The Reign of Ideas

With a general election campaign round the corner, one cannot avoid being bombarded by opinions — personal views, official lines, big picture analysis, minor point evaluation. 

Of course, opinions are significant because they help shape our ideas. So is reading because we learn about other opinions and ideas in the process. It would be rather difficult to form our own conclusions if we didn’t read about other ideas out there. Ideas are important too. Absence ideas, progress isn’t made, change doesn’t happen, much of human development stops.

The Boston Review website, which I look up regularly, has the slogan “Ideas Matter” at the top of the homepage. But the idea that ideas matter has always been controversial in the social sciences. How much do ideas really matter?  Don’t material circumstances such as economic incentives, physical constraints, and military force affect individuals and societies more or less?

Just think of the debates about broad historical issues, such as the economic rise of the West. Was it because of the Protestant ethic (Max Weber) or is the credit due to the West’s geographical advantages (Jared Diamond)? Can the contrasts between Asian and European societies be ascribed to Confucianism versus Greek thought, collectivism versus individualism — or were there other reasons?

Disputes over individual differences in behaviour are similarly polarised: Are they to be explained by what people think or by their circumstances? The argument is probably sharpest over poverty: Are people poor because a “culture of poverty” trained them to think and behave in self-defeating ways or because they lack opportunities?  

Absence ideas, progress isn’t made, change doesn’t happen, much of human development stops.

Ideas matter in that they shape how people understand the world, assess their options, and adopt social norms. Yet, there is another way in which an idea can matter. An idea, even when it does not describe the world correctly, can become a true description because people take it to be so and act accordingly. The great sociologist Robert K. Merton labelled ideas as self-fulfilling prophecies.

Take globalisation — the rallying cry of international liberals or alternatively the F-word of nationalistic right-wingers. For 20 years up to 2008, the world’s economies became much more integrated than ever before, leaving the debris of national policies in their wake. Globalists pushed to open borders to imports. As foreign goods flooded into national economies, many previously-protected industries collapsed. Unemployment followed.

Ideas from the past decade

The financial crises of 2008 and 2012 then sharply challenged the idea of global markets and many countries started paddling back furiously. The rise of Donald Trump epitomised the counter-reaction. ‘Make America Great Again’ resounded in many other parts of the world, as the opinion took hold that globalization was on the run.

When COVID appeared in 2020, the idea that globalisation was a great thing took another beating, as what probably started as a minor outbreak in a wet market in China spread unchecked across frontiers. The idea that frontiers and walls matter gained new traction.  

But the idea of tight integration wasn’t about to die. On the contrary, it played an important background role in pandemic economics, as researchers all over the world cooperated in an unprecedented way to bring a vaccine on to the market. Vaccine production itself is very much an international enterprise, with production of each major vaccine relying on inputs from multiple nations.

There are, I think, two morals from the events of the last decade.

First, ideas matter. Maybe John Maynard Keynes was rather a bit over the top when he asserted that “it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil”, but they can have huge effects.

Second, it’s a corrective against nationalistic hubris. We still tend, far too often, to imagine that we can shape the world as we like. One only has to listen to assertions that Malta has an equal place at the EU table, when in fact we are the little fly that can be swatted down whenever the big boys want to show the middling crowd what could happen to them as well. 

So, ideas matter because they often change the material world. “Ideas make the world, for they are the guide to future practice. Even the flimsiest ideas rooted in prejudice and ignorance make history and form public culture … Ideas, when mobilised, become the templates of thought and practice.” (Thinking About Almost Everything, Amin Ash & Michael O’Neill).

Intellectuals who in Europe extol competition, decry big government, defend free trade, and criticize state subsidies are felt to be a nuisance: if one wants to be accepted as a thoughtful and agreeable companion one has to defend the national film industry in France or praise the traditional loaf and ġbejna in Malta or love the euro in Frankfurt.

So, the first question for anybody who believes in the importance of ideas is why our beliefs and proposals seem to have so little influence on governments, politicians, civil servants, lobbyists and special interest representatives. Nobody seems to be on our side: speak to any of them of changing their way of life or working and a quizzical look comes over their faces as they contemplate the impact of that change on them.

Politicians are afraid they will lose votes if they let wardens enforce no-parking rules. Civil servants prefer complicated regulations to making a clean sweep of entirely useless rules.  

The people do not even listen to themselves. The egregious example are private cars: the overwhelming majority of people say they are sick and tired of being caught in traffic jams, but raise car duties and all hell will break lose. They want better roads, but cut down a tree and suddenly those same people will become tree-huggers. Ask them whether we need a metro and they will say ‘definitely’, but not for them personally. Being stuck in traffic for 11 minutes per day on average is a small cost to pay for convenience. 

A first question, then, is what keeps us going if a wall of interests thwarts all our efforts? How often will we have to trumpet our way round Jericho?

The second question is why ordinary voters close their minds to considering the long-term progress of society and only care about how societal moves impact their immediate interests. Should one assume that they are ruled exclusively by their pocket-books?

All too often, people identify a problem in reality and then demand that the problem be “solved” by government. But far too many such demands feature a “then a miracle occurs” step. This step is the assumption that politicians and other government agents are superhuman — that when they are elected or appointed to political office, they are miraculously transformed into beings consistently more altruistic, knowledgeable, and wise than are other people.

Of course, in many cases the problems identified are imaginary (such as the alleged desire of 60% of young people in Malta to escape to other countries). And even when the problems are real (such as the traffic), the theoretical means proposed to solve these problems (wider roads) will often fail in practice (even more traffic is created).

Of course, social scientists understand that there is such a thing as rational ignorance. Because somebody understands that his vote will not determine the outcome of any election, he has no incentive to become as informed about the issues at stake as he would if he sincerely believed that his vote would determine the outcome.

Why spend your precious time and energy to become informed about a party’s policies and the issues if practically you can do nothing to determine which party wins? Far better for you to spend that time and energy on matters that you can control, such as earning some more money in a part-time job or helping your kids with their homework. In short, you remain ignorant — for perfectly rational reasons — about politics and public policy. And so, too, do nearly all other voters.

In contrast to voters, though, are the special‐​interest groups. Members of these groups have powerful incentives to stay informed about what’s happening with the programmes that significantly affect them. For example, while the great majority of Maltese are rationally ignorant of the EU state aid rules, all industrialists remain up‐​to‐​date on their details. This reality means that policies chosen by government are unlikely to be ones that the people would choose, or even agree with, if they were better informed.

Yet, in spite of all the ifs and buts, ideas still matter. Changing the world can be done only by changing prevalent ideas. In 1905 Albert Einstein wondered what it might be like to ride on a beam of light. This question gave rise to an idea which rewrote the laws of physics. In a fundamental way, Einstein changed how we thought about the universe and our place in it with his theory of relativity. In a much more tangible way he helped change the way we use energy with his famous equation E=mc2 because his theory helped pave the way for the atomic bomb.

OK, we are not all Einsteins. But think of how certain ideas — German philosopher GW Leibniz and his calculating machine, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and his idea that the planet is not the centre of the world, Plato and his idea of Democracy, Karl Marx and his idea of Scientific Socialism, Charles Darwin and Evolution, Max Planck and Quantum Theory, Adam Smith and his Free Market — have changed the world.

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Dr. Mark Said
Dr. Mark Said
6 months ago

I really enjoyed reading this excellent article of yours, Frans. I fully subscribe to what you have portrayed here. Indeed, I have, in the past, in various quarters, tried to portray my innovative ideas having to do with criminal justice and certain aspects of our public service but they were immediately shot down. I suspect that many top figures are afraid of radical changes without even giving them a try.

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