Much has been said about the limitations of the neo-classical economists’ view of human behaviour. The idea that we are perfectly informed, utility maximising individuals has been under a sustained critique, especially since the credit crunch. As I often tell audiences we are more instinctive, more socially conditioned and more idiosyncratic than we have been led to believe.
But while the prevailing economic orthodoxy of the last thirty years has been vanquished (even if only for the time being) what about sociological orthodoxy? Here the assumption – as profoundly held as the views of the economists – is that the major characteristics of society, power, social values and culture reflect deep structural forces. Ideas in this view are an epiphenomenon, their power and survival resting on the degree to which they chime with social structure.
This is not to say that most of us act on this deterministic view of the world, just as few of us behaved as though we were merely members of the species of ‘homo economicus’. But social policy makers tended to be as wedded to social determinism as economists were to possessive individualism.
This idea occurred to me reading ‘A revolution of the mind’ by Professor Jonathan Israel, who is here next week to collect the Society’s Benjamin Franklin Award. Israel is probably the leading scholar of the 18th century enlightenment and the book I am reading is merely a summary of key points emerging from his encyclopaedic three volume history of the period.
One of the Professor’s strongest arguments is that ideas do matter to society:
‘Without the unprecedented surge in egalitarian literature during the 1770s and 1780s there would have been no grounding for a ‘General Revolution’ such as swept North America and Europe in the late eighteenth century…..while great revolutions are always fuelled by pre-existing social grievances, to create genuine revolution these grievances must be articulated in new, forthright, and much broader terms….’
Could it be that the prejudices of social and economic theorists are mirror images? While economists have systematically exaggerated the role of conscious choice in human behaviour and failed to see that we are deeply social animals, social theorists have exaggerated the degree to which institutions, values and culture reflect class or other deep structures and failed to understand that ideas are not only powerful but that their power is at least partially independent of context.
If this is at all correct could it in any way help to explain a cultural phenomenon I wrote about way back at the beginning of my time at the RSA; the mix of private hubris and social pessimism which is characteristic of modern public opinion: in other words, we tend to be inaccurately optimistic about our own prospects and capacity to shape our destiny and equally inaccurately pessimistic about the capacity of society to adapt and progress?