Changing behaviour

At the end of last month Stephen Tall posted an essay entitled A liberal approach to evidence-based policy making on his blog. The essay had originally been submitted for last year’s CentreForum essay competition on The Challenges Facing Contemporary Liberalism but, for whatever reason, hadn’t appeared. I keep meaning to write a response to Stephen’s post, but I don’t seen to have managed it yet.

More to the point, I submitted an essay to the CentreForum competition but it wasn’t ever going to be published in that form. There is the possibility that I might develop a longer version of the argument. But I’m not sure when that’s going to happen. In the meantime I thought I’d follow Stephen’s lead and post it on the blog, rather than let it languish. So here it is.


Governments have traditionally relied on “shove”. When market failures result in inefficiency governments have used regulation to “shove” economic actors in directions perceived as socially beneficial. This is a relatively blunt instrument. More recently, policymakers have been persuaded of the power of fiscal incentives. Taxes, subsidies, and manufactured markets have increasingly been the preferred shoving mechanism.

Similarly, many liberals have robustly, but not uncritically, advocated choice and competition in the reform of public services. This is an attempt to capture the benefits of market mechanisms without wholesale privatisation. Some of the enthusiasm for this approach flows from a desire to combat the inefficiencies inherent in monopoly provision and the risks of government failure.

Concern about the cumulative burden of individually well-intentioned regulations is evident in the Orange Book. In addition, not only were market mechanisms within public services advocated but also manufactured markets to achieve environmental policy goals.(1) The subsequent decade has seen the embedding and extension of Better Regulation and the creation of substantial artificial markets such as the continent-wide European Emissions Trading Scheme.

Much can be said about the success, or otherwise, of these initiatives. But I want to explore the broadening of the policy agenda. Concern with market failure and government failure is longstanding; over the last decade it has been joined by a concern with “individual failure”. Indeed policy in some fields has become rather preoccupied with individual failure and “behaviour change”. The agenda poses potential challenges for liberals. [Read more…]

Is nudging enough?

Rene Kinzett, one of my fellow contributors over at Dale & Co, posted Nudging or Nannying last weekend. The argument was perhaps a little cryptic, but the point was that relying on the subtlety of trying to “nudge” behaviour in the right direction is not an adequate policy response to certain types of problem. His example of treating rickets among young women who for cultural reasons do not have enough exposure to sunlight is an interesting one. He referred to minimum alcohol pricing, a policy being introduced in Scotland, and banning smoking in cars carrying children, a policy being introduced in Wales, as more conventional regulatory policy that will help those on the edges of society, when nudges are judged inadequate.

A couple of commenters took Kinzett to task for this argument. One made the point that nudge theory is being preferred for developing policy at the moment because it has been shown to be more effective than traditional regulatory approaches. It was also arguing that no one is suggesting that nudge can be used in isolation and should be combined with other mechanisms to deliver better social outcomes.

It seems to me that these comments miss the mark in at least a couple of ways. [Read more…]

Cameron’s Big Society – 8/10 for effort; 3/10 for content

You have to admire David Cameron’s tenacity in the face of widespread indifference and incomprehension. On Monday he sought to relaunch his idea of the Big Society for the third time. The results of yesterday’s YouGov survey were then reported over at Liberal Conspiracy. This indicated that 62% of respondents felt they understood the Big Society “not very, or not at all, well”; a third said the Big Society sounded like a bad idea; 73% said they thought it wouldn’t actually work; and 59% thought it was “mostly hot air” rather than a “real vision”.

Reading Cameron’s speech (available here) suggests several things. [Read more…]

Can we be nudged towards a Big Society?

The report in today’s Guardian that Windsor and Maidenhead council are exploring “reward points” as a means of encouraging locals to engage in “Big Society” activities is intriguing. This comes shortly after news of the possibility of importing a version of the Japanese system of time-banking for voluntary adult social care. One of the imponderables of the Big Society agenda is how you animate civil society to step into the void created if and when the State withdraws from service provision. Has Windsor and Maidenhead hit on a potential solution? I think we need to be cautious. [Read more…]