Review: Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers

Any book that uses an Oxford comma in the title is immediately in my good graces. Add the nicely designed cover, the slim size, and the intriguing topic, and Edward Lopez and Wayne Leighton would have had to commit heinous rhetorical or logical crimes to turn me off of their new book, Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers. Fortunately, they commit no such crimes but present a sweeping and readable examination of the forces that generate social change.

I have long been obsessed with the question of how to change the world. In my personal life, this question took me from humanitarian mission trips, to politics, to policy advocacy, to education, to developing educators, to raising support to develop educators. To borrow the old adage, I found I could do more in teaching a man to fish than giving a man a fish…then I took it further: Now I raise the capital to build the factories to make the rope to produce the nets to give the teachers to teach people to catch millions of fish.

This doesn’t mean I’ve discovered once for all the secret of changing the world; far from it. Every day my approach changes as I gain experience and learn new ideas. Madmen is, in many ways, a clear articulation of many of the ideas I’ve come to hold about social change. It details how Public Choice Theory reveals that governments have all the wrong incentives for positive change. It discusses the role of ideas, and how they are able to overcome the vested interests that Public Choice makes seem so insurmountable. It lays out Hayek’s description of social change coming from intellectuals, and spreading through the general public. But Madmen adds a new dimension, one I have not been able to integrate into my worldview until recently: the bottom-up role of culture, and the circumstance of time and place.

It is not only coherent, conscious ideology that determines what institutions will be tolerated, and therefore what incentives exist and what outcomes result. The conscious beliefs of individuals in society do play a major role, and are something we focus on perhaps because we feel capable of altering them through education and persuasion. But there is also a role for bottom-up, experiential, subconscious or tacit knowledge. The kind of knowledge that culture carries from generation to generation, passing on when it produces better outcomes.

Often no one is aware the valuable function of such cultural trends or norms. Economist Peter Leeson has done research on a variety of bizarre superstitions and practices embedded in various cultures; memes that seem to have no value. If you asked the members of that culture what the purpose was, they would likely provide an answer steeped in their religion or mythology. Yet time and again, the practices have proven efficient means of achieving desirable ends, at least compared with the known alternatives. Such cultural norms needn’t be recognized for what they are even by the people that benefit from them in order to have influence over institutions, incentives, and outcomes – good or bad.

I’ve come to believe that, when it comes to bringing about a better world, valuing freedom because we’ve experienced it and consider it normal is just as important as valuing freedom because it makes sense in the moral or utilitarian abstract. A generation that believes in the power of voluntary cooperation because they take part in it every day is no less valuable than one that reads libertarian theory.

Madmen integrates the top-down flow of ideas from intellectuals to the general public with the bottom up influence of learned cultural memes, and uses the combined forces to explain where the ideas come from that shape the institutions in which (as Public Choice reveals) incentives will lead to predictable outcomes. To create this integrated view of social change, Leighton and Lopez ask and answer three questions:

1. Why do democracies generate policies that are wasteful and unjust?

2. Why do failed policies persist over long periods, even when they are known to be socially wasteful and even when better alternatives exist?

3. Why do some wasteful policies get repealed (airline and telephone regulations) while others endure (sugar subsidies, tariffs)?

They offer answers in less than 200 pages, yet somehow manage to work in an expansive history of economic and political thought, beginning with the earliest philosophers and ending with the most current economists. This is an excellent tour of political economy as a discipline: what questions it asks, what personalities populate the field, and what competing and complimentary theories they present. There is enough detail to satisfy the wannabe economist in me, and enough colorful storytelling to sate my inner layman.

The book opens with a story of the shot-clock that saved basketball, and closes with a story of hybrid wheat that saved millions of lives. It is full of examples of social change, both good and bad, and the authors’ thoughts on why it happened when and how it did. If you are interested in how the world works from a ten thousand foot vantage point, I cannot recommend Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers enough.

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