Aotearoa New Zealand has been consumed today by discussion of the varied fiascos around the government’s COVID-19 border quarantine and self-isolation policies and practices. Obviously there have been a wide range of failures here, which cannot be reduced to a single source. But I want to draw attention to a specific, very consistent element of the Ministry of Health’s attitude to COVID-19 policy that has, in my view, caused problems for the government’s COVID-19 response from the beginning, and which now risks wrecking the enormous progress the country has made in the goal of eliminating COVID-19.

Put bluntly, the Ministry of Health is absolutely convinced that there is very little point in testing non-symptomatic people. This has been clear in their testing guidelines from the beginning, and the great difficulty people had getting tested. It is now confirmed in testimony from people who have recently arrived in the country, and who were unable to persuade MoH staff to test them even as part of the government-overseen isolation process. Per this 1 News report:

She and her family members also didn’t get tested before leaving yesterday, because she was told it was optional. “She then said to us that it was pointless us having the test done unless we were showing any symptoms.” Another woman who stayed at the same hotel as the two new positive cases says she was told the same thing. She got a test anyway, but now, home, still hasn’t received her result.

Why is the MoH so determined not to test non-symptomatic people? Obviously the following is somewhat conjectural, but in my view some core elements of the NZ government’s view on COVID-19 are as follows:

First, the government is convinced that asymptomatic transmission of the virus is extremely rare. Asymptomatic here means not just “non-symptomatic”, but “will never become symptomatic.”

Second, the government is convinced that symptomatic cases can be identified when symptoms emerge, and contact tracing can then take care of any transmission that took place in the few days before symptoms emerged.

Third, these opinions are supplemented by the recognised statistical fact that interpreting the likelihood of a false positive in a test result is highly dependent on the underlying probability that the individual being tested has the condition.

Fourth, the government is convinced that for these reasons, those calling for widespread testing of non-symptomatic people are being irrational. To the extent that the government are willing to test non-symptomatic people they will do so reluctantly and tardily, in order to (in their eyes) placate a hysterical public and media, or at best out of a hyper-abundance of caution, rather than for good public health policy reasons.

Fifth, and particularly irrationally, these attitudes have been extended even to the testing of individuals in mandatory isolation to attempt to prevent new COVID-19 cases from circulating within the country.

All of these positions are problematic. It is plausible but not established that asymptomatic transmission is very rare; it is easy to miss the symptoms even of symptomatic cases – as in fact happened with the two new cases of COVID-19, one of whose symptoms was apparently (mis)attributed to a pre-existing condition; the risk of statistical artefacts can be greatly reduced by repeated testing; it is in fact extremely rational to adopt a policy of broader testing, as I argued in an earlier post; and none of this makes any sense when you’re talking about a process that has specifically been designed to prevent new COVID-19 cases from entering an as-far-as-we-know currently otherwise virus-free country.

And yet the Ministry of Health and the government more broadly, in my view, remain in the grip of a baseless conviction that calls for testing of non-symptomatic cases are fundamentally silly, a demand to be placated rather than acted upon. Until the MoH abandons this idée fixe, the country will not be able to adopt a fully rational COVID-19 pandemic policy.

I’ve had enough separate conversations in which I’ve had to demonstrate what John Edmunds actually said on the Channel 4 coronavirus special of March 13, that I’ve decided to transcribe the entire segment for ease of future reference. I may well come up behind this and add some comments at the end, but for now I’m just going to publish the transcript.

The segment itself can be watched here, beginning at 9:50 and ending at 23:55.

TRANSCRIPT

Presenter: Well joining me now is John Edmunds, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, he works on the mapping of infectious diseases and is currently advising the government on the coronavirus, and from California a silicon valley executive and writer Tomas Pueyo, he’s not a scientist but his detailed modelling of the virus’s spread has set the internet alight with its stark warnings about the rate of infection. Welcome to you both.

Let me start with you Tomas, in California. President Trump we just heard a few minutes ago has declared a state of national emergency. What will actually change now, because of that?

Pueyo: The country has moved from trying to contain the illness from outside to making sure that inside it doesn’t transmit, and that’s the key here, they’re realising “oh my god, it’s [not] that it’s coming from outside, it’s here, it’s spreading, it’s everywhere, and we need to stop this, we need to stop the transmission between different people, so that’s what they’re trying to do – they’re trying to create social distancing, keeping people spread, not everybody together, so that the transmission goes down.

Presenter: So can we now expect, as a result of this state of national emergency, the kind of measures in America that we’ve seen in places like Italy?

Pueyo: I think we will. Italy’s different from the US, obviously, individual freedoms are substantially more important here, but it is the only thing that is going to stop this thing.

Presenter: Ok. So you welcome this move, of the President today?

Pueyo: Absolutely, not only do I but the markets are also responding, they were up four percent in the US as Trump was speaking.

Presenter: Ok, I want to get back to you in a minute because I want to talk to you about your particular modelling of this virus, but John Edmunds, should we be declaring a state of national emergency here – something as dramatic as that?

Edmunds: No.

Presenter: No?

Edmunds: For what gain? What gain would we get from that? So we’re going to get people up into a panic and stuff? We need people to come with us in a stepwise way. This epidemic is not going to be over in a week or a month, this epidemic is going to last for most of this year, and so if we’re going to ask people to change their behaviour quite radically, it’s going to be very difficult for them to do, it’s going to have major economic and social impacts, on them, then we’re going to have to limit the amount that we’re going to ask them to do, yeah?

Presenter: Limit the amount that we’re going to ask people to do.

Edmunds: So we stop the epidemic, or we slow the epidemic right down, so that the NHS doesn’t become overwhelmed, hospitals don’t become overwhelmed, that’s the idea. The only way to stop this epidemic is indeed to achieve herd immunity.

Presenter: Ok. Tomas Pueyo, you’re shaking your head and now you’ve got your head buried in your hands, what’s your response to what John Edmunds just said?

Pueyo: This is like deciding, you know what, this forest might burn so let’s cut a third of it. This is crazy. We want to have ten, twenty, thirty percent of the population catch this, the UK has what sixty six million people, that’s how many people, that’s around twenty million people, one percent of these people are going to die, so we’re saying that we want to kill 200,000 people in the UK, so that’s –

Presenter: I don’t think anyone is saying that, I don’t think anyone is saying that, but I think there is a real debate in the scientific community going on about the value of herd immunity, so just briefly, what do you think about the value of herd immunity, and can it be created through the measures that the government is introducing right now?

Pueyo: We need to understand what it means, this herd immunity, they’re saying everybody’s going to catch it, so once they catch it they can’t catch it any more. That’s crazy, we don’t want people to catch it, we want people not to catch it, ‘cause otherwise they’re going to die, and right now the cases are going exponentially, in a week the NHS is starting to be collapsed, in two weeks it’s going to be completely collapsed, if we don’t take measures now then people are going to panic, maybe not today, if we don’t take the measures, but they’re going to definitely panic next week or in two weeks, we have thirteen days of advance compared to Italy, right, they thought the exact same thing two weeks ago, and then one week later they realised “oh my god this is exploding”, they have now what, 17,000 cases? It’s exploding there, they realised too late that they were not containing this, UK now has an opportunity to catch this before the weekend, and we need to catch this before the weekend, because everybody’s going to spread this, with their friends, with their families, that they haven’t been seeing during the week, so it needs to be declared now, that’s why

Presenter: OK, Tomas, let’s bring in John, I mean, has he got a point here, we’ve got to catch this right now?

