Ideas have consequences Chapter 10

The state of opinion which governs a decision on political issues is always the result of a slow evolution, extending over long periods and proceeding at many different levels. New ideas start among a few and gradually spread until they become the possession of a majority who know little of their origin.

Friedrich Hayek (1960). The Constitution of Liberty.
In Ronald Hamowy (ed.), The Constitution of Liberty, XVII
(Liberty Fund Library, 2011): 177.

Karl Marx insisted that the ideas that you, I, and other people hold are shaped and powered by our station and function in the economy. Ideas themselves play no independent role in shaping the contours or in governing the destiny of an economy and society.

The great twentieth-century economist George Stigler (1911-1991) also believed that ideas have no consequences. In Stigler’s view, every individual always seeks to maximize his or her own material well-being. Government officials, therefore, serve only those individuals and groups that best promote the well-being of government officials. According to Stigler, legislation and public policies are never the result of ideas or ideals. Instead, legislation and public policies are the result only of the interplay of narrow material interests— particularly the interests of groups that succeed in organizing themselves into effective political lobbies.

Marx, of course, was a man of the political left. Stigler was a man of the political right. Yet according to both Marx and Stigler, ideas are determined; ideas do not determine. Marx and Stigler each was driven by the idea that nothing as intangible, as subjective, as unobservable, and as unquantifiable as mere ideas could play a significant role in driving a society.

Marx and Stigler are not alone. Many are the scholars—especially in economics—who dismiss any suggestion that ideas independently affect public policy. In these scholars’ view, the only forces that determine the performance of economies and the details of public policies are calculations of material personal profit and loss.

There are important kernels of truth buried within the idea that ideas are insignificant in the formation of public policies. Society cannot be formed into whatever ideas we might dream up, yet too many people throughout time have rejected this reality in favour of their utopian dreams. History has no shortage of schemes to rid societies of self-interest and material concerns, leaving the likes of love, universal brotherhood, or the assumed benevolence of powerful leaders to govern our affairs. All of these plans and schemes have failed. So to avoid being dazzled by the false promise of romantic and utopian schemes, we must never lose sight of the unavoidability of resource scarcities and of the reality of human nature—including the impossibility for each of us to know and care deeply about the millions of strangers who are part of our society.

This level-headed acceptance of reality, however, does not require that we reject the understanding that ideas have real consequences. Human beings are social animals, and ones with a remarkably sophisticated capacity for communication. We choose to live in groups and we are constantly talking and writing. And what are talking and writing if not a sharing of ideas? All this groupishness and incessant sharing of ideas means that we are influenced not only by what people do and by the details of our physical surroundings, but also by what people think—that is, by ideas.

No stronger evidence of the power of ideas exists than the fact that totalitarian governments, without exception, go to extreme lengths to control the ideas that people encounter. If ideas have no consequences, dictators and tyrants would spend no energy and treasure on preventing people from publishing whatever they please and saying whatever they wish. Nor would governments waste money on spreading propaganda. Freedom of expression would be universal if ideas had no power to determine what governments do and are prevented from doing.