Episode #85 Walking the path between Wisdom and Despair with Matthew Taylor
What is it that makes us human? How can we bring the best of ourselves to the current crises – individually, and as a civilisation? In this episode, we talk to Matthew Taylor, CBE FAcSS, and explore his ideas around ‘co-ordination theory’ and how we can use them to create new politics and new ways of organising our society to give more people a better, more equitable say in how we make things happen.
Matthew Taylor is the Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, but before that, he was Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Arts (or more properly, for the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) – and before that, he was head of the Number 10 Policy Unit for Tony Blair’s Labour Government. He is a regular panelist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze, presents Agree to Differ and occasionally, Analysis on the same channel.
He’s also deeply interested in the intersection between neurophysiology, psychology and human behaviour – and how we can bring these to bear on the current transformative moment in our history.
Manda: I’m Manda Scott, your host at this place on the Web where art meets activism, politics meets philosophy and science meets spirituality, all in the service of Conscious Evolution. My guest this week is someone who has been at the cutting edge of almost all of those fields for most of his professional life. Matthew Taylor is currently chief executive of the NHS Confederation. But before that, he led the RSA, known as the Royal Society for the Arts, but actually in more detail, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce for 15 years, during which time he transformed it into a global institution with 30000 fellows, and a high profile and influential research programme. And before that, Matthew was chief adviser in political strategy to Prime Minister Tony Blair, and also ran the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left wing think tank, for four years. He is a widely known commentator on policy, politics and public service reform and regularly appears on national media programmes, including BBC Radio Four’s The Moral Maze. Matthew has written widely on what he calls Coordination Theory, and he and I had both listened to a podcast which I will share in the show notes and will probably be discussing in much greater depth in future podcasts by Tristan Harris and Daniel Schmachtenberger, which really looks at what they call the meta problem of our time.
And I wanted to look at that through the lens of Matthew’s Coordination Theory, and then particularly to see how we could get to ways of changing the nature of our problem-solving in time, in this country and around the world. So when we talk about that particular podcast, it is in the show notes. And in the meantime as an introduction to the ways that we think, the ways we behave, how and why we do what we do, People of the Podcast, please welcome Matthew Taylor.
So Matthew Taylor, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast, and thank you so much for taking time out of this Tuesday morning. We have been looking together at Coordination Theory. I will share on the show notes the minimation that the RSA produced, which is wonderful. But for people who are listening to this while they’re going about their daily work and don’t have time to stop and watch, can you start by telling us what it is, how you got to it, and why it was worth 15 years of your life leading up to this point, as being what sounds to me like a really overriding driver of everything that you’ve done?
Matthew: Well, thanks, Manda. It’s great to be here. I won’t try and answer all those questions in one, because otherwise this isn’t going to be a conversation. It’ll be a speech by me. So let me kind of take it in turn, and start with the core of the theory. So first thing I should say is I call this theory Coordination Theory because I, for a reason I’ll come to in a moment, but I don’t want to claim that it’s a brand new original theory. It’s a theory largely based upon a set of ideas developed by followers of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, which haven’t really broken through to public consciousness, partly because these theories can’t even agree what to call their theory. So sometimes it’s called the theory of Plural Rationality. Sometimes it’s called Cultural Theory, sometimes, and this really does explain why it’s not caught on, it’s referred to as Neo-Durkheimian Institutional Theory. So what I’ve done is I’ve taken the kind of core ideas of that theory and made it slightly less academic and slightly more applied, and also brought a few extra elements to it myself. So this is a kind of pimped up car, if you want to put it that way. The car is the work of Mary Douglas and her followers. And I’ve kind of added some speed lines, and a few fins and a sound system, and stuff like that.
Manda: Furry dice?
Matthew: Furry dice, precisely. So why is it called Coordination Theory? Why have I called it that? Because in in essence, this is a theory about the way in which human beings do things together. So as various commentators have pointed out, the thing that is possibly the most special about human beings is our social sophistication, the sophistication of the way in which we do things together. I think as the Yuval Harari said, if you put one gorilla and one human being on a desert island, the gorilla will win. But if you put fifty gorillas and fifty human beings, the human beings will survive because of the sophistication of our social organisation. And indeed, I think it’s largely a shared view that that our brains have evolved in order to allow us to be able to deal with the sophistication of our social circumstances, as it were. The reason human beings who, you know, are not the fastest or the fiercest or the strongest of species. But the reason we were able to survive and thrive was through the adaptation of our social capacity, our capacity to coordinate our actions, and that we were selected, therefore, for those having brains that were able to do that. So that is arguably what makes us special. So if you take that starting point, what makes us special is the way we do things together. And from that, I argue that there are three and a half… and I’ll explain the half in a moment, there are three and a half ways of, fundamental ways in which we tend to organise activities together.
