What is the relationship between ideas and social change? It’s a gigantic question that has spawned a vast literature with nothing approaching a consensus. This is for a reason. Ideas are not like physical property. They do have to be rationed because they do not have the properties that make for economic scarcity. Their distribution does not follow a predictable, manageable, traceable production structure. What happens in some times, places, and issues does not seem to happen in others. It’s for this reason that every contribution to this debate seems partially right and partially wrong.
Why is this important? What we believe about the relationship between ideas and their effects has a tremendous influence over the strategies we decide to pursue. Should an ideological movement focus on academia, mainstream media access, political elections, policy coalitions, lobbying, underground publishing, edgelordish tweets, on-the-ground activism, local agitation, global philanthropy, or what? Is one way right or another way wrong?
Rothbard on the Strategic Question
Rothbard did not believe that he somehow had all the right answers to the strategic question.Sometime in the late 1980s, I found myself in a friendly debate with Murray Rothbard over matters of strategy. It was an exchange of private letters and phone calls. I cannot recall the specifics, but the issue had something to do with how broad or narrow an ideological journal, with the goal of propagating a body of ideas, ought to be in order to achieve its goals.
Should it encourage broad debate, or try overtly to advance a particular plumbline of thought? Should it be an exclusionary advocate of one point of view, or a venue inclusive of many points of view including radical ones that mainline publications eschew?
After some back and forth, Rothbard concluded our correspondence with a general observation that I can only paraphrase. He did not believe that he somehow had all the right answers to the strategic question. He was highly interested in more discussion of this topic and happy to have the subject raised.
To his mind what mattered was that the strategy, whatever it is, a) not be immoral or be based on some fundamental lie, and b) actually achieve the desired result. Despite his reputation as a cadre-enforcing Leninist in the 1970s — or perhaps because he had seen the failure of that program — his own attitude was highly flexible on strategic matters. He had his preferences, but he didn’t rule out other ways of going about things so long as they were not immoral and held out some possibility of success.
The Other Strategy Is Always Wrong
People suppose they have the right way, and it is the only way.I’ve always kept that in mind in the course of modern debates on strategy. People can become wildly passionate about this topic, pushing their own view as if there is only one way. If you vote, you are evil; if you don’t vote, you are not helping the cause. If you eschew academia, you are not invested in serious ideas; if you are in academia, you have sold out. If you don’t protest in the streets, you are unwilling to get your hands dirty; if you do protest in the streets, you are contributing to the problem of mobocracy. And so on. People suppose they have the right way, and it is the only way.
If we knew the right answers, and if we had seen some particular strategic outlook prevail over the others, matters would be more simple. But we’ve rarely seen such progress. Ludwig von Mises wrote in his private diary that he wondered whether his dreams of being a reformer had given way to becoming a “historian of decline.” I suspect many people feel that way.
And Yet Ideas Matter
And yet, as we look around the world today, with the state still on the march, we do see a new flourishing of liberty. How to measure this? The least-revealing way is to look at the number of libertarian organizations and academics. Surely it is better to look at the actual progress of liberty itself. Here we see massive gains through communication technology, life opportunities, the decline of violence, the reduction of poverty, the globalization of the division of labor, and the effective realization of universal rights in more places in the world than ever before.
How is this happening? Enterprise is outpacing the ability of the state of keep up with regulating it. As to how and why enterprise has done so much so fast, I see no one particular causal agent. As David Hart notes, “The world being a complex and messy place, there is probably no one strategy that will be successful in all places and all times.”
The implications of this observation are profound. Just as we cannot anticipate the emergent shape of social institutions under conditions of freedom, we cannot anticipate, much less plan, the way in which any particular idea, including liberty-centered ideas, will bring about social and political change. We think we know, but then, as it turns out, we don’t.
For example, F.A. Hayek in “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” notes that the idea of socialist economics did not come from the workers and peasants. It was planted into the stream of history by elites. This stands contrary to the fables told by the socialists themselves, who imagined that workers would rise up, motivated by a dawning consciousness of their own miserable plight to expropriate the expropriators.
This fable is wrong, said Hayek: “In every country that has moved toward socialism, the phase of the development in which socialism becomes a determining influence on politics has been preceded for many years by a period during which socialist ideals governed the thinking of the more active intellectuals.”
The Model Is An Illusion
You might try to model this in some form. Intellectuals form the idea base. Their followers popularize their ideas. The media reports them. The masses pick them up. They begin to influence political actors. They influence affairs of state. And so on. You might conclude from looking at this clean model that it indicates something about how all idea change history, and, therefore, investments should be prioritized accordingly.
Hayek was a consistent opponent of all “intellectual property” because it is an artificial restriction on the market process.But notice something important here. Hayek was not presenting a general theory of how ideas operate to influence political change. He was providing a historical reconstruction that applied to the case of socialism in particular. Nowhere does he claim that this model applies in all times and all places or that ideas cannot permeate society in any other way.
In fact, he specifically says the opposite. He describes the outsized role of intellectuals in determining the course of social change in the 20th century as a “a fairly new phenomenon of history,” not a permanent feature of the world. Intriguingly, he even speculates that this development was “artificially stimulated by the law of copyright.” (Hayek was a consistent opponent of all “intellectual property” because it is an artificial restriction on the market process.)
In other words, it is the state itself that seems to create what appears to be a “structure of production” in ideas. Such a structure does not exist as fixed feature. We can imagine conditions under which this would change, for example, with a reduced impact of copyright law and more universal distribution of ideas. With that confidence, Hayek expresses the hope: “We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.” He offers no “central plan” for rolling out the right idea, only an plea for inspiration and creativity going forward.
