In memoriam: Charles Edward Lindblom, helped found ISPS at Yale

Charles Edward Lindblom
Charles Edward Lindblom

Charles Edward Lindblom, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science who taught at Yale for 38 years, died on Jan. 30 at home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 100 years old.

Lindblom taught at Yale from 1949 to 1987 and was director of Yale’s Institute for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS) from 1974 to 1980. He helped found the institute with the goal of bringing more interdisciplinary conversation to policy research around issues of public relevance. He chaired the political science department from 1972 to 1974.

As a scholar, Lindblom is known for breaking with conventional theory. His 1959 paper “The Science of Muddling Through” is described by the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences as “a challenge to the Western political tradition’s extreme faith in reason.” In the work, Lindblom introduced the theory of incrementalism in policy and decision making — the idea that policy change is evolutionary (incremental over time and coming about through mutual adjustment among many participants) rather than revolutionary. Lindblom came to this view after conducting extensive studies on welfare policies and trade unions. His paper is one of the most frequently cited publications in political science literature, and was followed with the paper “Still Muddling, Not Yet Through” in 1979.

Earlier, with his friend and colleague Robert Dahl, Lindblom wrote “Politics, Economics, and Welfare,” a systematic comparison of the price system, hierarchy, polyarchy, and bargaining in political-economic processes. It argued that no single monolithic elite controls government and society, but rather a series of specialized elites compete and bargain with one another for control. Lindblom later acknowledged the shortcomings of polyarchy with regard to democratic governance, noting that when certain elite groups gain advantages over others, they begin to collude with one another instead of compete.

His most famous work is his 1971 book, “Politics and Markets.”

Lindblom’s scholarly rigor and intellectual prescience are evidenced in his famous ‘Politics and Markets,’” says Joseph LaPalombara, the Arnold Wolfers Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Management. “This book departs from his earlier and mistaken depiction (with Robert Dahl) of the political workings of polyarchical systems, like that of the United States. He showed why organized business, and not labor unions or the public itself, dominates public policies — and overwhelmingly to its own advantage. Global firms took out full-page ads to refute Lindblom’s claims. Almost a half-century before the extreme inequality now present in the United States and elsewhere among democracies materialized, Lindblom warned us that this politically dangerous condition was coming.”

Lindblom’s numerous other works include “The Intelligence of Democracy,” “The Policy-making Process,” and “The Market System: What It Is, How It Works, and What To Make of It.”

There is no way to convey in a sentence or two what kind of person Ed Lindblom was,” says Kai Erikson, professor emeritus of sociology. “I met him when I first came to Yale 50 years ago and was in close touch with him for the whole of that span of time, including his final years in retirement in Santa Fe. He was a particularly distinguished scholar when that period began, and his mind only became richer and wiser and I would say gentler as he continued to experience the worlds of his time ‘worlds’ because he lived through more than one and understood their true dimensions in a way few of us have even approached. He was a person of very special spirit and reach, and he leaves behind him a bare, empty space.”

Born on March 21, 1917, Lindblom was raised in Turlock, California. He attended Stanford University and then pursued graduate study at the University of Chicago. Before coming to Yale in 1949, he taught at the University of Minnesota. From 1963 to 1965 he served in India with the U.S. Agency for International Development, playing a part in India’s agricultural Green Revolution. He was president of the American Political Science Association in 1981 and also served as president of the Association for Comparative Economic Studies.

Lindblom moved to Santa Fe in 2002. He was predeceased by his wife, Rose Winther Lindblom, in 2003 and by his special friend of a decade, Bebe Krimmer, in 2014. He is survived by his daughter Susan and Daniel Freidman of Santa Fe; his son Steven Lindblom and True Kelley of Warner, New Hampshire; his son Eric Lindblom and Kate Bauer of Takoma Park, Maryland; and five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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