Edmunds: There’s two things, there’s two strategies, with a new virus, a new epidemic, there’s two strategies: one, you can stamp out every single case in the world, every single case _in the world_, and then the virus, then you’re free. You’ve stopped that epidemic without achieving herd immunity, but you must get every single case in the world. When the mild disease, that’s incredibly difficult. That’s the phase that we were in when we were trying to do containment and everybody else was trying to do containment, yeah? Trying to stamp out every single case in the world. It hasn’t worked, yeah? We haven’t managed to do that. The next phase, when the virus – the genie is out of the bottle, the virus is all around the world and spreading, the next phase, the only other way that the epidemic is going to come to a stop is ‘achieving herd immunity’, this is – and let me explain, there are different ways that you can… The natural way, that this will is happen, is the epidemic will run very fast, and the epidemic will come up and come down very fast, and the herd immunity threshold is reached not at the end of the epidemic, that’s what people sort of think, it’s not at the end of the epidemic, it’s at the peak of the epidemic. At that point there’s not enough susceptibles in the population to spread, and it’s very important to understand this one further point, because at the peak there’s so many infectious individuals that they all infect so many other individuals, and so if you can bring the number of infectious people down at the peak, then the epidemic doesn’t overshoot, you can manage the epidemic and reduce the total number of

Presenter: [Right.]

Edmunds: So you can achieve herd immunity and not have an epidemic overshooting.

Presenter: But the trouble is, you know, this

Edmunds: You do that by aggressive measures.

Presenter: This is a very important debate, and it’s happening right now in the scientific community, as we discover on air, but getting away from the abstracts, in practice what this means is there will be many many people, vulnerable people in this community, who may die as a result of what is essentially an experiment

Edmunds: But there’s no way out of it now.

Presenter: There’s no way out of it?

Edmunds: No. There’s no way out of that.

Presenter: Ok.

Edmunds: So we’ve given up on the containment phase, that hasn’t worked

Presenter: But, but

Edmunds: I mean Tomas can throw his arms up as much as he likes but that hasn’t worked, yeah?

Presenter: Ok, but the point is that we’re the only country as far as I know that is espousing this model, I mean the Italians are telling us that they wish they had done it earlier, they wish they had told their population two weeks ago, you know, a lockdown means you don’t go to the cafe, you don’t go to the pizzeria, you stay home.

Edmunds: And what happens when they release the lockdown?

Presenter: What does happen then?

Edmunds: It comes back.

Presenter: But is that inevitable?

Edmunds: Because you haven’t got rid of – yes it’s inevitable, if there’s virus around in the population, there’s infectious people, so unless you’ve stamped every case out, not just in – _every case_, not just in Italy but around the world, as soon as you release them out of lockdown it comes back.

Presenter: This is a really crucial question, Tomas, what’s to say that once China, you know, people go back to the factories and back to the offices and traffic’s back on the streets, that this thing won’t come back?

Edmunds: It will come back.

Presenter: And possibly worse the second time round?

Pueyo: It will, but the key there is not to have it big, because when you have it big you have hundreds of thousands or millions of people collapsing the NHS, and when you do that all the people cannot share the ventilators that you need, all the people who are having heart attacks right now cannot get to the E.R., and so what we need is not to have this huge peak, collapsing everything, killing everybody, what we need is to what we call ‘flatten the curve’, slowly grow these cases, contain it so they can be spread over time, we can achieve herd immunity not in two weeks going crazy, but in six months, in a year, meanwhile

Presenter: But that’s what the government – sorry to interrupt Tomas, but that’s exactly what the prime minister was saying yesterday in his rather colourful language, they’re saying we’ve got to flatten the sombrero, that’s what they’re trying to do here by delaying the virus.

Pueyo: That’s right, and how do you do it, you need to take measures where people don’t talk to each other, they don’t interact with each other, so they don’t transmit the virus, so you need to take measures _now_ to avoid people interacting. Now.

Presenter: Doesn’t he have a point, John?

Edmunds: Well it’s exactly the point I was making. So the only way to do this is to achieve herd immunity, to stop this epidemic, and you impose social distance measures to slow it down, to bring the peak down, to spread it out over time, but if we’re going to bring the peak down from a very high point and spread it over time then we’re going to spread it over a very long period of time, six months to a year is what we’re going to – we’re going to be living with this epidemic for that kind of length of time, and so if we’re going to ask people to take these really extreme measures then we don’t really want to ask them to do it before they have to, because they’re going to have to do it for a very long time. Now the epidemic is moving fast, and we will be asking them to do these measures very soon.

Presenter: Let me ask cynically whether there is an element of this that the government doesn’t want to shut down the economy, sacrifice the economy completely as we’ve seen in other countries while it is trying to find the right solution.

Edmunds: Look there’s no easy way out of this. All of these are going to be hugely damaging to people, to people’s lives and the economy, and there is of course a balance, so you have to try and get it, you know, get the epidemic, manage the epidemic as best we can, _and_ manage the other aspects of – we have to manage the economy, of course we do, we can’t ignore that completely, so –

Presenter: But our priority is to save lives

Edmunds: Of course it is.

Presenter: Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet – prestigious medical journal – has said that our policy at the moment, the government policy, is “playing roulette with the public”.

Edmunds: That’s a kind of easy thing to say isn’t it, you know, that’s a very easy thing to say. But I don’t think they are, I think what they’re doing is trying to take it sensibly, stage it – look, you’ll see measures coming in very fast now, the epidemic is moving, you’ll see measures coming in, so we will be asked to do – and all of us will have to take care to do those things

Presenter: When? When will those measures come in do you think?

Edmunds: Very soon now.

Presenter: In the next few days?

Edmunds: Within – certainly within a week or so

Presenter: And these will be lockdowns of cities,

Edmunds: No, I don’t think we’re going to

Presenter: We’re not going to go that far?

Edmunds: Not, not initially, but we may get there, yeah? We are going to be asking people to take extra measures, they’ve already been flagged up, you had them on your VT that you showed just before, the prime minister talking about the next measures that might be along the line.

Presenter: So you don’t think we’re dragging our feet on this? With possibly dangerous consequences?

Edmunds: I think we’re trying to stage it as best we can.

Presenter: Tomas? If we impose restrictions tomorrow or the day after, you know this weekend, as you just said, is that going to be early enough in order to stop us from becoming Italy in thirteen days time?