So the first is through structures of authority. So we do things on the basis of leadership, on the basis of followership. We do things because we’re told to do them, and that is how we live most of our lives. I am even in this podcast following the structure that you’ve set for it. I’m following you because you’re leading me in this, and I’m very happy to do that, in the same way as I’m happy to take an umbrella out on the basis of the advice of an expert weather forecaster, or obey the laws of the land, fill in my tax returns, whatever it might be. So we do things because we’re told to, we do things because of authority structures. The second way in which we work is is through kind of belonging. So this is where we do things, not because we’re told to by people in authority over us or have more expertise, but because of the tribe that we belong to, because of the kind of people we feel that we are. So this is the domain of social norms, solidarity, values, really. And then the third way in which we organise ourselves is primarily based upon our own individual preferences and choices. Although individualism is much, much stronger in modern society than it has been for the vast majority of human evolution, still, nevertheless, we have a sense of our own individualness, a separation between ourselves and other human beings, although, as I said, it’s much, much stronger in modern Western societies than in human history. And so that’s the kind of domain of of things that we do, because of what is special and individual about us.
Matthew: And that might be everything from that type of coffee we choose to buy, to the career that we choose to have, to the holidays that we we go on. And the reason there’s a half is because there is another way in which we think about doing things together. And that is fatalism, which is that a lot of the time we don’t do things together. We have a sense that something should be done, but we don’t think it’s possible, or we can’t be bothered, or whatever. So when we talk about a particular concrete challenge, how do we address a particular concrete challenge? It might be in our families, it might be in our organisations, it might be in our country. What you will find is there will be people who say the way to resolve this issue is through hierarchical means: through strategy, through leadership, through authority, through rules, through regulations. There will be people who say no, the way we solve this problem is through values, is through a sense of mutual obligation, through a kind of ‘other-regarding’ attitude, where we’ll put other people and the needs of the group first. And there’ll be other people who say no, the best way to solve this problem is to leave people to do what they want to do, and to think about incentives which guide people to do things that they might not otherwise do, but actually maximise the scope for human choice and human freedom. And then there’ll be a fourth perspective, which is often not articulated in our kind of culture, because fatalism is very much deprecated, which is, well, actually there’s nothing we can do.
And, you know, you and I are talking the day after the government has announced the removal of almost all restrictions in relation to Covid, and you can see these kinds of ideas roiling around as we talk about that. So we can see the government saying what we’re going to do is step down the use of authority. We’re not going to get people to do things because we’re telling them to anymore. And instead we want to expand the domain of personal responsibility. Now, as other people have said, the challenge there is that a lot of the behaviours we might want to take on Covid are not actually things that are for us. We are not individually incentivised to wear masks, or fill in notes, or tap in QR codes. We do these things for our collective interest. And so, you know, my problem with what the government’s just announced is there doesn’t seem to be a framework for supporting people in doing what they want to do on grounds of their values and their belonging, which actually is the thing that we need. Because people are not going to wear masks as a kind of lifestyle choice. They will do it for their fellow citizens. So I think the government has this dichotomy of either you do what we say, or you take personal responsibility. It’s a very thin account, actually, of how it is you might want to get people to do things.
The final thing I’d say about this theory, Manda, is that it’s a theory about how we do things together. But it’s also, and I think this is powerful, it’s a theory about how we are individually motivated. So each of these things are basically what we do every day. So today, as I said, I will a lot of the time do what I am told to do, or else, because I run an organisation, I will tell other people what to do. So my day will be structured by authority relations. I’ll also do things because I think they’re the right thing to do. This podcast, I’m doing because we share values, you and I, I admire what you’re doing. I’m not being paid for it. I’m not doing it because I want to be famous. I’m doing it because it’s the kind of thing where I think, yeah, that’s the kind of person I am, that I like to give my time off to somebody who is trying to do good things in the world. And I pick up my daughter from school or whatever, because family is a domain of that kind of values based solidaristic stuff. And also, you know, I will tonight put my feet up and watch Italy and Spain, have a beer. And I’m not doing that because I’m told to ,and I’m not doing that for anybody else’s interest. I love football, I like to have a beer.