Digitization Blows Up the Structure
This is why I have fundamental doubts about this idea of applying to the world of ideas the structure of production as it pertains to the physical world. It is too constructivist, affected, and planned. More than that, there are important reasons why the model might be fundamentally flawed, especially in the digital age. Ideas move through time and space in a way that is completely different from the physical world. The danger in conflating these two very different spheres of the world is that we actually limit the power of ideas rather than unleash them.
To see why this is the case, ask why there is a structure of production at all. Goods need to be produced out of scarce resources. Once they are consumed, they must be produced again. Production takes time and that production must be coordinated across many layers of cooperative industrial structures: capital goods, intermediate goods, and consumer goods. Signals such as prices and interest rates assist in this coordinative process. The process is arduous but necessary to overcome the inherent privations of the state of nature. To rise above it requires the employment of scarce means to achieve unlimited wants, and this process of production must keep economics constantly in mind.
But what is the fundamental fact that makes these production structures necessary? Why can’t we just have all the stuff we want without having to build these intertemporally complex systems? The reason comes down to scarcity itself. If that condition did not exist, we could dispense with production structures completely.
If it were possible to make gasoline, steaks, and sneakers just one time, and these goods could somehow replicate themselves unto infinity once produced, the whole economics of production would be moot. None of the factors that give rise to it would exist.
The difference between scarce and non-scarce goods is fundamental and absolute.Consider: ideas are not scarce in an economic sense. Once produced — and that production can take decades or only an instant — an idea can be infinitely reproduced, just as Thomas Jefferson said of fire itself. It does not depreciate in value as physical property does. It can belong to, and be consumed by, one person or billions of people at the same instant. An idea is also immortal: the ideas produced by Plato or Einstein are available forever.
An idea is also malleable: it can be changed and remixed with other ideas by any individual mind, without disturbing the integrity of the original. Its course of transport through the population and through history takes a completely unpredictable path: books, word of mouth, blogs, podcasts, signs, texting, rumor, advertising. The digital world has put the portability of ideas on hyperdrive. Their distribution follows no set course; every idea becomes part of a storm of ideas, merging with all other ideas that have ever existed. Their final triumph can take a circuitous route that defies all expectations.
In economics, the first condition of the need for economization is scarcity. For this reason, the difference between scarce and non-scarce goods is fundamental and absolute. A good is either rivalrous in ownership and control or it is not. It either has to be reproduced following consumption or not. It either depreciates in its physical integrity or it does not.
If I am wearing my shoes now, no one else can wear them at the same time. But if I hold an idea and decide to share it with the world, I can retain my ownership while permitting the creation of infinite numbers of copies. In this sense, ideas evade all the limitations of the physical world.
An Idea’s Travels Can’t Be Mapped
Another example: Let’s say I’m standing in front of a group of a thousand people. I hand an item, like a watch or a glass, to a person on the front row. She passes it on through the crowd. At any point in time, it would be possible for me to track precisely who has the item, who handed it to her, and then to see whom she hands it to next. It follows a traceable path. That path can be observed.
Good ideas as they apply to liberty can come from anywhere. But if I stand in front of the same group, and sing a song, toss out an idea, or show an image, it would be impossible to trace the path that this idea would take as it impresses itself on the minds of the people present. The travels of ideas are impossible to map.
This is the difference between ideas and scarce property. They are produced and distributed in a completely different way. None of the conditions that cause the structure of production to exist in the physical world actually apply to the world of ideas. Their functioning is radically different.
Perhaps, then, it is best to regard the structure of production as applying to the world of ideas only in a metaphorical sense? Even then, there is a question about how much such a metaphor actually explains. Good ideas as they apply to liberty can come from anywhere. Consider the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the United States. Did the idea come first from the academics, flow to the media, and become enacted by the common people working through their representatives in politics? Not so far as I understand the history. Instead, it came about because the policy was no longer enforceable in light of mass civil disobedience. The same might be said of marijuana legalization today.
And consider, too, the cluster of deregulatory efforts of the late 1970s: trucking, oil, airlines, telecommunications, and banking. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was president and a champion of this movement. He worked mainly with the office of Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Democrat, in enacting the legislation. This is something that no one could have anticipated. The “structure of production” of these ideas followed a non-intuitive, unplanned course.
We make a profound error in imagining we can plan intellectual change in the way we plan the production of other goods and services.Such bottom-up efforts are evident in the progress of the cyberpunk world that gave us distributed networks, mass availability of cryptography, and the innovation of the blockchain ledger for porting secure information.
We now have the technology to commodify, bundle, and title any type of information pool, based on our own creation as an extension of our own imagination, and transmit it over geographically non-contiguous lines, using cryptography to customize what information we share and over a distributed network that no state can take down, in a manner that is non-forgible and non-reproducible and not subject to any level of depreciation, ever.
That’s just amazing. We can do that now, and no one can take that technology away from us. The whole apparatus was released on a free forum by an anonymous programmer. How can we possibility fit this liberty-granting technology into some structure of production?
Tell the Truth
We make a profound error in imagining we can plan intellectual change in the way we plan the production of other goods and services. That ideas permeate society in an unpredictable and even chaotic way is nothing to regret. But we need to come to terms with the reality and thereby eschew the presumptions of knowledge that are inherent in trying to construct some top-down strategy for social change. It is best just to speak out, tell the truth, and build liberty in every conceivable way we can, pushing history in the direction it must go, and then delight as the course of events defies our every expectation.