Ideas that nudged governments

The World Today Published 3 June 2013 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Levitt and Dubner pose questions including how the legalization of abortion affects the rate of violent crime, why sumo wrestlers deliberately lose matches and why drug dealers still live with their mothers. Academic colleagues have accused them of cutesiness, but they argue that economics is, at the root, a study of incentives. People, they write, ‘aren’t good or bad. People are people, and they respond to incentives. They can nearly always be manipulated – for good or ill – if only you find the right levers.’

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael J. Sandel

Sandel argues that there are ‘moral and civic goods’ that need protecting from the market. ‘Over the past three decades,’ he writes, ‘markets – and market values – have come to govern out lives as never before.’ Sandel is interested in what he sees as a deeper loss of our collective moral compass. ‘The most fateful change that unfolded in the past three decades was not an increase in greed, it was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.’ Sandel spoke at the last Labour Party conference – with Labour strategists hoping his ideas might prove damaging to the Conservatives.

Thinking About Crime, James Q. Wilson

Zero tolerance policing can be traced back to a 1982 article Wilson wrote, Broken Windows, in which he and co-author George L. Kelling laid out the importance of deterrence. If one window in a building was broken and not repaired, vandals would break the others too, whereas if it were repaired, it acted as a deterrent to vandalism. This idea, later developed in a book, was taken up by Bill Bratton, head of New York City’s transit police, where it was credited with a big fall in crime, before being eagerly picked up by British politicians.

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

This analysis of what the authors call ‘choice architecture’ gives an insight into what influences people when they are faced with a decision. The idea was seized on by policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic. The British coalition government set up a ‘nudge unit’ in 2010, to work on health, environmental and tax policies. Rather than coercing the public into doing the right thing, Thaler and Sunstein believe people can be encouraged to do so, whether paying their car tax or saving for retirement.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell defines a tipping point as ‘the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point’. The book seeks to explain the sociological changes that mark everyday life, and is structured around the ‘three rules of epidemics’: The Law of the Few, the success of any kind of social epidemic being dependent on the involvement of people with a particular set of social gifts; The Stickiness Factor, the content of a message that renders its impact memorable; and The Power of Context, human behaviour being strongly influenced by its environment. As Gladwell says, ideas spread like viruses.