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Outlaws and Covenants Lead to
a Scholarly Marshall Plan

Adam Zimbler knew he should have been studying for his finance midterm. It was three o’ clock in the morning; the exam was looming—and he needed a break. So he turned on the TV and flipped through the stations until he hit the History Channel. Now, more than two years later, he doesn’t remember the name of the program, but he knows that the segment he watched was about Blackbeard, the pirate.

“They just kind of threw something in there about how they found copies of this constitution aboard their ship,” he recalls. “That really set off a lightbulb.”

It would eventually lead Zimbler (who graduates this month with a dual Wharton/College degree from the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business) to a Marshall Scholarship, which will allow him to pursue his interest in extra-legal constitutions and covenants from the scholarly safe-harbor of Oxford University. And he won it despite showing up at the interview with a broken nose and a black eye, courtesy of a stray elbow in a basketball game. (“To my mind, Adam’s appearance only accentuated the pirate angle,” jokes Dr. Arthur Casciato, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, which promotes undergraduate research on campus and provides guidance to students applying for fellowships.)

But the quick-talking Zimbler intends to focus on more than just pirates. The covenants of the Mafia and other organized-crime families, for example, should provide rich material for study.

“There’s a kind of consensus in political theory from Aristotle that it takes good men to make good laws,” he says. “And that always really bothered me. What I want to show is that the morality of the founder is quite independent from the quality of the laws, and that there are some natural mechanisms that men inherently conceive as just. You can have a group of Mafia members who are able to contract a constitution that is rather detailed and very, very in-depth.”

After his Blackbeard-inspired epiphany, Zimbler sought the advice of a professor whom he had never met—Dr. Will Harris, associate professor of political science. “I hadn’t taken any courses with him yet, but I had heard very, very good things,” recalls Zimbler. “He was very enthusiastic about it, and he’s really been beside me the whole way.”

Zimbler, who ended up taking Harris’s “Political Theory of the Bible” course as well as “The Constitution of Democracy,” was “incredibly energetic in his interest,” recalls Harris. “It was clearly more than just a fascination. He takes what might be a very popular casual observation and turns it into an intellectual matter.”

But it’s also a real-world matter for Zimbler. “My goal is to connect my research back into some of the work I’ve been doing here with corporate governance,” he says. “I’m a very practical person from the Wharton side of my education, and if you could show that you can take men as they are and still have those laws as they should be, it could be a really powerful conclusion.”

After getting some hands-on experience in the politics of the practical by serving as class president during his freshman and sophomore years at Penn, Zimbler spent his junior year at Hitotsubashi University’s School of Commerce on a Morgan Stanley U.S.-Japan Bridging Scholarship. Surprisingly, he had more time on his hands at Hitotsubashi than he did at Penn, and—with the lure of a Marshall in his mind—he put it to good use.

“I really wanted to make sure there was a theoretical grounding for this research topic,” he says. “I was afforded the time in Japan to read and re-read and re-read again a lot of these classical thinkers”—such as Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau —“with a much different eye than I did in the course. The first time you read them through, you have this kind of ‘lost-sailor-in-the-ocean’ feeling, but as you gain some sense of familiarity with them, you can cross-reference and remember what was said two chapters ago, and gain a more complete understanding of the text that way.”

At Wharton, he worked as head research assistant to Dr. Thomas Dunfee, vice dean and director of Wharton’s undergraduate division, editing final manuscripts and researching the ethical principles behind corporate codes of conduct.

Dunfee says that of the “nearly a hundred” research assistants that he has had over the years, “Adam stands out for his ability to see connections between concepts and frameworks from diverse academic fields.” Zimbler’s insights are “particularly valuable in theory-development research,” he adds. “He has an ability to question the status quo and to imagine radically novel approaches.”

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03