Merle Kling, retired provost, dean and professor of political science at Washington University, died Tuesday (April 8, 2008) at Barnes Extended Care in Clayton...
Mr. Kling's tenure as dean covered the Vietnam War era, making his job a difficult balancing act, his son, Arnold Kling of Silver Spring, Md., recalled.
"If you picture Washington U. at that time, it was radical students, a fairly radical faculty, the Vietnam War going on, and the students and faculty blaming the military-industrial complex for everything," Arnold Kling said Wednesday. "On the other hand, you've got the Washington U. board — the head of Monsanto, McDonnell Douglas — a very establishment group.
"He had to come up with some really creative ways to keep those two extreme factions away from each other's throat."
Over the years, many people told me that he was the most intelligent man they had ever met. However, he deprecated his own skills, because he was not mathematical. Although he published a number of scholarly works, he was most proud of The Intellectual: Will He Wither Away?, which predicted the continued decline of the literary intellectual and the increased importance of scientists and engineers.
His views on politics shaped mine, and perhaps should have shaped them more. He skewered my essay on politics and cults (the last essay on which he was able to give me comments) in an email with a one-sentence question.
Do you think that the Democratic and Republican Parties are cults?
I realized immediately the nature of his criticism. He believed that politics has a highly rational core, namely, interest-group politics. As collections of interest groups, the two parties are the opposite of cults.
Recently, many editorial-writers and others have been outraged at the special interests manifested in the Senate housing bill or the controversies over the Colombia free trade agreement. He viewed human conflict as normal, and he saw interest-group politics as a relatively peaceful and benign way of working out this natural propensity for conflict. He would have viewed as naively idealistic either the contemporary liberal's view that we can find righteous leaders who will rise above special interests or the libertarian's view that we can somehow invigorate the Constitution to quell interest groups.
He viewed libertarianism as a form of "outsider politics" (my term), suited to people who are intrinsically unhappy and inclined to project their personal problems and neuroses onto the larger sphere. He felt the same way about socialists or other radical reformers. In contrast, well-balanced and contented people, to the extent that they play politics at all, focus on their own interests. They accept the game for what it is, and they just go ahead and play it.
I think that my diagnosis of interest-group politics has much in common with his. It would be my libertarian prescriptions that he would not have shared. Nonetheless, in his eyes I could do no wrong.
He was endearing and unforgettable to many people. One of my high school friends put it very well: "my memory of him is primarily his low-key, sharp, and wickedly funny sense of humor."