Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Looking ahead

Matthew Taylor is another one who thinks that the current crisis represents a political turning point (in terms of political ideas rather than party politics). As I have said before, I remain to be convinced, though I do think the opportunity is there. He's certainly developing some decent arguments in favour, in part drawing on the behavioural stuff that I often bang on about. He'e currently writing a series of posts about 'new progressivism' which are worth following. Here's a chunk from yesterday's post about individualism.
[I]n recent years, as the critique of political and analytical individualism has grown, three important new arguments have been added to the progressive case. First, measures of self defined well-being at the aggregate level contradict the assumption that greater freedom leads to greater personal satisfaction. As Avner Offer shows in ‘The Challenge of Affluence’, and as research by Andrew Oswald and by Andrew Oswald and by Richard Layard has reinforced, greater personal freedom and affluence do not seem to be leading to more enjoyable lives. Also, greater personal freedom seems to be associated, if anything, with a higher incidence of pathologies ranging from obesity to violent crime.

Second, social science (in particular social psychology and behavioural economics) has convincingly demonstrated the systematically non-utility maximising nature of human preferences and actions. For example, human beings are bad at both calculating and acting upon what is – according to their own stated views - in their best long term interests. Quite apart from its impact on individuals this can have problematic social consequences, seen, for example in the inadequate pension savings rate in societies like the US and UK which most emphasising economic freedom.

Third, neuroscience has finally exploded the myth that human behaviour can be fully, or even adequately, seen as being primarily the result of conscious calculation. Most of what we do (arguably, all that we do, but this is a bigger philosophical question) is the result of unconscious responses to external stimuli. The mind does not police the boundary between the individual and the world outside, instead the individual is a nodal point in a web of unconscious stimulus and response. Indeed, from the perspective of neuroscience it is easier to argue there is no such thing as the individual (understood as the conscious, independent decision maker) than there is no such thing as society.

1 comment:

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