This has been a long-standing concern of mine: what are the respective roles of ideas iand interests in shaping policy outcomes?
The most widely held theory of politics is also the simplest: the powerful get what they want. Financial regulation is driven by the interests of banks, health policy by the interests of insurance companies, and tax policy by the interests of the rich. Those who can influence government the most – through their control of resources, information, access, or sheer threat of violence – eventually get their way.
It’s the same globally. Foreign policy is determined, it is said, first and foremost by national interests – not affinities with other nations or concern for the global community. International agreements are impossible unless they are aligned with the interests of the United States and, increasingly, other rising major powers. In authoritarian regimes, policies are the direct expression of the interests of the ruler and his cronies.
It is a compelling narrative, one with which we can readily explain how politics so often generates perverse outcomes. Whether in democracies, dictatorships, or in the international arena, those outcomes reflect the ability of narrow, special interests to achieve results that harm the majority.
Paradoxically, economists tend to operate within a worldview that ascribes paramount role to interests, as when they complain about the role of powerful banking lobbies in driving bad/inadequate regulation. Yet, banks' and policy makers' conception of where their interests lie is powerfully shaped by ideas that economists generate and disseminate.
More generally, ideas play a crucial role in helping define who we are, what our interests are, and how those interests are best realized.
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