So and also today, I will no doubt be reminded of all sorts of things in society that I could do something about were I minded to, but I won’t do anything about them, and I’ll probably make excuses for why not. The main excuse will be ‘my contribution won’t make any difference’. So unlike a lot of social theories, Manda, which are rather abstract and removed from our day to day life, one of the reasons I love this theory is because to understand that you need only look in the mirror, really, because this is simply the expression at the societal or organisational level of our fundamental human motivations. And in that, this theory is reinforced by other theories which are similar. So the foundations of the Positive Psychology movement is a theory called Self Determination theory produced by a couple of theorists called Deci and Ryan, and that’s widely accepted as the foundation for that area of psychology. And they said human beings have three fundamental intrinsic motivations: autonomy, which is individual, my individualism element; belonging or connectedness, which is my solidarity component; and mastery, which is the desire to kind of get better at something where there’s an implicit hierarchy. You can’t be the master of something unless you listen to those who know more about it, and you have to as it were climb up the hierarchy in terms of your skills. Of course, because it’s the Positive Psychology movement, they don’t talk about fatalism, which I think is a big error, because that’s a big part of who we are.
Manda: Brilliant. I have to say, for a potted precis of all of the reading and all of the writing, of my reading of your writing, that was fantastic. And thank you. And there are so many things I would like to ask, and ways I would like to go. Let’s take it first: if we’re looking at humanity as a whole, and we have evolved to where we are, and it feels to me, and I think feels to you, that we are pretty much on the edge of a precipice. Cory Doctorow says we are being driven towards the edge of a cliff by people who are resolutely refusing to turn the wheel of the bus. So my first question would be, is that a fair assessment, do you think that that’s where we are? But let’s put that to one side for a moment, because I’m really interested in the history of humanity and how we got to where we are.
Partly, my spiritual path is Shamanic, I wrote the Boudicca books, I have a tendency to see the last 2000 years as a bit of an aberration. If we go back in human history, almost all of our time we have been tribal. Our belonging, our sense of that, has been huge. But within that, I think, the sense of individuation was also fairly big. If we look at the Hunter-Gatherer tribes of today, such as they are, or the ones that we’ve met recently enough to have fairly decent anthropology of them, even the North American tribes, there was a sense of a shared authority. Authority wasn’t vested in one individual. It was vested in the best person at the time. They were going hunting: the authority’s in the hands of the person who currently is the best hunter. If we’re deciding tribal rules, it’s in the hands of, let’s say, the grandmother council. We have a sense of belonging because our tribe is our tribe. And frankly, if we don’t belong to the tribe, we’re probably going to die in the winter. But we have quite a strong sense of individuation in that I can become the best hunter, or the best gatherer, or the best warrior, or the best skinner, leather worker, or the best shamanic practitioner. Within that, I can have a sense of pride in what I do. And my fatalism comes, I think is then brought under a spiritual cloak. We spoke recently on the podcast to someone from the Spiritual Design laboratory, and they had a triad of being, belonging, and beyond. And the beyond was that sense of being part of a greater whole that was greater than humanity. So it doesn’t matter that I die and everything goes on beyond after, because I will still be part of that beyond. So it kind of takes in the fatalism. So it seems to me that what you’re describing is in a way, an artefact of the agrarian revolution and the sense of separation, scarcity and powerlessness that arose from that. So first of all, does that sound fair to you? And second, that given that we are driving towards the edge of a cliff with people who are resolutely refusing to turn the wheel, how do we use what you have here in Coordination Theory, in this kind of instance of humanity, how can we bring that to bear on the people holding the wheel of the bus, to persuade them that turning it is a good idea? Does that question make sense, and is it framed within your Coordination Theory enough?
Matthew: So, so much there, Manda. But what I outlined before was the building blocks of the theory, but it isn’t really for me the core of theory. So I described these forms of coordination, and the way in which they are rooted in our own individual motivation. But the next bit of the theory takes us to the question that you finish with, which is this question of action. So the next bit of the theory argues that the best way to do things, generally speaking, which involve people, is to combine those different motivations, which, if you think about it, is self-evident. So if you were trying to get people to do something, why would you not want to use the three core motivations that they had? Why would you not want to motivate them, because they feel that it’s a reasonable thing that is being asked of them in terms of authority, they go along with the rules. They think that is something that fits their values, that seems legitimate, that seems in the group’s interest. And they do it because it’s easy for them to do as an individual, because it’s fulfilling for them, or at the very least, it’s no hassle for them. With an awareness of the fact that ultimately, whatever we do, there are elements of our lives and elements of our social individual lives which are unavoidable: that we will die, and that worse than that, the world will go on without us. And that is something that we have to try to accept. Of course, other species are aware of death, but not culturally in the way that we are.
