Political Entrepreneurs

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Intellectuals in Action: Reason‘s Jesse Walker on Survivalists (a.k.a. “Preppers”)

February 21st, 2013 by Edward Lopez

This is the inaugural installment of a category we’ll call “Intellectuals in Action.” Keeping in mind that the book and this blog mean “intellectuals” in the Hayekian sense as traders in ideas – that is, people whose activities influence (whether deliberately or not) the way that other people view the world. To drill down, readers can go to Hayek’s 1949 essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” and the introduction to his 1954 edited volume, Capitalism and the Historians.

The point of this series, or category, of posts, is to appreciate how broad and diverse are intellectuals in society. They’re not just think tanks and op-ed columnists.

For example, in this articleReason writer Jesse Walker seeks to understand and portray survivalists, or “preppers” (people who prepare for the breakdown of normal society, in which survival will depend on self-sufficiency) beyond the stereotyping and outright dismissal that they have received from writers at other outlets. Walker interviews many preppers to the discovery that they’re not very different from non-preppers. He also points to a lot of routine and normal scenarios (like a storm, or a family’s loss of a primary breadwinner) where having prepped would have been a good idea.

And then he notches up the relevance factor:

OK, you say, so preppers aren’t all nuts. In the future, when I want to make fun of people holed up in a suburban fortress awaiting a zombie attack, I’ll use a more specific term. But so what? Does it really matter if some of the stories I’ve seen in the last few months have been too sweeping?

Yes, it does. It’s always worthwhile to push back when a subculture gets scapegoated, whether it’s Goths after Columbine or preppers today. It’s especially important when those attacks are embedded in our political debates, skewing the ways we see the world.

The way mass numbers of people perceive sub-cultures, including preppers, affects what mass numbers of people believe are the best way to arrange political and economic institutions. Walker talks about FEMA, gun control, and some other fairly obvious examples. But there are more. It’s an interesting read. And it’s a piece of intellectualism in action.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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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