Technocratic utopianism in American policy in the interwar period and today

On September 15, President Barack Obama issued an executive order, “Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People.” The order encourages government agencies to draw on “research findings from fields such as behavioral economics and psychology about how people make decisions and act on them.” The “translators” of behavioural science into federal policy are the White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Their initiatives and advocacy deserve special attention because they re-imagine public knowledge and the role of social science expertise in the polity. I examine the epistemic features of this emerging approach to policy through an historical analogy. I look to the interwar period when American social scientists offered themselves to civil service as institution designers. By contrast, the focus of today’s movement is choice design. I argue that today’s movement demotes individual and collective deliberation and replaces it by a conception of distributed knowledge that can only be revealed through information aggregation and algorithmic analysis. “Nudge”, “big data”, and “open government” are thus part of a coherent new kind of technocratic utopianism.