Steve Walt has a good essay in Foreign Policy on the success of bad foreign policy ideas in the United States. I agree with his conclusion that “vigorous, unfettered” debate increases societal wisdom. But Walt doesn’t fully appreciate the central role salesmanship and BS play in a pluralist democracy like ours. He clings to the notion that bad ideas cause bad policy. In reality, it’s more the other way.
Walt deftly summarizes structural realism’s take on the marketplace of the ideas. John Stuart Mill gave us that concept. He thought that liberalism’s protection of free speech would allow the best ideas to outperform the worst, meaning that liberal democracies would produce more truth than non-democracies, learn faster from mistakes, and ultimately have smarter policies. The dean of structural realism, Ken Waltz, long ago pointed out that this habit of self-evaluation should make liberal democracies more attuned to the requirements of success in international policies than other states. That insight provoked a program of quantitative research, which argued that democracies win a higher percentage of their wars than non-democracies. One explanation for this (not uncontroversial) finding is that debate and dissent make democracies liable to choose wars that they can win. To many structural realists, folly in liberal states’ foreign policy comes not from the intrusion of domestic politics into foreign policy making but from the pathologies that impede domestic debates about foreign policy.
Walt mentions several such impediments. Taboos and national ideologies dissuade people from criticizing some policies. The wealth and safety enjoyed by powerful states, like the United States, limit the consequences of bad foreign policies, preventing the state from learning from its errors. Secrecy and the dominant role executives play in providing information about security matters prevent real debate about many issues. Domestic interest groups hijack foreign policy, dominating debate and shrouding their parochial interests in the nation’s.
The last explanation for bad ideas shows the article’s trouble. 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.
Because elites are avatars of competing preferences largely talking past each other, their debate produces noise and passion but little progress toward agreed truth, as Trevor Thrall taught me. The media conveys self-interested claims with little evaluation. The public either fails to pay attention or is aroused by its side and believes it. Its schisms mirror elites’. Because interests check each other by marshalling support, their conflict causes stasis, not wisdom. Where sides fail to contend, little debate will occur, and no segment of the public will resist the dominant interest’s goals. Restraint will come only from the limits of its desires.
This is not to say that bad ideas have no effect on policy or that they can never die in democracy. The point is that their effect is generally overrated, and they typically change along with policies that cause them. Policies change where interests change, often because the policies cause trouble for some existing interest group or awaken a new one. Walt’s argument about wealth and safety allowing folly is consistent with this point. For example, the U.S. occupation of Europe continues, along with the ideas that justify it, because it has no economic or security consequences sufficient to concentrate an interest powerful enough to change it. To change bad ideas, you need to change the incentive structure that produces them.