By the way, I’d just say in passing that I think that you’re quite right to suggest that spirituality is where fatalism is parked in many cultures, and the decline of spirituality, the kind of religious faith in Western society, one of the challenges I create is where do we put fatalism, where do we take fatalism? And I think that’s a big part of the kind of pathologies of our society, is that we don’t know what to do with the kind of inherently, the elements of our existence which cannot be overturned, which are inevitable, and which are always going to be difficult for us to deal with. So we would want to combine those things. So if we’re taking an issue like climate change, we would want to say, well, solutions ought to combine those things which authority structures do well: rules, regulations, frameworks, strategies; things which we do for each other because we share a common sense of responsibility towards the planet and each other, but also we want to do this in a way which people can recognise. We know that if climate change requires individuals to make enormous heroic sacrifices, given the contribution that each individual makes to climate change being utterly negligible, it’s not going to happen.
So we’ve got to make this easy for people. We’ve got to convince people that they can live sustainable lives which will be good lives. So why, therefore, if this is obvious, do we not do it? And that takes me to some points that will reflect on other parts of your question, Manda. So the first reason is because each of these characteristics, these core motivations, have both benign and less benign sides. And again, this is pretty obvious. So authority can be strategic, it can be expert, it can be heroic. But it can also be self-serving, authoritarian micro…you know, controlling… Solidarity, and when I talk about solidarity, belief, belonging, values, well, this is all positive stuff. Well, it is. But the flipside is tribalism. The flipside is that as all psychology teaches us, we are deeply tribal animals. But the problem is whilst that leads us to behave in ‘other-regarding’ ways to people in our tribe, it also tends to lead us towards viewing people who are not in our tribe in less positive ways. And that’s another very difficult human characteristic that we got to be aware of. And individualism, obviously, individualism, societal creativity, entrepreneurism, self-expression, all of that great stuff. But it’s also prone to selfishness, atomism, irresponsible risk taking, and even fatalism.
There is one side of fatalism which is philosophical and thoughtful and even accurate, because often there isn’t anything we could do. if only Tony Blair listened to the fatalists before invading Iraq, for example, or joining the American invasion of Iraq. And there’s another side of fatalism which is merely pessimistic and apathetic. So the first thing that we’ve got to get our heads around is that these are both positive and more problematic motivations. And my view, which I would love in a perfect world where other people than I believed in coordination theory and they could kind of really test out, my hypothesis is that the positive form of these expressions can be identified by the very fact that it can be combined with the other motivations. So the positive form of authority is one which is also able to summon up our values, and also able to tap into our individual aspirations. The positive version of individualism is one which taps into our individual creativity, but in a way which also is respectful of our group responsibilities, and the important role of leadership and authority. So that is one important element. But there’s a second important element to this. And this is, I think, the other reason why it is so difficult to do what seems obvious, which is to have solutions that combine our fundamental human motivations, and that is that each of these motivations and the kind of methodologies, the ideologies, the attitudes that flow from them is hostile to the others. Each has the desire to be the only motivation. Each has its own momentum. Authority leads to more authority. Leadership can lead to authoritarianism, authoritarianism, can lead to totalitarianism. Individualism can grow, as we see, for example, in economic booms, can lead to a kind of mass hysteria in which everybody is pursuing their own individual interests, and there’s almost no concern for the collective good, or no capacity for those in leadership roles to take responsibility or behave responsibly.
So when I watch people having arguments about what to do in the face of complex problems, I will often hear these views as being antagonistic to each other. And what’s more, they actually gain their strength from their critique of each other. So when people advocate values, the need for collective action, the need for us to do things together, they will very often say, the reason we need to do this is because we must throw off the yoke of hierarchical control, and we must resist the selfishness of individualism. Similarly, the advocates of individualistic freedom will say, we must be free from the choking retrograde force of social norms and social conventions, and we must throw off the bureaucratic, self-interested nature of authority. So these are fighting against each other ,and social pathologies are often to do with the fact that one of these forces simply becomes dominant. And if you look across, this is, I will offer you the greatest generalisation you could possibly imagine. But here is an enormous generalisation, but one that I think is nevertheless useful. What you see up until the agrarian revolution ten thousand years ago is societies that are overwhelmingly solitaristic. There are authority structures, but they are relatively weak. There is individualisation, but there is nothing like individualism in the modern sense, primarily because there’s no scope for accumulation if you’re a hunter-gatherer society, right? Now, those societies in many ways are good societies. And anthropologists have challenged the kind of idea of life being nasty, brutish and short. It looks as though people in hunter-gatherer societies only worked 20 hours a week. There are many things that are commendable about those societies and their egalitarianism, but they don’t make much progress. You know, children are still dying in childbirth at an incredibly high rate. Life expectancy is still very low. People are subject to incredible risks, because of the fact that they aren’t able to command nature. So that’s what you get for the first 98, 99 percent of human development.
