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The Narrative Roots of Public Policy

BUENOS AIRES – At the recent Summit of the Americas in Panama, Cuban President Raúl Castro chose to break with the agreed protocol. Instead of speaking for eight minutes, he took six times longer to present a political history of his country that was only loosely based on fact. Why?

As a card-carrying member of the economics profession, I have been trained to view the world from the perspective of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, according to whom the purpose of public policy is to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Policies that do not abide by some variant of this utilitarian principle (as proposed by, say, John Rawls or Amartya Sen) are bound to be inefficient or unfair.

But recent advances in psychology and neuroscience may suggest that if we want to understand social and political behavior, or improve policies, we should be reading Hegel more than Bentham. That may sound weird, given that Hegel was an Idealist and would never have expected neuroscience – a material reality independent of Geist (usually translated as Mind or Spirit) – to be relevant to his inquiry.

As Antonio Damasio argues in his aptly titled book Self Comes to Mind, the brain creates an autobiographical sense of self. It is this created self that perceives, remembers, and aspires, that has telos (or purpose), and on behalf of which decisions are made.

It is also the autobiographical self – through the narrative that it creates about itself – that makes life something more than what the American writer, artist, and philosopher Elbert Hubbard once called “one damn thing after another.” And our brains are wired to figure out what other selves are thinking and feeling.

I believe that this same structure applies to how we understand multi-person groups. It is no coincidence, for example, that the law treats corporations as persons. We think of the organization in which we work as if it was a person with rights, obligations, values, reputation, and temperament, on whose behalf managers regard themselves as acting.

The same applies to nations and states. Our brains need to create a shared sense of self, an “imagined community,” as the political scientist Benedict Anderson put it, on whose behalf collective decisions are made. This community is a “person” that has a past and a future that transcend us as individuals. It has a history and a telos.

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By contrast, a purely Benthamite view would lead to a view of politics as a set of disparate decisions based on a disembodied utilitarian calculus. But this would feel like “one damn thing after another.” The set of political decisions made over time must make some sense, and this sense must come from the narrative that is superimposed on historical events. The narrative itself is socially constructed and only marginally bound by fact.

For example, according to President Barack Obama’s narrative, the United States has always been about a steady march toward freedom and equality, from the War of Independence to the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of women, minorities, and other previously marginalized groups, such as gays and those with handicaps. To the extent that this narrative is inaccurate, it is aspirational.

It is the role of politics to create, sustain, and reshape this shared sense of self, of us (and hence of them). It is an illusion, but a socially created illusion. It is how Bavarians and Venetians in the 1860s, for example, became convinced that they were and had always been Germans or Italians. Likewise, only a new narrative – a new Geist – can persuade the British today that they are really Europeans.

Liberals, as the political scientist Drew Westen has explained, often refrain from the narrative of shared identity, perhaps owing to awareness that great crimes are often committed in its name. Hitler redefined the German Volk as the collective victim of an internal enemy that was tainting its blood – a type of narrative that, whether framed in terms of race, religion, or class, underlies genocide wherever it occurs.

But it was also a national “person” that Abraham Lincoln invoked in his Gettysburg Address. In just 272 words, Lincoln synthesized America as an ideal based on the proposition that all men are created equal. In this narrative, the Civil War was fought to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued in After Virtue, narratives frame individuals’ moral choices. Likewise, narratives frame the choices that governments make. After his brush with Communists in Spain, George Orwell captured the essence of the narrative’s importance in his novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past.”

For example, maintaining open labor markets in the European Union requires people to regard themselves and their new neighbors as European. Similarly, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro cannot stop inflation, because the narrative of economic warfare in which he is trapped prevents him from justifying the decisions needed to stabilize prices.

Marx’s comparative advantage was to read Hegel and create a narrative in which history is the history of class struggle, with the newly emergent industrial proletariat destined to develop “class consciousness” and overthrow the political and economic order created by the bourgeoisie. Liberal democracy has been at a disadvantage in the battle for the narrative because it tends to treat the collective self as if it were just a rational median voter in search of a better job.

But that is inadequate. Policies must fit within the prevailing narrative framework, while the great task of politics is to shape the narrative of tomorrow. No wonder, then, that while Obama used his eight minutes in Panama to delineate concrete policy initiatives that would bring happiness to the greatest number, Castro spent 48 minutes reinventing the past.

Ricardo Hausmann, Director of the Center for International Development and Professor of the Practice of Economic Development at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is a former Venezuelan minister of planning.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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