The Narrative Roots of Public Policy

BUENOS AIRES – At the recent Summit of the Americas in Panama, Cuban President Raúl Castro chose to break with the agreed protocol. Instead of speaking for eight minutes, he took six times longer to present a political history of his country that was only loosely based on fact. Why?

As a card-carrying member of the economics profession, I have been trained to view the world from the perspective of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, according to whom the purpose of public policy is to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Policies that do not abide by some variant of this utilitarian principle (as proposed by, say, John Rawls or Amartya Sen) are bound to be inefficient or unfair.

But recent advances in psychology and neuroscience may suggest that if we want to understand social and political behavior, or improve policies, we should be reading Hegel more than Bentham. That may sound weird, given that Hegel was an Idealist and would never have expected neuroscience – a material reality independent of Geist (usually translated as Mind or Spirit) – to be relevant to his inquiry.

As Antonio Damasio argues in his aptly titled book Self Comes to Mind, the brain creates an autobiographical sense of self. It is this created self that perceives, remembers, and aspires, that has telos (or purpose), and on behalf of which decisions are made.