Nelson Mandela, Leadership and Ideas

Nelson Mandela, who passed away on December 5, 2013, was not just a great politician and an inspirational leader, but also constitutes  a challenge to our models of political economy. 

Models of political economy attempt to systematically study the distribution of political power in society and the resulting equilibrium policies and institutions. This typically proceeds by means of a game theoretic model in which different groups (which are implicitly or explicitly assumed to have solved their internal collective action problems) compete, negotiate or fight in order to get their way. Or individuals, who are assumed to have well-defined beliefs about policy preferences, vote or by other means support different parties, policies or institutions. In some models, which individuals and groups enter into a coalition with others is studied, while other approaches focus on political and economic conflict under incomplete information. 

But two things are generally missing in these models: leadership and ideas.

Leaders play little role in these models, and there is only a limited role for ideas (except through some Bayesian modeling of beliefs and perhaps experimentation).

But it is hard to understand Nelson Mandela’s huge impact on South African politics — and beyond — without incorporating leadership and ideas into our political economy paradigm.

Mandela showed great leadership in steering the anti-apartheid struggle, in negotiating the transition from apartheid to democracy, and then later in bringing about some partial reconciliation between black and white South Africans. 

Mandela was also so transformative for South African politics because he changed people’s ideas about what should be done and what could be done. He did this first in his fight against the apartheid regime, and then with his efforts to define South Africa as the “Rainbow Nation”. His “idea creation” perhaps gained its apogee when, as South Africa’s first black president, he presented the 1995 Rugby World Cup trophy to the South African national team, the Springboks, long identified with the apartheid regime, wearing their jersey, opening a new chapter in reconciliation between whites and blacks.

So let’s think of incorporating leadership and ideas into political economy as Nelson Mandela’s challenge. 

Can political economy rise up to this challenge?

In the next few posts, we will argue that the answer is yes, but with some work. 

For now, it is useful to note that these issues are not entirely absent in the political economy literature.

Mancur Olson in his seminal Logic of Collective Action already put leadership at the center of political economy, particularly with his discussion of “political entrepreneurs” as agents solving collective action problems.

Dani Rodrik has recently emphasized the importance of ideas and made a call for their systematic incorporation into political economy. 

But the devil is in the details. What is it exactly that leaders do? And what are ideas and in what way are they endogenous and manipulable by individuals, groups and institutions? 

These are the questions we have to ponder in order to come to grips with Nelson Mandela’s challenge.

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