Then you get the agrarian revolution. You then move into a period where where hierarchy becomes the dominant force. And that really takes us from the agrarian revolution up until the Enlightenment, broadly speaking. And there you have societies where because of authority structures, a lot more progress is possible. Civil societies become much more sophisticated and human beings become, you know, their lives improve, or collectively they improve in various ways, although they deteriorate in other ways. But these great civilisations create structures of power and sophistication, empires, innovation, in a whole variety of ways. But they also have their downsides, and particularly in terms of human oppression, because they are often highly oppressive societies. And then we see the emergence of individualism, and what we see with the emergence of individualism as a much more powerful cultural force is this incredible acceleration in human development that we’ve seen over the last two hundred years. Incredible increases in life expectancy, incredible increases in prosperity. And, you know, in all our negativity about what’s going wrong in the world, let us remember that more progress has been made in relation to poverty reduction globally in the last 20 years than has ever been made before. So there are genuine fruits of the creativity, disruptive creativity offered by individualism. But also, we also see the downsides of an over-individualistic culture. And those downsides are what we’re experiencing now in terms of things like inequality, in terms of the rise of mental illness, and a kind of lack of well-being, in terms of the sense of the intractability of collective problems in a culture of competitive individualism.
So the theory would argue that what we need to do, all levels of society from almost day to day lives, to our organisational lives, to our societal challenges, is be aware of the nature of these human motivations; be aware of the fact they push against each other all the time, and will always do that. And therefore, any solution is only temporary because things will change in the environment, which will strengthen the voice of hierarchy, or strengthen the voice of individualism ,or strengthen the voice of solidarity. So this strategy is a continuous process of management. Being aware of all of that and then say, OK, being aware of all that, how do we think of systemic solutions which best combine these fundamental human motivations and the kind of methods and insights that come from them? And that’s the way in which I approach every problem that I see, from, you know, mundane issues in the organisation that I now manage and lead, to big questions like climate change: how can we develop a solution, or how can we think of a different equilibrium to the one we have now, and an equilibrium which better enables us to express fully these core human motivations?
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. So how can we think of a different equilibrium to the one we have now? What are the core values that would be needed? Because climate change, it seems to me, is our ultimate problem. And yet it is a manifestation of the bigger problem of the Calamity of the Commons, or whatever we want to call it. Yes, human poverty is very different to how it was 20 years ago, 100 hundred years ago, a thousand years ago. I would argue it’s not that different to what it was 100000 years ago because, yes, lives were shorter, but we didn’t live in the separation and the one that we have now. But that’s a whole separate argument. Let’s not go there. Let’s go to: we are where we are. We’re facing a scale of problem that is potentially terminal in ways, I don’t think humanity has faced species-level extinction before. We’ve faced individual tribal level or nation level catastrophes, but now we’re facing a species level catastrophe. What can we do to persuade us that we’re all part of the same tribe, we’re all on the same side, we’re all in this together, whatever it is that we want actually to believe, in ways that will make enough of a difference in time? I don’t know what your view is of the time frame that we have, but I’m guessing it’s at least probably within our lifetimes, I would say, and you and I are both more or less of an age. We have to make changes in the way we do things, or we’re heading over the cliff of ecosystem collapse, of which climate change is one aspect. What do you think we can do fast enough? Big enough?
Matthew: So I agree that we face this existential crisis, and that at the moment, we’re not demonstrating a sufficient collective response to that, although I do want to say that things are changing, things are moving. And it’s a mistake, I think, to imply that no progress has been made, whether it’s the advances of renewable technology in terms of its affordability and effectiveness, whether it’s a greater sense of global leadership, particularly given Joe Biden’s fortuitous victory, whether it’s a shift in public awareness and consciousness, there have been changes. And it’s important to build on those changes rather than to behave as if nothing has been achieved. Because, look, fatalism is, I think, the default response of human beings to a challenge like climate change, in the sense of ‘there is nothing I can do about this individually’ and it is such a collective action problem that we just have to kind of hope that the science is wrong, or that we can adapt to it, or that something somehow comes along, some technological breakthrough that relieves us of having to make difficult choices.
