Time may change me but I can’t change time

Roger Scruton writes, in How to be a Conservative:

Whatever our religion and our private convictions, we are the collective inheritors of things both excellent and rare, and political life, for us, ought to have one overriding goal, which is to hold fast to those things, in order to pass them on to our children

A fair and elegant summation of a true conservative view. And one that increasingly I hold dear. In the task of governing, which Oakeshott compared to steering a ship across a shoreless ocean, this guide is more reliable than any substantial aim, any goal of an enterprise, and any hollow rhetoric about change.

Change is the moral imperative of the consultocratic courtier. It is the restless impatience to make a difference, and then to move onto the next lucrative contract, that is entombing real life in so-called system reforms. Change is touted to conceal the empty slogans, the ignorance of even the quite recent past, and the hussling, bullying promotion of fellow courtiers. Speeches are ornamented, after a search of a quote book, with Benjamin Franklin’s “when you are finished changing, then you are finished!” And this piece of all-American bunkum is really meant as a threat. In the same way, Malcolm Turnbull’s evocation of the pentecost in an Armani suit – “there has never been a more exciting time to be alive” – is an advertisement of profound neglect of the human heritage, wrapped in recycled McKinsey powerpoints, and concealing the true and insolent threat to  ceaselessly redesign free and responsible lives into agile agitprop. You wonder if the only constant is change, whether the changes that mesmerise the courtiers are really change at all.

It is all a far cry from the deeper argument about change set out in Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution. Humans, Fernandez-Armesto explains with vivacity and wit, are cultural animals; not by any means the only cultural animals, but surely the most splendidly and chaotically various in our ever-shifting cultures. Our faculties of imperfect memory and exceptional anticipation give us gifts greater than hunting in packs, or farming, or the modern curse of the project plan. They give us imagination; and when imagination sets to work on human culture it creates, fissures, imitates, errs, develops: it makes lives change. Driving all this cultural change is a reworking of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the simple observation that the more opportunities for exchange of errant, new and traditional ideas, the more cultures change. So in today’s circumstances of exceptional ease of exchanging ideas, good and bad, there has never been a sustained time of more rapid cultural change.

But unlike the consultocrat courtiers, Fernandez-Armesto does not mistake all change for good. Some changes bring blessings; some birth rare and excellent things. But some change brings burdens, losses and a dark tide of sorrow. Change brings excitement, and it brings deep unsettling threats to loved lives and cherished institutions. The quickened pace and chaotic form of change in our times stands opposed to most of human experience, and perhaps frays the edges of our evolved brains and instinctual hearts. So A foot in the river helps us move beyond the cheap tricks of the courtiers and Malcolm’s civic religion of investors.

The excitement of innovation is but one emotion evoked by this annual collapse of the Tower of Babel. “Within living memory the world seems to have transformed over and over again, inducing ‘future shock’, fear, bewilderment, and resentment. Meanwhile the increasing urgency of the accelerations of change and the ever more disturbing effects on people’s sense of security, well-being, and confidence in the future have glared through the headlines.” So among us all the restless search for some new kind of kick fights an instinct in favour of the familiar.

When people feel the threat of change, they reach for security, like a child clenching its grip on a comforter. When they do not understand what is happening to them, they panic. Grandes peurs lash society like a flagellant’s scourge. Intellectuals take refuge in ‘postmodern’ strategies: indifference, anomie, moral relativism and scientific indeterminacy, the embrace of chaos, je m’enfoutisme.

Being done with change, in this more subtle view, is never finished with; but more like the moon following the sun. These words from a true sage are not a counsel of despair, nor a retreat to the mysterious, as in Heraclitus’ runic phrase, all things change. Fernandez-Armesto’s book helps us to understand change; not to stop fearing it – in characteristically wise words, he says, after all, there is plenty to fear – but to begin to respond intelligently, with the faculty that is the source of the change itself, our imaginations.

So this history of change, and of how time changes me, but I can’t change time, might guide those of us who want to govern our communities with those rare and excellent things in our culture that are cherished by those with affection for civic life, but despised by reformers, consultocrats and courtiers. Those things can be destroyed in a day, and are worth fighting to preserve against the depredations of folly. Of the callow champions of change, Heraclitus also spoke: “People dull their wits with gibberish, and cannot use their ears and eyes.”

Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers

If I were to teach a course on the history of Australians in the global nineteenth century, I would begin with a reading of this most remarkable book, perhaps turning attention to Inga Clendinnen’s close reading of the episode of the Spearing of the Governor (Arthur Phillip) in a misunderstood stumbling dance of strangers divided profoundly by culture. Culture, she understands, is “the context of our existential being: a dynamic system of shared meanings through which we communicate with our own.”

