Paul and David Brooks recently sat down in New York to discuss human potential with The Economist’s Shcumpeter columnist Adrian Wooldridge. Paul was asked to take the macro approach, looking at how societies facilitate or constrain human potential, while David assumed the micro perspective, looking at how individuals and their psychology shape human potential.
In a wide ranging discussion, David suggested that humans can strategically employ their unconscious minds to make better decisions and devise better solutions. But he also emphasized the need for epistemological modesty—an awareness of how much we don’t know about the way our minds work—to keep our the human tendency for overconfidence in check.
Paul emphasized that the economic growth will allow a greater share of people to move from manufacturing, service, and coordination activities into jobs focused on the creation of new ideas. Unlike goods or services, ideas can be shared. As more people devote time to generating new ideas, each of us will benefit from more new ideas, greatly enhancing human potential. But the widespread adoption of new and better ideas depends on our ability to update and improve the norms and rules that govern our interactions with one another.
Both Paul and David agreed that social norms are educable through effective institutions—with Paul citing Hong Kong’s eradication of corruption in the 1970s and David cited the Knowledge Is Power Program’s network of college preparatory schools. Though they both agree that changing norms requires patience, Paul is more optimistic about the potential for fast change. In particular, he suggests that startups are a relatively fast and coercion-free way to experiment with new norms. For example, changing the corporate culture in a large existing organization is very difficult but a startup firm in the same industry is free to adopt a radically different culture. He also points to Pennsylvania as a sort of political startup—Penn’s charter was one of the first in the Western world to allow for freedom of conscience as well as an amendment process.
The Human Potential event is part of The Ideas Economy series hosted by The Economist. The website is a good source of information about the events and includes talks from participants like Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and William Julius Wilson.