Why do democracies generate policies that are wasteful and unjust? Why do failed policies persist over long periods, even when they are known to be socially wasteful and even when better alternatives exist? Why do some wasteful policies get repealed while others endure? These questions have no easy answers. To many, politics is a frustrating, unpredictable sphere of life. Some say politics isn’t worth worrying about. However, for those of us who want to move towards a more free and prosperous society, understanding political change is crucial to planning and directing our activism efforts. Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers, a new book by Edward Lopez and Wayne Leighton, is an accessible and insightful work that attempts to answer these questions. Any student seriously interested in making the world a freer place should read it.
The title of the book comes from similar statements by two people who agreed on very little: John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. In The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Keynes wrote that “madmen in authority” (politicians) implement policy changes suggested by “academic scribblers” (such as Keynes). In Keynes’ view, it is ultimately ideas, rather than vested interests, that drive change. In his essay Intellectuals and Socialism (which is required reading for Students For Liberty’s Campus Coordinators), Hayek presents a similar view. Hayek argued that change is largely driven by individuals who relay the ideas of academics to the general public. Hayek referred to these individuals as “intellectuals”, or “secondhand dealers in ideas.” As Hayek uses the term, examples of the intellectual class are journalists, entertainers, and policy analysts. Intellectuals drive change by selecting particular ideas of academics, such as capitalism or socialism, and by shaping the public dialog of human affairs.
Public Choice Economics is essential to Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers. Lopez and Leighton were both students of James Buchanan, a pioneer academic who helped develop public choice, the application of economics to politics. Public choice was surprisingly revolutionary given its modest innovation: that academics should assume of political actors what they assume of all individuals, that they respond to incentives and act in their rational self-interest. Lopez and Leighton argue that outcomes are shaped by incentives, incentives are shaped by institutions, and institutions are shaped by ideas.
The heart of the book is a model which combines changes in outcomes with changes in ideas. Ideas start the chain of changes in outcomes. Ideas are changed by academic scribblers and intellectuals as well as “bottom-up” influences. The authors apply this model to four case studies: spectrum license auctions, airline deregulation, welfare reform, and the housing bubble. In each case, the authors identify the manner in which particular ideas were formed by academics, spread by intellectuals, and implemented by political actors. What can we learn from these agents of change, which the authors dub “political entrepreneurs?”
My favorite part of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers is the closing chapter on political entrepreneurship. While their model emphasizes the role of academics and intellectuals in shaping the political landscape, they recognize that ideas become powerful only when political entrepreneurs form new methods of turning ideas into institutions. The authors attempt to create practical advice for anyone interested in using their model to identify opportunities for political change. These principles are focusing on comparative advantage, knowing the market for ideas, getting the greatest marginal return, and “getting lucky (sort of).” I think this advice is spot on, and I am thinking deeply about how I can apply it to my involvement with Students For Liberty.
If you are a pro-liberty student activist looking to better understand how you can change the world, I cannot recommend a book more highly than Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers. We at Students For Liberty recognize the power of great ideas. But ideas alone will not create a free society. To reach that goal, we at SFL are fostering young libertarian academics to fight statism in academia. We are developing young libertarian intellectuals to spread libertarian ideas. And we are young libertarian political entrepreneurs, working to build the first global community of libertarian students.
I would like to end with a passage from Lopez and Leighton that I found particularly moving:
Political entrepreneurs improve the human condition by seeing and acting on opportunities to promote ideas, institutions, and incentives that improve the rules of politics toward better outcomes in society: a society with justice; a society that produces wealth that enhances the lives of its members; a society that allows its members to live as they choose to live.