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Posts Tagged ‘policy’

Reversing American Voluntarism

Current events suggest that the progress in American social history, recently stalled, is now being turned around.

The long-run story of the American people is of the slow, swerving, incomplete, but steady expansion of participation in its voluntaristic culture. As told in Made in America, once-dependent and subordinate categories of people–women, immigrants, employees, the propertyless and the poor, ex-slaves, youth, the very elderly–have been able over the last three centuries to become more autonomous authors of their own lives, able act both independently for themselves and freely in concert with whomever they wished to join.

This extension of independence with community depended largely on the expansion of security–security of life, of fortune, of an assured future. And that, in turn, rested on economic growth, scientific advance, and critically, government protection against life’s perils–institutions of law and order, public education, public health, disaster relief, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, and much more.

The last few decades have seen a slowdown in the underlying processes that had expanded voluntarism. The economic fortunes of working class Americans stagnated. Many both experience and anticipate a life less assured than that of their parents. Science keeps delivering, but neither the economy nor the government are currently sustaining the actual security and the sense of security that enable forceful individual and community action.

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Folktales of the Policy Elites

In the new world of blogs and tweets and breaking-news bulletins flashing across billions of big, medium, and small screens, we are learning that one of the down sides of instant connection is that false news can in a flash go from being an off-hand comment to a globally recognized “fact.”(Consider the person falsely-accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber.) The hope, often vain, is that corrections will just as quickly catch up with the mistakes. There are also slower, longer-lasting false stories that keep reverberating around at least part of the web, like those about President Obama’s heritage. And then there are “urban legends” that are passed around not by conspiracy theorists, gullible web surfers, or gossip-column fans, but by leading journalists, policymakers, and even (gasp!) academics. Folktales of the policy elites.

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Sociologist Gary Alan Fine and political scientist Barry O’Neill published a paper a few years ago in, appropriately, the Journal of American Folklore on what they call “policy legends”: stories describing social conditions that call for social and governmental action, stories that are endorsed by respected, influential people, stories that are false. Despite occasional debunking, these legends have remarkable staying power. The examples Fine and O’Neill analyze date back before the Internet and, morphing in various ways, live on and on.

(I learned about this study from O’Neill at, of all things, a conference on Darwinian theory, which sort of shows how news can travel in odd channels.)

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The Happiness Boom

When the Founding Fathers signed on to the proposition in the Declaration of Independence that the “pursuit of happiness” was an inalienable right, few if any imagined that it might become the government’s responsibility to help Americans catch that happiness. It still hasn’t. But elsewhere in the world, national leaders are starting to think that a government’s performance should be measured not just in terms of securing “life, liberty, and property” (which was the original phrase before Jefferson’s tinkering — see here), but also happiness.

Natl. Endow. Humanities, 2006

Many in the U.S., too, think that we should be taking up happiness as a national yardstick. In fact, since about 2000 there has been a land rush on among researchers and policymakers to measure, study, describe, and promote happiness. Where did the happiness boom come from? I try to answer that question in my latest Boston Review column, here.

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In a recent column, David Brooks (who is to applauded for often bringing social science research to his Times readers) argued that social policy has very limited effects on important human outcomes; it is “usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.”

The historical record, however, suggests that policy decisions often have quite profound consequences.
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