How Should Governments Make Us Do What They Want?

July 09, 2020, 7:32 PM UTC

The central issue for governments everywhere during the Covid crisis has been how to influence people’s behaviour. It was the central issue in the early stages when what mattered most was stopping the spread of the disease. And it’s the central issue now when what matters is getting economies up and running again. Influencing behaviour was the whole point of the economic measures announced on Wednesday by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. What’s the most effective way for governments to affect what we do? And which means do we find acceptable, and which not?

You can see the different ways governments answer these questions as lying on a spectrum between two extremes. At one end is the view that government should lay down the law on virtually everything and if we don’t do what the law says we must, then they’ll lock us up: end of story. At the other end is the view that governments should do as little as possible except hold the ring within which we, the citizens, should be free as much as possible to do whatever we like. On this model, governments might take it upon themselves to make sure we have all the information we need to take sensible decisions; they might even go so far as to offer a touch of advice, but basically we must make all the choices ourselves and accept the consequences.

In between there’s a sort of middle ground where the approach is neither to command us nor to leave us alone but to steer us: a nudge here, a prod there, a bit of carrot, a bit of stick. We’re nudged, coaxed, manipulated but essentially we’re left to make our own decisions, albeit with the scales loaded by government one way or the other when we weigh the pros and cons of any choice.

Covid has been a classic case of how governments need to pick their spot carefully on this spectrum. In Britain there is now a consensus that the government imposed the lockdown a week or two too late. The delay, according to one of its own scientific advisers, Professor Neil Ferguson, may have accounted for as much as half of the subsequent fatalities, leaving Britain with one of the worst records in the world for per capita infections and deaths. When, eventually, there is the inevitable inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic we’ll no doubt learn why the government delayed. But it seems unlikely that the explanation won’t include reference to where the Prime Minister likes to stand on this spectrum of how much or how little government should tell people what to do.

Boris Johnson is clearly, by instinct and conviction, inclined to the freedom end of the line. You could almost say on the evidence from his writing as a journalist and from the very way he’s lived his life that he came into office not really believing in government, or at least thinking governments should keep out of the way as much as possible. He evidently thinks, with regard to his own life, that he should be able to do pretty much whatever he wants and he thinks other people should be able to do the same. So when Covid appeared back in late February and early March he was reported to be ‘appalled’ at the very idea  that the government should curb people’s freedoms and impose a lockdown. Instead, he first ‘advised’ us to be sensible and stay at home. Only reluctantly, a week later, was he forced to go on television and say he now ‘instructed’ us to do so. You could see the word sticking in his gullet.

We learned subsequently that government ministers were surprised (and very relieved) that in general the public was so obedient, so ready to follow instruction and, once it became law, to follow it. And we did so, of course, because it seemed sensible. In other words, we Brits aren’t so committed to freedom that we refuse to have it curbed when it seems the sane thing to do. We’re towards the centre on that spectrum.

Elsewhere, people look at all this quite differently. In America, large numbers of people took to the streets in outrage that government was telling them to stay at home. It was their right to do what they wanted and that’s all there was to it. Consequently several states were quick to relax lockdown rules. The resulting take-off in infections was predictable, of course, and from here it looks as though those who fought against restrictions were just stupid. Well, maybe. But there’s another way of looking at it. Those who successfully baulked at curbs on their freedom weren’t stupid in the sense that they didn’t realise what the consequence would be,. They knew full well. But to them freedom was more important. In other words people must make their own choices about risk even if that freedom increases the risk to them and everyone else. Government must keep out of it.

It’s the same issue with gun control. Over here we’re just baffled at how Amrican can be so stupid as to have such lax controls on who can own guns. Here the laws are tight and no one turns a hair. But in America most people really do see things differently.

Now we’re at the economic revival stage of the pandemic, the choice facing government is rather different. Governments can’t stand at either extreme of the spectrum. They can’t pass laws to force the economy to grow. The harsh reality of communism in practise has proved that. Nor can government just abdicate all responsibility and leave us to get on with making the economy grow. Sure, it might end up in a boom, but it might equally end up in a slump. Keynes taught us that.

So governments are forced into that middle ground of manipulation, of nudging and coaxing. It would be easy (such is our habit of equating the middle ground with moderation) to think of government-as-nudger in rather benign, cosy terms, and of course it can be. But it needn’t be. China provides a salutary example.

