Is change we can’t theorise, change we can believe in? Part One

There’s a world of difference between (let’s call it) youthful social change seeking in the sixties and immediate post-sixties social and political movements and much social change seeking today. Then the focus was largely on political activism. And ‘theory’ played a central role in this. So Feminism grew from the mid 1960s in the wake of earlier pioneering polemics by women like Simone de Bouviour and Betty Friedan who theorised the stultification if not oppression involved in their culture’s investment in traditional sex role stereotypes. Feminism proceeded to rapidly branch out into radical feminism (of various hues) and liberal feminism and political consciousness raising proceeded apace. There was vigorous debate within the civil rights movement as to the degrees of civil disobedience that should be pursued including the question of whether to confine the movement to non-violent approaches. Something similar occurred in gay rights campaigning.

Meanwhile back in the mainstream left, parties wrestled with the old chestnuts of how ‘socialist’ they were, their response to various ‘new left’ positions. And in the 1960s the neoliberal project was quietly incubating mostly amongst small ‘L’ liberals. Cooked up by the likes of Milton Friedman and George Stigler in Chicago but broadening to those of more left leaning sympathies in economics. In most if not all of the Anglosphere countries in which it had its earliest impact, its first green shoots of policy influence occurred via left of centre parties in power – the retreat from (vulgar) Keynesian pump priming by the Callaghan Government in the UK, the Carter Administration’s promotion of some deregulation (for instance of civil aviation) and the Whitlam Government’s slashing of government assistance to farmers and manufacturers.

‘Theory’ and political consciousness raising was at the heart of most of this – as one might expect with political projects which are, to a substantial extent about what is tolerated or mandated within public policy and the wider culture. In the midst of the world these movements built, what I’m calling today’s ‘youthful change seeking’ is different. The ultimate concerns are quite similar. The world is not fair. There’s a lot of inequality and ingrained disadvantage. Surely things can be made better than this? But there’s much less focus on the public sphere as some singular entity to be tackled wholesale – commanded (in the case of policy) or influenced (in the case of culture). Most change seekers share a left-of-centre world view – though it may not translate particularly well into voting intentions. If I were Bill Shorten I wouldn’t be too confident of beating Malcolm Turnbull amongst this crowd. But consciousness raising, getting out the vote, handing out how to vote cards, even working out who you should vote for isn’t at the heart of things for this new group of activists.

In its place are a suite of new enthusiasms. Social entrepreneurialism, ethical investment and practice, transparency (of governments and corporations), hacktivism and open data. In a sense the eclipse of these self-consciously public things, their replacement with entrepreneurialism amongst activists represents the triumph of liberal as opposed to more radical interpretations of these movements. Old timers whether they were gay activists like Dennis Altman or in the closet like Michael Kirby came (diffidently) to support gay marriage quite late in the piece. After all, their lives, if not their politics had been built around alternatives to naturalising gay relationships amongst such straitjacketed heteronormativity.

One might say that the youthful enthusiasms I’ve itemised above are those left after you take away the possibility of public action, with its need for spokespeople, talking heads and the military grade PR spin that goes with them in today’s public culture of politics as infotainment. (No wonder people don’t have much stomach for it.)

Still, I’m on board with my fair share of the new enthusiasms. After all I come from a generation in which any inclination to social change set you amongst blowhard uni-student poseurs who would save the world with their particular ideology – provided it was the correct sort – ie from the Judean People’s Front rather than the People’s Front of Judea, providing it enabled them to grandstand, get the best lays. Most of them retired from activism into stockbroking and struck what remaining blows they were to strike against entrenched power structures by not buying toy guns for their sons, or pink things for their daughters and getting them all to call their parents by their first name.

A related benefit is that the prizes in this new system tend to go not to those with the loudest, angriest voices, or even the most articulate, but to those who have done the coolest things. Instead of asking kids what their take on Marx is (and if they’re a Marxist are they a Stalinist, a Leninist, a Trot or a Maoist) and how many times they’ve been arrested, the test is this: if you believe in these causes, what cool stuff are you doing to contribute to them? What apps have you built? What bit of social action have you got going?

And with a lot of low hanging fruit being picked – and still to be picked – from this new approach I’m in no hurry to critique a lot of this work. The work where I think the new zeitgeist is particularly in its element is in reconfiguring professional and other expertise as midwife rather than obstetrician. I think the human centred design we practice at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) is a big deal precisely because it shows the simplicity and profundity of the déformation professionnelle rampaging through our guild ridden society and its upshot – the helpless bewilderment of those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of professional services. And it provides some clues as to how to at least begin  addressing these problems. (Despite having written “An economists’ appreciation of design” I’m not holding my breath for this to become of interest to economists. I’ve learned my lesson from economics’ Olympian disregard for other economic breakthroughs like the way the Toyota production system decentralised decision making within a bureaucracy.)

