How an intellectual revolution will reshape society - by Sir Paul Collier for The New Statesman

In a thoughtful and wide-ranging article, Sir Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, discusses the damaging effects of institutional group think and confirmation bias on our party politics, drawing on a range of events and ideas for an alternative, participatory model of government for the future - what he calls ‘parity of agency.’


“We should start by recognising we live in a world too complex to be fully understood. The best we can do is to learn by experimentation, copying what works – pragmatism. The concept is radical uncertainty, on which John Kay and Mervyn King have written an important eponymous book, published last year. In writing it, the authors recanted a set of established 20th-century ideas that they once taught. Integrity compelled them to leap.

The idea of radical uncertainty is complemented by a new account of how we come to understand the world, and how we form our values, by Joseph Henrich, the polymath who heads Harvard’s department of evolutionary biology. Don’t be put off by the confusing title, The Weirdest People in the World (2020).


The key insight is that we have evolved to get most of our ideas not from our own sharp observation and analysis, but from the people in our socially networked communities. We have evolved this way because usually it is sensible: the collective mind of our network, which includes ideas stored for years, has observed much more than any one of its members.

Bringing these two ideas together, we rely mainly on our collective mind, but due to radical uncertainty it is seldom completely right.


Whatever the initial ideas, as our only partially understood world careers off like an unguided missile, outcomes will move away from expectations. This should lead to rapid revision of the ideas, but often it doesn’t. Instead, the community invents neutralising propositions that explain away the unexpected.”


Citing the existential dilemma currently facing Her Majesty’s Opposition he concludes with these words:


“Equality of condition would be a real Labour Party agenda for the many. Parity of respect; a policy agenda that the many have set; parity of agency in contributing to it; and parity in the ability of places and occupations to make their contribution. The clingers will cling: they will be shrill in their opposition, and quite probably they will be nasty. But if they succeed in shackling the Labour Party to ideas that are past, they will doom it to perpetual defeat and to being engulfed by a future it neither comprehends, nor to which it can relate.”



Article by Paul Collier for The New Stat
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