- Jürgen Habermas, a German sociologist and philosopher whose work focuses on the political domain and rationality. He is best known for his theories on communicative rationality and the public sphere. Associated with the Frankfurt School, his work also focuses on the foundations of critical social theory, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, human freedom within modern society, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics-- particularly German politics.
It’s human nature to fill the time and space available to us. This phenomenon, known as Parkinson’s Law, states that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Other variations of the principle include “The more money you earn the more money you spend,” or “The bigger the available space, the more junk it can hold.”
This principle comes from the opening line of a humorous essay by Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson published in The Economist in 1955.
The essay explains the results of a study he conducted of the British Civil Service. The British Civil Service grew between 1914-1928, with a noticeable rise in administrative positions and a concurrent decline in ‘fighting’ positions. In 1914 there were 2,000 Admiralty officials with this number growing to 3,569 in 1928, creating “a magnificent Navy on land.” The interesting part of this shift, however, is that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work. The British Navy during that period had diminished by a third in men and two-thirds in ships. From 1922 onwards it was limited by the Washington Naval Agreement, signed among the major nations that had won World War I, which limited naval construction to prevent an arms race. Thus, the number of people employed in the bureaucracy increased even as the British Empire collapsed — an event that decreased the amount of work available.
“Individually rational behaviour can be collectively irrational. And that’s why the regulators have to do what they can to constrain individual behaviour, so that it doesn’t lead to collectively irrational outcomes.”
“In diplomacy, national interests set the stage, but human emotions determine the script. The longer the negotiations take, the more sympathy, love, rancor, jealousy and exasperation come into play. It’s the one profession that robots are least likely to take over.” (FT 20 June/21 June 2015, “Months of Greek debt talks yield bad blood but no deal”).
In other words, if your job involves understanding and working with, and through, human emotions, then it is reasonably safe from the growing imperialism of robots. When I read that, I chuckled. Then the thought hit me: if that is the yardstick maybe the business I am in – the business of aligning stakeholders, winning friends and influencing people – is also one that robots are least likely to take over. Let me explain.
I am not sure if I was more surprised, glad, or excited to see the recent 2015 World Development Report published by the World Bank Group. Knowing well this institution, I admit I did not expect to see the day when it would acknowledge that human behavior is not necessarily guided by rational considerations and that behavior change is not a linear process and needs to reflect the complexity of factors affecting such process. The possibility that rational thought is not at the basis of every human action is something quite revolutionary, at least within the mainstream boundaries of economic discourse.
The WDR entitled “Mind, Society and Behavior” seems to suggest that economists might actually have something to learn from behavioural scientists! However, such concepts have been floating around for a quite some time. A handful of social scientists, development scholars, and practitioners have been exploring, advocating, and applying to a different degree principles, which are now illustrated in the WDR and applying approaches that promote human agency and facilitate social change.
The possibility of rational debate and discussion in human affairs remains a stubborn and persistent ideal. This is, I suspect, mainly because we have a lot riding on it. Without the possibility of rational debate and discussion, it would be close to impossible to work in groups, and for the groups to be productive, to get stuff done. Deliberative processes would also be unworkable; and would in fact not exist. Parliaments and similar legislative assemblies – allegedly the great deliberative forums of liberal constitutional democracy – would not function without some attempt to promote rational debate and discussion. Democracy itself celebrates the ideal. The whole idea of a public sphere rests on the notion that citizens can meet in the virtual public square-- constituted today by the mass media system in each country– and exchange views on the great public issues of the day, from which process-informed public opinion might emerge, and so on.
Yet, the ideal of rational debate and discussion requires (a) certain personal disciplines, and these disciplines are not easy to practice; and (b) personality traits that are not evenly distributed within any population.