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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man: A lifetime of Lent?

What divides the left from the right nowadays is almost never the wildly divergent aims each group claims to believe in: it’s simply that, at a personal level, each finds the other bloody irritating.

4 December 2010

12:00 AM

4 December 2010

12:00 AM

What divides the left from the right nowadays is almost never the wildly divergent aims each group claims to believe in: it’s simply that, at a personal level, each finds the other bloody irritating.

What divides the left from the right nowadays is almost never the wildly divergent aims each group claims to believe in: it’s simply that, at a personal level, each finds the other bloody irritating.

The left finds people on the right selfish and self-satisfied. They’re not wrong. A philosopher friend of mine says he dislikes the City ‘not for the money they earn but the unquestioning sense that they deserve it’. The right’s aversion to the left is more complex — sanctimoniousness, perhaps. The middle-class left can seem more eager to display good intentions than to obtain successful results. Showing how deeply you care about poverty is more important than solving it. Intentionality is what matters, so something that benefits the poor as a by-product of its own self-interest (Asda or Tesco, say) doesn’t count — it’s better to wear one hair shirt than to sell 10,000 cheap cotton ones.


This emphasis on signalling ‘how much you care’ infects environmental debates too. The odd disdain environmentalists show towards easier technological fixes such as geoengineering or nuclear power makes me suspicious (rightly or wrongly) of the whole movement. It seems what campaigners want is not so much a solution as a lifetime of Lent. ‘This is a massive issue,’ the thinking goes, ‘so we must dignify it with a correspondingly large intervention.’

Observe, too, how the possible technological fix of e-smoking will soon be met by health campaigners. Nicotine itself is clearly rather a good drug. An appetite suppressant and an antidepressant, it is also an aid to protracted creative thought — since Bach wrote ‘So oft ich meine Tobackspfeife’ (BWV 515a) in 1725 it is hard to name a single worthwhile piece of music written by a non-smoker. No, the problem is not the drug but the unhealthy by-products of the delivery mechanism. If human ingenuity can crack this problem electronically, what’s the worry? Yet the anti-smoking lobby’s ASHist tendency will be relentless in resisting the invention.

There’s a fallacy at work here. ‘Since my problem is big, it must require a big, governmental solution: a ban, perhaps, or a subsidy or taxes.’

And yet in several vital areas — technology, psychology and human behaviour — this logic does not hold. It is often small ideas which make the most difference. The 10p sachet of oral-rehydration salts may benefit Africans more than vast aid transfers. Flashing signs have a bigger effect on drivers than speed cameras. Making it compulsory to put £1 a month into a pension makes it more likely you’ll voluntarily add another £200. These are what Buckminster Fuller called ‘Trimtab’ solutions: where a clever small intervention can have disproportionately large effects.

This is why I am a supporter of the idea of Nudging, debated this week on The Moral Maze by James Delingpole and others. It encourages government to attempt small, efficient and relatively liberal interventions, instead of endlessly tugging at the two brute levers of legislation and spending.

The virtue of Nudge theory is that it rightly emphasises the effects tiny psychological cues have on human behaviour. Judging by recent riots, the present government still has something to learn here. It may be necessary to charge people for their university education in later life — but why call it ‘a loan’? A simple Nudge lesson in psychology would tell them to reframe it as a ‘Graduate Success Tax’ — a 2 to 4 per cent surcharge on income tax above £25,000 six years after graduation — never disclosing the upfront loan amount. If you are a behavioural economist this is called ‘hyperbolic discounting’. If you are a car dealer, it’s called ‘sales’.


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