Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change by Wayne Leighton and Edward López has been out for a while but I’ve just read it. The Madmen are politicians or policy makers, the Scribblers are academics, scholars, generating new ideas, and the Intellectuals are those who translate ideas into politically digestible form, journalists, think-tankers, consultants. (I’d have found it more intuitive to reverse those last two labels, but there we are.)
The over-arching aim of the book is to explain why bad economic policies are implemented, why they last so long, and why they are sometimes overcome. The transmission mechanism runs from Scribblers’ ideas to decisions by Madmen, mediated by the competitive marketplace of ideas and entrepreneurs among the Intellectuals and junior Madmen.
This account, not particularly new (indeed, the title is drawn partly from the famous Keynes quotation about madmen in authority), is wrapped around some useful central chapters. These give a clear and concise history of thought that starts with the political philosophy of government (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, through to Locke, Hume, Marx, and (as it’s an American book) the US Constitution and Pragmatism. This is followed by a chapter on the marginalism revolution in economics and the Pigouvian approach to social welfare as an allocation problem codified by Samuelson, which is contrasted with the Hayekian view of the economy as an organic entity concerned with exchange rather than allocation. It then sets out clearly Coase’s argument about the symmetry of ‘externalities’ and moves on to the start of the public choice revolution. (Including this sentence about James Buchanan: “He was determined to translate Wicksell’s forgotten book [from German] for the English-speaking world.” How marvellous to hear of such a well-rounded economist.)
The book comments: “For all its precision, the great vice of the new welfare economics [of externalities, second best theorem and so on] was to crowd out politics and philosophy. … Economists at mid-century were preoccupied with the pure theory of households and firms and busied themselves with proving equilibrium and devising optimal conditions for allocating scarce resources. Interestingly, the main problem was that many of those optimal conditions included very specific policy choices, like taxing polluters, subsidizing education and deficit spending during recessions. But the people making these policy choices – the madmen in authority – are not part of the economic model.”
A full chapter on public choice theory, voting theorems, Olson’s interest group analysis and the economics of regulation follows. The final chapters set out in more detail the argument about how ideas get turned into policies, and a description of four US examples: radio spectrum, air traffic control, welfare reform and the housing bubble and sub-prime crisis. Of these, the first example generalises most easily to other countries.
The book is very clearly written and an accessible introduction to an important strand of the history of economic thought that is still highly relevant to policy debates today. The three core chapters and the examples make it an extremely useful introductory or background resource for students, and I’ll certainly add them to my reading list for next semester. The final chapter does also end with good advice for wannabee policy entrepreneurs: “Improving the human condition should start with recognising that people respond to incentives, and that incentives are part of institutions that neither rise nor fall overnight, and that the slow emergence of both good and bad ideas can change these institutions and thus have an enduring impact on the human condition. … Ideas indeed can have consequences.”