One of the most debated and controversial economic policies of the 21st Century has been the concept of ‘trickle-down economics’. According to the theory, the unconstrained free-market capitalism of the super-rich will eventually lead to more investment, more entrepreneurship, and more jobs, and that these actions will cause the previously concentrated wealth to ‘trickle down’ to the middle classes and eventually the poorest of society. It argues that the current level of inequality in the world is a good thing, as the money is now concentrated in the hands of a few exceptional individuals who will use their business acumen to make the world a better place, in a way that no government could or should. Trickle-down economics reframes the current wealth gap as merely the starting point of a new age of billionaire-led growth and prosperity, rather than the more obvious analysis that would argue the wealth of the world is being sucked up by a new world economic elite. It is an undeniably attractive argument, backed up by easily understandable logic and explanatory metaphors, and it is no wonder that trickle-down economics has been trumpeted by politicians in the more unequal, capitalist-minded democratic societies such as the USA. Leave the billionaires alone, keep taxes low, and the rich people will shower money on everyone.

The problem is that there isn’t much evidence that trickle-down economics actually works. In fact, leaving the super-rich alone to do their own thing probably increases inequality, as the rich get richer but the money never quite seems to trickle down to the lower socioeconomic levels. The idea of trickle-down economics is perfect and watertight, yet somehow something happens when this idea is applied to the real world. Something gets lost in translation from the ideal of billionaire-led growth to the actual result of richer billionaires and a comparatively worse-off everyone else. This something is the fact that ideas like trickle-down economics are devised in a theoretical, perfect and unconstrained world, while in order to exist here on earth they must be implemented through the very real, very constrained and very imperfect institutions that disseminate and organise ideas to society as a whole. In the case of trickle-down economics, the idea was sound, yet the implementing institution was the complex and far from perfect entity known as “the economy”. The idea didn’t really take into account that very very rich people will do absolutely anything to save even a little bit of money, such as moving operations and factories overseas to save on labour costs rather than staying put and investing locally, yet in the real world institutions of national and international economies, these things are everyday occurrences. The idea was divine, yet the institutional reality was all too imperfectly human.


Yet still, when you watch an American news show where trickle-down economics is being debated, you will have conservative commentators touting the ideals of the concept, using metaphors of money raining down on everyone, from rich to poor, and how this is the way to a stable recovery from global crisis. Opponents will attack the concept with evidence from the real world with figures of more people falling into poverty, yet the response will always plead to the side of theory. This phenomenon is not limited to just this issue, but found all across the spectrum of societal debate. In this world, we defend things we like with theoretical ideals, and we attack things we don’t like with criticism of the actions of their institutions. When a politician speaks about democracy, he or she will speak about the ideal of every citizen having a say in who runs the country and having a voice, and not about the institutional and administrative nightmares that conspire to prevent real democracy in nearly every democratic country in the world. Yet when a politician, particularly in the United States, talks about communism, the discussion is about famine, corruption, and poverty: all the institutional failings that occurred in communist countries during the last century. The discussion is completely earthbound, there is no reference to the abstract ideals of Marx and Engels, but limited to simply dirty, human failures. Democracy is defended with ideals, and communism is attacked for its institutions. In a similar way, in the West, capitalism is defended through its ideals of giving everyone a chance to succeed, rather than how the concept is applied through our institutions. Socialism in the US is attacked not through such philosophical debate, but through quoting the high tax rates and entrepreneurship statistics of selected socialist countries. It is clear that we prefer debating the ideals of things we like, and the institutional the reality of things we don’t.

The most glaring expression of this mistranslation of ideas through institutions is probably in religion. When debating religion, care is taken to avoid attacking the beliefs of others, and it is acceptable to attack the actions of the governing religious institutions, while at the same time defending our own beliefs with ideals and abstract concepts. I’m sure there is no global religion that doesn’t have something worthwhile to say about humanity, and whose teachings don’t inspire a person to lead a better life. Setting aside religious mythology and world creation stories, the core ideas of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Scientology all give profound guidelines on what it is to be a highly thoughtful, sentient being living in a highly imperfect world, and how to make the best of the experience. How each of these ideas are beamed into reality by the institutions that govern each of these religions is of course something entirely different. Scientologists have organised their religion as a profit-driven Ponzi scheme, Judaism at the highest level is nothing more than a geopolitical bargaining chip, and the interpretation of Islam by certain splinter groups is quite diverse and harmful to the entire world. The institutions of Christianity have not been great either, with the corruption of the papacy and local Churches wielding much political power worldwide throughout the ages, and also the child abuse and paedophilia scandals that have finally ruined the reputation of the Catholic Church in Ireland, the United States and elsewhere. All of these religions started as some sort of moral compass in a world full of morally ambiguous life paths, yet all of them have been translated through human institutions as something harmful, to members and non-members alike.

Ideas are born in heaven, while their implementation down here on earth through imperfect, corrupt institutions is depressingly human. No idea, no matter how simple or innocuous is immune from the harmful effects of institutional mistranslation. Even atheism, with its core belief being an absence of belief, is an ideal that suffers when applied to the real world. Atheism simply rejects the idea of religion, and puts faith in scientific and societal developments as means to lead a good life here on earth, rather than believing in something supernatural that rules us all. Atheism says nothing about becoming a condescending asshole and mocking other people as stupid and unenlightened simply for having beliefs based in other religions, yet this is how atheism has often manifested itself in its (admittedly highly disorganised) institutional form. There is a disconnect there between the ideas and the institutional manifestation of these ideas, just as occurs when any idea is applied to the real world.

All ideas work in theory, all ideas are good in theory, and all ideas can be argued incessantly through theory. The problem with any idea occurs when it has to leave theory behind and become a reality in our complex and imperfect world, and it becomes subject to the petty and morally ambiguous whims of complex political and social institutions. In the same way we rationalise our own personal actions by our intentions while judging the actions of others by their outcomes alone, we champion our favourite ideas through theory, and attack conflicting ideas through their institutional failings. All ideas are perfect, and all institutions are depressingly imperfect. All of us in our lives forgive our favourite ideas for their institutional failings, while simultaneously ignoring the ideals of conflicting ideas and instead focusing on their failures in reality. The compromise position is admitting that no idea, no matter how theoretically perfect, can possibly translate perfectly into our imperfect world, and that institutions simply do the best they can to translate an idea into reality.


2 thoughts on “Ideas & Institutions

  1. “Atheism says nothing about becoming a condescending asshole and mocking other people as stupid and unenlightened simply for having beliefs based in other religions, yet this is how atheism has often manifested itself in its (admittedly highly disorganised) institutional form.”

    Speaking as a secular humanist, that’s a great fucking line. And a brilliant post all round; new follower here.

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