CAMBRIDGE – The most widely held theory of politics is also the simplest: the powerful get what they want. Financial regulation is driven by the interests of banks, health policy by the interests of insurance companies, and tax policy by the interests of the rich. Those who can influence government the most – through their control of resources, information, access, or sheer threat of violence – eventually get their way.
It’s the same globally. Foreign policy is determined, it is said, first and foremost by national interests – not affinities with other nations or concern for the global community. International agreements are impossible unless they are aligned with the interests of the United States and, increasingly, other rising major powers. In authoritarian regimes, policies are the direct expression of the interests of the ruler and his cronies.
It is a compelling narrative, one with which we can readily explain how politics so often generates perverse outcomes. Whether in democracies, dictatorships, or in the international arena, those outcomes reflect the ability of narrow, special interests to achieve results that harm the majority.
Yet this explanation is far from complete, and often misleading. Interests are not fixed or predetermined. They are themselves shaped by ideas – beliefs about who we are, what we are trying to achieve, and how the world works. Our perceptions of self-interest are always filtered through the lens of ideas.