So my answer to your question is that we need to approach this problem in a way which seeks to articulate the fundamental human motivations that we have, and all of the kind of methodologies that flowed from those. So I have observed in arguments between people who are focussed very much on climate change, that there is a preference amongst those people which sometimes becomes more than a preference. It turns into a kind of prejudice. So there are people for whom the only real answer to climate change is a fundamental shift in human values. And indeed, they see climate change as an opportunity, not just a threat but an opportunity to inculcate a set of collective values which they believe we ought to have anyway. Now, I understand that perspective, but the problem is when people talk like that, those people tend to be, in my experience, a bit suspicious of any mention of markets or technological innovation, because in some way, this is some kind of shortcut. Or this is an unrealistic perspective. The danger is that if we think that technology and markets can help us, it takes away our responsibility to be better human beings. And then apart from these two groups, there are those experts who ultimately think, well, technology might make a contribution. Human behaviour and values might make a contribution. In the end, this is all about leaders, and nations, and it’s all about COP 26 and all of that. And not only is it that different people, in my experience, pursue different strategies, but there is a sense, as I suggested earlier on, in which they think that their way of wanting to do it is not only better, but the other ways of doing it, they are slightly suspicious of these other ways of doing it.
Matthew: In a way, the people who want climate change to be a wake up call for humanity’s selfishness would rather in a way that technology didn’t solve the problem, because it lets human beings off the hook. My argument would be no, we have to use all the means at our disposal. Our response to climate change needs to be a combination of the things that authority does best, which is creating frameworks of rules and regulations and systems which make it easy for us to do the right thing, which create the kind of frameworks for collective action. That absolutely, we need human beings to recognise their responsibilities to the planet and to each other, because otherwise it’ll be hard for governments to do the things that they should do, if the public doesn’t think those things are legitimate. So actually, the main reason we want to impact people’s values is not so much that they might recycle a bit more, or buy an electric car. It is that they will then support their government in making the choices that government needs to make on their behalf. But that we should be absolutely delighted when we see the electric car market growing, and that is a reflection of innovation and markets doing what they do. And I spoke to someone just yesterday who’s a petrol head, and he said, no, I’ve changed. I’m going to get an electric car. I never would. I’m you know, I don’t fly. I recycle. But this is one area of my life where I thought, no, I want to carry on having a vroom vroom petrol-smelling car, and no, these electric cars are really good, and so on.
And that’s great! I know, the fact that he hasn’t changed his values, the fact that he still watches Top Gear, I don’t care! You know, he’s now making a better choice thanks to the brilliance of technology, and the way the markets work. So now, at the system level, what we need to be doing is saying, OK, given that we want to strengthen each of these ways of operating, these motivations, how do they interconnect? How do they work together? How do we exercise authority in ways that enable values to do their work, and enable markets and innovation to do their work? How do we enable it? How does markets and innovation make its contribution without creating the false prospectus and saying ‘You don’t need to do anything yourself, and governments that need to do anything, because Elon Musk will solve this problem for you? So that’s the system element is to say, OK, if we want these different motivations and the systems and insights that come from them to work together, to be articulated, what will that mean at the system level? How can we imagine a system in which all of these drives are pointing in the same direction? Because there is evidence, I don’t have time to cite it now, but if you look at the world of policy evaluation, one of the biggest studies ever undertaken of what works well in terms of policy, it came to a conclusion. And the conclusion was that policies that have had the most impact education policies, health policies, planning policies, whatever it might be, all around the world, they have three components.
The first is policy design. That’s the authority, that they are well-designed. They’re designed by clever people who develop a clever strategy. They’re put together in an effective way. They use the best evidence. Secondly, legitimacy. These are policies that people think are good policies. There is a sense this is the right thing to do, which is this kind of belonging and values element. And then thirdly, implementation. And that’s fundamentally about individual incentives. That is to say, when this policy is rolled out, it’s not only beautifully designed, it’s not only broadly supported, but it’s designed in a way which tends to the motivations of those people who actually have to carry out the policy, or obey the policy, or follow the policy. And it’s done in a way that is realistic, given people’s own individual preferences and lives. So we know that’s the way to make things work, and we need to use that approach in as many problems as we possibly can. And if we did, we would solve both very big problems and much smaller problems more effectively.
