“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change,” wrote neoclassical economist and free-market libertarian Milton Friedman. “When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
We need ideas. And when we need them, Milton argues, we need them in a hurry.
And so we need ideas ‘lying around’. Ideally good ones.
Milton knew a bit about ideas*. He was one of the intellectual leaders of the Chicago school of economics. He wrote books, academic papers and newspaper columns. He brought monetary policy back onto the agenda. He advised governments around the world, including those of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. And he was still working as an economist when he died at the age of 94.
While Milton’s no longer with us, we still need ideas. And we’re fortunate to have so many people generating new ideas to address the ever-evolving challenges that we face.
There’s Kate Raworth and the concept of doughnut economics. There’s Stephanie Kelton with modern monetary theory. There’s Thomas Piketty, Amartya Sen, Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Krugman. There’s Noreena Hertz and Naomi Klein. There’s Robert Skidelsky and John Kay.
Political philosopher Michael Sandel has brought the ideas of social justice and community to a mainstream audience. Roman Krznaric challenges us to think – and act – for the long term. Mariana Mazzucato champions the role of governments and the public sector in driving innovation.
Wendell Berry reflects with grace on rural themes, especially the nature of place. James Rebanks espouses the benefits – to us and to the world around us – of sustainable and regenerative agriculture. And Chris Smaje and Gene Logsdon argue passionately for smaller, human-scale farming as the future of food and fibre production.
Cal Newport, Oliver Burkeman and others reflect on how we can improve our personal productivity, manage our time more effectively and (perhaps most importantly) make the most of our lives. And people like Mr. Money Mustache, Brad Barrett (with the Choose FI community) and the Frugalwoods provide us with a new take on how we can align our personal finances with our life goals.
These thinkers, writers, philosophers and economists show us the value of ideas. But while it’s important to have ideas, we also need to share these ideas with others.
Discussing ideas with other people and refining them in response to (constructive) criticism makes for better ideas. Just as steel becomes tougher when it has been tempered, ideas become stronger and more useful when they are subject to scrutiny, challenge and testing.
Furthermore, even the best ideas will only get used if people actually know about them. They need to be ‘lying around’ when they’re needed.
We don’t, though, need to wait for a crisis to make ideas happen. Despite what Milton Friedman might say. Because the implementation of new ideas and new ways of thinking doesn’t always have to happen on a grand global scale. It can, in many cases, happen gradually at a personal, household or community level, too.
So while you probably can’t implement modern monetary theory at anything other than a national level, you can embed the principles of doughnut economics perfectly well within an individual town or city. As is currently being demonstrated by a growing number of communities around the world. And while we can’t, as individuals, solve the problem of climate change on our own, there’s a lot we can do to reduce our own carbon footprints.
Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, James Rebanks and Chris Smaje all farm in the way espoused in their writing. Projects around the world embrace the long-term thinking that Roman Krznaric proposes. The Frugalwoods live the life that they champion. And while I don’t know how good Cal Newport’s or Oliver Burkeman’s time management is, I’ve implemented successfully many of the techniques that they suggest.
Ideas are powerful because they create a positive vision for people to move towards. A beacon to guide them on their way to a better future.
But tangible examples of this vision being brought to reality are even more powerful. Because they show people that it’s possible.
They show us what we can achieve, individually or collectively.
Ideally without waiting for a crisis.
* Please note that I’m not saying I agree with Milton Friedman’s ideas. I’m just saying that he had them.
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