Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Power of Ideas

This book review puts two positions about the power of ideas up against each other.

One is:
Rahe believes that "ideas have consequences," that they have the power to guide and even make events, and therefore that they are not mainly caused by the conditions of their time or context but are, on the contrary, mainly the cause of these conditions.
The contrasting position is:
In [Skinner and Pocock’s] view, often called "historicism," ideas can be traced to prior conditions that are not ideas, such as economic forces or, more particularly for them, political interests. Ideas are essentially defensive; they justify, defend, and protect the established interests of various regimes and of their opponents, for example the defense of the American colonists in the Declaration of Independence.
Ideas cannot cause events because they themselves are caused; so the colonists were not moved to act by the ideas in the Declaration, but those ideas merely expressed what they thought to say after the fact. Ideas are no different from ideology in which you say what you are forced to say in your situation, or your "context," like a defendant speaking through a clever lawyer.
Both these positions strike me as wrong: the former because it gives ideas too much causal importance, the latter because it gives them too little.

Ideas have consequences
Against the second view, consider the question of why do people propound ideas? If it is all just a causal epiphenomenon on more basic structures, why bother? Why not appeal to those more basic structures?

And, if you were going to appeal to those more basic structures, how would you go about it without using ideas?

We can see immediately that ideas are absolutely necessary for communicating. But why are they so necessary? Because we cannot have any sort of even mildly abstract communication without them.

So, ideas are needed for communicating. Which immediately gives them some independent power, because obviously communication which is more resonant with the audience is far more successful than communication which is not.

That would appear to lead back to more basic structures. And, to some extent, it does. But consider what it is you are appealing to. Yes, people have interests, and those interests can be motivating, indeed, powerfully so. But are people only motivated by material and social interests? And do those interests manifest according to set priorities and set conceptions?

If people can and do have motives other than their material and social interests, and if even those interests can be construed in different ways and according to different priorities, then clearly ideas will have consequences. Clearly people do, clearly interests can be, so clearly ideas have consequences. So the second view is wrong because it is too simple.

Ideas have to resonate
But the first view is wrong because it is too simple as well. Even if we cannot match interests and ideas on a one-to-one basis, clearly there is some connection between the two. Ideas do not manifest randomly across time and across societies. They clump together in patterns of belief that are clearly somewhat connected to material and social interests.
Such as support for free trade or protection, for example. As the Stolper-Samuelson theorem would predict, relatively scarce factors of production tend to support protection (because it protects their scarcity against foreign competition), relatively plentiful factors tend to support free trade (since it raises their incomes by lowering the prices of goods they purchase). So C19th Britain was free trade because that advantaged labour and capital in a situation where land was scarce and labour and capital was plentiful, Britain being an exporter of both. (Hence the fights over the Corn Laws.) C19th US and C20th Oz were protectionist because that advantaged labour and capital in a situation where land was plentiful and labour and capital were scarce, both countries being importers of both. Later C19th and early C20th continental Europe tended to be protectionist, since that advantaged land and capital over labour in a situation where labour was plentiful (and being exported) but capital and land were scarce.*

Similarly, anti-Semitism occurs among gentiles, hatred of homosexuals among heterosexuals and contempt for getting income from commerce among intellectuals (particularly tenured academics, and would-be tenured, academics)—to take three sets of ideas which have be used to murder thousands or millions. Note that all three cases were based on notions of “false form”—Jews were adherents of a "false form" of religion or were a “false form” of the human (or both), same-sex activity a “false form” of sex and same-sex orientation a "false form" of the human, business ownership a “false form” of economic activity and being an owner a "false form" of social being. So, extermination was justified because, as “false forms”, they needed to be eliminated: a patent example of ideas, of the logic of belief, having consequences.

To suggest ideas trump social context is belied by experience. Ideas have to resonate in order to have power, and social context, including social and material interests, are powerful sources of such resonance.

But not the only ones: after all, not all gentiles are anti-Semitic, not all heterosexuals hate homosexuals and not all tenured or would-be tenured academics have contempt for getting income from commerce, while all the laws which improved the status of women, blacks and Jews were originally passed by white male gentiles. Hence both the above positions are wrong because they are too simple.

* Note, all this still leaves open the possibility that the net effects of protection were still negative overall: particularly in terms of long-term and intangible effects.

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