many other nieces and nephews, and one great-niece.

Contributions can be made to the American Civil Liberties Union. A memorial will be held later in the spring.

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