Harvard international relations scholar Stephen Walt has a very good piece over at Foreign Policy discussing the origins of bad ideas in policy formulation. Prof. Walt makes some very interesting points along the way, but his final reason for the persistence of bad ideas is somewhat problematic. Walt claims, “Perhaps the most obvious reason why foolish ideas persist is that someone has an interest in defending or promoting them….Self-interested actors who are deeply committed to a particular agenda can distort the marketplace of ideas.”
In the United States, this problem with self-interested individuals and groups interfering in the policy process appears to be getting worse, in good part because of the growing number of think tanks and “research” organizations linked to special interests.
As someone who has attained his formative experience in this field during an epically long tenure as an intern at one of the District of Columbia’s numerous think tanks, I take offense at Prof. Walt’s attempt to discredit my means of earning a meager income in a righteous crusade for intellectual purity.
Walt writes that “this problem with self-interested individuals and groups interfering in the policy process appears to be getting worse.” That sentence carries the quixotic and undemocratic assumption that there once existed another kind of policy-making process, one free of self-interested actors, where all participants honestly argued in service of the national interest, and that those halcyon days can be restored. But a marketplace of ideas without self-interested groups and actors would be one robbed of the lion’s share of intellectual capital. Self-interest is the engine of policy-making in democracy, not its enemy.
Walt thinks that either the public or the politicians that serve them are like judges, weighing contending views to arrive at wise policy; or like academics, studying ideas to arrive at preferences, which they simply enact. A more accurate description of policy-making comes from pluralism (pluralist scholars include David Truman, Edward Banfield, Charles Lindblom, James Q. Wilson, and Robert Dahl), which imagines a more intense, but less efficient, marketplace of ideas. The American government, pluralists tell us, is an arena for the competition of interest groups (ideological or economic), manifested in pressure groups and governmental agencies. Collective action theory explains that only these concentrated interests will be reliably motivated to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Those interests’ contention is our politics; its current outcome is policy. Presidents preside over this fray, but their control is far less than we generally imagine. They accept the status quo far more than they change it, and having accepted it, they sell that compromise as their own policy, using ideas to match it to the national interest.
Bad ideas then persist because they are useful weapons in policy-fights. Policy-makers are more like lawyers than judges, using arguments about how their preferred policies serve the national interest to win adherents. Walt cites the resurrection of domino theory to illustrate his argument, arguing as if its intellectual defeat would prevent the policies it justifies. Instead, if no one believed in the domino theory, hawks would simply employ another argument about why we should fight in Afghanistan, or wherever we are next.
The current debate over how much the ill-advised invasion of Iraq and President Bush’s so-called “Freedom Agenda” are contributing to recent events in the Arab world is just one example of intellectually defeated arguments being resurrected. Even if self-interested actors could be eliminated from policy discussion—a veritable impossibility—the “marketplace of ideas” would still remain muddled in impurity.
Despite this flaw in his argument, Prof. Walt’s piece is still well worth reading.