The Power of Ideas . . . ?

29 July 2006 at 10:57 am 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

Back to sociologists and economists. Brayden King says the leftward bias of academic sociology is largely due to selection. I think the same is true for economics. That is, crunchy, communitarian, big-government progressives are more likely to specialize in sociology or community development, while pro-market, steel-and-concrete individualist libertarians and conservatives are more likely to choose economics or finance.

What does this say, however, about the power of ideas to influence political beliefs? If scholars select into one scientific discipline or another based on prior commitment to a particular social and political worldview, then what generates those worldviews in the first place? Is it possible to change hearts and minds with reason and evidence?

Hayek reports that he started out a Fabian-style socialist but was converted to laissez-faire after reading Mises’s Socialism in 1922. Hayek says the same is true of Lionel Robbins, Bertil Ohlin, and Wilhelm Roepke. These cases seem highly exceptional, however. Can readers suggest other examples? In particular, are there any cases of free-marketeers converting to socialism or interventionism through the study of sociology?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Classical Liberalism, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. rlanglois  |  30 July 2006 at 8:03 am


    Ronald Coase and Thomas Sowell come to mind as additional converts from socialism.

    I think the supply of ideas matters. In a world in which more-or-less free market economics is not widely supplied by academics and public philosophers, people who are skeptical and want to understand how the world works in a hard-nosed way may become socialists (or perhaps other things — like engineers) because that’s what’s mostly available. So ideas win by expanding choice sets, not (so much) by conversion, though conversion may happen as choice sets expand.

  • 2. Richard O. Hammer  |  18 June 2007 at 1:09 pm

    This responds to Peter’s question, “In particular, are there any cases of free-marketeers converting to socialism or interventionism through the study of sociology?”

    No, as I will argue here.

    I tend to believe that libertarians of a scholarly bent have gained possession of a body of knowledge that other people have not gained. People who advocate free markets have learned something that socialists have not learned, generally speaking. I offer anecdotal proof from my experience.

    If a person learns one outlook and then learns another outlook, I suppose it is generally possible for that person to establish successful communication with others who have learned the first but not the second outlook by remembering the first outlook and reverting to the views and terminology of that first outlook. This is why adults can often succeed in communicating with children, because adults were once children, can remember how things look to children, and can talk in terms that children use.

    I grew up in the left and was not exposed to the arguments for free markets until I was in my late 20s. Some hunger drew me into those arguments and over several years I learned a free marketeer’s paradigm. But I can still recall how I used to think and feel. If I push aside all I’ve learned in the last 30 years, I can conduct empathetic conversation with a socialist.

    So the test which I offer to prove that libertarians know more than socialists is this: Can person X who feels committed to paradigm A talk and sound as if he believes paradigm B to the extent that person Y who feels committed to paradigm B would concur that X understands Y’s views?

    Can I converse with a socialist and leave the socialist feeling understood? Generally yes.

    Can a socialist converse with me and leave me feeling understood? Never; or at least not yet.

    This make me believe that all the socialists whom I have met so far remain ignorant of the libertarian paradigm. If a socialist knew the libertarian paradigm and wanted to converse empathetically with me then he could do it, as an adult can converse with a child. But I have never met that socialist.

    That is why I answer “no” to Peter’s question.

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