Over many years now its government has developed an elaborate and comprehensive system of manipulation of its citizenry by means of a combination of immensely intrusive surveillance (via CCTV and smartphone monitoring) and a system of social credit rating that controls a person’s access to the very basics of living. In simple summary what happens is that a citizen starts with a quota of points: good behaviour can be rewarded with extra points, but bad behaviour, picked up by the surveillance network, leads to points being taken away, ultimately to the point where it becomes virtually impossible to live – to get a job, have a place to live, even have friends (who themselves risk losing points simply by virtue of having been spotted associating with you). Note that no one is being ‘forced’ to do anything; they are still ‘free’ to do what they want. It’s just that the manipulation via carrots and sticks is so extreme that people have little real choice.

Back in Britain Rishi Sunak has been trying to manipulate us this week but wholly by means of carrots. Whether it’s the £1,000 he’s offering employers for each employee they take back from furlough, or the half price meals out he’s offering us all next month, it’s all about nudging us to behave in a certain way, a way he hopes will help revive the economy.

The usual question to ask about such schemes of manipulation by means of incentive is: will they work? The truth is Mr Sunak doesn’t know any more than you or I do but he thinks it’s worth a go. And you can imagine how the thinking went in the Treasury. The aim is to help the badly-stricken hospitality sector on which an awful lot of young people depend for work. So how can ‘demand’ for meals out be increased at not too exorbitant a cost to the government?

Well, how about a meal subsidy during August when the kids are off school, holidays have probably had to be cancelled, and parents are looking for treats of their children?

OK, but how should that be done without the government coughing up for trips to Macdonalds that would have happened anyway? Answer: restrict the subsidy to restaurant trips Monday to Wednesday when people tend to go out less anyway… . You can see why Mr Sunak thinks it worth a punt and it may prove effective.

But the question less often asked is: are we happy to be manipulated like this?

Let’s briefly go back to China. I simply don’t know whether the Chinese people are happy to live under this system of surveillance and social credit. I know that for me it seems unspeakably awful, Orwellian in the extreme. But it would be a failure of imagination not to suppose that there must be many Chinese who say: ‘It’s fine by me’. They were never planning to engage in antisocial behaviour anyway and what they really like is that it stops in their tracks those who might be inclined to make a nuisance of themselves. Order is always better than freedom, isn’t it?

To which most of us, I suspect would say: “Only after many decades of brainwashing!”

Back here, what do we feel about Mr Sunak’s kind offer to pay half our restaurant bills? Some people will immediately say: “What are you talking about! Who’d look a gift horse in the mouth? If he wants to cough up a tenner for me, good on him. I’m very happy to be ‘manipulated’ (if that’s what you call it) any time you like. Rishi for PM!”

Others, though, of a more fastidious disposition, may feel there’s something a touch tawdry about it, even offensive. “I’ll make my own decisions, thank you, about whether or not I go out for dinner at the moment. And frankly I’m not going to be chivvied by Mr Sunak through a cheap bribe into making less of my genuine worries about whether it is yet safe to go to a restaurant. I won’t be manipulated! And I must say I think it deplorable that he leans like this on people with less money than I have, so tempting them to make what could be a catastrophic decision to go to a restaurant.”

Mr Sunak would no doubt reply that he wouldn’t be making this offer if the government wasn’t persuaded it was now safe for people to go to restaurants. And he’d add (truthfully) that he has only one motive in making this offer: to promote the general good by helping a badly stricken but vital sector of the economy to revive rather than sink.

The ‘general good’ can always be called in aid and I’m sure President Xi does so often. Of course I am not remotely equating what the Chinese President thinks necessary to promote the general good with Mr Sunak’s offer to help with the tab: our two societies are utterly different, thank God. My point is simply to ask: when does government manipulation of our behaviour amount to the undermining of freedom, and should we be worried or not?

It’s a question worth bearing in mind because much more manipulation is on the way, not least because technological change, especially with regard to surveillance, hugely increases the opportunities for government to manipulate us. That’s what China has realised. And governments rarely resist. It’s a question at least worth pondering when you pick up your ten pound voucher and head off for a meal.

What view do you take? Let us know.