Friday, July 24, 2009

Society - maybe there is such a thing after all

Margaret Thatcher's famous observation in 1987 "Society - there's no such thing" provided a foundation for the market economy to become the basis for decision making for over two decades. In this year's series of Reith lectures "A New Citizenship", Harvard Professor Michael Sandel argues that the scope of the market economy has extended to effectively create a "market society", removing moral, spiritual or political values, and claiming economics as the only criteria. Government has focused on a core role to correct market failures, not recognising that public policy deals with values that can't be captured in monetary terms.

He provides some wonderful examples of the impact of ascribing a price (economic value) to everything - fees for late collection of children from pre-school in Israel, the option of a tradable quota for refugees, the outsourcing of surrogate motherhood to India, financial incentives in Singapore for educated women to have children and sterilisation for women without a college degree, and the ethics of genetic engineering.

In the final lecture he argues the rationale for keeping markets in their place - rejecting the "spurious science and value neutrality" of economics and "market mimicking governance" that underpin technocratic decision making. Politics has sought to distance itself from core values since the 1950s when Harold MacMillan said "if people want a sense of purpose they should get it from their archbishop; they certainly should not get it from their politicians". We've come a long way in the last fifty years, and Sandell sees the election of Obama as a signal that the American public at least have the hunger for a public life of larger meaning. He finishes by arguing for the return to a politics of common good, rebuilding the infrastructure of civic life - public amenities that create shared citizenship.

I found my way to the lectures through an article by Madeleine Bunting noting that the certainties that have dominated the last quarter of a century – that the market knew best, achieved efficiency and produced wealth – are no longer supreme, and there is a need for a new narrative. She quotes documentary film-maker Adam Curtis :"What we have is a cacophony of individual narratives, everyone wants to be the author of their own lives, no one wants to be relegated to a part in a bigger story; everyone wants to give their opinion, no one wants to listen. It's enchanting, it's liberating, but ultimately it's disempowering because you need a collective, not individual, narrative to achieve change,"

Social Media, within the technology and the tools, contains two forces that drive us in different directions - the voice of the individual and community created content.

Clay Shirky says in UsNow: "We are living through what economists have called an positive supply side shock to the amount of freedom in the world. More people can say more thing to more people than ever in history". This tower of babel creates a plurality, a diversity that is rich and fertile - an alluvial plain of ideas - but with no coherent story.

We have examples of endeavours such as Wikipedia, that are only able to be created by a community, working together to create something they could not create individually. The Open Source Software community is another example. Such community efforts deliver efficiency, but the primary driver is an ethical one; as Glyn Moody comments when discussing the General Public License "It is not trying to be “efficient”, it is trying to be ethical; ideally you want both – and in many respects, the culture that the GNU GPL fosters is extremely efficient. But if efficiency and ethics clash, ethics win every time."

Since the 1970s, I have used an example of the trade-off between economic valuations and other collective values that I got from Stafford Beer's masterpiece Platform for Change:

"Mr and Mrs Stubbs wrote to the Times about the Norman Church of St. Michael at Stewkley. The church stands in the middle of a possible runway of a possible Third London Airport. The complaint was that the Roskill Commission, studying alternative sites for the airport, and applying cost-benefit analysis, had adopted a wrong criterion for valuing the church. It seems that an irreplaceable twelfth-century work of art was being valued at the sum for which the church is insured against fire.

This led to considerable discussion. Can we indeed place a monetary value on a priceless heritage,? If it really is priceless, presumably not. Then why not have the cake and eat it - by moving the church, some said. The proper cost would then be the price paid for the move. But the Norman church at Stewkley is not the same church if it is somewhere else replied others. The correspondence was effectively closed by Mr R J Osborn, He said the $100 spend on building the church in 1182, when discounted at ten per cent to 1982, represented roughly $ 1,300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. He did not add 'stuff that in your cost-benefit and compute it'"

If he was still alive, Stafford Beer would be delighted by this year's Reith lectures, and relieved that there may indeed be such a thing as society - emerging phoenix-like from the rubble of the financial crisis.

And just as I was about to publish this, I see that Tim O'Reilly is also musing on the values of our society - great post.


  1. good food for thought, Laurence, your reference to filmaker Adam Curtis' got me thinking about the influence of the arts in social change. If the new narrative is both individual AND collective perhaps governance could bridge the space between cultures? eg: music is the space between the notes.

  2. Well there is definitely a need for a bridge between individual narratives and a bigger common story - we have left behind religion and the -ism.

    So if each individual story is a note, and the piece of music is the narrative - where are the composers and conductors?