The Review of Austrian Economics

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 17–39 | Cite as

The role of ideas in political economy

  • Vlad TarkoEmail author


The Austrian School of economics has gradually developed a coherent and unitary theory of social-political change melding together four elements: (1) praxeology as a universal and culture-invariant account of how a given structure of incentives generates outcomes, (2) ideas as a distinct realm from incentives and subjected to cultural evolution, (3) social and political entrepreneurs as self-interested drivers of institutional change constrained by knowledge problems, and (4) institutions understood as a complex mesh of formal rules and private governance mechanisms. The paper discusses the key elements of this theory and highlights the connections to public choice (especially the Virginia School) and new institutional economics (especially the Bloomington School). Two practical applications are explored: understanding the relative importance of intellectuals, public opinion, and rent-seeking in determining policies in advanced democracies; and the role of social entrepreneurship in development economics.


Cultural evolution Group selection Informal institutions Robust political economy Evolutionary contractarianism Development economics Social entrepreneurship Political entrepreneurship 

JEL codes

D70 D72 P16 



I thank Paul Dragos Aligica, Peter Boettke, David Levy, Jeremy Shearmur and Virgil Storr for useful discussions about social functionalism, “institutional stickiness”, “comparative cultural advantage”, the meaning of polycentricity, and problems with Hayekian cultural evolution, and to Anthony Evans, Benjamin Powell, Edward Stringham, Richard Wagner, and an anonymous reviewer for feed-back on previous versions of the paper. I am also grateful for the financial support provided by the Mercatus Center.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Economics Department, Mercatus CenterGeorge Mason UniversityFairfaxUSA

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