The Reform Mindset
By Arnold Kling
Peter Orszag recommends a talk by David Brooks at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The web site for the conference says that full video will be available, but for now there are only short clips. Go here and look for the neuroscience and sociology session.
Brooks is very excited about neuroscience, behavioral economics, and so on. What is most striking to me is how titillated people get over possible policy uses for this research, in spite of what seems to me the limited, provisional character of the findings.
Again, my current Kindling is Daniel Walker Howe on America in 1815-1848, and there you can see the pattern established very early of what I call the Reform Mindset. This mindset has a religious fervor for social improvement through collective action. In those days, the religious component was explicit and the political component was weak. But part of that mindset was a desire to enlist science on behalf of social policy.
In The Wind in the Willows, there is a character named Toad who becomes transfixed when he discovers a new fad, particularly the automobile. Even though he is constantly wrecking them and causing great harm, he must have one.
Similarly, the Reform Mindset becomes transfixed by science that promises to allow government to plan the future and direct people for their own good. At the sort of conference where Orszag and Brooks were speaking, everyone–especially in the audience–is a Reformer. It is 180 degrees away from Masonomics.
So I can understand how neuro-this and behavioral-that is sweeping David Brooks and others off their feet. Something has to do for Reformers today what phrenology once did for them, or what eugenics once did for them, or what Freudianism once did for them. The difference is that nowadays the fuse between the scientific fad and the policy proposal has gotten much shorter.