Pueyo: With the current number of cases that we have in the UK, around 800, and the growth rate day over day that we have, in a week we have 6,000 official cases, and in two weeks we have 45,000. We have today more cases than Wuhan had when it shut down. What they did when they shut it down was completely cut it, you can see the growth in [new] cases going dramatically down overnight, and now China has only a handful, a few dozen cases every day. They decided “we’re going to go aggressive _now_, so that later on we don’t need them to be suffering all these consequences, and that was the right move because this is going exponentially, so what you need to do is, when it’s going exponentially, you catch it early, and you really really go aggressive against it. You don’t let it fester to collapse the NHS. If you do that then you can relax little by little over the weeks, over the months, the measures, so that now we have more capacity on the NHS, and the cases are spread out over time.

Presenter: And just, Tomas, explain to us, you wrote this article, it went viral on the internet, your modelling for why these, you know, for explaining why the numbers of infections will double every two days, how do you explain that? Based on the China model?

Pueyo: It really depends on what’s happening at every moment, right now this thing is going really really fast in the UK, right? We have 800 cases, it’s growing at 33 percent every day, that means in three days you get 1,900, so it’s more than doubling in the next three days, and so what’s happening is early on when this thing is really catching up cases explode and they grow at say 2x, like they double every two days, and this is the situation in which the UK is today, it is the situation in which Italy was a week ago, it is the situation in which Spain is right now

Presenter: OK, all right, OK. Joh why are you shaking your head at those numbers?

Edmunds: It’s true if you just look crudely at the numbers that the number of cases are doubling about every two and a half days, but that’s because they’re doing more contact tracing, the actual underlying rate of doubling is more like about every five days.

Presenter: Ok, we’ve got to leave it there. John Edmunds, Tomas Pueyo, thank you very much indeed.

In his 1954 lecture ‘What does the economist economise?’, Dennis Robertson writes:

There exists in every human breast an inevitable state of tension between the aggressive and acquisitive instincts and the instincts of benevolence and self-sacrifice. It is for the preacher, lay or clerical, to inculcate the ultimate duty of subordinating the former to the latter. It is the humbler, and often the invidious, role of the economist to help, so far as he can, in reducing the preacher’s task to manageable dimensions. It is his function to emit a warning bark if he sees courses of action being advocated or pursued which will increase unnecessarily the inevitable tension between self-interest and public duty; and to wag his tail in approval of courses of action which will tend to keep the tension low and tolerable.

This passage is approvingly quoted in Part One of Buchanan and Tullock’s ‘The calculus of consent’. And this basic idea informs much of public choice theory – a branch of economics and political science that uses tools often associated with microeconomics to analyse political decision-making. Slightly more specifically, public choice theory often focuses on the ways in which political decision-makers’ individual interests and incentive structures influence their policy-making, frequently to the detriment of ‘the public good’. In Buchanan’s words, in his 1986 Nobel lecture:

Economists should cease proffering policy advice as if they were employed by a benevolent despot, and they should look to the structure within which political decisions are made.

As Robertson says, the idea here is not that altruistic acts are in some way incompatible with human nature; it is, rather, that an institutional structure that heavily relies on altruistic acts for its ongoing stability is likely to be more fragile, all else equal, than an institution that accommodates less noble motives as a major component of its day-to-day functioning. Acts of heroism, kindness, self-sacrifice, selflessness – these are, contrary to more pessimistic views of ‘human nature’, extremely widespread. But a political-economic institution that relies upon these facets of human nature for its day-to-day reproduction, and that will quickly fall apart in their absence – such an institution is at constant risk of either collapse, or transformation into an institution that does accommodate less noble elements of human behaviour, perhaps to the detriment of its intended or apparent goals.

This ‘pessimistic’ public choice vision of political-economic institutions has often not found favour on the left. Leftist critics of public choice theory – or of the broader liberal tradition of which it is apart – tend to object both to its methodological individualism, and to the kind of ‘human nature’ that is tacitly or overtly ascribed to the individuals it considers. For many leftists, furthermore, the public choice approach to political economy is less an analysis of the pitfalls of collective action, than it is an attempt to undermine or attack successful collective action, in the service of right-wing, anti-statist interests and policies. From this left perspective, public choice theorists attempt to emphasise the ways in which institutions of collective action are liable to fail, because public choice theorists want such institutions to fail: by arguing that the successful collective provision of social goods is difficult or impossible, and that apparently successful collective action is really a mask for individual self-interest, public choice theorists serve the interests of those opposed to emancipatory collective action.

There is much to be said for this left critique of public choice theory. Public choice theory has, indeed, typically emerged from and aligned itself with the right of the political spectrum, and sought to provide intellectual resources and arguments for those who wish to greatly reduce the size of the state and the scope of democratic or collective social decision-making. It is, primarily, a conservative school of thought, and much of the public choice tradition cannot usefully be interpreted unless its analysis is seen as informed and shaped by conservative political commitments.

But should the tools of public choice theory be exclusively the property of the right? Does it benefit the left for this to be the case? In my view, the answer to these questions is ‘no’, and a ‘public choice theory of the left’ is a worthwhile project, no matter our views on ‘actually existing public choice theory’.

Why is this so? First of all, analytically speaking, there is a lot of potential common ground between public choice theory and traditional left critical analysis: the capture of powerful institutions by special interest groups and the use of power to advance the interests of those with power, as against the broader public good… they are not themes that are entirely alien to left analysis. Public choice approaches should be capable of use for left critique.

Secondly, though, the normative public choice critique of would-be emancipatory collective action also carries weight: the left ought to reckon with this category of critique of its own projects and institutions. Public choice theory is suspicious that institutions – paradigmatically state institutions – that are intended to serve the common good have a tendency to serve instead the interests of those who wield power within those institutions. If left politics aspires to create institutions that are not disastrously vulnerable to this phenomenon, it needs to reckon with this risk and this critique. Moreover, it needs (I would argue) to reckon with this critique in a way that does not appeal to unrealistically utopian claims about long-term selfless action on the part of key social actors.

Perhaps the paradigmatic case here is Soviet communism. For many critics of the USSR, the Bolshevik project was intrinsically flawed because the institutions it proposed and implemented in the name of emancipation were always likely to result instead in state power serving the interests of a governing elite rather than the broader citizenry. Of course, there are many on the left who reject this analysis. But there are also many on the left – including me – who agree that Soviet-style communism was in practice a novel form of domination and oppression rather than a fundamentally emancipatory project. And this judgement raises the question of how to evaluate leftist transformative proposals, to ensure that would-be emancipatory institutions are likely to genuinely be emancipatory.

In my post on Erik Olin Wright’s ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’, I discussed one leftist response to this problem: Wright’s centring of ‘social power’ (as against state power) as the ‘true north’ that should guide ‘the socialist compass’. I argued, against Wright, that there is in fact no reason to believe that ‘social power’ is intrinsically more emancipatory than ‘state power’ or indeed ‘market power’ – that we need more fine-grained criteria for evaluating political-economic institutional proposals, to assess whether these proposals are likely to move us in a more or less emancipatory dimension.

