16 April, 2009

Ideas or Interests?

A point of disagreement that often comes up on this blog is whether it is ideas or interests that drive changes in the world. Are the ideas that are discussed in political forums actually what is at stake? Or are the ideas that are adopted by parties in the public debate merely rationalizations of those parties' interests?

Marx is a puzzling example of this question. Marx's idea was that history is essentially deterministic, a series of phases that transition into one another due to broad economic forces. In other words, it is economic interests, not philosophical ideas, that ultimately matter! Of course, this idea then became the basis of many a revolution and changed the landscape of the world dramatically--but was it the idea that did the changing or was it merely adopted by revolutions that would have happened anyway?

Now, we have Ezra Klein asking the same question about John Rawls. What would be different about American politics if John Rawls had never existed? Sure, he articulated a theory of justice that concords well with Democratic politics, but would those politics not have gone on without him? Neil Sinhababu responds to say that America just isn't that interested in public intellectual debate these days--ideas, at least academic ones, don't matter all that much and political impact needs to come from other sources. Then Yglesias says hold on a minute--just because political philosophers don't have much impact doesn't mean that ideas in general don't have impact and he cites three examples where bad ideas have in fact had a bad impact. In an unrelated post, Dani Rodrik falls on the same side of the argument as Yglesias--interest groups have power, but how they are allowed to direct this power is determined by the "ideas in the air".

In any case--there a wide range of views to adopt, because there's little evidence on this question--but it seems like an important one. Thoughts?

1 comment:

Eremita said...

Interests are ideas.

"I think it is in my/our interest to do x." "The point of pursuing y is that it will help us win the election." These are expressions of interests that are also clearly ideas about what and why we are interested in x or y.

However, not all ideas are about interests, I will concede that. Are you suggesting that ideas that have no regard for our interests (e.g. an idea that we should do something not in our interest) cannot change our interests? I think I am willing to agree with that.