Matthew Taylor raises an interesting question on his blog: Do we ever learn from crises in history? Or do we just lurch from too much of one socio-economic attitude to too much of another (from excessive individualism to excessive egalitarianism, say)? He then connects this to the idea of a good society: If the recession is an opportunity to change things for the better, is this change just a lurch from the previous ‘anchoring orientation’ we want to replace, to its opposite (which will turn out to be just as one-sided and problematic down the line)? Or are we learning from the onesidedness of the past?


In the current recession various corrections are taking place: blanket free-market approaches are being rejected, as are blanket individualistic and materialistic attitudes. And there are other less palatable corrections: protectionism and xenophobia are replacing free trade and tolerance in certain quarters.


The big question is whether our ability to bring about social change is purely relative to what’s just gone before, in which case we simply lurch between one-sided orientations? Or whether there is some ‘absolute point’ that acts as measure of the good society and which we use to guide us to the equilibrium we want?


I would say it’s a blend of the two. We know that a good society will be one without rampant inequality, but also one where individual freedom and creativity are not stifled. But how we change things and what we change is relative to the recent past. At the moment that may mean moving away from too much individualism to a more egalitarian orientation.  But we should be wary of jumping on the band-wagon. Individualism is not all bad, only an excess of it. And this is a truth that is constant, not merely relative to recent events.


As Matthew points out, neuroscience and behavioural economics can help us understand our cognitive biases. For example, the ‘bandwagon-effect’, coupled with the way the brain anchors comparisons on a scale relative to recent feelings/thoughts/memories, could lead to overreactions such as too much anti-individualism and too much hierarchical regulation. And then we never get the equilibrium we want. So awareness of our cognitive limitations can help us learn from history rather than be slaves to it.