The insight from Robertson with which I started this post, I believe, offers one such useful criterion (of course at a very high level of abstraction). As Robertson writes, we can distinguish between on the one hand institutions that, for their emancipatory functioning, require members of the institutions to persistently navigate a high tension between their own personal interests and those of the ‘public good’, and, on the other hand, institutions that reduce the tension between self-interest and public duty to a “low and tolerable” level. Institutions of the latter sort are, all else equal, more likely to be sustainable. The task for leftists is to construct institutions that are emancipatory in their outcomes and processes, while also exhibiting this feature.

In the jargon of game theory, this kind of institution design challenge is known as “incentive-compatible institution design”. That is to say: when we are constructing political-economic institutions, we want to construct those institutions in such a way that the incentives of individuals within the institutions are aligned with the tasks we would want those individuals to fulfill. In the maxim of many introductory economics courses: “incentives matter”.

This is a lesson that should be applicable across a broad range of categories of institutions. It should not be restricted to the political projects of the right, or to the critique of the left. And the left, I think, needs to get better at thinking about institutions in these terms. Paying closer attention to public choice theory is perhaps one route via which that could be accomplished.

There are strong indications that New Zealand will soon be moving down from Alert Level 4 – ‘full lockdown’ – to lower alert levels. In my view it would be a serious mistake to do this without instituting a substantial SARS-CoV-2 testing program for health- and aged care workers. I’ll briefly explain why.

For background: we know that New Zealand’s ‘lockdown’ period has greatly reduced the number of new cases of COVID-19 – here’s a simple chart I made using Ministry of Health data showing daily new cases.

SARSCoV01

This represents an apparent success of the New Zealand policy of not just ‘flattening the curve’ but attempting to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 such that only a small number of cases remain in the country. The government hopes that if this can be achieved, in combination with strict border controls, then the few remaining new cases can be contained using self-isolation and contact tracing, preventing the kind of broader community outbreaks we have seen elsewhere in the world.

Across this period, the government has also significantly increased its testing capacity, and the number of tests typically carried out each day. Here’s a chart I’ve taken from Newsroom, showing daily tests carried out.

SARSCoV02

The government has nevertheless been reluctant to test people not showing respiratory symptoms of COVID-19. In early days of the pandemic, NZ government guidelines suggested that people should only be tested if they showed symptoms of COVID-19 and were either contacts of a known case of COVID-19 or had recently travelled overseas. At the end of March, the government broadened its guidelines such that anyone showing respiratory symptoms could be tested, regardless of travel history or contacts. Only in the last few days has the government begun testing people without symptoms, using testing centres in specific, targeted locations, to collect more data on the possibility of community spread in potential COVID-19 ‘hotspots’.

This expansion of testing is good, and long overdue. However, in my view the government is making a serious mistake by not also implementing a large-scale randomised testing program of health- and aged care workers. This is for three broad reasons.

First: Health and aged-care workers are essential workers who by the nature of their work are much more likely than most Kiwis to be exposed to the virus. Cases of COVID-19 among health- and aged-care workers can therefore potentially function as useful ‘sentinels’ for detecting broader community transmission, without the waste of resources (and the same degree of likelihood of false positives) associated with mass community testing.

Second: To state the obvious, health- and aged care workers are much more likely than most Kiwis to transmit the virus to vulnerable individuals, because their job is to care for people who are much more likely than most Kiwis to be vulnerable to COVID-19. Identifying infection among health- and aged care workers early is therefore likely to have a high potential payoff in terms of lives saved.

Third, and relatedly: The modelling of virus spread across New Zealand (such as that carried out by Te Pūnaha Matatini or commissioned by the Ministry of Health) has focussed on the population of the country as a whole. However, we of course know that there can be localised outbreaks or ‘clusters’, where the virus is very widespread within a specific subcommunity. The Rosewood rest home is one such cluster; as of writing, seven of New Zealand’s eleven COVID-19-related deaths have occured within this cluster.

It is potentially disastrous when a hospital or aged care institution – or even worse the hospital or aged care system as a whole – becomes such a ‘cluster’, within which the virus is widespread. We know from other countries’ experiences that the impact of COVID-19 is most disastrous when the healthcare system is pushed beyond capacity, resulting in an immediate increase in the death rate from COVID-19, as well as many other negative health impacts associated with care not being provided for other conditions. In other countries, this scenario has typically occurred because the number of COVID-19 cases in the broader community has exceeded hospitals’ capacity. However, the spread of SARS-CoV-2 within the hospital system itself will of course also reduce hospitals’ capacity, as well as increase the risks to all patients within the system. The same applies to aged care facilities, which by their nature concentrate people in the demographics most vulnerable to the virus.

It is possible to imagine a scenario, for example, in which broad community incidence of COVID-19 remains very low, but COVID-19 is widespread within a hospital or hospitals, and this scenario would have a disproportionate negative impact on both New Zealand’s COVID-19 death rate, and on our ability to manage the virus, regardless of the success of the rest of the government’s COVID-19 strategy. Moreover, it would be difficult to suppress the virus, in this scenario, because hospitals are by their nature essential services which cannot be ‘locked down’ without very severe health consequences for the communities they serve.

For these reasons, it is worth adopting a highly precautionary approach to ensuring that SARS-CoV-2 does not spread within the health- and aged care systems. These institutions are a ‘weak point’ in our ability to deal with COVID-19. Given the extreme measures we have taken to combat COVID-19 (including near-complete closure of the country’s borders, and level 4 alert measures nationwide) it seems reckless and irrational for the government to fail to implement a much less extreme measure – widespread randomised testing of health- and aged care workers – that could have a disproportionate impact on our ability to successfully manage COVID-19 and its consequences. The government should implement such a testing policy as a matter of urgency.

This is a hopefully quick, very informal post on Erik Olin Wright’s ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’, in which I’ll outline some key elements of the book, and then offer some brief criticisms.

Wright’s Utopia’s book has a number of components, but I think the core of it is two elements:

First: a set of proposals for emancipatory political-economic institutions.

Second: a discussion of the criteria for evaluating institutional proposals.

It’s this second one that I’m interested in here. And I think to understand this element of the book it helps to put Wright in political context.

So – one popular way of understanding a key political fight of the 20th century is as a conflict between capitalism, represented by market economies, and communism, represented by planned economies. This can be seen as a dichotomy, and it can also be seen as a spectrum. Moreover, other political values and institutions that might not on their face seem to have much connection to the ‘market’ versus ‘state’ dichotomy or spectrum were and are frequently mapped onto this dichotomy by both ‘sides’. Thus, if you are, let’s say, a Hayekian defender of free markets, you might tend to argue that any moves towards greater central planning are likely also to be moves towards authoritarianism, with accompanying loss of both liberal and democratic rights. Likewise, if you are, let’s say, a Leninist defender of communist political structures, you might well argue that moves towards democratic pluralism or liberal rights are counter-revolutionary efforts to undermine communism’s egalitarian project. In this way, broader issues of political values and goals get folded into the ‘state/market’ dichotomy or spectrum.

