Do ideas matter?

By James K Galbraith

First, a preliminary. It is my position, pace the public-choice school and the Marxists, that policy ideas are an independent ideological force.

Some economists, and more political scientists, disbelieve this. Many doubt there exists any role whatever for intellectual persuasion in politics, whether deductive, inductive, or "purely rhetorical." Models, characterized by their attention to the self-interest of bureaucrats and legislators, have been advanced in volume to explain the imperatives of political decision making. If these models are wholly right, then special interests govern all, the scope for discretion and hence persuasion in politics is negligible, and the study of the rhetoric of such discussion can be of only iconological interest.

To be sure, special interests are important. Ulterior motives are endemic in politics. And not all of the scholarly cynicism is misinformed. Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Murray Weidenbaum, when asked directly what weight of influence, on a scale of one to ten, economists had enjoyed in drafting the original tax program of the administration, replied, "Zero."

But special interests do not exhaust the interesting phenomena of politics. There is the opposing view of Keynes on ideas: "the world is ruled by little else." In my experience, ideas and interests interact; neither fully dictates any outcome. Interests are never absent from the discussion and often prevail. But there was always a sense that there was discretion, there were choices, and that the interests occasionally could be outsmarted by ingenuity in rhetoric, including as part of rhetoric various tricks of policy design.

Excerpt from "The grammar of political economy," in The consequences of economic rhetoric, edited by A. Klamer, D. McCloskey, and R. M. Solow.


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