The idea delusion

Recently, a postgraduate student asked me, as part of his thesis ( , to comment on the following claims by Keynes and Galbraith.

Keynes claimed that: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers (etc), 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.” While Galbraith argued that: “Ideas would be powerful only in a static world because they are inherently conservative.”

The student’s question was: These statements were said almost 45, and more, years ago. According to your opinion, which of the fore mentioned statements seems valid in the modern world?

My answer was: “I would definitely side with Galbraith. Of course ideas appear to be powerful and they seem to exercise enormous influence in the way we perceive and interpret the phenomena of the world. I believe that Pol Pot is a case in fact, as well as the hapless millions that were killed because of political ideas that he carried inside his head. But were those millions killed because of political ideology, or because this ideology “happened” to take root in Pol Pot’s head, who “happened”, through an amazing series of coincidences to live long enough and become powerful enough in order to enact those ideas against the poor people of Cambodia? Alas, our world is not shaped by decisions but by happenstance, by the dynamic confluence of sometimes interconnected and sometimes disparate factors, that lead one way or the other, by virtue of systemic forces beyond our control – or comprehension. Only by hindsight do economists and political philosophers apply ideas to the facts and develop their “theories”. The feeling of “power” ascribed in their ideas is therefore an illusion, and it has been so not only today but always and forever.”

I would like to expand somewhat on my answer. Firstly, let me point out that I am referring to economic and political philosophy, restricting therefore my tackle of the term “Idea” – at least for now – to these fields.

I believe the ultimate acid test that shows the delusion that I am claiming is very simple. Economic and political theorists develop ideas which explain (or try to explain) the past. Even those theorists who claim that they speak about “today” or the “present” are in fact speaking only about the past; the recent past but the past nevertheless. The “present” is physically and intellectually unattainable as any Zen story will easily convince you. All economic and political theory, every “big idea” – Marxism, anarchism, liberalism, whatever – fails in various degrees when it comes to predicting the future. Why is this so? Why can’t anyone tell us how the world or the economy will be in five, or ten years time or, in fact, tomorrow morning?

Two reasons: Firstly, economic and political theories do not have – not yet anyway – a solid scientific base on the natural sciences. Secondly, economic and political theorists do not really believe that they need such a base in order to develop and debate their ideas. They inherently accept that the economy and the society are governed by non-natural forces and laws and that they are “human-made” – whatever that may mean. Therefore, they strongly contend that their theories and ideas are, or potentially could be, the driving forces of economic and social phenomena. That, for example, “believing” in market economics, “accepting” the theory and developing instruments that support it (e.g. IMF, World Bank, etc.) will surely transform the world into a free market economy. That invading Iraq and installing a western-type democracy will transform Iraq into a western-type democracy. These notions are delusions, of course. It should be very obvious to any rationally thinking person that human beings and societies are not controlled, “closed” environments of deterministic interactions. We are a social class of animals partaking in the evolution of the cosmos whether we want it, think it, or not.

I suggest that the roots of this “Idea Delusion” are Platonic and rest with Plato’s Republic. It is, however, about time, that such a delusion is revised and economists and sociologists begin to approach the workings of society in the same way as natural philosophers and natural scientists do. We need a new paradigm of social and economic theory based on biology and systems theory with predictive powers. Ideologies belong to the past.

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