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Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change 1st Edition
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"Why have some countries remained poor, while others are on the train of progress? And, ultimately, what drives social change? Free market reformers will quickly agree on what needs to be done to jumpstart the wealth creation process. Where they get stuck is how you actually do it. Faced with the complexity of social change, the room goes mute. Leighton and Lopez have written a captivating book that explains the process of social change, from ideas to outcomes. Their theoretical framework―centered on the figure of the 'political entrepreneur'―is illuminating and original. It will spark productive conversations among those who are interested in social change and the wealth of nations." (Giancarlo Ibarguen Entrepreneur and President of Universidad Francisco Marroquín)
"Ideas matter. Madmen, with its engaging stories, is perfect for anyone interested in public policy, or how our world could be a better place. Read it, and assign it to your class." (Tyler Cowen George Mason University, blogger at The Marginal Revolution, and author of Discover Your Inner Economist)
"[T]his book is an important contribution, both to public choice theory and to the newly developing literature emphasizing the role of ideas in political economy. The book's biggest strength is that the arguments have a strong foundation in the intellectual history of both economics and politics, and the authors demonstrate the importance of ideas by example." (Shruti Rajagopalan Journal of the History of Economic Thought)
"Leighton and López's book, Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers, is a motivated reading into the role political entrepreneurs play in creating policy. The book discusses three distinct levels of change: origination, establishment, and implementation of new ideas. The result of their efforts is an expansive survey edited to less than 200 pages of discussion. What is surprising, then, is that the authors cover the material and maintain a conversational tone, comfortable even for a novice historian of thought. The book takes the reader through selected episodes that are instrumental in improving the general economic welfare of society . . . [Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers] provides much needed context in the literature of political entrepreneurship. It provides a more concrete way of thinking about the role of change from an individual's actions to the design of policy. The discussion in the book should inform debates at the intersection of economics and political science. Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers breaks down the complex issue of political entrepreneurship into a more manageable inquiry." (Michael D. Thomas Public Choice)
"This book is an inspiring reminder that great thinking matters. It's a delightful, accessible, and thought-provoking book for anyone interested in big ideas at the intersection of economics and politics." (Charles Wheelan University of Chicago and author of Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science)
"Leighton and Lopéz supply intellectually sound arguments, grounded in public choice and of Austrian economics, to explain why democratic governments often fail to produce policies that are consistent with the public's interest. Drawing on sources from across history―from Plato and Aristotle to Friedrich Hayek, and James Buchanan―Madmen situates current policy debates in a context much wider than usual. Most impressive are the authors' evident grasp of―and ability to synthesize―complex arguments about the properties of 'good government.'" (William F. Shughart II, University of Mississippi and co-author of Policy Challenges and Political Responses)
"Come along with Leighton and Lopez as they speed date significant economic and philosophical influencers and chart the triumph of markets. As an erstwhile political practitioner in radical market reforming mode, I was relieved to find that I could dodge the moniker of 'madman' and classify myself as a 'political entrepreneur.' Racy and relevant, this book is a call to reforming arms." (Honourable Ruth Richardson, former Minister of Finance New Zealand)
"[T]his book offers a very interesting account of the interplay between ideas and policy. I recommend it highly." (Lawrence W. Kenny University of Florida)
"There's no shortage of writing about bad government policies, but Leighton and Lopez go several steps deeper, by exploring the incentives that foster bad policies, the institutions that foster bad incentives, the ideas that foster bad institutions, and the social processes that foster the spread of bad ideas. Better yet, they offer wise prescriptions for change and colorful stories to illustrate their wisdom. This is a book that manages all at once to be wise, important, and great fun to read. I highly recommend it." (Steven E. Landsburg, Professor of Economics University of Rochester)
"Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers is a rare treat―and a rare feat. Seldom does a work in the classical tradition of political economy combine the rigors of academic inquiry with the delights of successful storytelling. The authors' multidisciplinary approach, and their emphasis on the many facets of entrepreneurship, enables them to tackle the complex interplay of ideas, institutions, and human incentives, while resisting the temptations of facile reductionism." (Roberto Salinas León, Presidente Mexico Business Forum)
From the Author
Catch up with Wayne Leighton and Edward Lopez at PoliticalEntrepreneurs.com.
