Political Entrepreneurs

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Rodrik on Political Entrepreneurship: Ideas Overcome Interests

July 3rd, 2014 by Gary McDonnell

In my previous posts (here and here) I have attempted to highlight some of the important research with respect to the economic theory of politics and how well it explains the deregulation of the 1970s. In one sense, the debate is whether deregulation can best be explained by resorting to government officials acting in the public interest, or whether there was a change in the relative power of interest groups. I have suggested that the narrative put forth in Madmen provides a synthesis of these two scholarly approaches with the political entrepreneur a key player.

In a recent Journal of Economic Perspectives article Dani Rodrik weighs in on the manner in which ideas trump interests. Policy innovators use ideas to overcome interest group opposition to change:

“Just as we think of technological ideas as those that relax resource constraints, we can think of political ideas as those that relax political constraints, enabling those in power to make themselves (and possibly the rest of society) better off without undermining their political power” (p. 197).

Inefficiencies create opportunities for political agents to use ideas in order to enhance their power, and this may include policies that increase efficiency.  I contend that 1970s deregulation is a case that fits well with this model.

During the 1970s an unpopular war was winding down, political scandal was fresh in the minds of many; there was inflation, oil embargos, recession, and a rising mistrust of government. Moreover, the cartel-like nature of economic regulation was becoming more apparent, even to the untrained eye. These factors created an environment ripe for political entrepreneurship and policy innovation. It is well-known that Senator Edward Kennedy was one of the individuals who brought regulatory issues into the government arena and is credited as a key political entrepreneur. Even to this day, Senator Kennedy gets much of the credit for airline deregulation (Madmen, p. 151).

Making legislation, like the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, has been compared to sausage-making—it is messy. In other words, what was the process that brought about this important political change? As Rodrik notes,

“[P]olitical entrepreneurs are the ones who ultimately arbitrage between academic ideas and political inefficiencies. It would be nice to know the circumstances under which such arbitrage actually takes place . . . ” (p.202)

In my next post I will discuss some of the ways in which Senator Kennedy and others were able to overcome obstacles to change, to “arbitrage between academic ideas and political inefficiencies.”

 

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.189, ch.7)

The most successful entrepreneurs know what they do well, they know the market and the opportunities within it, and they choose those activities that create the most value. This is true in economic as well as political markets.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.178, ch.7)

[W]hen the right elements come together at the right time and place and overwhelm the status quo, it is because special people make it happen. We call them political entrepreneurs.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.176. ch.7)

While we started this book with Danny Biasone saving basketball, we end it with Norman Borlaug saving a billion lives. These stories are not that different. Both faced vested interests, which were reinforced by popular beliefs that things should be a certain way—that is, until a better idea came along.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.174, ch.6)

Because there was a general belief that homeownership was a good thing, politicians found the public with open arms.... Everybody was winning—except Alfred Marshall, whose supply and demand curves were difficult to see through the haze of excitement at the time, and except Friedrich Hayek, whose competition as a discovery procedure was befuddled... In short, once politicians started getting credit for homeownership rates, the housing market was doomed.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.166, ch.6)

Everyone responded rationally to the incentives before them. In short, the rules that guided homeownership changed over time, which in turn changed the incentives of these actors. And bad things happened.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.153, ch.6)

They understood the economics. The ideas had already won in ... the regulatory agency itself. All that remained to be overcome were some vested interests and a handful of madmen in authority.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.146, ch.6)

If the idea for auctions of spectrum use rights had been part of the public debate since at least 1959, why didn’t the relevant institutions change sooner? What interests stood in the way?

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.121, ch.5)

When an academic scribbler comes up with a new idea, it has to resonate well with widely shared beliefs, which in turn must overcome the vested interests at the table. Many forces come together to explain political change, even though it may seem like coincidence of time and place.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.120, ch.5)

It’s the rules of the political game that deserve our focus, not politicians’ personalities or party affiliations.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.119, ch.5)

In short, ideas are a type of higher-order capital in society. Like a society that is poor in capital and therefore produces little consumer value, a society that is poor in ideas and institutions will have bad incentives and therefore few of the desirable outcomes that people want.

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