TCS Daily


How Thinkers Influence Us

By Arnold Kling - January 19, 2006 12:00 AM

"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 influences, 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...it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil"
-- John Maynard Keynes

One day last fall, my daughter was given an assignment to ask one of her parents to name the person that might considered the most influential in history. I chose John Locke, for his influence on the philosophy of government embodied in America's Constitution. A few days later, I told her that perhaps I should have suggested Karl Marx. "That's OK, dad. Your guy was on the list," she said, referring to one hundred influential people as identified by a panel of historians and passed along by her teacher.

I will have more to say about Locke and Marx in a subsequent essay. Here, I want to talk about the process by which great thinkers have influence. My claim is that great thinkers have an impact when they affect popular beliefs, and the process by which this occurs is indirect and haphazard.

Folk Beliefs vs. Scholarly Beliefs

Ordinary people and scholars may treat the same ideas differently. In terms of influence, it is the folk beliefs of ordinary people that matter, not the beliefs of scholars.

For example, in Judaism, there is a doctrine of the Chosen People. Regardless of the scholarly interpretation of that term, the folk belief is that "Jews are different." Today, if a Jew were to find himself among non-Jews and to experience the sensation of not feeling part of the group, the Jew would think to himself, "Maybe it's because I'm Jewish that I can't relate to these people." This would be likely to happen even if the Jew were otherwise highly assimilated and actively practicing a non-Jewish religion. The folk belief that "Jews are different" is that strong.

Folk beliefs tend to be much more settled than scholarly beliefs. As an economist, I see this clearly in the way that the public views the theory of unemployment due to John Maynard Keynes. At a scholarly level, Keynes' ideas immediately provoked debate, which has raged ever since. "What Keynes really meant" is a hot topic for dispute. Moreover, when scholars can agree on what he said, they disagree on whether or not he was right.

Regardless of the state of scholarly belief about Keynes, folk Keynesianism is dominant. For example, most people believe that we should worry about whether "the consumer" will spend freely. Everyone fears that if consumers tighten their belts then this will "weaken" the economy. This concern with the mood of consumers is not in the original Keynes. Instead, Keynes himself focused more on business investment as a determinant of economic fluctuations.*

The idea that the economy needs consumer profligacy is not nearly as entrenched among scholars as it is among journalists, politicians, and other citizens. In fact, there is a strong case to be made that we would be better off if we had less consumer spending and more saving.

But none of those scholarly arguments matters. In President Nixon's phrase, "we are all Keynesians now." That means that folk Keynesianism, which exalts consumer spending, permeates discussions of the economic outlook.

Folk Keyenesianism never has taken up the idea of the liquidity trap, which arguably is an important part of the justification for using deficit spending to fight economic weakness. An even more critical part of scholarly Keynesian theory, the slow adjustment of wages and prices, is completely absent in folk Keynesianism.

Folk Keynesianism holds that the President of the United States manages the economy and is responsible for the unemployment rate. As a scholar, I may be skeptical about this view, and I even question the ability of the Federal Reserve to steer. But as a folk belief, the notion is well entrenched that the President and Fed Chairman are to the economy what a head coach and defensive co-ordinator are to a professional football team.

Dominating the Charts

If folk beliefs were popular music, then one of the biggest rock stars of the 1950's and 1960's was Sigmund Freud, who had died in 1939. Freud dominated the charts, with hits like "Oedipus complex," "sibling rivalry," "phallic symbol," and many others. What strikes me about Freud is both how spectacularly pervasive his ideas became in a relatively short period of time -- and how quickly many of them have faded. The idea of unconscious desires has survived, and with it the term "Freudian slip." Overall, however, the prevalence of Freudian concepts in popular discussion among people born after 1980 is far lower than among people born before 1960. The scholarly impact of Freud may persist, but in the decades to come Freud may turn out to have no more cultural significance than Herman's Hermits.

In contrast with Freud, the ideas of Friedrich Hayek have yet to penetrate the popular culture. In terms of the music business metaphor, the concepts of "spontaneous order," "competition as a discovery procedure," and "the road to serfdom" pleased fans of the libertarian genre, but they never achieved "crossover appeal" to a wider audience.

The process by which an idea becomes a hit is somewhat mysterious. Many people adopted Freudian folk beliefs without ever reading any of Freud's work. With folk beliefs, this is the norm, rather than the exception. Somehow, major ideas seep into the popular culture, promoted by disciples and spreading by word of mouth. Perhaps even more mysterious is the process by which ideas seep out of the culture, as many folk Freudian beliefs evidently have done.

Folk Christian beliefs were shaped by Christ's disciples. It was the disciples who ultimately defined what it means to be a Christian. This, too, is common in the process of the dissemination of ideas. A great thinker's impact depends on how his or her ideas are expounded by others.

One question that this raises is whether or not folk beliefs reflect the true ideas of the original thinker. However, the issue of whether disciples are true to their master is relevant only to scholars. Folk beliefs have a life of their own. By the time that Karl Marx reportedly said "I am not a Marxist," he had become just another scholarly commentator, no longer able to affect the folk beliefs that bear his name.

To Be or Not to Be Clear

In the arena of political economy, beliefs have consequences. An important thinker can influence institutional arrangements by affecting folk beliefs. However, the process of spreading beliefs from an individual to the larger population requires disciples. This creates an opportunity for slippage between the intent of the original thinker and the folk beliefs that ultimately result.

A cynic might suggest that poorly-articulated ideas help attract disciples. Disciples have more opportunity to contribute if your ideas are difficult for ordinary people to grasp. If there is nothing left to explain, then there is no reason to become an explainer. The trade-off is that poorly-articulated ideas are more likely to be misconstrued by the time that they become folk beliefs.

Is it better to be a clear thinker or not? Perhaps the answer is not as clear as one might think.

Arnold Kling is author of Learning Economics.


*
(Later correction:  actually, of course the original Keynes had a role for consumer mood.  How could I forget the "paradox of thrift"?  My mistake.  But I still believe that folk Keynesianism is disproportionately focused on consumer spending.)

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6 Comments

Disciple Power
" Disciples have more opportunity to contribute if your ideas are difficult for ordinary people to grasp."

Disciples also have more opportunity to gain power and prestige. How can you gain personal power and prestige by advocating for individual political and economic liberty?

Where do you think Jesse Jackson would be today if MLK had not been assassinated?

journalists economics
It amazes me that journalists with speak things as economic fact that no economist from Marx to Mises ever believed.

The rest of the story
The other ninety nine on her list and author please?

John Locke
"I chose John Locke, for his influence on the philosophy of government embodied in America's Constitution"

Don't run that by Max Borders who scoffs at Locke's contributions.

History revised through ignorance
Points made in this article are critical to reversing the cultural and political descent occurring for at least the last 30 years. Folk beliefs diverge further from the source (Locke, Marx, et.al.)with each generation because history is not studied by the majority including politicians and the judiciary. Cases in point relating to the constitution are how freedom of speech, separation of church and state, limits of federal power and individual rights have been perverted by the "disciples".
I like the Jesse Jackson reference. Political correctness has made a 'champion of civil rights' out of a narcissistic opportunist.

Solid Foundations
Fortunately for the authors of the US Constitution, instead of sticking their fingers into the wind and form a government to modify their present state of affairs to gain power and inflence, they reverted the standards of liberty found in the Bible and in Greek and Roman history.
Teaching Western Civiliazation used to be important in k-12. Since Western Civ has been declared 'not PC', we have reaped the rewards.

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