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  • Historical Note
  • Stephen Elkin

The Good Society grew out of the same intellectual impulses that created its parent organization PEGS (the Committee on the Political Economy of the Good Society). As the founders of both entities understood the condition of the social sciences at that time, the split between empirical analysis and normative argument was impoverishing both. The empiricists had no reliable guides to determine what was worth studying, and as a result we got endless voting studies, for example, and little investigation of the rule of law. As for political and moral philosophers, they inhabited a world in which it seemed perfectly acceptable to create an ideal theory, and then say practice should be guided by these abstract ideals. Machiavelli demonstrated the costs of such a way of proceeding, and the road to the ideal is littered with states of affairs far worse than what more modest undertakings might have produced.

Thus the founders of The Good Society were determined to join the empirical and the normative, and at least some of us—including the present author, who donned the mantle of editor—thought that this could best be done under the heading of "constitutional theory." We reasoned that the central problem of the political and social sciences was how to constitute and maintain good political orders, and how the inhabitants of bad ones might create better ones. We thought of the term "constitution" as denoting the working principles of political regimes, and the machinery that set these principles in motion. In short, we hoped to promote what one of us called [End Page 136] "realist" political and social theory, a compelling body of practice-minded theorizing. In this sense we considered ourselves the intellectual legatees of thinkers such as Aristotle, Machiavelli, Madison, Tocqueville, and Hayek.

Another major impulse behind the founding of the journal was that it be an outlet for work in political economy. Since the days of Adam Smith, we believed, it had been plain that there are not two subjects, economics and political science, but one, political economy. (If confirmation were needed the recent work of Thomas Picketty provides it.) Thus, the apparatus of economic life is largely a political creation—consider the regulation of markets, or the role of taxation in the distribution of wealth. As for political life, at least in democratic societies, a principal subject of politics is economics—for example, who is to benefit from economic transactions, and to what degree.

Altogether then, the purpose of the journal was to promote the study of constitutional political economy, although not all of its founders would have used this specific language. Regardless, we scoured the landscape for scholars working in this vein and gave them a venue to publish their work in a form that best suited their purposes. Thus, much of what we published took the form of essays, some polemical, some more scholarly. We did not require that contributors employ the standard format of scholarly article, believing that the essay form was a good way to break new theoretical ground. We started in 1991, and with the help of a cadre of graduate students at the University of Maryland, we managed at least to keep our purposes in mind and served them often enough.

The journal changed a lot over the subsequent twenty-five years, under my watch and that of my successors. Its focus gradually shifted from constitutional political economy to Civic Studies, which embraces but is not limited to the former. In the process, the journal's mission has grown fuzzier in some ways and clearer in others. Still, I believe it remains guided by the masthead motto we adopted at its launch: Walter Lippmann's statement that "the art of governing well has to be learned." [End Page 137]



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pp. 136-137
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