It’s the story, stupid4 min read . Updated: 25 Apr 2016, 04:02 AM IST
Ideas are self-evidently important, but it is often the better story which carries the day
The great economist John Maynard Keynes famously argued: “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."
Compelling as it sounds, this oft-repeated quotation, which is flattering to scribblers such as this columnist, is only half true. Ideas are self-evidently important. But it is often the better story which carries the day. Those old enough will recall the US presidential campaign which saw Republican contender Ronald Reagan defeat the incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter in 1980. It is certainly true that what came to be called supply-side economics provided an intellectual foundation to the economic policies pursued by Reagan once elected, such as cutting taxes and tightening monetary policy to slay the dragon of inflation. And this intellectual foundation was laid by economists such as Robert Mundell, Arthur Laffer and others.
But, crucially, Reagan got the opportunity to implement his preferred policies because in the election campaign which preceded his victory, he told a better story than the weary incumbent. Carter warned Americans of malaise and social fragmentation, and he raised the alarm about the nation’s unsustainable energy policies in the face of successive oil price shocks. He might well have been right about both, but his didactic, hectoring tone did little to endear himself to a beleaguered electorate.
Meanwhile, Reagan told Americans that, if elected, he would get government off the back of average folk and empower them to take control of their own lives. Without needing to invoke Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman, he evoked a heady, libertarian ethos which resonated far better with voters than the grim homilies of the sitting president. The result was the first ouster after a first term of a serving US president since the unfortunate Herbert Hoover at the height of the Great Depression.
While economists are sharply divided along conventional ideological lines on the efficacy and impacts of Reagan’s economic policies, what cannot be argued is that he was a better storyteller than Carter. Likewise, in 1992, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton managed to weave a narrative of hope and possibility which helped him to unseat the Republican incumbent, George H.W. Bush, who came across as patrician and remote and unconnected with the concerns of average Americans. And, of course, no one told a better tale than the current US president, Barack Obama, on his road to the White House in 2008. One can debate whether Obama’s policy choices have been good or poor, but his credentials as a charismatic raconteur cannot be gainsaid.
If further proof were needed, one need look no further than the 2014 general election in India. Narendra Modi connected viscerally with voters’ self-evident desire for change, and he, like all of the American presidents I have cited, offered the citizenry a narrative of aspiration and empowerment. Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi’s largely negative campaign, attempting to stir the fears of minorities and the loathing of self-styled liberals towards the allegedly communal Modi, failed to resonate with an electorate which was seeking an affirmative message.
There is an interesting corollary to this hypothesis, if you are with me so far. The better story is not necessarily the one that corresponds to better economic or other policies, and, by extension, the better storyteller is not necessarily the better policymaker. But, of course, the reverse is also true: in other words, the better story is not necessarily the worse policy, and a better storyteller may also, in fact, have the right policy ideas. This is a proposition that puritanical self-styled liberals are often reflexively loath to accept.
In the various cases I have offered, sincere folk may disagree on whether the better idea, as well as the better story, carried the day. Vehement disagreements persist to this day, for instance, on whether Reagan was one of the best or one of the worst presidents in US history, even though his term ended some quarter-century ago. (For the record, I have always been an enthusiastic admirer, and believe, as Mundell has persuasively argued, that Reagan’s greatest accomplishment might well be that the economic boom and military build-up he presided over was, fundamentally, what pushed the Soviet Union beyond the tipping point into a self-destructive spiral.)
In India, of course, we are only two-fifths of the way through Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s term in office, and thus it is obviously too early for anyone seriously to judge the successes or failures of their economic or other policies. (This does not stop political hacks masquerading as independent commentators from doing so, of course.)
What is evident, though, is that Modi and the BJP’s electoral prospects in 2019 will depend at least as much on the prime minister’s success or failure in telling the tale of his five years in power as it will on his tangible successes or failures in the policy realm. His opponents, and their allies in the intellectual establishment, know this too: hence their relentless efforts to demonize him and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Every fortnight, In the Margins explores the intersection of economics, politics and public policy to help cast light on current affairs. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Vivek Dehejia’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/vivekdehejia