New research backs up a neglected political insight that collaboration can flourish without the state. And it underpins David Cameron’s project to build a “bigger” societyby David Willetts / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
The trajectory of modern society often seems to be heading towards greater social fragmentation. This trend of atomisation, captured by the Conservative cry of “broken Britain,” may seem unstoppable. But it is not inevitable, in large part because of our human instincts for co-operation. Belief in the durability of this instinct has been called social responsibility or communitarianism. I think of it as civic conservatism, an approach given powerful voice by David Cameron’s “big society” argument: that our need for freedom and opportunity must be reconciled with the equally important human need for belonging and commitment.
This idea has deep roots in traditional Conservatism, not least for its links to the historic institutions of church, profession and regiment. But as those links and institutions weakened after 1945, so my party lost a whole set of understandings about how institutions could be a force for good. Now we need to rediscover this, drawing on research in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics; tools that help us understand how humans interact and institutions are built, but also offer the possibility of helping social co-operation to flourish without resorting to Labour’s default positions of idealistic altruism or coercive state power.
Social co-operation is clearly a good thing and it is easy to call for more of it. But that does not get us far. The crucial thing for politics is to understand where co-operation comes from and how it works, without just appealing to our better natures. This remains a Conservative notion. A good place to start is Richard Dawkins and the selfish gene. The doctrine was formulated with precision by the great biologist JBS Haldane: “I will jump into the river to save two brothers or eight cousins.” Now it has been tested with an ingenious, if rather odd, experiment reported in the British Journal of Psychology in 2007. Participants knew that the longer they remained in an uncomfortable ski-training-type position the more money would be given to a beneficiary. The closer they were genetically to the beneficiary, the longer they held the pose.