Milton & Rose Friedman on a topic of fundamental importance: the role of ideas in the evolution of societies

A brief and simple article by Milton and Rose Friedman, talks about a topic of fundamental importance, the role played by ideas in the evolution of societies, the cycles that are generated, the processes of change and crises as triggers of many of those changes. It is of fundamental importance in all our societies. So they present the theme:

“The objective of this essay is modest: to present a hypothesis that has become more and more reasonable for us as the years go by, illustrate it with examples from the last three centuries and analyze some of its implications. The hypothesis is as follows: a major change in social and economic policy is preceded by a change in the climate of intellectual opinion, generated, at least in part, by contemporary social, political and economic circumstances. This change may begin in a country but, if it is lasting, it ends up being spread around the world. At first, it will have little effect on social and economic policy. After an interval, sometimes decades, an intellectual current “taken at its climax” will be extended at the beginning gradually, then more quickly, to the general public and through public pressure on the government it will affect the economic, social measures and policies. As the current of events reaches its culminating point, the intellectual current begins to diminish, compensated by what A. V. Dicey calls the countercurrents of opinion, which generally represent a reaction to the practical consequences attributed to the previous intellectual current. The promises tend to be utopian. They are never fulfilled, and therefore they disappoint. The initial protagonists of the current of thought disappear and the intellectual quality of their followers and supporters inevitably decreases. Intellectual independence and courage are needed to initiate a countercurrent that dominates opinion, and also, although to a lesser extent, to join the cause. Young, independent and courageous entrepreneurs seek new territories to conquer and this requires exploring the new and the unproven. The countercurrents that gather their forces set in motion the next swell, and the process repeats itself.

It is not necessary to mention that this scheme is too simplified and excessively formalized. In particular, it omits any analysis of a subtle mutual interaction between intellectual opinion, public opinion and the course of events. There are always gradual changes in policies and institutional agreements. However, important changes rarely occur, except in times of crisis, when, using the evocative phrase of Richard Weaver, “ideas have consequences”. The current of thought reaches the public through intellectuals of various professions: teachers and preachers, journalists of the written press or television, scholars and politicians. The public begins to react to this crisis according to the options that the intellectuals have explored, options that effectively limit the alternatives open to the existing powers. In almost all current a crisis is identified as the catalyst of a major change in the direction of policy.”

By Martin Krause