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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Idea power”

In my column for the June 21st, 2008, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I wrote about the power of ideas. You can read my column beneath the fold. (I can’t find this version on-line at the Trib, but I did find it on-line here.)

Idea power

At the end of a famous book filled with a good deal of infamous nonsense, John Maynard Keynes observed — I believe correctly — that:

” … the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

Interest groups are indeed powerful, but even that most potent of modern American special-interests — farmers — would be politically impotent were Americans not saturated with the idea that farmers are an extraordinary breed of noble folk deserving special protection. That this particular idea is mistaken is here irrelevant. It’s importance lies in its prevalence.

Of course, being an academic, I’m biased toward believing that ideas pack a practical punch. And being now also an academic who is well-seasoned, I know that proving that ideas are powerful, or dis-proving that they are powerful, is futile. In this deeply complex and fast-changing world of ours, the only potion for persuading someone that ideas do — or, alternatively, that ideas do not — play a major role in affecting public policy is dispassionate reflection governed by wisdom.

Whether or not ideas play a major role in affecting the course of events, it is undoubtedly true that they play a major role in affecting the way that different individuals see the world. I know this to be true if only because ideas have had an unmistakably strong impact on the way that I see the world.

Many, perhaps most, of the ideas that affect the way an individual sees the world — that affect the way an individual interprets the flow of experiences constantly cascading down upon him or her — are “nonacademic.” That is, these ideas aren’t formally developed in books or blogs, but are imparted, often unawares, by parents, family, friends and life’s experiences. For example, my parents taught me, among other things, to resist being envious of other persons’ successes. This idea has stuck with me for all of my 50 years. Being human, I do sometimes experience envy — but never without an accompanying sense of guilt for having such a feeling. This guilt inevitably triumphs, and I suppress the envy. Rightly so.

Unquestionably, the idea that it’s important to keep promises, to be honest, to treat strangers with respect, to work hard, to take responsibility for one’s own failures rather than blame others — these and other such ideas that are so fundamental to modern commercial society are imparted more by example than by exposition. They are the soil of capitalist culture. Any government planted on such soil simply cannot grant privileges to special-interest groups if these privileges are widely perceived as violating these bedrock ideas.

So it’s unsurprising that governments are masters of propaganda. Agricultural protectionism and subsidies that further stuff the wallets of already-rich farmers are spoken of, by politicians, as noble measures that lend a hand to “family farmers” — conjuring up the image of strong-shouldered, sun-burnt and overalls-clad yeomen, each struggling with the soil to feed his devoted wife and children.

If politicians spoke the truth, the gargantuan and wasteful farm bills that are such a familiar feature of modern politics would not exist. Imagine a politician publicly saying something along the following lines: “I voted for this farm bill because farmers are a concentrated, highly organized and well-funded interest group. Of course, I know that the overall benefits of this bill fall far short of its costs. But those benefits are concentrated on a tiny percentage of the population, while the costs are spread out over all 300 million Americans. So those who pay the costs don’t feel their burden enough to complain.”

Such a confession would be much closer to the truth than are any of the idiotic testaments we hear about how these farm bills “secure our food supply” or “strengthen the family farm.” But it would also run directly counter to our deep-seated idea that mere superior ability to lobby government is no justification for being showered with money extracted from taxpayers.

The very fact that politicians often try to deceive voters proves that ideas matter. The next step, then, is for us Americans to get better at seeing through these deceptions.


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