Ideas Matter

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I knew Neil Sinhababu slightly when we were both philosophy majors in college, and now he’s a full-blown philosophy professor who does a little political blogging on the side while I’m a full-time political blogger who still thinks about philosophical issues sometimes. So I read with interest his argument on how the anti-intellectual nature of American political debate makes it impossible for philosophical ideas to impact practical politics. It put me in the mind of perhaps Johm Maynard Keynes’ most famous quote:

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.

I think that’s exactly right. I think that the questions that political philosophers have taken to debating professionally in recent decades have a limited relevance to contemporary politics. But I think a number of fairly abstract misguided ideas in ethics, political philosophy, and economics have come to have extraordinary cultural and political power in the United States and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the English speaking world, all to incredibly pernicious effect. What’s more, though most of these ideas are propounded, originally, by people whose degrees are in economics most of them are really ideas of a philosophical character.

Which ideas?

Well I’d say one important set of ideas is the perverse notion that it’s wrong or inappropriate to subject people to moral criticism for making selfish decisions as long as the decisions don’t involve breaking the law. I’ve been writing a bit about this lately with respect to greedy financiers, but it’s a more general thing. If a person announced to his friends and family “I’m going to steal $17 billion from aspiring college students and give the money to banks” we would expect a degree of shock and ostracism to follow. Indeed, if a person said “I’m going to pick a student’s pocket at rob him of $17″ we would expect some shock and ostracism.

Such behavior is, socially speaking, considered not okay. But while it’s considered perfectly normal to expect one’s friends, peers, and colleagues to eschew stealing money from people, it’s considered hopeless naive to expect people to eschew the opportunity to go cash in by helping Sallie Mae hold on to money it doesn’t deserve. Along the same lines, I honestly don’t understand how the executives for the big fossil fuel firms sleep at night; but I know that part of the reason they sleep well at night is that in today’s America nobody really points out that their behavior is, on a personal level, more than a little shameful. People don’t discuss this issue by making explicit reference to Milton Friedman’s arguments about the social responsibility of business, but the shift in public discourse around these issues stems back to his work.

Another example is that, as Brad DeLong pointed out yesterday, economists’ protestations that they’re doing value-free social science actually embeds an implicit idea that “that shifts in distribution are of no account–which can be true only if the social welfare function gives everybody a weight inversely proportional to their marginal utility of wealth.” In other words, under guise of eschewing values, economics has adopted a philosophical value system which says that the well-being of rich people is more important than the well-being of poor people. Nobody ever says “social welfare function” when engaging in practical political debate, but the idea that not caring about distribution constitutes some kind of neutral middle ground is an important underlying premise of much practical political debate, and it’s viability stems from the fact that everyone remembers being taught that this is true in their Economics 101 courses.

As a third example, as a society we’ve become accustomed to the idea that when empirical evidence seems to contradict basic economic theory—as when the United States experienced rapid economic growth under conditions of widespread unionization and a high minimum wage—that we ought to accept the theory as true. This, again, is usually a claim you hear being made by economists, but its social prestige ultimately is a kind of idea in epistemology or the philosophy of science. And all this, of course, is to say nothing of the specific influence of particular empirical claims in economics which hold that high levels of taxation and government spending are everywhere and always economically destructive.

A big part of changing America is much more practical interventions into specific elections, congressional debates, media controversies, etc. But ultimately I do think that these big ideas matter as well. They’re enormously important in terms of setting the terms of political debate, in terms of influence what’s considered “possible” and what kinds of people have standing to have their views taken seriously. Building a better world ultimately requires getting people to understand that both the empirical and philosophical underpinnings of America’s free market society are much weaker than is generally understood. That doesn’t mean these questions will ever be debated by politicians at a live town hall. But it does mean trying to press a better understanding of these issues on the mass elite who set the tone for much of American political life.