Can political ideas drive development? My prediction for the next thought revolution in development circles

Everywhere I turn I keep seeing people writing about the way that ideas and ideology shape development paths: what political strategies get pursued, what institutions get put in place. Most of these are isolated examples. Only some of the scholars are aware of one another. Some examples:

  • Josh Simon at Columbia, a political philosopher, is considering how Americas-born “Creole” thinkers, like Bolivar or Alexander Hamilton, shaped the kind of political unions and nations that formed. Also here.
  • I have been re-reading an old favorite book, Coffee and Power, by Jeffrey Paige, which tries to understand why relatively similar countries in Central America took incredibly different political paths. Liberal ideologies and inventive, ideological politicians in the late 19th century play a big role in his explanation.
  • Dani Rodrik has tried to place ideology in the kinds of models economists are comfortable talking about, and suggests a political possibilities frontier that is often below the production possibilities frontier, that can both limit what options we pursue as a society, but also shows the role for ideology and innovative political entrepreneurs to change the system.
  • In international relations, the diffusion of norms and ideas is now one of the most predominant explanations for political change, such as democratization. See this famous piece by Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink.

A few years ago, when Acemoglu and Robinson wrote Why Nations Fail, they singled out “ideology” as one of the theories that simply can’t explain development paths. I mostly buy the Acemoglu and Robinson view of the world, and teach the book, but I remember thinking to myself at the time: “If I had to place bets on where the most interesting research will be, it’s where the new orthodoxy tells us we have to stop looking.”

More pointers welcome.

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