Wright rejects this political framing, and I think he rejects it for reasons that connect to the broader project of the (obviously no longer very new) New Left. Speaking very crudely, the New Left saw itself as opposed to characteristically capitalist forms of oppression and domination; it also opposed the oppressions and dominations of so-called ‘actually existing’ communist regimes; moreover, it rejected the idea that technocratic Keynesian social-democratic state structures were a satisfactory alternative to these two supposed poles of the political spectrum. This New Left tradition sought instead to find an alternative route – anti-authoritarian but also anti-capitalist – through the problems of institutional political economy thrown up by industrial and post-industrial society.

Wright’s basic idea, in this normative dimension of his work, is that instead of seeing political-economic institution design as a tug-of-war between state and market, we should introduce the third category of civil society. For Wright there are three basic categories of power at work in society: market power, state power, and social power. From this perspective, capitalism is a society dominated by market power, authoritarian communism is a society dominated by state power, and social democracy is a society that aims to balance state and market power – but these are not our only options. Instead, we can choose to develop institutions that increase ‘social power’ within our society, at the expense of market and state power. This can be achieved by increasing the relative importance of civil society institutions relative to state and market institutions, or it can be achieved by transforming state or market institutions such that they better channel and are subordinated to social power.

The political motivation of this project, as I see it, is Wright’s effort to make sense of what went wrong with the 20th century communist projects. For many 19th and 20th century leftists, as Wright sees it, capitalism was seen as oppressive, politics was understood in terms of the state-market dichotomy, and it logically followed that if you were anti-capitalist you would be pro-statist: the market was the location of oppression, therefore the state was the location of emancipation. For sure, socialists and communists were aware that the state could be and is oppressive in its own right; but it was often assumed that expansion and control of statist political institutions was a precondition of emancipation, and worries about state oppression tended to be downplayed in the service of the socialist and communist state-building projects. For much 20th century socialism, statism was the true north of the socialist compass – and in the 20th century communist projects, this compass led socialism into novel forms of disastrous statist oppression and domination.

For Wright, this indicates a problem not just with the institutions of statist socialism and communism, but with this ‘socialist compass’ itself. Wright’s solution is to argue that social power, rather than state power, is or should be the true north of the socialist compass. The ideal of communism as emancipation was, seen through this lens, not state power as such, but the idea that state power could be used to facilitate the expansion of social power by means of state structures – leading, eventually, perhaps, to the withering away of the state altogether. The problem with this project was that state power in practice came to dominate social power – and the too-frequent failure to differentiate between state and social power led to inadequate critical resources for the left to distance itself from or reject these forms of state domination.

So, Wright argues – forget the heavy emphasis on state power and focus instead on social power. This normative criterion if carefully applied will allow us to differentiate between institutional structures that prioritise state power itself, and institutional structures that prioritise social power, even if they do so via state mechanisms. Moreover, this new compass opens a space of institution design that could in principle escape state and market structures altogether.

OK. I think putting things this way makes clear the stakes of the debate as Wright understands them. And I think this basic project – articulating emancipatory institutional alternatives without getting drawn into the apologistic orbit of forms of authoritarian communism – has a great deal to recommend it.

That said, I think Wright goes astray in how he articulates and develops this project. So, in the rest of the post I want to very briefly spell out why.

I think there are two basic problems with Wright’s framework – one analytic, one normative. I’m more interested here in the normative than the analytic, but I’ll take them in turn.

Analytic first, and very briefly. In my view this market/state/social power triptych just isn’t a very good way to think about political economy. More specifically, Wright’s understanding of capitalism is as a society in which market power dominates; but in reality (or, more neutrally, when seen from my own theoretical perspective) capitalism is a complex system that contains state and market (and many other) components, and it’s not helpful to see societies as more capitalist the more marketised they are. Wright’s is a common understanding of capitalism, but it’s a bad one.

There’s a lot more that can be said on this, but my interest here is in the normative side of things, so I’m going to move on.

On the normative side, then, the problem is as follows: there’s no intrinsic reason to think that ‘social power’ is more liberatory or emancipatory than ‘market power’ or ‘state power’. Civil society can also be oppressive, just like the state and the market: communitarian structures than involve neither state nor market structures can still be violent, oppressive, exclusionary, and so on.

Wright is aware of this problem, and raises and discusses it himself. As he puts it, the Ku Klux Klan is an example of ‘social power’, and yet of course we don’t want to institute a ‘socialist’ society that operates like the Ku Klux Klan. In Wright’s words:

the voluntary associations that comprise civil society include many nasty associations, associations based on exclusion, narrow interests, and the preservation of privilege. Voluntary associations include the KKK as well as the NAACP, associations to protect racial and class exclusiveness of neighborhoods as well as associations to promote community development and openness. Why should we believe that empowering such associations would contribute anything positive to ameliorating the harms of capitalism, let alone a broader vision of human emancipation? (93)

Wright’s response to this objection is, roughly, that although ‘social power’ can be oppressive, a society that privileges social power over state and market power is better suited to achieving liberatory political goals than other forms of social organisation. There can be no guarantees that social power will be used wisely, Wright argues, but there are no guarantees associated with any form of political organisation. In Wright’s words:

A socialist democracy rooted in social empowerment though associations in civil society would face… challenges: how to devise institutional rules of the game of democratic deepening and associational empowerment which would foster the radical democratic egalitarian conception of emancipation. My assumption here is not that a socialism of social empowerment inevitably will successfully meet this challenge, but that moving along the pathways of social empowerment will provide a more favorable terrain on which to struggle for these ideals than does either capitalism or statism. (94)

I think Wright is correct to emphasise that no category of institutional structure comes with emancipatory guarantees – the task of ensuring our institutions are emancipatory rather than oppressive is ongoing and never-ending.

For this reason, however, it seems misguided to me to assume that degree of ‘social power’ can be used as a useful general yardstick against which to measure proposed institutions. Just as many 19th and 20th century socialists saw statism as the precondition of a just society, and neglected to think seriously enough about the oppressive forms that supposedly socialist state structures could and ultimately did take, so Wright’s emphasis on ‘social power’ seems to me likely to replicate the same problem, but with reference to social rather than state power. Social power may achieve emancipatory outcomes; but it may also institute novel forms of oppression. Similarly, state and market structures may be oppressive, but they can also be part of emancipatory institutions. Degree of emancipation or oppression in my view clearly cannot be readily mapped onto the degree of relative prominence of any of Wright’s three categories of power. To be glib about it: things are more complicated that that.

For this reason, rather than treating ‘social power’ as our normative ‘true north’, we would in my view do better to use more direct evaluative criteria to assess our political institutions. Wright’s market/state/social power triptych may provide a high-level map of our political terrain, but it can’t and shouldn’t be used as a ‘compass’. If we want criteria to evaluate our institutional proposals – and this seems like a good idea to me – then we need more fine-grained and contextually sensitive ones.