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Well, sort of. Really, the main concern in this book is to go beyond standard public finance and public choice theory. A 'public finance' approach tells us that policy is made by benevolent and altruistic public servants in order to correct for market failures. But that doesn't explain how - as often happens - policy often gets made (and stuck) that is clearly not in the public interest and not something the public seems excited about. So, public choice theory comes in to tell us that it is often the case that our public servants are self-interested, and often pass legislation because it will advance their careers, their livelihoods, etc. (I want x to pass, but can't do it without your support, and you want y to pass. So, I will help you pass y and you help me pass x, and stuff like that.) But wait.... that doesn't tell us why sometimes, bad policy DOES get removed, even at the seeming expense of the public figures and special interests who now have vested interest in the policy's existence. (The examples used toward the end of this book are the auctioning of radio frequencies on the market, deregulation of airlines, and welfare reform in the Clinton era.)
So, now comes our authors' theory: public choice has it right much of the time, but we also have to account for how ideas effect what policy proposals get traction and which don't. The theory is that "madmen" (in academia or out; we might call them 'rogues') come up with new ideas. From there, "intellectuals" in academia and out debate the ideas and keep some of them alive in the process. Finally, the "academic scribblers" are those who are in the world of policy, and put the rubber to the road by taking the ideas intellectuals have been researching and talking about, and applying them - when appropriate - to pressing problems of the day. The process can take many years from the original idea to the policy problem that catches the right person's attention (who knows just what academic idea to apply). But when it works, it works.
The first third of the book is spent discussing the traditional public finance and public choice views and why both of them have limited explanatory power (though the latter gets higher marks than the former). Next, the authors outline their theory of madmen, intellectuals, and scribblers. Last, the authors demonstrate by going over the three examples above. (So, for the radio auctioning, the madman who came up with the idea in 1956 was economist Ronald Coase, who modified the idea of a graduate student). After thirty eight years of intellectuals tossing the idea around, the FCC finally took the idea seriously and implemented it. Why the inefficient political distribution of radio frequencies hung around for so long was the stuff of public choice theory. Why it was repealed is the stuff of madmen, intellectuals, and academic scribblers.)
One thing I am not sure about with this book: while the authors' theory adds a potential new explanatory layer onto public choice theory, now it seems we must explain WHY certain ideas become powerful enough to overturn entrenched interests and why others don't. The authors suggest that there is simply a confluence of factors: the problem becomes so pressing and the policy so visibly bad that certain ideas (which might have laid dormant otherwise) now seem like a good idea and gain political traction. Okay, but there are many glaringly bad policies and proposals to fix those polices where entrenched interests ultimately do prove to great to overturn. So, should we now figure out what makes some situations more susceptible to innovation and others not?
That being said, I enjoyed the book. I teach education policy at the college level, and while this book is not specifically geared to my field, I think there may a useful framework for explaining why education reform occasionally happens and doesn't happen when we think it should, Very readable, and highly interesting.
But Leighton and Lopez offer some hope for how the stasis of public choice can be overcome. They offer up a simple model to analyze several instances (e.g., airline deregulation) in which, against all apparent odds, the special interests were beaten. Drawing on notions from both Keynes and Hayek, who argued for the primacy of intellectuals and "academic scribblers" as agents of social change, the authors add the notion of a "madman" to the mix. A madman is a policy entrepreneur who identifies a crack in the political system that he can exploit to achieve political change. They show how the combination of intellectual ideas, scribblers, and madmen at the right time and place can beat public choice barriers to reform.
Certainly the book spans several academic disciplines, so those looking for inspiration while developing a research agenda or just honing in on a question for focused analysis should find new angles for tackling unresolved problems. For example, the book lays out three general questions to motivate just this: 1) why do democracies generate policies that are wasteful and unjust? 2) Why do failed policies persist, even when they are known to be socially wasteful? 3) Why do some wasteful policies get repealed but others endure? Examples abound in the text, yet the open approach motivates the reader to consider beyond those provided. Indeed, the flavor is one of creativity and innovation, that which creates policy and spreads ideas, but that which also makes for good research and valued contributions to scholarly inquiry.
Knowing Edward Lopez from his research and presentations at conferences, I was comfortable with the selection of the book before having read it. After having read it, I wish I would have done so sooner.
Professor of Economics
When the book does get to reform in the final two chapters, the authors introduce the term "political entrepreneur." Just as a business entrepreneur has to see what circumstances are in the market and react to them to make a profit, so a political entrepreneur has to see what political circumstances are and react to them in the right way to effect change. Reform requires both the right political weather conditions and reformers astute enough to act on them -- which might be why substantive political change is so rare a creature as to be an endangered species.