The power of ideas

This post was inspired by a paper by Dani Rodrik titled “When Ideas Trump Interests: Preferences, Worldviews, and Policy Innovations”. I have set out some more detailed notes here for the policy wonks but the paper is not light reading. The short version here attempts to highlight a couple of ideas I found especially interesting.

Rodrik starts by noting a tendency to interpret economic and social outcomes through the lens of “vested interests” while paying less attention to the ideas that underpin these outcomes. The vested interest approach looks for who benefits and how much power they have to explain outcomes. Rodrik does not dispute the relevance of understanding whose interests are in play when economic choices are being made but argues that “ideas” are an equally powerful motivating force.

Rodrik expresses his point this way:

“Ideas are strangely absent from modern models of political economy. In most prevailing theories of policy choice, the dominant role is instead played by “vested interests”—elites, lobbies, and rent-seeking groups which get their way at the expense of the general public. Economists, political scientists, and other social scientists appeal to the power of special interests to explain key puzzles in regulation, international trade, economic growth and development, puzzles in regulation, international trade, economic growth and development, and many other fields.”

“When Ideas Trump Interests: Preferences, Worldviews, and Policy Innovations” Dani Rodrik, Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 28, Number 1—Winter 2014—Pages 189–208

Applying this lens offers a broader and more nuanced perspective of how self and vested interest operates (emphasis added).

“… a focus on ideas provides us with a new perspective on vested interests too. As social constructivists like to put it, “interests are an idea.” Even if economic actors are driven purely by interests, they often have only a limited and preconceived idea of where their interests lie. This may be true in general, of course, but it is especially true in politics, where preferences are tightly linked to people’s sense of identity and new strategies can always be invented. What the economist typically treats as immutable self-interest is too often an artifact of ideas about who we are, how the world works, and what actions are available.”


The importance of understanding how ideas drive public policy and personal choices resonates with me. One of the examples Rodrik used to illustrate his argument was bank regulation pre the GFC. Rodrik does not dispute that self and vested interests play a significant role but he explores the equally important role of ideas in shaping how interests are defined and pursued and the ways in which the models people use to understand the world shape their actions.

Applying this lens to bank regulation

Many observers … have argued that the policies that produced the crisis were the result of powerful banking and financial interests getting their way, which seems like a straightforward application of the theory of special interests.

But this begs the question why were banking vested interests allowed to get their way. The “vested interest” argument is “regulatory capture” but Rodrik offers an alternative explanation …

Still, without the wave of ideas “in the air” that favored financial liberalization and self-regulation and emphasized the impossibility (or undesirability) of government regulation, these vested interests would not have gotten nearly as much traction as they did. After all, powerful interests rarely get their way in a democracy by nakedly arguing for their own self-interest. Instead, they seek legitimacy for their arguments by saying these policies are in the public interest. The argument in favor of financial deregulation was not that it was good for Wall Street, but that it was good for Main Street.

Other observers have argued that the financial crisis was a result of excessive government intervention to support housing markets, especially for lower-income borrowers. These arguments were also grounded on certain ideas—about the social value of homeownership and the inattentiveness of the financial sector to those with lower incomes. Again, ideas apparently shaped politicians’ views of how the world works— and therefore their interest in acting in ways that precipitated the crisis.

I want to come back to this topic in another post. I have touched on the issue of self interest in an earlier post looking at a book by Samuel Bowles titled “The Moral Economy”. Rodrik’s paper offers another perspective on the issue as does his book “Economics Rules: Why Economics Works, When It Fails, and How To Tell The Difference”. I have some notes on a couple of other books including “The Economists’ Hour” by Binyamin Applebaum and The Value of Everything” by Mariana Mazzucato. All of these have something interesting to say but I want to think some more before attempting to say something.

Let me conclude for the moment with John Maynard Keynes (emphasis added …

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, 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. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936

Tony (From the Outside)

Author: From the Outside

After working in the Australian banking system for close to four decades, I am taking some time out to write and reflect on what I have learned. My primary area of expertise is bank capital management but this blog aims to offer a bank insider's outside perspective on banking, capital, economics, finance and risk.

2 thoughts on “The power of ideas”

  1. Thanks for your interesting and intelligent blogging. I always learn something new, or at least a different perspective on topics I thought I understood. This post also increased my vocabulary as I had to look up “wonk”.


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