The nar­ra­tive roots of public pol­icy

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

At the re­cent Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas in Panama, Cuban Pres­i­dent Raúl Cas­tro chose to break with the agreed pro­to­col. In­stead of speak­ing for eight min­utes, he took six times longer to present a po­lit­i­cal his­tory of his coun­try that was only loosely based on fact. Why?

As a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of the eco­nomics pro­fes­sion, I have been trained to view the world from the per­spec­tive of the English philoso­pher Jeremy Ben­tham, ac­cord­ing to whom the pur­pose of public pol­icy is to cre­ate the great­est hap­pi­ness for the great­est num­ber of peo­ple. Poli­cies that do not abide by some vari­ant of this util­i­tar­ian prin­ci­ple (as pro­posed by, say, John Rawls or Amartya Sen) are bound to be in­ef­fi­cient or un­fair.

But re­cent ad­vances in psy­chol­ogy and neu­ro­science may sug­gest that if we want to un­der­stand so­cial and po­lit­i­cal be­hav­iour, or im­prove poli­cies, we should be read­ing Hegel more than Ben­tham. That may sound weird, given that Hegel was an Ide­al­ist and would never have ex­pected neu­ro­science – a ma­te­rial re­al­ity in­de­pen­dent of Geist (usu­ally trans­lated as Mind or Spirit) – to be rel­e­vant to his in­quiry.

It is also the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal self – through the nar­ra­tive that it cre­ates about it­self – that makes life some­thing more than what the Amer­i­can writer, artist, and philoso­pher El­bert Hub­bard once called “one damn thing af­ter an­other.” And our brains are wired to fig­ure out what other selves are think­ing and feel­ing.

I be­lieve that this same



to how we un­der­stand multi-per­son groups. It is no co­in­ci­dence, for ex­am­ple, that the law treats cor­po­ra­tions as per­sons. We think of the or­gan­i­sa­tion in which we work as if it was a per­son with rights, obligations, val­ues, rep­u­ta­tion, and tem­per­a­ment, on whose be­half man­agers re­gard them­selves as act­ing.

The same ap­plies to na­tions and states. Our brains need to cre­ate a shared sense of self, an “imag­ined com­mu­nity,” as the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Bene­dict An­der­son put it, on whose be­half col­lec­tive de­ci­sions are made. This com­mu­nity is a “per­son” that has a past and a fu­ture that tran­scend us as in­di­vid­u­als. It has a his­tory and a te­los.

For ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s nar­ra­tive, the United States has al­ways been about a steady march to­ward free­dom and equal­ity, from the War of In­de­pen­dence to the abo­li­tion of slav­ery and the em­pow­er­ment of women, mi­nori­ties, and other pre­vi­ously marginalised groups, such as gays and those with hand­i­caps. To the ex­tent that this nar­ra­tive is in­ac­cu­rate, it is as­pi­ra­tional.

It is the role of pol­i­tics to cre­ate, sus­tain, and re­shape this shared sense of self, of us (and hence of them). It is an illusion, but a so­cially cre­ated illusion. It is how Bavar­i­ans and Vene­tians in the 1860s, for ex­am­ple, be­came con­vinced that they were and had al­ways been Ger­mans or Ital­ians. Like­wise, only a new nar­ra­tive – a new Geist – can per­suade the Bri­tish to­day that they are re­ally Euro­peans.

Lib­er­als, as the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Drew Westen has ex­plained, of­ten re­frain from the nar­ra­tive of shared iden­tity, per­haps ow­ing to aware­ness that great crimes are of­ten com­mit­ted in its name. Hitler re­de­fined the Ger­man Volk as the col­lec­tive vic­tim of an in­ter­nal en­emy that was taint­ing its blood – a type of nar­ra­tive that, whether framed in terms of race, reli­gion, or class, un­der­lies geno­cide wher­ever it oc­curs.

But it was also a na­tional “per­son” that Abra­ham Lin­coln in­voked in his Get­tys­burg Ad­dress. In just 272 words, Lin­coln syn­the­sised Amer­ica as an ideal based on the propo­si­tion that all men are cre­ated equal. In this nar­ra­tive, the Civil War was fought to en­sure “that gov­ern­ment of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple, for the peo­ple, shall not per­ish from the earth.”

As the philoso­pher Alasdair MacIn­tyre ar­gued in Af­ter Virtue, nar­ra­tives frame in­di­vid­u­als’ moral choices. Like­wise, nar­ra­tives frame the choices that gov­ern­ments make. Af­ter his brush with Com­mu­nists in Spain, Ge­orge Or­well cap­tured the essence of the nar­ra­tive’s im­por­tance in his novel 1984: “Who con­trols the past con­trols the fu­ture; who con­trols the present, con­trols the past.”

Marx’s com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage was to read Hegel and cre­ate a nar­ra­tive in which his­tory is the his­tory of class strug­gle, with the newly emer­gent industrial pro­le­tariat des­tined to de­velop “class con­scious­ness” and over­throw the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic or­der cre­ated by the bour­geoisie. Lib­eral democ­racy has been at a dis­ad­van­tage in the battle for the nar­ra­tive be­cause it tends to treat the col­lec­tive self as if it were just a ra­tio­nal me­dian voter in search of a bet­ter job.

But that is in­ad­e­quate. Poli­cies must fit within the pre­vail­ing nar­ra­tive frame­work, while the great task of pol­i­tics is to shape the nar­ra­tive of to­mor­row. No won­der, then, that while Obama used his eight min­utes in Panama to de­lin­eate con­crete pol­icy ini­tia­tives that would bring hap­pi­ness to the great­est num­ber, Cas­tro spent 48 min­utes rein­vent­ing the past.

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