Manda: So what it sounds like is we need the brightest and the best creating the policy design. We need somehow to create a sense of shared values, or to gather an existing sense of shared values, find out what our shared values are, and enable people to see ways where the things that they value are being valued by the hierarchy. And then we need to find realistic ways to implement those. I look at Britain, and the search for the brightest and the best to lead us has failed, I would say, comprehensively. If I look at our political class at the moment, and and try to find people that I would consider to have the emotional and intellectual capacity to deal with the crisis of the moment, I would struggle to name one, in anybody in Westminster at the moment. We don’t have a sense of shared legitimacy yet, because we haven’t found a way of garnering what our common values really are across the breadth even of the UK, never mind the whole of the world, in order then to be able to craft the policies that would have that sense of global legitimacy. You’ve been much closer to the corridors of power than I have, and it may be that I am traducing those in part, maybe that we’re not actually led by a group of people with the emotional age of five year olds, but it seems that way from the outside. Given your knowledge of how these things work, and given the time skills that we’re dealing with and given the current trajectory, can you see a way forward for how we might get the brightest and the best to design the policies that would have the legitimacy that would enable us to carry these through?
Matthew: So it’s a brilliant question, and I have an answer to it. And the question is how do I compress that answer effectively? So look, what is the problem here? The problem is that politics is in many ways dysfunctional. Democracy is in many ways dysfunctional. Why is that? I think it’s to do with external challenge. And the biggest external challenge, I think, to politics, has been the rise of consumerism, and the sense that politics has to adopt a kind of consumerist account of the fact that what politicians are there to do or to give is to give us individually what we want, when actually politics has got to be around the collective good. So I think that we see the development of a kind of retail politics, in which politicians who in the past would have felt more able to say to the public, ‘I’m going to do what I think is the right thing to do. And you may not like it, but it’s what I have to do, and you can judge me at the ballot box’ is replaced by a kind of focus group view, which is ‘I as a politician will give you whatever you want, and you can have whatever you want. And the only reason you’re not having whatever you want is because the wrong people are in charge, and elect me, and you will have whatever you want.’ So we have this kind of a shift in what in what politicians feel confident to be able to say. it’s a decline of hierarchical authority and deference, and it’s the invasion into politics of the values of kind of individualistic consumerism.
We then have the problem that was identified by Daniel Schmachtenberger in his podcast with Tristran Harris, that you suggested that I listened to, which is that politics is inherently competitive. And it is very difficult to improve systems which are competitive systems, because ultimately what you care about is winning, rather than the health of the system as a whole. And so almost every politician I know, it would be true of them to say that they would prefer that 90 percent of people voted in an election than 50 percent of people vote an election that they would like people to vote and participate in. However, you have to say to that politician, if 90 percent of people vote, you’ll lose. And if 50 percent of people vote, well, you’ll win. They would, I’m afraid, all of them, and not simply for personal reasons, but because they genuinely believe their politics would be better for the world, say, well, let’s go for the low turnout, let’s go for taking power. Let’s go for having, doing the things that we ought to do when we’re in power. So this competitive element of politics has made it very difficult to reform. And that’s a really, really important point in that podcast. It’s a really, really important point about system failure, which is the problem of competitive competition and the problem of the kind of tragedy of the commons, where individuals can behave in ways which are bad for the collective. And it’s difficult to create the kind of framework of incentives where the collective good wins out.
So that’s where you get to. So what happens as a consequence of this, is that politics becomes ever more embattled, politicians become ever more embattled. They are fighting a constant day to day battle. And there are things like the 24 hour media cycle, social media, which exacerbated this. And it becomes incredibly difficult then for them to renew their legitimacy. And therefore, instead of a deeper process of renewing legitimacy, they just accelerate this process of saying to the voters, you are right, and I will give you whatever you want, which is in a sense, what leads to populism. And non populist politicians have to accept responsibility for the rise of populism, because what they have been saying, this is the non populists, which is ‘the only reason there’s anything wrong with your life is because the wrong people are in charge’ is simply what populists say, but populists say it with a fervour. Because non populists, no, it’s not true, but they think it’s the game. Populists, actually, some of them really do believe that if only their tribe was in control, everything would be OK, or they manage to convince the public of that. So what is the solution to this? This is the analysis. The solution is we need radical democratic renewal. And there are ways in which we can relegitimise politics. And precisely because of the analysis I’ve just shared with you, one of my personal kind of crusades for many, many years, and I’m really, really hopeful about this because it’s growing around the world, is the rise of deliberative democratic methods.
