Swear boxes and abstinence rings

January 27, 2010 at 11:50 am 3 comments

By John Craig

Sometimes, it’s easier to do the right thing by other people than it is our future selves.  Parents will neglect their own health and happiness to provide for their children, far beyond the point of diminishing returns.  The other day, I blogged about Peter Mandelson’s comment that the Labour Party should focus a little less on the ‘politics of distribution’ and a little more on the ‘politics of production’.  I said that in public services the reverse might be true, because too often equality concerns frustrate efforts to improve everyone’s well-being.  But there is a second problem with too great a focus on distribution – it focuses attention on distributive justice between individuals, to the exclusion of efforts simply to help everyone get on in life.  Part of the drive to create Radical Efficiency should focus on services’ ability to work with the grain of people’s will power and help them to lead more responsible, generous lives.

As we know, the Government agonised over the smoking ban.  They eventually introduced it because of concerns about passive smoking – the unfair effects of one person’s smoking on another.  Here, they implicitly invoke John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’: “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection”.

However, if the Government understand the success of the smoking ban in terms of passive smoking, they misunderstand its success and what it means for the future.  Passive smoking doesn’t explain why the ban has been relatively popular with smokers, as it has been in many other countries.  To understand that, you have to look at the effect of the smoking ban not between lives but within them.  Like a knotted handkerchief or a gastric band, the smoking ban has worked with the grain of smokers’ will power and helped them to quit. 

The person who can best help us to understand this is not J.S. Mill but Avner Offer, who wrote the Challenge of Affluence about the decline of what he called ‘commitment technologies’.  Abstinence rings, diet clubs and swear boxes can be important in supporting people’s will power to behave in certain ways, but many of these community and civil society institutions are declining.  For me, the smoking ban is popular because it is a commitment technology – not because it protects people from each other but because it helps people to do the right thing by their future selves.

An interest in the state’s role in helping to create ‘commitment technologies’ positions it not as a passive, impartial distributor of justice but, in Mark Moore’s phraise, as an ‘explorer in the public interest’, working with people to improve their lives.  From a fat tax to parenting classes, great policy solutions are ignored for too long for reasons of liberty.  But, like a swear box, we might all choose them to help our society flourish.  Public services should pay more attention to people’s will power – and to those things they desperately want, but struggle to achieve – and think harder about how they can help.


Entry filed under: Innovation Policy, Public Services, Radical Efficiency. Tags: , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alecpatton  |  January 28, 2010 at 10:40 am

    This is fairly Nudge-esque, isn’t it? (Speaking as someone who’s never actually read Cass Sustein)

  • 2. John Craig  |  January 28, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    Only in the sense that it relates to behaviour. Cass and sunstein focus on tthe way tweaks to the way existing choices are framed – choice architecture – can change behaviour by influencing people in ways they are barely aware of. This is about legislating to actually change the choices peoPle face in ways that explicitly help them to stick to commitments they have made.
    To steal an article title, it’s a case of “nudge, nudge; think, think”. Nudgers wld encourage saving by putting smiley faces on bank statements and dramatising the effects of not saving. Thinkers might invest in local credit unions to foster the practice of saving.

  • 3. John Craig  |  January 29, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Turns out, my previous comment somewhat mis-characterises the nudge nudge, think think article, which contrasts nudge with deliberative democracy as an approach to behaviour change.


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