Cameron and Covid 19

In a series of tweets Nassim Nicholas Taleb, he of Black Swan ‘opportunity collecting’, has weighed in, in his usual forthright manner. on the undue influence in this public health crisis of the Nudge Unit, which follows the thinking of Richard Thaler, he of the Nudge Theory behavioural insights, and is in large part responsible for the Johnson regime’s ‘outlier’ strategy.

I have to admit to a grim sanctification from this.

A decade ago, as half joke, I pointed out the intellectual incoherence of a then wannabee toff Prime Minister who, in a desperate desire to sound modern and clever, sought to embrace the two entirely incompatible approaches proposed by Taleb and Thaler.

Cameron got away with it, and went on to wreak the havoc we now live with daily.

In 2015, as we approached what I then hoped would be the end of his disastrous premiership, both at home and abroad, I explored in more detail the extent to which the intellectual black hole that was Cameronism fed off and fed into an ‘operational code’ itself totally incompatible with the demands of modern government:

Nudge theory and Black Swan theory are, of course, utterly incompatible. The former assumes that human actions can be moulded into regular patterns which create desiraboue outcomes on a regular basis, and is a form of central planning. Think Big Society. The latter is based on the view that central planning is an irrelevance in the face of the inherent uncertainty of complex human interactions taking place in a complex and uncertain natural environment.

But I don’t point this out simply to mock Cameron and his coterie for their faddish intellectual pretensions. Rather, I’d argue that there is actually a coherence in this incoherence — a coherence if you actually locate the competing approaches within the Cameronian operational code of high-low politics.

For if we look at the record we see at least an attempt at a Talebian approach to international relations — expressed in Cameron’s own words as the need for ‘strength’ in an uncertain world — but more broadly in the introspection we have seen develop since the disastrous Boys’ Own Adventure in Libya (even if measured solely in term of impact on the UK economy) , and in the Little Englander politics within the European Union.

Domestic policy, on the other hand, is dominated not by the Talebian advice to “collect opportunities” (p.170)*, but by the Thalerian game plan: to manage, even micro-manage the populace, and narrow down different modes of action, on the basis that some are not socially desirable. Again, think Big Society, think Community Organisers but also think benefit sanctions, think bedroom tax, think traditionalization of the curriculum. Think Troubled Families programme. All terrible ideas, badly implemented, all rooted in a desire to get people to conform to the rules set for them.

Cameron got away with it again, and now we have the Johnson regime, equally incapable of governing coherence but with even more dangerous consigliores.

Johnson is a fool, and if Taleb is right, a murderous fool for, even IF the herd immunity science is right, the fact that he heads a regime which uses the lie as its key tactic is surely a key reason it needs to be right; lack of long-term community compliance, now assumed by the Nudge Unit, is surely linked to the fact that people no longer trust what the government says or — perhaps more dangerously — that the do believe the myth of British superman-like, virus-resisting exceptionalism.

Boris cried wolf too often, but when the history books are written, I hope proper judgement will be made on Cameron and his coterie for the modern court vs country polity they fostered, and all the consequences that came of it.



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Paul Cotterill

Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.