Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive to the Royal Society of Arts and a former adviser to Tony Blair, recently wrote an article in the magazine, Prospect, on the political potential of new developments in behaviourial economics, neuroscience and related disciplines. Such an enterprise is always difficult, in so far as new research is often part of an expanding research programme and questions are not fully answered. Therefore, one should be careful in the enthusiastic application of such results to the political arena.
Taylor’s article marries the politics and selected research results, with section headings such as the Social Democratic brain and the Conservative brain. Without citing too much detail, the aim of the article is to describe and promote this research as a source of justification for policy and power:
Much of this research makes good reading for social democrats. By highlighting our psychological frailties and the way these contribute to market epidemics, behavioural economics makes a powerful case for regulation, paternalism and measures to promote feelings of security. Nor is this the only encouragement for the traditional left.
Homo oeconomicus is circumscribed by the explorations of rationality undertaken by neuroscience and social Darwinism, but the disciplinary failure of the social sciences, the tabula rasa, is erased from the historical backdrop, as this draws attention to their total failure. A neoliberal dominance in our understanding of the human is conjured up to allow the entry of this new legitimation. The vision that Taylor pictures is of mankind as a social being, who requires constraints and direction through social institutions and norms. Such a general vision that marries up with your philosophy is the danger that the contemporary amateur interpretation of scientific results will conclude.
Given that there is no consensus on human nature, merely a greater understanding of our predispositions and controversy over how they relate to the social sphere, is it not arrogant to presume that existing political ideas have the key to unlock the controversial interplay of the social and the inherited. Such interventions in the past have proved disastrous, as the race science of the twentieth century demonstrates. Caution is a watchword here.
The byproduct of this article is the realisation that neither the Tories or Labour can articulate moral arguments and are reduced to tagging their miserable ideas on to the emergent exploration of human nature for the sheen of scientific authority. Economists and intellectuals working in these disciplines are seduced by the consultation of those in power and turn towards the exercise of application in a political sphere.
This article is a useful reminder of what both parties share. Supping from the same well via ‘libertarian paternalism’ or behaviourial economics, we begin to see the outlines of a commonality in approach, though there are differences in institutional and political implementation. Neither approach from Labour or the Tories is a friend to freedom.