It’s an old debate with a nice Keynes quote routinely trotted out:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.
Are ideas or interests more important in shaping human destiny? Nature or nurture? And to quote Woody Allen, is the Atlantic Ocean a better ocean than the Pacific Ocean?. In any event, they’re both important – ideas and interests. And they’re most important when they operate together. Still it’s always fun when people proffer some piece of evidence which they think shows one thing, and it in fact doesn’t or shows the opposite. Often people will claim that the commonality between parents and children’s IQs (for instance) shows the importance of heritability, when last time I checked, most kids got not just their genes from their parents but also their environment and their upbringing.
I often cavil at economists attributing too crude an interpretation of self interest to people. But here’s a nice illustration of what I mean. In their very interesting article “The Case Against Patents“, Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine offer this:
Patent lawyers play a large role in the political economy of patents. According to Quinn (2011), who is a patent attorney, legal fees for fifi ling a patent run upwards of $7,000 and roughly half are rejected. In 2010, according to the US Patent Office, 244,341 patents were issued, which would imply roughly $3 billion in legal fees per year. Obviously, patent attorneys as a group have a tremendous incentive to see that more patents are issued. This insight helps us understand better the role of the courts and their relatively recent reform. In 1982—lobbied by patent lawyers—Congress passed the Federal Courts Improvement Act, which moved federal patent appeals out of the regular court system to a special court system for dealing with patents. Naturally, many of the judges for this new court were chosen from the ranks of patent attorneys. For example, when a court voted, in a 1994 decision, to expand the scope of patents to software (In re Kuriappan P. Alappat, Edward E. Averill and James G. Larsen 33 F.3d 1526 1), of the six judges who voted in favor, half had previously been patent attorneys, while of the two that voted against, neither had been. The referee of the patent game is biased both materially and ideologically.
But once the patent attorneys become judges they’re no longer patent attorneys, and do not have any direct pecuniary interests in patent lawyering (I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, both that they retain no further interest in their practices – and that they’re unlikely to go back to their practices). In any event, I generally find that world views offer stronger explanations than interests. As I commented somewhere here, the passion with which economists discuss tariffs for cars doesn’t relate to the 0.1 or so that could be had by cutting (or not cutting) tariffs – depending on what model of reality you subscribe to. It’s a clash of world views. However it’s certainly the case that interests have shaped the world view, though even here, the causation is often quite rich and operating through culture. Just as economists take in with their training an antagonism to rent seeking (which is normally quite separate from any pecuniary interest of theirs) so patent attorneys become part of a profession and a culture which valorises what they do. And it’s that culture that drives their views – much more than their naked calculation of self-interest – as illustrated by the fact that you remove those incentives – or a large part of them – and the acculturated attitudes remain.
- July 29, 1994