A pamphlet by British policymakers that all American policymakers should read

Serious and nuanced thinking about the political complications arising from tensions between individual freedoms and mutual obligations, and about the government’s role in modern life have been percolating across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom. Duncan O’Leary, a researcher at the think tank Demos, has just produced a short pamphlet, “The Politics of Public Behaviour,” summarizing some of the main currents about public policy responses to the blurring of public and private lives.

The pamphlet consists of three essays by British lawmakers (from the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat parties), and a conclusion by O’Leary, on how best to define and protect those personal freedoms and to meet public demands for government intervention and action. (You can listen to a podcast with O’Leary discussing the pamphlet here.)

The key argument in the pamphlet’s conclusion is that systems of rights, responsibilities and economic frameworks are important but will not be enough to address the challenges created by the politics of public behaviour. These are too unambitious. Government needs to do more than delineate responsibilities, accounting for the public costs of private decisions. It needs to play an active role in helping individuals and communities take control of their own futures. For communities, this means that governments need to recognise the social as well as the economic conditions that are necessary for people to solve collective problems. Social norms, perceptions and expectations matter. These hidden forces of social change are capable of overriding traditional notions of self-interest and can be harnessed for the common good. They can make well intended laws effective in practice.

For individuals, governments need to strike a balance between ignoring problems and invading people’s personal lives. This suggests that the key test for the politics of public behaviour should not be a liberty test – but a freedom test that embraces positive as well as negative freedom. People should feel free to take control of their own lives as well as free from undue interference from the state in their personal choices. The best route to this is through investing in people’s capabilities: collective action that helps people to help themselves. This approach seeks to address issues like obesity without removing choices for individuals. Put simply, the aim of the state should be to create more realistic options for people, not to remove choices altogether.

Many of the themes of Nudge – like adapting the lessons of behavioral science research into social norms and individual psychology into public policy – run throughout “The Politics of Public Behaviour.” O’Leary makes a more explicit and forceful argument that government should “create agency rather than just choice,” by which he means it should create structures that include an element requiring active decision making. Elevating agency over mere choice puts additional burdens and expectations on government to present information and alternatives clearly, accurately, and usefully. Both governments and individuals should share in the responsibility for poor choices.

With agency rather than just choice the goal, the aim of the policy is not just to solve collective action problems and to avoid intrusion into people’s lives – important as those things are. It is also to help people through expanding the sphere of personal freedom and self-determination that people of all backgrounds enjoy in their lives. The key test for policy is not just freedom from interference, but also freedom for people to live well and make their own choices.

Ironically, there is evidence that the relationship between a big government and an active citizenry moves in an unexpected direction. A recent Demos survey of people in European countries finds that people in countries with the largest public sectors report the strongest feelings of control over their daily lives. Going forward, policymakers should direct their attention to questions about how best to empower citizens, when to withhold or expand the set of choices, and what sorts of conditions to attach to government-citizen contracts. “The Politics of Public Behaviour” is an excellent place to begin developing answers.


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