The Problem of Neuro-Liberalism

by Matthew Shaffer


If you’ve been near a college campus in the past couple of decades, then this essay in the New Yorker on the “underground world of neuro-enhancing drugs,” may not scandalized you. The writer puts under a single conceptual umbrella the whole spectrum of methods we can use to improve our intelligence without really trying — from caffeine and nicotine, to Aderrall and Ritalin, to newly-developed memory-improving drugs, to genetic engineering we expect in the future. The further we go down the list, the more alarming the ethical question each enhancer raises. But the most provocative claim of the essay is that the ethical dimension will essentially be nulled by economic logic: 

Countries other than the U.S. might tend to be a little looser with their regulations, and offer approval of new cognitive enhancers first. “And if you’re a company that’s got forty-seven offices worldwide, and all of a sudden your Singapore office is using cognitive enablers, and you’re saying to Congress, ‘I’m moving all my financial operations to Singapore and Taiwan, because it’s legal to use those there,’ you bet that Congress is going to say, ‘Well, O.K.’ It will be a moot question then. It would be like saying, ‘No, you can’t use a cell phone. It might increase productivity!’ ”

This stood out to me, because (1) it is pretty clearly correct and (2) it constitutes a huge and discomfiting challenge to “evolutionary liberalism” as a way of thinking about policy. This way of thinking relies on competition, rather than Cartesian reasoning from abstract first principles, to discover prescriptions, i.e. to tell us what ought to be done. Roughly speaking, it likes permitting different states to make different bundles of regulatory policies, redistribution schemes, etc., because such diversity provides the political equivalent of a scientific experiment. By simply observing which policies best promote human flourishing, attracting capital and labor and winning converts, we can let historical evolution do the hard work of thinking about policy for us. 

Neuro-enhancement, especially the prospect of one day providing I.Q. boosts to future generations in utero, throws a wrench in this. As Margaret Talbot points out, we already know how an experiment in which some countries allowed cognitive enhancements while others forbade them must end — in the knowledge-based economy, neuro-liberal societies will clearly have economic advantages that will lead to their evolutionary triumph — and we intuitively don’t like it. On the micro and macro levels, neuro-enhancers decouple success from goodness. 

We are revolted at the prospect of some day needing to provide our children with genetic/cognitive enhancements in order to give them a chance of keeping up in a neuro-liberal world. But natural economic pressures will push us toward that world as soon as such technologies hit the marketplace. Both in our conversations about ethics and our and in our regulatory structures we must prepare for that day well in advance.