Behavioural economics has been popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge and their nudge blog.
They describe their approach to public policy as libertarian paternalism, by which they mean:
It is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behaviour while also respecting freedom of choice. Often people’s preferences are ill-formed, and their choices will inevitably be influenced by default rules, framing effects, and starting points. In these circumstances, a form of paternalism cannot be avoided.
Thaler and Sunstein’s idea is that if people have poor information the onus is on the state to create default positions that most people would choose given good information, and choice architecture to guide them to better choices. They also like to leave people the option to reject the default if they want – accepting that right decision has subjectivity, and that adults should be free to be wrong.
Public policy choices are constructed both when governments act and when they don’t act. It’s just that non-decision making can more easily be framed as not interfering. In other words all governments are in some sense nanny-states.
Progressives need to distinguish between legitimate governance and nanny-statism (in the narrower sense), to accurately gauge the level of interference in their lives the public will see as legitimate. This is where behavioural economics can help.
The first trap to avoid is the default of most politicians to doing what they can do, which is changing laws, regulations, and restructuring, rather than what will work. The second trap is a large gap between official pronouncements on desirable behaviour and the real world experience of people.
The Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 (Anti-smacking legislation) is an example of both traps. The purpose of the Act:
is to amend the principal Act to make better provision for children to live in a safe and secure environment free from violence by abolishing the use of parental force for the purpose of correction.
The public context of the law change was some horrific cases of child abuse.
In March 2010 Sue Bradford was reported as believing new figures from police on the impact of the so-called anti-smacking laws prove the legislation is working as intended. Apparently police investigation has led to two people being prosecuted under the Crimes Act – presumably because the previous defence that existed no longer does. Here, then, is the celebration of a law that caused no change, evidence of the first trap.
Trap two is that there is a chasm between the political consensus reached in the law change and sentient parents’ observed reality. Sue Bradford apparently believes that smacking is violence, no shades of gray – but to most people smacking by the vast majority of parents is not seen as a problem and they see it as unrelated to child abuse.
The expenditure of limited political capital on something to achieve no obvious change is unfortunate.
I can’t figure out how nudges would easily work for child abusers but I can work out a couple of ideas about just being anti-smacking. I wouldn’t have attached the idea to the legislation. I would have created a programme to increase parental control over children (what parent doesn’t want that!), launching off the existing SKIP programme and popular ideas such as the Super-Nanny’s naughty step and other positive parenting ideas.
Another example is the fanatical support for breastfeeding by health professionals such that bottle feeding almost can not be contemplated in open. Perhaps I am stuck in a fallacy of a very limited universe, but why is it every mother I know has enough nous to gloss over whatever the nurses say and do what is best for them and their family anyway.
Having just been through antenatal classes I’m fairly sure a more balanced approach that focuses on the outcome of a healthy child rather than the input of breastfeeding is more likely to be accepted by parents. I would spend the limited time on tactics to encourage latching and mixed breast and bottle approaches rather than the hard sell of breastfeeding as the be all and end all of baby health.
Both anti-smacking and pro-breastfeeding are attempts to create norms without respecting freedom of choice and without respecting the fact that when people do have good information they choose differently from the norm the state prefers through its agents.
Politicians have to understand that citizens have the right to be left alone. Thaler and Sunstein’s book is called Nudge because they think nudges in the “right” direction are legitimate, pushes are not.
One change project that has worked well is drink-driving reduction. A key element in the change was the host responsibility choice architecture. The Sale of Liquor Act required elements like the provision of substantive food, non- and low-alcohol drinks and safe transport options. It didn’t require that anyone have to use them just that they were there in licensed premises. People were still free to choose. But, for example, the designated driver could take that first non- or low-alcohol beverage and be more likely to remain sober.
There was also a long campaign directed at describing behaviour that accorded with values and behaviours the public valued, for example “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” and various other treatments of the mate-ship theme.
In the manifesto for the next progressive government we should consider the utility of libertarian paternalism techniques to achieve sustainable, i.e. publicly legitimate, social change.
Darel Hall lives in Christchurch where he is involved in local government politics as part of the Christchurch 2021 grouping. He has a background in health promotion and tertiary education policy, having previously been president of the University of Canterbury Students’ Association (UCSA) and executive director of the Industry Training Federation, amongst other roles. Between the first and last drafts of this post he welcomed Alexandra and Samantha to the World.