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
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.
We could just leave it there, with the argument that we are hard-wired to look after our own. Yet this would risk repeating the mistake of 19th-century social Darwinists, who believed life was just a brutal struggle for survival, and so excused the colonial powers massacring natives in the Congo. It is not just evolutionary biology, though, that has nasty hints of devil-take-the-hindmost: such caricatures afflict game theory too. The most famous example of game theory, “prisoners’ dilemma,” suggests that co-operation for mutual benefit is impossible. The choice between betraying your fellow prisoner or not has become a larger metaphor for our ability (or inability) to co-operate, share burdens and generally be good citizens. However, the prisoners’ dilemma does not tell us anything profound about human nature—except that co-operation can be hard. In other circumstances game theory shows how co-operation can be sustained, even in the most dreadful circumstances. In particular, if the dilemma is not a one-off, but repeated, then the rational strategy becomes not to betray unless you are betrayed—or tit-for-tat.
We can imagine few places more hellish than the trenches of the first world war. But even there co-operative strategies emerged between soldiers. Snipers would shoot to miss, because otherwise neither side would be able to get out of their trench. They would not fire at certain areas, marked out by flags. Bombardments would not happen at certain prearranged times. Such behaviour is an example of reciprocal altruism: each act may seem altruistic, but it was part of a system of repeated interaction in which reciprocity was in everyone’s rational self-interest. It shows how co-operation can emerge even without explicit agreements, and without enforcement from the state, because frequent interaction permits us to adopt strategies that reward co-operation.
This is also how institutions work. They are places where people interact frequently enough for co-operation to emerge as a rational strategy. Take another set of institutions well-designed to promote trust: trade in the Mediterranean during the middle ages. To an outsider it must have looked trusting to the point of naivety: merchants sent goods without knowing all those involved, with no enforceable law of contract, and without being paid in advance. But thanks to an extraordinary cache of 11th-century documents found in an ancient synagogue in Cairo, we know that it worked. The traders had a reciprocal network through which any agent who defrauded one trader lost business with all of them. Ingenuity in designing institutions, therefore, can create trust. And with such systems we need not rely on personal moral improvement, desirable though that is. Instead we should give clever institutions space to emerge and create their own networks of reciprocity. The problem is that governments, like the first world war generals who prevented troop fraternisation, all too often disrupt the inner life of an institution and stop co-operation.
That said, helping each other out isn’t enough to sustain reciprocity. Direct exchanges that build trust are the equivalent of a barter economy. We need a currency, and that currency is reputation. Our reputation allows us to enjoy indirect reciprocity. And if we punish someone by refusing to help them because they refused to help another person, we can help to build a virtuous circle. Small, face-to-face institutions are particularly effective for generating these sorts of behaviour. Studies suggest that small dorms in US universities are more co-operative than large ones, while my research shows discipline and behaviour are worse in larger English schools. This is part of the reason why a future Conservative government is keen to reverse the assumption across much of the public sector that bigger schools or hospitals must be better.
Reputations can be good, but they can also be bad, hence we put a lot of effort into identifying defectors and punishing them. If you doubt this why not pause to enjoy Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. The malefactors here are a philanderer, Mr Wickham, and the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia. They set up house together, “living in sin.” The family is of course shocked and faces the dilemma of ostracising them or being ostracised. Mr Collins, the vicar, is the least sympathetic character with his unseemly enthusiasm to punish the transgressors. Mr Darcy, on the other hand, shows no such enthusiasm. His response is to rescue the situation by ensuring that the couple marry. He acts out of a sense of duty, which derives from the value he attaches to his standing in society. The reader is left in no doubt who has the more important role in enforcing society’s rules: Darcy, because he complies with them even when he does not like them. In the end we all enforce the social contract, and so Darcy stands for all of us: the majority who know we should not always rely only on police officers, government inspectors or prissy puritans to sustain the conventions that matter. We enforce our contemporary morality—be it about racism or drink driving—in much the same way. Take the ban on smoking in public places. Twenty years ago it would have been unenforceable. But now it works because people genuinely disapprove and make that disapproval known. In the end the law followed our social attitudes, not vice versa.
What of competition? It is thought that in humanity’s early days, nearly two thirds of hunter-gatherer groups waged war at least every two years. Archaeological data suggests that 15 per cent of people in primitive societies died violently. Darwin describes what he thought would be the effect of such competition: “If… one tribe included a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other.” So competition drives co-operation within the group.
Politics, therefore, is not about pouring social cement over atomised citizens to stick them together so they co-operate. Instead, as economist and game theory expert Ken Binmore argues, co-operative behaviour is akin to drystone walling—where individual elements are held together by an overall structure. Similarly, David Hume imagined humans as stones held together in an arch. If social institutions are well designed, pro-social behaviour will emerge. Passing a law to change behaviour, on the other hand, rarely works.
One challenge is getting the design of the incentives right—otherwise we are trapped. Labour’s targets for speeding up admission times to hospital A&E departments have sometimes led to patients being stuck in ambulances parked outside the hospital boundary, waiting to enter until they could be confident of meeting the official target. This is a perfect example of Goodhart’s law: that as soon as an indicator becomes a target it ceases to be a reliable indicator.
