Regardless of the topic, or of one’s ideological starting point, most current discussions about policy follow essentially the same narrative. It is assumed that there is a social problem—potentially a result of mistakes made in the past—which needs to be addressed by a change in public policy. A solution is then proposed that is hoped to avert a looming crisis and instead produce socially desirable outcomes.
I have long felt uncomfortable with this meta-framework which is deployed too readily to practically any problem plaguing mankind, but it was not until I read Kenneth Minogue’s classic book, The Liberal Mind, that I was able to articulate coherently what exactly bugged me. Minogue, who sadly passed away at the end of June as he was returning from a Mont Pelerin Society Meeting in the Galapagos, was a slightly grumpy (though in an endearing way) British-Australian political philosopher with a stellar career in British academia.
But I digress. In Minogue’s account, the “liberal mind” has developed into an activist doctrine which aims for purposeful improvement of society and which now represents the common moral consensus, on both the Left and the Right, on how to frame questions of public policy. Disagreements remain about how such questions are to be answered, but the shared assumption is that there is a potentially large class of human problems that are seen as social—or pertaining to the society as a whole. And those problems ought to be addressed, in one way or another, by the government, acting as an agent of society.
Margaret Thatcher had a point when she said that there was “no such thing as a society.” In the end, only individuals—not abstract collective entities—have problems that need solving. True, some problems can affect many individuals and can be solved only through collective action. That can take place in various ways—arguably, in some instances, the government may be the best suited to address the specific issue in question. But in principle there is no need for the presumption that a given problem affecting few or many individuals is a social problem and needs to be addressed by the concerted action of society as a whole.
Because “society” is such a vague term, once we accept the idea that there are social problems, we will start seeing them everywhere. Environmental problems, youth crime, poverty, drug abuse, obesity, unemployment, systematic failures of human rationality are typically presented as social problems, requiring action by the society.
This interpretative framework has practical consequences. Firstly, for better or worse, its widespread adoption fosters the growth of government. Invariably, life brings new problems to deal with. If these are labeled as social and if society—acting through its elected government—is expected to address them, we can only expect the government to do more and more work. In itself, that may not be a bad thing. However, we also know that collective decision-making and the political process are prone to failure. We should therefore expect the liberal mind to lead a fair number of bad policies.
To the liberal mind, practically anything qualifies as a social problem—and therefore can be politicized. Purely private acts like smoking or dietary choices qualify as subjects for public deliberation and policymaking. In part, this is understandable if these have external effects. But it is worth thinking about the extent to which such external effects exist because of policy choices made in the past—which have turned universal access to healthcare, for instance, into a social issue. While I’m generally unsympathetic to slippery slope arguments, it is hard to avoid the impression that labeling any given problem as social creates intellectual ammunition for labeling a whole host of related issues as social as well—and therefore deserving of action at the level of society as a whole.
Most seriously, by trying to turn everyone into an engaged citizen (read: politician), the liberal mind ignores the fact that collective action problems become all the more severe when more individuals are involved in decision making. By framing problems as social, we’re effectively turning them into nobody’s problems. As a general rule, an individual can’t achieve anything through politics—individual votes are insignificant. That means—as Minogue argued in his last book, The Servile Mind—that individual action aimed at solving problems is replaced by empty posturing, making the right noises, and signaling that one cares about issues under consideration. Statements like “I care about animal rights” or “I don’t want Nike to exploit workers in poor countries” could serve as illustrations. Instead of fostering the ability of humans to solve problems, this mindset is turning us collectively into whiny teenagers waiting for someone else to fix things for us.
If we are as policy wonks trying to influence policy and steer it in a pro-market direction, our main focus will necessarily have to be on the relatively sterile question of what are the best means for attaining given social ends. Yet, in my case, I will always harbor a hidden dissident in me, wishing that some of the policy discussions in which one participates had never taken place to begin with.