The centrality of ideas – some important contributions

The role of ideas as drivers of change is becoming increasingly central in my teaching and writing on comparative governance. This post summarizes, for reference, six sets of contributions which have been important influences on my thinking in this area.

1: Dani Rodrik’s recent writing.After decades as an eminent exponent of the centrality of incentives and institutions in shaping development, in recent years Rodrik has shifted direction. As he put it in a 2014 article:

Any model of political economy in which organized interests do not figure prominently is likely to remain vacuous and incomplete….. But a mapping from interests to outcomes, depends on many unstated assumptions about the ideas of political agents”.

Rodrik’s recent work with Sharun Mukand (see here and, for a more technical version, here) is a powerful exploration of how the interaction between two  channels of ideational politics – a ‘worldview channel’ aimed at shaping citizens’ understanding of how the world works, and an ‘identity channel’  aimed at shaping citizens’ perceptions of who they are – comprises the basis for toxic populism.

2: John Maynard Keynes highlighted ideas – specifically our fluctuating expectations of what the future holds – as central to his classic analysis of the business cycle. Here’s how he put it:

“ Our theory of the future, being based on so flimsy a foundation, is subject to sudden and violent changes. The practice of calmness and immobility, of certainty and security, suddenly breaks down. New fears and hopes will, without warning, take charge of human conduct…..”

Click on this link for more detail.

3: Albert Hirschman identified shifts in ideas in relation to inequality as key to  Latin America’s turn from the hopeful times of the 1950s and early 1960s to  the angry 1960s and early 1970s. He argued  that:

“Tolerance for inequality is like a credit that falls due….It is extended because advances of others supply information about a more benign external environment….This produces gratification [which]  suspends envy…. [But]  non-realization of the expectation that my turn will soon come will at some point result in my ‘becoming furious’ that is, in my turning into an enemy of the established order.  No particular outward event sets off this dramatic turnaround.”

More detail via this link.

4: How the mind works. A rapidly expanding literature on how humans think explores the ubiquity of cognitive biases. The 2015 World Development Report, Mind, Society and Behavior usefully summarized these biases as resulting from our propensities to think automatically, to think socially, and to think with mental models. Key contributions which provide a basis for the WDR include Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes.  Robert Sapolsky’s Behaveprovides a comprehensible, accessible review of the voluminous research.

5: Internalized privilege and oppression. A direct line links Paulo Freire’s classic 1970 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed to Alice Evans 2018 World Development article, “Politicizing Inequality: the Power of Ideas”. I have long been inspired by South African Steve Biko’s vision that the end of apartheid would liberate whites as well as blacks, as whites “…realize that  they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realize that they are also human, not inferior.”

6: Douglass North. Late in his career, especially in his 2005 book, Understanding the Process of Economic Change,  North moved beyond his longstanding focus on institutions to explore also the role of ‘mental models’ in shaping long-run development. By contrast to Keynes and Hirschman, who focus on the changing, ephemeral nature of ideas,  North emphasizes the ways in which their ‘stickiness’ can inhibit a society’s capacity to adapt. He suggests (pp. 116-7) that:

“We are continually altering our environment in new ways, and there is no guarantee that we will understand correctly the changes in the environment, develop the appropriate institutions, and implement policies to solve the new problems we will face…..We tend to get it wrong when the accumulated experiences and beliefs derived from the past…… the set of mental models, categories and classifications of the neural networks through which the new evidence gets filtered….  do not provide a correct guide to future decision-making.”

As North reminds us, though, ideas don’t lock in only because of limits in the adaptive capability of neural networks:

 Dominant organizations (and their entrepreneurs) may view the necessary changes as a threat to their survival. To the degree that the entrepreneurs of such organizations control decision-making, they can thwart the necessary changes….”

How? Via the propagation of ideas –  for example, as per the recent work of Mukand and Rodrik, via a combination of identity and worldview memes which induce low-income voters to support policies which leave them worse off, and benefit the wealthy. 

Ideas matter, North tells us,. And, he also tells us, the intersection of ideas and power can be decisive.

[See the post linked here for an application of some of these ideas by two of my SAIS students to Benin and Georgia.]

One response

  1. Pingback: Ideas as drivers of continuity and change: Big lessons from two small countries « WORKING WITH THE GRAIN: Integrating governance and growth

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