But there is a deeper problem. Ensuring that laws and targets are enforceable depends on consent. This is where Margaret Thatcher was far more subtle than she is given credit for. Edward Heath’s government fined councillors from the town Clay Cross in Derbyshire for refusing to apply the Housing Finance Act and used state power unsuccessfully to enforce the Industrial Relations Act. Thatcher learned from his failure, and thought up smarter enforcement mechanisms which went with the grain of public opinion, enforcing her industrial relations changes by seizing union assets, not sending trade unionists to prison. Yet even with smart enforcement, we also need to help new reciprocal relationships emerge. Here government could learn a trick or two from business. In the wake of the credit crunch, some City institutions are now forcing their trainees to puzzle through ethical problems—you find information about a confidential deal left on a chair, what do you do?—in training sessions. As they work through the consequences from different perspectives, so their behaviour changes, and more so than if they were simply told that dubious behaviour was against the rules.
Taking the argument further, will such new reciprocal loyalties stop us respecting the abstract rules of a modern market economy and the rule of law itself? This dilemma looms large in theory, but thankfully not in practice, mostly because of the role played by families. The family is the first place where we experience strong reciprocal exchanges, particularly between the generations. In a world in which communities and other social structures are weaker, the family becomes disproportionately important.
The good news is that early experience of strong reciprocity in nuclear families seems to reinforce a belief in universal values and laws. The evidence suggests that strong families (those in which children are particularly close to their parents) are also unusually effective at generating a willingness to reach out beyond their own social group. Researchers studying those who sheltered Jews in Nazi Germany found that the Germans who did came from strong families. This is further evidence that close contact with your parents is a good thing—and one of the reasons why the state should make it easier for both parents to stay in touch with their child if their relationship breaks down. And fathers are far more likely to stay in contact if they were previously married to the mother of their child, rather than simply cohabiting. Here, the left still fails to recognise the lasting impact on behaviour of this extraordinarily important institution.
Families also matter because they embody exchanges across the generations—to my mind the most important form of reciprocity, and the main subject of my book, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future—and Why They Should Give it Back. One of the great weaknesses of the “social contract” thinking so common on the left is that it treats such contracts as if they were held between a group of middle-aged men, a bit like those illustrations of the American founding fathers or members of a Victorian club. The challenge is to extend this imagined agreement across generations.
The philosopher John Rawls imagined people coming together to write a social contract behind a “veil of ignorance,” an idea that requires those signatories to shed the beliefs that tie them to a particular culture, or places. But why should we care about the future in these circumstances? In order to get around the problem he requires the contracting parties be “heads of families,” a philosophical device designed to ensure they will think of the consequences of their actions for “at least two generations.” Why? To ensure that his contracting parties save, invest in the future and value prudence, rather than just throw a big party. It is a striking experiment: these people, behind the veil of ignorance, are not allowed a language or a religion or a nationality. But they are part of families and have children. Even though Rawls is willing to shed every other feature of our lives as a social animal, he cannot abandon the family.
That this happens in theory reflects what happens in practice, where evidence suggests that what you give to the next generation depends on what you received from the previous ones. Imagine that you are a harassed middle-aged person with an elderly parent as well as young children. If you think of these as conflicting claims, then you would expect that the more time you have to spend on your parents or parents-in-law then the less you have for your children. But research shows the opposite: the more you do for your parents then the more you do for your children as well. In turn this suggests that strengthening these inter-generational contacts can be a powerful way of rebuilding social capital too—and this process need not just be within the family. Take for instance the rules for allocating social housing, which at the moment lead to large concentrations of children living close to relatively few adults. A better system would see housing rules changed so young people live in places where they often interact with adults in the community. Our education system also has too much age segregation, with little interaction between young children and older ones. One of the reasons that I am keen to see a fairer deal for part-time students is that they often bring a welcome age mix to college and universities.
What I am proposing here is a way of “nudging” our behaviour, resting on the reality that our decisions about how to treat future generations are shaped by how we believe past ones treated us. Simulated games confirm this: we are more willing to make sacrifices if we are told that previous generations sacrificed for us. The most powerful way of getting people to recognise that we have to cut Britain’s budget deficit is to articulate the burden it places on our children. The Conservative commitment to speed up the raising of the pension age yields big public expenditure savings by getting a fairer balance between generations: otherwise one generation would enjoy all the gains from improving life expectancy by receiving benefits for a disproportionately long time. These costs would be paid for by the contributions of the generation coming after.
The trouble is that one big powerful generation, the baby boomers, are failing to live up to this contract between the generations. They are dumping too many problems, from the burden of government debt to the costs of climate change, onto those generations to come—and they have taken out more from the welfare state than they have put in. It is not because the boomers are bad but because their sheer number, and their current social power, make it easy for them to ignore the claims of other generations. Indeed, this represents much of what is broken about modern Britain. If we don’t fix it the boomers will face the consequences of neglecting their children in the future: as the bumper sticker says, “Be nice to your kids; they choose your nursing home.”
Many Conservatives are wary of the idea of a social contract. But as soon as we think of it as a contract between the generations it becomes far more coherent and powerful. When the power of government is abused to favour one single generation, as is in danger of happening today, the contract is broken. But, at its best, government can be a custodian of this contract. Education reform, tackling the budget deficit and meeting the challenge of climate change—all are examples of the inescapable obligations we have to future generations. We discharge these obligations through strong families, good government, and of course through civil society.
This is why David Cameron focuses on social responsibility—it is at its most natural and fundamental when it is between the generations. The biggest societies are those that look to their futures first.