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I gave a talk at the BIOS institute last Thursday. It was a good audience that asked some good questions and my talk was hastily cobbled together.

I gave a talk at the BIOS institute last Thursday. It was a good audience that asked some good questions and my talk was hastily cobbled together.

I tried to argue, perhaps unconvincingly, that understanding our social brains means taking a renewed interest in the social institutions (families, schools, associative groups) that guide and support us to gain the skills to be autonomous and responsible (the skills to run our own lives and to take on both personal and social responsibilities). Self-control for example is learnt over time and through repeated practice. And because we know of the importance of processes of socialisation in developing and sustaining a skill like self-control (think of Avner Offer's concepts of 'commitment strategies' and 'commitment devices' - socially embedded methods and means of learning and continuing to stick to one's long-term aims), the challenge for social policy is to invigorate, expand and create social institutions that carry out these processes.

The general ideal of 'subjectivity' I tried to put forward at the talk was that to be autonomous and responsible is to be higher up a scale of liberty. There is no absolute freedom from error or weakness - we are all on a sliding scale and people either have better or worse abilities to make choices that reflect their values and preferences, and which are responsible. Getting higher up the scale is causally connected to the skills one learns, and this is causally connected to the processes of socialisation one goes through. One might not need to know anything about the neuroscience of social brains to think this. But I think the neuroscience is still important because it corroborates and makes more convincing the view of subjectivity at issue.

The most interesting point to come out of this idea of a scale of liberty is a challenge to some common assumptions we might hold, both of them broadly libertarian.

The first assumption is that the characteristics of  autonomy and responsibility are produced by willpower triumphing over circumstance in a vacuum. They are not. They are produced by willpower in concert with training, support and repeated practice.

The second assumption follows from the first. If autonomy and responsibility are intrinsic qualities of the will, then we work with them by offering choice, information, incentives and sanctions. But if they are repertoires of skills, then this neo-liberal approach is misguided. Skills might need to be built up first, until people people are further up the liberty scale. Then they can genuinely choose by committing to different options that reflect their values and preferences. Before such skills are learned, there may be no possibility of choice. Does a child who is hostage to powerful emotional surges have the choice to concentrate in class? Does the person who is surrounded by fear and aggression have the choice to be happy-go-lucky? There are always occasional exceptions, but by and large what people in such situations need is to learn the skills to choose well, to get further up the scale of liberty (which isn't to say external conditions of deprivation aren't important, it's to say they aren't the only things that are important).

This leads me to an interesting position I don't quite know how to talk about without feeling a bit queasy. Call it 'paternalistic libertarianism' (as opposed to libertarian paternalism). It is the idea that the liberty to choose well depends in large part on a prior dose of paternalism. That the most radical thing we as a society could do to counter inequality would be to forget about the dogma of 'personal choice',  and intervene quite strongly in people's lives, so as to build up the capabilities that allow them to be more autonomous and responsible. Conversely, where people can do this for themselves, we as a society leave them alone. But we don't just leave them alone. We expect them to contribute to helping others get further up the liberty scale.

Some examples of this approach being successful: the HCZ in Harlem has done utterly remarkable things by intervening quite paternalistically in people's lives in order to build up capabilities (teaching parents how to parent, strict discipline in schools); Liam Byrne talked at the RSA about helping boys at a local school  to do better academically with remarkable success, by teaching skills to parents; the Mossbourne Academy in Hackney gets amazingly good results in a deprived area with strict discipline.

None of these are simple returns to 1950s style 'discipline for discipline's sake' approaches. They are all to a large extent 'bottom-up' - the communities they are located within support the policies in question, and perhaps this is the all important 21st century ingredient in 'paternalistic libertarianism'.

This all raises uncomfortable questions for social liberals. The success alone of these institutions in closing the gap between rich and poor in terms of educational achievements should prick anyone's ears. But perhaps social liberals (am I one? I think so), should confront their deep-seated love of personal-choice-at-all-costs. I never got taught grammar at school because someone decided for me that it wasn't 'nice' (or something) for kids at comprehensives to have to bother. Thanks. As someone who grew up to love language I could have done with that capability, the freedom to choose to speak grammatically if I so wished, rather than the lack of choice I actually ended up with.


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