Saturday, July 09, 2011

Review of The Social Animal

After giving my first (and perhaps unfair) impression of David Brook's The Social Animal in an earlier post, I promised that a more formal review of the book would be forthcoming. I've just finished reviewing it for the Christian Voice newsletter and they have kindly given me permission to post it at the Alfred the Great Society. Just click on the following link:

Following are some excerpt from what I wrote in the review:

Brooks suggests that the end towards which politics must strive is not freedom but the well-being of society. This requires a holistic approach which aims to solve social problems with cultural remedies that grab us at the level of our gut instincts, intuitions and unconscious. The health of the neural network controlling our unconscious minds are determined largely by the health of social networks in which we grow up, and these social networks can be shaped by political forces.By giving attention to social networks, government can devise “programs that reshape[…] the internal models in people’s minds.” To do this the state needs “to be somewhat paternalistic”, occupying itself not merely with the external environment but with the internal landscape of a person’s soul. As Brooks puts it, “Statecraft is inevitably soulcraft.”

Brooks is a conservative journalist whose thinking is constantly tinged with a distrust of government and an almost unlimited optimism in the private sector. Government cannot solve society’s problems, he says, it can only create the conditions favourable to human flourishing and social mobility. Despite these qualifications, however, Brooks does think it is the job of government to make us happy and to act the part of a Nanny in prodding us towards self-improvement.

Okay, Brooks recommends that the government goes about achieving this with a kind of side-ways approach, prodding us in the right direction or propping up the web of relationships in the private sector. He uses the phraseology “limited but energetic” to describe the government’s role in enhancing social mobility. Yet at the end of the day, Brook’s state remains an engine for promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Brooks realizes with a consistency that is almost frightening that if the government’s vocation is to promote human happiness, then our whole lives become the business of the state right down to the synaptic connections controlling the neurons in our brains. “The unconscious, he says, “needs supervision.”

Many would question whether the government should even be in the business of trying to supervise the unconscious.
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