Bandits at 2 o'clock high?
There is a potential danger on the horizon, bandits at 2 o'clock high, a danger which manifests itself in the form of the following WIBBI (wouldn't it be better if):
This WIBBI has been advocated over the years most energetically by Daniel Finkelstein in his Comment Central blog in the Times and in his opinion pieces. See for example his Comment Central post, 'The five sexiest ideas in politics', where he summarises these aphrodisiacs social norms, reciprocal altruism, situationism, prospect theory and cognitive dissonance and re-states the opening WIBBI as follows:
Mr Finkelstein refers there to a Sunday Times article, 'Politicians are devouring the work of academics who explain why the carrot beats the stick', and he has returned to the topic most recently in 'The social psychology revolution is reaching its tipping point'.
It's not just Daniel Finkelstein and the Times who want the government to stop legislating and start nudging people into doing the right thing. There has also been a little outbreak in the Spectator, please see 'Nudge, nudge: meet the Cameroons' new guru' and 'A nudge in the right direction'.
And the journalists and the social psychologists aren't just making it up. At least one serious politician places social psychology at the heart of politics step forward Oliver Letwin, Chairman of the Policy Review and of the Conservative Research Department, who wrote in the Times last year:
As Mr Letwin says, some people are likely to neglect their responsibilities. Granted. Those responsibilities can be identified. Who by? Presumably by a responsibility neglect tsar. Then what? It will be the tsar's job to make sure people do their duty. How? By enacting laws? No, by establishing frameworks. What does that mean? It's not clear, but the outcome is that people end up wanting to do their duty, they will do it voluntarily, laws won't be necessary.
A silver star to the child at the back who spots that, far from putting no faith in it, this is precisely a case of "Cameron Conservatism" setting out to achieve "central direction and control".
And a gold star to the one next to her who points out that it's a bit spooky, to say the least, if politicians set out to achieve central direction and control over nothing less than people's "own volition" at this point, the harmless-sounding WIBBI we started with takes on a decidedly sinister hue, doesn't it?
Jamie Whyte in the Times takes up the cudgels in This is a nudge in the wrong direction:
But here is a simple question. If the Government knows whats best for us, why only nudge us in that direction? Why not give us a mighty shove - as the Australian Government has - by making saving compulsory? Sustein and Thaler reply that nudging is consistent with libertarianism, but shoving is not. And they are libertarians. They advocate what they call libertarian paternalism.
According to Lewis Carter in the Sunday Telegraph:
Every Conservative MP has been handed a 38-book summer reading list to help them think more like David Cameron.
Daniel Finkelstein himself has now been nudged into action, please see The politics of nudging.
Against all the rules, James Harkin in todays Guardian has not one but two important things to say in This nudging stuff is nothing new - and its all a bit shaky:
The real lesson is that, while it is entirely possible to isolate the moment at which a small group turn their back on the temptations of crime, or a product bursts its way into public consciousness, it is devilishly difficult to reproduce that effect.
The reason why quietly nudging things in a favourable direction seems such a good idea to those in authority is that it promises a magic bullet for social problems - at the margins and on the cheap. The tragedy is while they have been busy doing many little things in the hope that some of them might make a difference, they could just as well have been rolling up their sleeves and doing something big.
Mary Riddell stakes out a limbo in the Daily Telegraph:
I still think Labour holds the answers and that Tory promises of a fair society will turn to dust. Libertarian paternalism, or nudging, is a half-baked political creed pinched by Cameron from the self-help bookshelf. Even so, he has staked out a limbo between the Lefts command-and-control instinct and the Rights wish to expunge the state from family life. That middle ground is where families, of all kinds, want to live. Labours fightback must start there.
Charles Moore is not convinced that a limbo has been staked out at all:
One of David Camerons 38 summer reading recommendations for his MPs is a book called Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. It is only the latest example of a genre of book which cleverly identifies something in the zeitgeist, contributes a how to element to the problem, and discloses 90 per cent of its message in its title. Small Is Beautiful and Freakonomics are classic examples. After Nudge, I suggest a book called Yank: How to Spot a Trend in America, and Make Millions Worldwide.
You never know where hes going to turn up next. It used to be the New Statesman. Then the Telegraph and Channel 4. Hes the opposite of the damned elusive Pimpernel, no matter where you look, there he is.
Anyway, this time its the Guardian, and this is what John Kampfner has to say, in Why Huggy Cameron has performed a vanishing act, sub-titled The Tories have slipped back into their political comfort zone, which is a shame for us and a lost opportunity for them:
Cameron Mk I was making some interesting noises about fairness, and responsible management practice. Little more has been heard since. Brown, cautious not to offend the City, has said nothing about the underlying reasons for the economic crash. Ministers responded to the collapse of Northern Rock by nationalising and bailing out the bank. No attempt has been made to use the debacle to throw open the debate about the accountability of directors, or the actions of the banking sector. Here is fertile ground for others to occupy. The only person making any noise is the Lib Dems irrepressible Vince Cable. The Tory leader is silent.
It may be thought that this behavioural economics/social psychology business is the preserve of philosophers, psychologists, economists, politicians, their strategists, and advertising executives.
But no. Important people also are showing an interest. The Director General of Age Concern England has this to say in a letter to todays Guardian:
So-called soft issues require more than soft solutions. Politicians from all parties must realise that it will require more than a nudge to improve the wellbeing of older people when part of the problem is institutional discrimination.
And not just important people. Normal people, too. Consider this quite remarkable comment on John Kampfners article which presses several buttons all at once:
I cant help noticing the resonances between what you describe and Obamas campaign - or at least his primary campaign. Start off by going out on a limb, and then gradually retreat to your comfort zone as the campaign progresses. Coincidence or deliberate strategy?
More nudging. Again. Its cropping up a lot at the moment. This time, on BBC Radio 4s The Westminster Hour.
The majority of coverage at the moment seems to treat nudging as a bit of a joke. It is dismissed as pop psychology. Thats where its being anchored, and it may be hard now to promote the notion that it is important and revolutionary.
How the government can influence public behaviour is one question. But just as important, how can the public influence government policy? The government certainly dont seem to respond to nudging. Or logical arguments based on fact. Or the lessons of history. Or principle. Or petitions. Or marches. So how do you influence the government?
According to The Westminster Hour, the government will respond if two think tanks come up with the same idea independently, as they did with child trust funds. In other words, it pretty well takes a miracle.
Shall we give the last word to Polly Toynbee ...
Senior civil servants could do with training in social research. Its a sorry signal that the post of chief social researcher has recently been downgraded and subsumed into the Treasury. There it falls into the hands of economists who can be too determinist to tune into the subtleties of social and behavioural questions.
... and Simon Jenkins?
When muck hits fan, economists always blame politicians. They would have some justice if they did not take credit when things go right ...
David Moss has spent five years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.