Books finished: 2019

January 2, 2020

I’m going to try to institute a tradition here, where I write up some brief notes on the books I’ve read across the year. 2019 was dominated for me, intellectually speaking, by finishing up my Ph.D. thesis, and I’m not counting reading I did in that capacity – so the 2019 list is embarrassingly slight. Still – a tradition has to start somewhere. The big ‘real world’ event of 2019, for me, was moving to Aotearoa New Zealand – and this is another reason to start writing up books finished this year, because I expect a lot of my reading, going forward, to be focussed on getting to grips with Aotearoa history, politics, culture, language, etc. I’m very conscious of how imbalanced this year’s list is in a range of ways! But again, one makes a start somewhere, so:

Michael King – The Penguin History of New Zealand

This is the classic and best-selling modern one-volume history of New Zealand. Obviously I’m not in a position to evaluate it, in terms of history, but it seems good to me. Written from a mildly leftist, post-60s soft-hippy humanist ideological location, and from a Pākehā perspective which is nevertheless attentive to Māori history. Would recommend.

Janet Frame – Owls Do Cry

The first novel by one of the most prominent kiwi writers of fiction. This follows three members of a family from childhood to adulthood. The most autobiographical segment draws on Frame’s own experiences of psychiatric hospitalisation. In general the book didn’t do a huge amount for me – rightly or wrongly, I tend to find literary fiction’s mockery of characters who choose lives of would-be middle class respectability irritating.

Eric Olin Wright – Envisioning Real Utopias

I hope to write on this in an academic capacity at some point. Wright is a Marxist academic writing from a broadly New Left perspective. He is interested in saving the idea of emancipatory institutional transformation from both the disastrous failures and crimes of the twentieth century communist experiments, and ‘there is no alternative’ advocates of market capitalism. I think this is a good project – but Wright’s analytic framework is, in my view, not the best way to approach things. Hopefully I’ll flesh out a sympathetic critique at proper length at some point!

Raymond Miller – Democracy in New Zealand

An introductory textbook to New Zealand politics. Not very good on the settler-colonial context or legacy, but a useful introduction to how MMP functions in NZ and similar institutional issues.

Frederick Pitts and Matt Bolton – Corbynism: A Critical Approach

The most developed critique of Corbynism in the UK – a strange sort of synthesis of value-form Marxism and centrist talking points. Now that Corbyn is in the dustbin of history it’s probably not worth engaging with this too much – but it has some genuinely insightful stuff alongside a lot of terrible nonsense. It’s probably most notable for its articulation and dissemination of the idea that virtually any critical left discussion of ruling class agency amounts to ‘conspiracism’.

James Belich – The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict

An (at the time) revisionist history of the major New Zealand colonial wars, which emphasises Māori military accomplishments, as against earlier propagandistically pro-British accounts. The core narrative has several parts: localised conflict over British expansionism, first in the north of the country around the Bay of Islands, then in the west of the North Island around Taranaki, with considerable Māori success in repelling British encroachment on Māori land. These conflicts led to greater mobilisation: on the Māori side, the formation of the Kīngitanga movement in central Waikato, as a way of pooling and centralising the military effort; on the British side, the mobilisation of a significant portion of the global British imperial military forces to destroy the Kīngitanga movement via an invasion of the Waikato. This invasion was ultimately largely successful; the last part of the book is focussed on ongoing quasi-guerilla movement resistance, which is a significant break from the organised military structures of earlier conflicts. The book was adapted into a TV series, but I found the book easier to follow than the show: the TV series focuses mostly on specific battles, whereas the book also discusses the strategic context, which is important for understanding what’s happening.

Michael King – Being Pakeha

An autobiographical reflection on Pākehā ethnic identity, and on the author’s journalistic and scholarly engagement with Māori communities. I read the 1985 version of the book – King updated the work in 1999, and I should try to look at the revised version as well. I probably need to think about this one more, in terms of substantive argument, but it’s a good, sympathetic read.

I’ve talked on this blog before about three different concepts of liberty: negative liberty, in the sense of action unconstrained by others’ coercion; capabilities liberty, in the sense of possessing the material and social resources and capacities required to make use of one’s negative liberty; and positive liberty, in the sense of active participation in self-governance.

When I was taught political philosophy at an undergraduate level, I remember a lot of focus on liberty versus equality, with the idea that there was some trade-off between the two. Obviously one can value equality for itself – but I tend now to think that equality, at least in the sense of material equality, is mostly a derivative political virtue. The main reason we should value material equality, and the kinds of redistributive politics associated with it, is because of those policies’ impact on capabilities and positive liberty. Material redistribution increases capabilities liberty by directly increasing people’s material and social capabilities – destitution is a form of unfreedom, and redistributive policy therefore increases liberty in at least this sense. Moreover, at the other end of the material wealth spectrum, extremely high levels of wealth can be transformed into political power and influence, so reducing wealth inequality also reduces the inequality in forms of political voice and influence associated with wealth – which is in turn likely to increase the positive liberty of the non-wealthy. So: the major virtues of this kind of egalitarian policy can be derived from principles of liberty – and I think this is often a better way to think about the normative or political or ethical warrant for such policies than to simply value equality itself.

Similarly, I remember a lot of attention in my introductory political philosophy classes focusing on principles of political legitimacy, which were more often than not as I recall understood in democratic terms: a governance system only has legitimacy if it enjoys the endorsement of the governed, in some sense. Here, again, the principle of ‘positive liberty’ seems very similar indeed – so it seems like a lot of issues in normative political theory can ‘drop out’ of these basic ideas of liberty.

OK. So – if we are thinking about principles of institution-design in these terms, we are thinking in terms of trade-offs. We need to think of trade-offs between individuals: is it worth reducing my negative liberty to engage in some action, if that action also constrains the negative liberty of others? We also need to think of trade-offs between categories of liberty: is it worth risking a loss of negative liberty to make a gain in capabilities liberty, or vice versa? These two forms of trade-off seem to capture a lot – obviously by no means all, but a lot – of the normative problems we confront when thinking about political and political-economic institution design.

The project yet again

December 26, 2019

Time, perhaps, for one of my frequent updates on how I see ‘the broader intellectual project’. Over the last however many years, these updates have slowly whittled the project down from the truly megalomaniacal to the merely overly ambitious. This post, I suppose, is in the service of further pruning.

I submitted my Ph.D. thesis this month, so hopefully I’m getting towards a time when I will have more attention for other matters. As I think I’ve said before, I’d wanted to do a Ph.D. in economics in part in the hope that it would give me some macroeconomic background. That hasn’t happened in any meaningful sense. What I have acquired, instead, is some background in institutional political economy, as well as the economics of science and innovation.

I expect to slowly let the ‘science and innovation’ side of things fade away from my skill set over time (unless I somehow get a job that calls on these skills). However, institutional political economy is relevant to the core long-term interests of ‘the project’.

As I see it, whatever I might have intended, I am now an ‘institutional political economist’, with a somewhat abstract and philosophical orientation to that disciplinary space. I expect my core research programme for a long time to come to inhabit this terrain.

Specifically, I have two very broad research areas within ‘institutional political economy’:

First, I am interested in the foundations of political-economic institutional analysis: the adequacy or different metatheoretical toolkits for analysing political-economic institutions.

