The Behaviorists Are Back

In his search for a prescription to cure America’s ailing economy, President-elect Barack Obama is consulting scores of leftist interventionists including behavioral economists. The New York Times recently reported that Obama may hire economic psychologists “specifically charged with translating the lessons of the behavioral revolution into real-world policies.” One proponent of this approach, Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan, told the Times, “The issues we struggle with today are inherently behavioral as never before. It’s impossible to think of the current mortgage crisis without thinking seriously about underlying consumer psychology. And it’s impossible to think of future regulatory fixes without thinking seriously about that issue.” Excited by the prospects, the Times concluded, “The promise of behavioral economics is that it can help create a better government, one that wastes less money and does more to improve peoples’ lives. That’s hardly a modest goal.”

It should come as no surprise that the 1970s radicals taking over the Federal Government in January are promoting this brand of economics because the hero of their youth was the leader of America’s behavioral revolution, B.F. Skinner. Skinner, who, in the early 1970s, made the cover of Time magazine and whose book Beyond Freedom and Dignity hit the Times bestseller list, proudly proclaimed to his adoring public, “We not only can control human behavior, we must!” Behaviorists like Skinner argue that psychology should be limited to observations and tenets related to behavior. As epistemological descendants of Descartes, they attempt to sever any connections between the study of man and philosophy, by methodologically denying the existence of the mind and the scientific validity of philosophical psychology in the Aristotelian and Thomistic sense.

Skinner and his followers deny the existence of the mind and reduce human psychology to the mere study of intersubjectively demonstrable events – that is behavior. Consistent with Cartesian reductionism, qualitative differences are denied by behaviorists. By recognizing nothing beyond the perversely simple materialistic continuity derived from mere quantitative reductionism, behaviorists boast they can study rats to draw conclusions about man. Skinner emphasizes that man is no more responsible (nor laudable) for his creative accomplishments in music, art, literature, economics, science, and invention, than is the warthog for his warts. Accordingly, there is then no essential difference between modern “objective” psychology and rodentology, or between man and rat.

Behaviorists also deny the freedom to choose between good and evil, the will to resist temptation or to succumb to sin. Skinner writes that man’s struggle for freedom is not due to a will to be free but “to certain behavioral processes characteristic of the human organism, the chief of which is the avoidance or the escape from so-called aversive features of the environment.” Moral choice, then, is nothing more than the tropism of an automaton conditioned by various genetic, social, and historical contingencies.

The behaviorist wishes to control in his own image, every aspect of man in society. B.F. Skinner in his novel Walden II, describes this Utopia: “There is complete equality of the sexes in all things. Men and women marry and mate in their late teens, thus averting sexual frustration and its consequences. When the women are in their twenties, they have finished bearing all the children they want and they then take up personal goals. Babies are raised in communal nurseries, in which the mothers may work as they choose. The children grow up equally in an atmosphere of care and concern, free of envy, strife, shock, competition, and punishment.”

Walden II’s alleged perfect society is possible only through the application of a behavioral technique known as positive reinforcement. The chief engineer and architect of the community, Frazier, exercises control in this fashion: “Now that we know how positive reinforcement works and why negative doesn’t … we can be more deliberate and hence more successful, in our cultural design. We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That’s the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement – there’s no restraint and no revolt.”

Skinner’s society, based on behavioral methods, also takes the ideological position that democracy is not a worthy system of government: “The only solution is to make an honest admission that democracy is outmoded and replace it with a more effective system namely, technical meritocracy.”

If behaviorists have their way, man will be dehumanized by the planning and redevelopment of the cultural, economic and social system by government overseers. What a scary intellectual basis for Washington’s forthcoming managerial revolution.

Let’s hope that the Obama administration turns out better than some of his more radical camp followers, because otherwise it’s welcome to Barack’s brave new world.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.