So the rise of bringing together representative samples of citizens, and asking them to come to solutions on issues like climate change or, in our country, the funding of social care, or whatever it might be. Now, these deliberative methods which relegitimise politics by demonstrating that these are the solutions that ordinary citizens support, and can therefore give politicians greater legitimacy in doing the right thing. Because what comes out of deliberation is two things: first of all, that citizens are perfectly capable of reaching thoughtful solutions together, and secondly, that when they do deliberate, they tend to come up with solutions that are more collectivist, more socially conscious, and more long term than the solutions that they come up with when they’re simply asked to vote for their own individual preferences. This can enable us to relegitimise politics. And if we relegitimise politics, politics will be able to do more of the job that the authorities should be doing as part of our way in which we solve issues like climate change. So that’s the kind of cycle: you understand politics as the problem of one element of hierarchy. It’s part of a broader leadership, a legitimacy crisis. Because authority is an essential component of human motivation, an essential component of any solution, you therefore need to think about how you relegitimise authority. And there are a variety of ways in which you can go about that. But deliberative democracy is in the political domain, one of the most powerful ideas that we have at the moment, and I’m delighted to see that it’s spreading all around the world.
Manda: So in practical terms, I’m aware of the time, in the UK, if people really wanted to make a difference to how the UK is run, and wanted to relegitimise our politics, what can we do both individually and collectively to move us towards a more legitimate and frankly effective method of politics?
Matthew: So I think that what we need to, I mean, I think there are lots of answers to that. And if you want me to kind of identify what I think is, certainly one set of things that people could think about, it is that we have a politics now which is characterised by kind of populist individualism, and now also the kind of populist tribalism. And what I would encourage people to do is to think of any ways in which they individually, but also by putting pressure on politicians and others, can encourage us to step out of the individualistic and tribalistic nature of our politics. So that would be, you know, at a very personal level. Think about who your friends are. Think about whether you have friends who are different to you, not just demographically, although that’s important, that you have friends of a different age, of different ethnicity, of different class. But do you have friends who don’t agree with you? You know, if you are a leaver, do you have Brexit friends, or whatever it might be? And do you treat those people with some respect? Do you try to have conversations with them, or do you merely ‘other’ them? And then at the group level, if you’re in an organisation, what do you do in your organisation to ensure that people of different kind of backgrounds and perspectives, have time together to get to know each other better, to respect each other better?
Probably the single biggest divide in our society is not actually between young and old, or black and white, or male or female. It’s between people who run organisations, and the unemployed. Most people who run organisations don’t know anybody who’s unemployed, and most people unemployed don’t know anybody who makes hiring decisions. So what are you doing to reach out in your organisation? Encourage your organisation to reach out, to hear other voices, to connect people, and then at the political level, encourage your politicians, encourage in your local community, the use of deliberative methods, methods which bring people together to share responsibility for trying to solve a problem. And even better, not only for solving that problem, but for then implementing that solution together. So there are a whole variety of ways in which we as individuals can seek to overcome the individualistic and tribalistic nature of political discourse in order to generate innovations and different ways of thinking and acting together.
Manda: Brilliant. OK, so much more that I would like to ask you, but we are absolutely out of time. So, Matthew, thank you so much for taking the time to come on to the podcast. And I sincerely hope that all of our listeners will head out, and begin to do exactly what you’ve suggested. Thank you.
Matthew: Thank you, Manda.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Matthew for the clarity with which he expresses extremely complex problems. It’s not often that we have someone who has thought about things in such depth, and is able to express them in ways that makes human behaviour sound simple, when in fact we all know it is extremely complex. And yet we have to find the simplicity. We have to get to the heart of why we do what we do, and how we can change the trajectory with which we are currently doing it, in time. And I think Matthew has given us ideas of that. If we can begin to speak across the divides in the ways that Braver Angels suggested, in the ways that Sue suggested when we talked to the Sacred Design Lab, in the ways that almost everybody is reaching towards, but nobody has yet expressed with quite such clarity. Then we can begin to see that we are all on the same team, that we need all to work together, that finding the differences between our tribes is not useful any more, people.
So if you’re going to do anything in the next week, please go out and cross some divides. Think of ways that you can begin to bridge divides in your own community. Bring people together, get people talking together, find ways to enhance our similarities, rather than finding distinction in our differences. So that’s your mission: head off and do it, and we will be back next week with another conversation. In the meantime, thanks to Caro C for the editing, the production and the music at the head and foot. Thanks to Faith Tillery for the tech and the website. We’re at accidentalgods.life. You’ll find us there for the show notes, for the podcast that Matthew referred to, for the membership programme, which helps us all to make more connexions to the more than human world, and to all of the other podcasts. And as ever, if you know of anybody else who really wants to be part of the generative dance of the world, who wants to help shape a more beautiful future that our hearts know is possible, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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