Second, I am interested in the principles of political-economic institution design: what should we be thinking about when we try to construct political-economic institutions with normatively and politically desirable properties?

These are obviously very abstract and broad ‘research programmes’ – I imagine much more pruning of the project’s scope and articulation will be necessary moving forward. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned here before, I am now living in Aotearoa New Zealand, and getting to grips with the history, politics, culture, etc. of my new country is going to be a focus of a lot of intellectual energy going forward.

Still, this is where I am, right now, on the verge of 2020.

Liberalism and Corbyn

November 1, 2019

[This is a sort of meandering post, but basically it has two parts: a rather abstract discussion of the different elements of liberalism; and then an argument that in the UK context the ‘hard left’ is often much more liberal than the centre, and that this is a good thing.]

All of the great political ideologies are coalitions of contradictory interests, beliefs, and projects. Socialism has its statist and anti-statist, its democratic and its anti-democratic variants; conservatism has its free market and its communitarian, its traditionalist and its revolutionary variants. But liberalism is arguably the most internally diverse political ideology of all, being as it is the dominant ideology of the last few hundred years of capitalist society, and therefore subject to a bewildering variety of transformations and permutations. Is liberalism an economic ideology, of free trade and private property? Is it a political ideology, of checks and balances on state power and individual rights? Is it an ideology of discourse, where rational debate can direct an open society to forms of political consensus grounded in discursive pluralism? Or is it an ideology of domination, where the lesser sorts – the lower forms of a humanity segmented along lines of race, class, gender, and other categories of identity and oppression – are appropriately ruled with the iron fist of mature technocratic enlightenment?

Liberalism is all of these things, and more, but it is not necessarily all of these things at the same time. There are many liberalisms, and much of our political contestation and debate is contestation within liberalism – a battle over which of these many liberalisms will govern our lives. Of course for some critics of liberalism, of both right and left, liberalism itself – liberalism ‘as such’ – is unsalvageable: an ideology and project that must be thrown out altogether. But it has been the argument of this blog that emancipatory politics is entirely compatible with major elements of liberalism – and, moreover, that it is hard to imagine a genuinely emancipatory governance structure that does not have central liberal elements. A political project that values individual liberty, human rights, and checks and balances on concentrations of power – this is not in itself any kind of guarantor of emancipation, but it seems to me that a political project that dispenses with these goals is likely to turn oppressive sooner rather than later. What we need, in my view, is not the rejection of liberalism, but the development of a properly left liberalism – a ‘radical liberalism’ in something like Charles W. Mills’ sense.

At the present moment, liberalism is under attack, in several ways. As the world-system undergoes one of its periodic crises of declining hegemony, the US-enforced liberal international world-order is fraying. At the same time, and relatedly, populist anti-liberal movements are on the rise in many places. Just as the decline of British liberal hegemony in the early twentieth century was associated with the rise of fascist and communist projects which sought not just to transform liberalism but to abolish it, so the present moment is one of rising illiberalisms.

But we need to be careful with our categories. Because liberalism is so internally diverse, political projects that are illiberal in some senses may be liberal in others. Just as socialists and conservatives love to play the game of ‘true Scotsman’, defining any ideological deviation from their preferred narrowly sectarian line as ‘not conservative’ or ‘not socialist’, so one person’s illiberalism is another person’s embrace of (different) liberal values.

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In the UK today, there are a number of debates over what counts as ‘liberalism’. Here it is common to see a narrative, similar in important respects to the one I sketched above, in which the liberal centre is under assault from illiberalisms – or perhaps ‘populisms’ – of the right and left. It is a favourite theme of many centrist liberal pundits that the populist right of Farage and the populist left of Corbyn present twin threats to a liberal political and economic order that until recently held beneficent sway.

This narrative has its elements of truth – as I say, the internal diversity of these ideological categories means that defining one’s terms correctly can produce this narrative or many others. Yet from the perspective of an emancipatory left politics, it is deeply misleading.

Here two broad points need to be made. First, that the kind of ‘centrist liberalism’ that until recently dominanted UK politics, and which is currently under attack, was and is, in many important ways, illiberal. The New Labour project tethered together, broadly speaking, four different elements: a liberal economic project of privatisation and deregulation; a social democratic redistributive project that significantly increased government spending on key elements of the welfare state; an illiberal law and order project, that sought right-populist legitimacy via attacks on civil liberties; and a liberal interventionist – or, increasingly, neoconservative-adjacent – foreign policy, that engaged in imperialist adventures overseas at the behest of the declining global hegemon. The degree to which you define the New Labour project as a liberal one therefore depends to a large extent on which forms of liberalism you’re interested in.

Similarly, the Cameron-Osborne project, and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition it produced, had a range of contradictory elements. It was economically liberal; it sought to move the Conservative Party in a more socially liberal direction on some issues such as same-sex marriage; it destroyed significant elements of the social-democratic safety net; it greatly damaged equality before the law by reducing funding for legal aid; and it instituted punitively illiberal policies around migration and citizenship that could only have been dreamed of by the Conservative Monday Club – a group with which the party formerly severed ties due to its commitment to ‘repatriation’ of ethnic minority Britons.

Were these political projects ‘liberal’ ones? In some ways yes. But in other, in my view more important, ways no. Indeed, from the point of view of a left liberalism – one which cares about civil liberties more than deregulation, due process more than military interventionism, and so on, these were disastrously illiberal governments.

So that’s the first point: ‘centrist liberalism’ is not very liberal, and is particularly illiberal in the ways that matter most for emancipatory politics.

The second point is that the so-called illiberalism of Corbynite left ‘populism’ is, in fact, very liberal – at least in the ways that (I believe) ought to matter to us.

James A. Smith made some of this case well in The Independent a couple months ago, and I’m going to be sort of sketchy here for now in the interests of actually finishing and publishing this post. But basically, although Labour is of course itself a ‘big tent’ containing a lot of very different politicians and political commitments, ‘Corbynism’, and indeed more narrowly Corbyn himself, is from the point of view of a left or radical liberalism in many ways very liberal indeed. Corbyn’s Labour is, for example, committed to: returning funding to legal aid; following due process in international law and international governance institutions, rather than unilaterally bombing and invading whichever countries it (or the US) pleases; not arbitrarily stripping British citizenship from babies in refugee camps; retaining human rights principles which can constrain oppressive state action within UK law. More broadly, although there are many scare stories out there about Corbyn’s illiberal radicalism, Corbyn himself is in my view best seen in the tradition of ‘radical liberalism’. His politics is one that emphasises individual human flourishing; because he sees human rights as including substantive rights to provision of human needs by the broader society, this understanding of liberalism also involves heavy state intervention to redistributive ends, and in this sense much of the traditional social-democratic agenda emerges out of radical liberalism. But Corbyn and (many elements of) Corbynism are also strong on other traditional liberal commitments that the ‘liberal’ centrist parties have largely abandoned in the interests of either economic liberalism or straight authoritarian right populism.

