The Persistent Influence of Bad Ideas

By Davies, Stephen | Freeman, July/August 2005 | Go to article overview

The Persistent Influence of Bad Ideas


Davies, Stephen, Freeman


Sometimes books, and the ideas they contain, have a much longer-lasting impact than anyone would expect or realize. Long after the book itself has been forgotten and languishes unread in the reserve stacks of libraries or on the shelves of secondhand-book dealers, the ideas it puts forward continue to influence people and the way they see and understand the world and current events. In such cases the effect on people's thinking is all the more profound for the ideas are no longer associated with a particular author or viewpoint. Instead they have achieved the hallowed status of "common sense," or things that everybody knows to be the case-even when they are not. One of the historian's most important roles is to uncover such hidden influences and, very often, to show how they are mistaken. Bad ideas have a long life and often outlive their originators.

One classic example is a book first published in 1902. This was Imperialism: A Study, by J. A. Hobson. Although this book is often referred to by scholars, it is almost never read nowadays. But its main ideas continue to have a powerful effect on current debate. The author, John Atkinson Hobson, was one of the most important figures in the "New Liberalism," which between 1890 and 1914 brought about a transformation of the British Liberal Party, moving away from the limited-government, classical liberalism of Gladstone and Cobden to the social liberalism of Keynes and Beveridge. Hobson and the other New Liberals were closely associated with the Progressives in the United States, such as Herbert Croly, who over the same period brought about a transformation of the structure of American politics and a change in the Democratic Party similar to that of the British Liberal Party. Hobson wrote extensively on economic issues, but his unorthodox ideas prevented his obtaining an academic position. So he made a living through political journalism. What he and his intellectual allies did was to take classical-liberal ideas and arguments, and recast them in ways that often changed their content considerably while not totally abandoning them. Imperialism was an example of this.

The context for this work was the great revival of imperialism in the latter part of the nineteenth century. During the first two-thirds of the century imperialism had been out of fashion as a deliberate policy. The general view was that colonies were a waste of resources and that wars to acquire them were not only foolish but immoral. This view, shared even by people who later became identified with empire, such as Benjamin Disraeli, derived primarily from the arguments made by a series of classical-liberal thinkers, from Adam Smith onwards. Its definitive version was put forward by the British classical liberal Herbert Spencer. He argued that all human societies could be divided into two types, the military and the industrial. The military kind, historically predominant, was marked by social hierarchy and the rule of classes that derived their position from the use of force.

By contrast the industrial society, which had appeared in modern times, featured social relations based on free association and trade. Empire, meaning the rule of one people by another, was one of the central elements of the military type of social organization. For Spencer and other classical liberals, the growth of modern capitalism and the increasing interconnection of the peoples of the world by trade and the division of labor (globalization as we now say) necessarily implied the disappearance of empires. A revival of imperialism could only be retrograde. Moreover, it was economically foolish and counterproductive, as wealth was created by trade, not imperial rule and force-a point made by Smith.

Until about the 187Os these ideas were generally accepted, but the last three decades of the nineteenth century saw the rebirth of imperialism in both theory and practice. In 1884 the Berlin Conference divided Africa among the European powers. …

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