Her attention to communicating those near-lost shared meanings through the sources, her search for clues to mental states in action, her scrupulous intelligence, her avoidance of empty isms and abstractions, and her exquisitely limpid prose are all exemplary. Above all, she has listened to the attentive, if imperfect, witnesses of the past and allowed their voices, small matters that hold great moments, and significant episodes to murmur to us again. Towards the end of her book she writes:

“History is not about the imposition of belated moral judgements. it is.. based on the honest analysis of the vast, uneven, consultable record of human experience. To understand history, we have to get inside episodes, which means setting ourselves to understand our subjects’ changing motivations and moods in their changing contexts, and to tracing the devious routes by which knowledge was acquired, understood and acted upon. Only then can we hope to understand ourselves and our species better, and so manage our affairs more intelligently. If we are to arrive at a durable tolerance (and it is urgent that we should), we have only history to guide us.”

I can imagine few more curious, compassionate and steady guides than Inga Clendinnen.

Behavioural Anecdotes Teams

One of the more puzzling cases of British export success stories is the spread of successive generations of bad ideas on public management and government. This niche export industry has been especially successful in former British colonies like Victoria, where bedazzled political leaders and officials rub shoulders with confidants of Number 10, never stopping to question the merit of importing ideas out of context and unsuited to local affiliations. It is puzzling since the results of these ideas have been consistently poor, rather like London weather, or perhaps more too the point quite consistent with the poor functioning of government in the precariously United Kingdom. nor does political affiliation seem to matter too much. I have now sat through underwhelming presentations of quasi-political bureaucrats from the regimes of Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron, enriching their summer holiday with a few jejune talks on the latest management fad in Westminster. Despite sometimes elegant charm and the charisma of nearness to our colonial ancestral home, none of these fads have achieved much at all. The analyses of Christopher Hood and Patrick Dunleavy are clear: these changes have on the whole worsened productivity, muddied responsibility to the public, failed to meet their professed goals, and hosted the parasites of new governance, especially well marketed and ill-conceived consultants, that have damaged the institutions and culture of government.

The latest in this series of fairs advertising the trade secrets of failing governments is the Behavioural Insights Team, conveniently known as an acronym, BIT, with a hint of literary computer science. Also known as the Nudge Unit this unit claims to apply “very empirical” insights from behavioural science to policy and government. Led by Dr David Halpern  who once was a psychologist – I presume from the depth of his discussions of mental health, only ever a research psychologist, perhaps in the B.F. Skinner tradition -and an adviser to Tony Blair. Halpern claims an intellectual lease from Thaler, Sunstein and Kahnemann, (collusively referred to as Danny by Davy boy in his promotional talks), and a spiritual relic from the great mesmeriser. Halpern has learned the same skill of endearing, simple explanations of complex bodies of thought. The trademark idea of his Behavioural Insights Team is distilled into an anagram, EAST, that stands for easy, attractive, social and timely. These are the qualities, so behavioural science tells BIT, that governments should design into their policies and the “decision architecture” (using Thaler and Sunstein’s rather clumsier language) that will lead people to making better choices. There is an admirable skill in BIT’s presentation of ideas, which draws largely from the oral-visual tradition of management consulting, and there are a list of achievements of clever nudges that appear to have made a few decisions at least easy, attractive, social and timely.

But there is also an uneasy feeling that BIT accomplishes much less than it claims. It likes to claim it applies randomised controlled trials to policy making; but this claim is more a co-option of the charisma of medical research to vastly different social policy experiments. It likes to point to the immediate effects of its nudges; but rarely examines whether these effects endure beyond the short term horizon or a single round of the social game into which they are intervening. There is too a nagging quality to the issues they intervene in and the impacts they have. While it makes a virtue of small and easy changes, which BIT claims, with mystic convictions about butterfly wings disturbing sub-optimal equilibria, most of the successes it claims simply do not seem to be that important or that consequential: small changes in letters, that a direct marketing consultant could have proposed; reordering of appointments; changes in default options. The larger messier questions of governing are avoided because, one suspects, BIT’s methods are not that useful. When considering profound difficulties of conflicting values and interests, tired anecdotes – about folding paper one hundred times to demonstrate the the limits of our common sense cognition – do not add much at all.

Despite or even perhaps because of this imperfect track record, the Behavioural Insights Team has, however, taken the British tradition of exporting its nicely dressed, bad ideas of government to a whole new level. The team has been spun off from the Cabinet Office in the UK, and is now owned by its employees and operates as a “public sector mutual.” The Behavioural Insights Team has turned itself into a private mutual company that sells its anecdotes to the rest of the world. Dr Halpern has sold the name to a number of governments to the old colonies of Australia, and to the Bloomberg foundation in America.  He has just completed a two-year thinker in residency in Australia, during which his main project appears to have been a widely ridiculed citizen’s jury on obesity. No-one seems to ask why the Cabinet Office in the UK seemed so ready to do without the expertise of this ground-breaking team, while it went on a multi-year book tour around the world. Presumably, the UK Prime Minister felt he could do without the advice – perhaps that made things easier, more attractive, simpler and more timely for him? And maybe he found after a while that dull anecdotes were not substitute for real insights, and so he dispensed with the Behavioural Anecdotes Team in a fashionably nonsensical way, that at least would help pay the bills for advice on the issues that really mattered.