I’ll maybe try to expand on the above in a subsequent post, but for now I think it’s important to note that the contest between ‘centrism’ and ‘populism’ in the UK – to the extent that these are useful categories at all – can not necessarily usefully be seen as a conflict between liberalism and illiberalism. In fact, centrism is in many cases highly illiberal, in ways contested by the ‘populist’ left. Just as the historical role of social democracy is (arguably) to save capitalism from itself, so the historical role of the ‘hard left’ may be to save political liberalism from the assaults directed at it by centrist ‘liberals’. This should in my view be a consideration when the UK goes to the polls next month.

When I was, I guess, in my twenties, I had quite a lot of interest in psychoanalytic theoretical resources. Although there is much to criticise in the Freudian and post-Freudian apparatus, I felt then – and still feel – that the Freudian approach captures something important about human behaviour and emotion. Freud is best, in my view, not in the mechanistic and often embarrassingly arbitrary or ideological attempts to typologise specific behaviours and beliefs in terms of a set of narrowly family-oriented interpersonal relationships – as if these specific family structures are human universals, and as if the rest of our social environment does not impact our psychological formation – but rather in the basic insight that our pyschological behaviours, including those that we aspire to distinguish from our baser motives, are driven by gratifications and pleasures that we often are not open about, either with others or with ourselves.

For Freud ‘libido’ is the master category here, and the analytic strategy of decomposing psychological structures into complex movements of libidinal cathection runs through much of his work. Moreover, the idea that such movements of libidinal cathection are mediated through others – that we are bound into our social sphere by the way in which our own identity is shaped by locating elements of that identity ‘within’ other social actors – is, I think, a way in which the Freudian apparatus valuably opens out onto broader social theory, despite Freud’s own relatively narrow interest in a small number of interpersonal relationships – particularly family relationships – as the locus of psychological formation and transformation.

Since then, in my thirties, I’ve spent a lot of time with a theoretical apparatus that many would see as very different from the psychoanalytic approach: the kinds of mathematised rational choice theory associated with economics and formal political science or sociology. It is easy to see this approach as fundamentally opposed to the Freudian one – emphasising, as it seemingly does, reason over affect, judgement over libido, and so forth. And there’s something to that.

At the same time, though, there are also important overlaps between the Freudian and rational choice approaches. For one thing, rational choice theory of course has its origins and a significant part of its theoretical warrant in a utilitarian approach to the analysis of social life: the idea that fundamentally we are pleasure-maximising creatures, and that our decisions are (‘rationally’) guided by the desire to maximise our gratifications (or some reliable proxy of those gratifications). Both approaches in this sense can easily be seen as ‘debunking’ approaches to social life, such that ‘higher’ matters can be explained by ‘lower’ ones.

At the same time, rational choice theory, like Freudianism, has the capacity to expand the scope of its analysis, to encompass a wide range of behaviours that would not typically be characterised as gratification-oriented. Just as Freudians can specify that libidinal gratifications can reside in (for example) masochistic submission to pain, or repression of desire, or subordination of individual interests to the attempt to fully realise an ego-ideal, or any of a range of other apparently non-pleasure oriented behaviours, so the rational choice theorist can specify that the individual social actor aims to maximise their utility by maximising any arbitrary function in which utility is simply fiated to reside.

This means that, like Freudianism, rational choice theory has the capacity to expand to encompass literally any human behaviour, and is in this manner vulnerable to the charge of pseudo-scientific irrefutability. If any behaviour can be explained as motivated by the instincts and their vicissitudes, or by the rational maximisation of some opaque and convoluted utility function, in what sense are we really engaged in the game of explanation here at all? Are we not simply rewriting our observations or ideas into an all-encompassing theoretical idiom that can never be refuted precisely because it can encompass any and all observations, with the appropriate theoretical tweaks?

I think there is clearly something to this worry or complaint. Both Freudianism and rational choice theory are perhaps best understood less as theories than as frameworks – analytic systems within which theories can be proposed and rejected, but where it is unclear what counter-evidence would justify the rejection of the framework as a whole. This attribute can reasonably been seen as placing these theoretical frameworks outside the space of science. And yet different frameworks make different theories easier to think: some things are much more easily said in one metatheoretical idiom than another. Such idioms can, therefore, I think, be justified on the basis of the theoretical – and thus, potentially, scientific – resources they make more or less readily available. In any case, and despite all the objections, I personally find it valuable to engage in theoretical speculation or discourse at this (quite high) level of abstraction.

At that level of abstraction, then, what can we say about the relationship between Freudian and rational choice resources? At one level, for the reasons gestured at in the last paragraph, we have no obligation to ‘choose’: some theoretical approaches are more fruitful in some contexts, and some in others – there is nothing at all wrong with a theoretical, or a meta-theoretical, pluralism.

At the same time, I increasingly, as I approach my forties, find myself thinking about the relationship between these approaches – and specifically, feeling that the rational choice approach can in many contexts usefully be seen as a special case of the Freudian (broadly understood). If we take it that our master category is something in the space of ‘gratification’, and we see both approaches as analysing individual motivation and behaviour as seeking to maximise ‘gratification’, then it seems to me that the psychoanalytic approach has a more capacious and sophisticated understanding of what gratification consists in. Specifically, where rational choice theory sometimes has difficulty breaking out of the constraints of a narrow methodological individualism, the psychoanalytic apparatus – while of course methodologically individualist in some sense (and in my view none the worse for it – though that is a topic for another post) – can in principle understand our individual gratifications as highly motivated by our investment in broader social structures – one’s ego-ideal, which it is gratifying to preserve and to aim to realise – can be constructed out of the resources available in one’s broader social environment, and one’s investment in or cathection of those resources can be very complex indeed.

Rational choice theory, it seems to me, is most valuable in those common special cases where matters of gratification are quite straightforward – where some relatively simple reward function is a passingly adequate model for individuals’ motives and behaviour. In many cases that concern us as social scientists and social theorists, this is the case. Seeing individuals as wishing to maximise their income, or their power, or their prestige, or some other modelable proxy for ‘gratification’, is a close enough approximation to individual motive in many circumstances that the resources of rational choice theory can frequently be useful.

And yet, of course, as we all know, social life is more complex than such simple models can convey. If we begin with a rational choice theoretical idiom, our attempt to reckon with such complexity can all too often result in either ad hoc re-specifications of individual utility functions, or in the fiating of an alternative realm of behaviour that goes beyond the rational into the ‘ideological’.

Of course, these approaches may bear fruit – and psychoanalytic theory is, as discussed above, no less vulnerable to the ad hoc respecification of gratifications to ensure that theory matches behaviour. But for me, right now at least, it feels more fruitful to see the psychoanalytic apparatus as the more capacious framework. In particular, I feel like the psychoanalytic framework of ‘gratifications’ is more amenable to dismantling the all-too-easily reified distinction between ‘ideology’ and ‘interests’ than is the rational choice approach.

But that is probably best discussed elsewhere, rather than in this post.