Still, there are other areas in which such an approach might not do much good, or possibly even some harm. One area in which the good it might do could be severely offset by unintended consequences is in job search. Governments spend billions helping people find jobs. I have little doubt that some of TACSI’s human design centred approaches could be of help here. But for each person for whom we find a job, won’t they just beat someone else to the same job? It’s quite likely that there are some net gains in lowering frictions, but to a substantial extent, most of the good done with each industrial success will be undone by someone else missing out. This is something one needs some theory to see. One might still support such action, but it will be a chastened kind of support. (Note that it’s hard to see any such unintended negative consequences in our family support work – indeed, there are many unintended positive consequences.)

There are plenty of similar examples in which individual social action is vitiated by unintended consequences. Lots of social enterprises seek to assist environmental outcomes. Yet there are powerful critiques of such actions. The first is the classic economic critique of the ‘directness’ of your action enunciated by Adam Smith.

One of the tropes of contemporary social activism is the appeal to users. Often in appealing to consumers and the public, the activist/social entrepreneur will make it all about the user. Thus rather than campaigning for a carbon price, the social activist appeals to users’ sense of responsibility. Thus they’ll talk about more responsible ways to live – and before you know it you’re driving a Prius. What’s there not to like? Well quite a lot actually. Priuses cost many thousands of dollars more than other smallish cars and you could almost certainly do more good to the environment by spending the same resources on planting trees. This degree of indirectness may not be so great, but often it really is. Of the premium paid for ‘fair trade’ coffee only a small fraction of it gets through to farmers – most of it going to the variously self-interested, and/or well-intentioned supply chain.

Indeed you may end up achieving precisely nothing. If you’re in a world in which nations are haggling over national targets, and your country has a target, then the emissions you save will be emissions that someone else can emit! Your sacrifice has achieved precisely nothing for the global environment, though it has redistributed income from those well intentioned enough to seek reduced emissions to those increasing them. (It’s lowered their cost of permits.) Likewise as Paul Collier argues, fair trade involves giving farmers “charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty”. Sometimes this will be worse than useless.

This bleeds into Hayek’s critique through information. We often won’t know what we’re doing. Take kerbside recycling. It’s vulnerable to the critique through indirectness as above. Recycling plastic bottles may do some environmental good, but, with additional trucks running round our streets, loss of scale economies in waste collection and all sorts of manual handling involved, much less than spending the public subsidies to kerbside recycling on something that will clearly help the environment – like tree planting. But more than that, consider paper and cardboard recycling. There may be an economic case for such activity – it saves money and resources. But if so it might well be left to the producers and users of cardboard and paper. From an environmental perspective, aren’t we supposed to be interested in carbon capture? And isn’t used paper a good source of carbon capture? Shouldn’t we be burying it and growing more trees to produce virgin paper? On one reckoning (see page 103), while the gross emissions from paper made from plantation timber are higher than recycled paper, 80 percent of those emissions are absorbed in the growth of the trees that go into the paper. That leaves recycled paper production 85 percent more emissions intensive than virgin paper production. But that’s invisible to those who preach homespun waste hierarchies valorising reuse over recycling and recycling over normal waste to landfill treatment.

The ‘right’ action suggested by this critique is direct pricing action. If we want to make progress in the most efficient way, on the widest possible front on something like greenhouse gas emissions we should price those emissions. That way, we avoid not just the moralism of insisting that people make greenhouse their business (they might want to focus on something else – like saving starving children, or watching the TV), but also the inefficiency of it. There may well be other things we can and should do. They might even work better in the short or even long run. But inviting people to take personal responsibility for these issues (rather than play what individual role they can in getting people to take collective responsibility for what is a collective problem) won’t cut it, however much we might be able to get a natty sound byte or TED talk out of it. By contrast, there are many public goods – like social capital – that we can’t build simply by getting the prices right. That’s where things like human centred design offer an exciting new departure.

In the next exciting instalment we’ll take a look at the new change seeking in open data and democracy.

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8 years ago

Thanks Nick, I think that’s a very sensible exposition of some very sensible, and important, ideas! My reflex on seeing a Prius is to think that the driver is an idiot capable of spending quite a bit of money with no idea of what he is buying, and I have never understood how recycling stacked up – to add fuel to the fire, I’ve always been under the impression that the downsides of landfill have been massively overstated.

For example, this study, itself surely a great case study in exactly what you describe:

(this response to that report is perhaps an even better case study:

I do, though, have a slightly off-topic question. What exactly does “vulgar” mean in this context:

the retreat from (vulgar) Keynesian pump priming by the Callaghan Government in the UK,



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