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A nudge in the right direction

26 July 2008

1:56 PM

26 July 2008

1:56 PM

A few months ago I wrote a Spectator article suggesting that the government  spends far too little money and time on advertising and persuasion, despite the (to me, at any rate) obvious observation that changing behaviour using information or even subtle persuasion is always preferable – on both economic and philosophical grounds – to the threat of punishment.

It still seems bizarre to me that the government spends vastly more on punishing drunk drivers than it spends on persuading people not to drive drunk. Rather as though, when my children misbehaved, my first reaction were to hit them with a large stick, only using verbal persuasion as a last resort.

However I have to admit my reasons for writing the piece were partly mischievous – and I’m not sure I wrote it expecting to have any actual effect. But at that point I hadn’t read Nudge, Dick Thaler & Cass Sunstein’s call for Libertarian Paternalism, nor had I read James Forsyth’s fascinating interview with Thaler.

Last week, I am delighted to see, the idea of nudging seemed to be spectacularly vindicated in Britain with the suggestion that VAS Signs (Vehicle Activated Speed signs, which flash the driver’s speed at any driver travelling over a certain speed) cost perhaps 98% less to operate annually than a speed camera while preventing more accidents. It is a perfect example of Thaler’s assertion that "feedback" – in other words giving people better, faster information in response to their actions, can change behaviour perfectly effectively without the need for any threat. Even better (and Thaler will love this) I have found from Google Images that some road signs now even offer positive feedback, displaying a smiley face when the driver is travelling within the speed limit.

This is one of the findings which has caused Swindon Council to question the whole case for speed cameras, with Councillor Peter Greenhalgh last week awarded Top Gear’s Throne of Gratitude for his decision to get rid of them.

I have to say I find all this extremely uplifting. The idea that when presented with better information, people generally act wisely is good to know. It is in many ways a vindication for what you might call "The Optimistic Right" – those people who believe that, left to their own devices, individuals will generally arrive at sensible outcomes without the need for any compulsion or threat.

It will take a while for this message to reach the Pessimistic Rightm however. Their house organ, The Daily Mail, reacted to Swindon’s inspired libertarian decision with a marvellous bout of irrelevant scaremongering. "Revealed: Driving Ban for Council Chief who wants to Ban Speed Cameras".

Don’tcha just hate it?

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