Arnold Kling  

The Reform Mindset

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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.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Caliban Darklock writes:

That was surreal. I sat here scratching my head for a moment before I finally realised you weren't talking about Reform Judaism. Sometimes I end up with blinders on, and don't even notice. ;)

Somehow everything I manage to learn about how nature works, and how the brain and mind work, the less convinced I am that government policy will ever work, since it simply cannot take into consideration all the information necessary to make a right decision. And the more game theory uncovers about what is important to us in our decision-making, the more convinced I am that government simply cannot make good decisions about anything regarding the economy, society, or culture.

Blakeney writes:

I'll second Troy's remark. The standard argument seems to go something like "Human brains are systematically biased. Therefore, our important decisions would be better made by beings without brains, like sea squirts, or congressmen." Thank you Nonsequiturman, you've saved us!

Also, my circle of friends has long used the phrase "Mister Toad's Wild Ride" to refer to anything that seems like it will be great fun at the start, but that all your friends can see is going to be a complete disaster. The usage was coined in reference to one of my ex-girlfriends.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Before you get too far out there denouncing neuroecon and behavioral econ as antithetical to Masonomics, do keep in mind that even though Vernon Smith has now decamped (mostly) to Chapman, a number of his former colleagues are still in the GMU economics department, and one of his colleagues, Kevin McCabe, also at the Krasnow Institute, is one of the leading neuroeconomists.

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