Promoting Good Choices: Patterns of Habit and the Role of Government

April 24, 2010

Progressive Economics

“Promoting good choices” first brings to mind government advertising: billboards telling us to be better people – to wear enough sunscreen, to avoid hard drugs. While many campaigns, particularly around public health, have been effective, such marketing has costs. More and more (and more provocative) advertisements now clutter up our airwaves and visual space. Often, the ambition to promote good choices has been compromised by the means chosen to do so, particularly the proliferation of signs, advertisements, and other forms of petty and disturbing interference. Yet “promoting good choices” also suggests a more serious aim: for a higher quality society, for social conditions supporting better choices, for markets in virtue not vice. These conditions can be established. And this can be done while restoring a quality public realm, governed for the common good, protected against debasement.

Public space compromised by corporate and government advertising is an important symbol. It reminds us that valuable goods can be undermined in the name of choice. Many of our most complex policy problems today arise from free choice, around how people eat and exercise, the financial risks we take, or how sustainably we live, for example. Dealing with these problems will require moving beyond the popular binary debate between laissez-faire approaches and mandates. Regulation has its place, as does laissez-faire, but what our current approaches lack is an understanding of the full range of factors shaping choices, from brain to society. Our choices are made in contexts, which are often unavoidably shaped by policy. It is the conditions shaping patterns of choice on which this paper focuses.

Habits are a central concept linking brain and society. Many of our choices are not isolated, deliberative decisions, but should instead be analysed as semi-conscious patterns of habit, shaped over time by social and economic conditions. Habits are valuable in themselves, as they free up conscious mental resources for long-term thinking. They are an evolved mechanism which positively facilitates normal life and behaviour. Problems arise, however, when habits occasionally entrench patterns of bad choice that are difficult to change. Habits can only be redirected incrementally and imperfectly, but most areas of policy are already implicated in shaping habits, whether policymakers attend to this or not.

“Good” choices are partly based in biology: the picture of human nature emerging from neuroscience outlines the elements of human flourishing. In addition, we argue that in Australia, good choices are those which promote the individual and common good, based on the progressive values of prosperity, fairness and community. Promoting good choices requires two things: 1) policies tailored to specific choices and habits, and 2) policies to support “domain-general” habits, which underpin patterns of good choice. Domain-general habits such as empathy, self-control and long-term thinking might better be described as “virtues” clusters of habit, motivation and belief which tend to be admired in a population. Their development is central to a good society; the role of government here is to establish and protect the economic and social conditions which tend to cultivate virtuous citizens.