One thing that surprised every-one during lockdown was how many people derived unexpected pleasure from living under imposed restrictions. Can people become happier when temporarily prevented from doing things they would normally do? Almost certainly. Sometimes such circumstances force us to try something new which we subsequently prefer; at other times we enjoy having an external excuse not to do things we don’t want to do at all.
There is an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry gleefully realises that his mother’s death provides him with a reason to cancel all his upcoming engagements. All of us, I suspect, recognise this: we have moments where we are grateful to be mildly ill, since it pleasantly reduces the pace of life in a way which would be impossible were we feeling fine.
Exceptional world events provide us with a similar excuse to rethink things at scale. There is simply more permission to fail, and an implicit understanding that it’s acceptable to try unconventional things.
Necessity isn’t only the mother of invention. It’s also the mother of trying those things you always secretly wanted to do, but not enough to be the only person having to justify doing it. A shortage of workers during the second world war made it uncontentious for women to enter the workforce. In the pandemic, online grocery shopping and video calls saw ten years of growth in six months.
Flexible working was, I suspect, something everyone secretly wanted, but not enough to go it alone. I also think the pandemic has made it much easier to justify use of remote medical appointments. Before last year, these would have been seen as a desperate cost-cutting measure and nothing else. Don’t get me wrong, I think people should be able to have a face-to-face consultation if they wish, but it is ridiculous that every single encounter with a doctor requires you to sit in a waiting room full of ill people.
Temporary shocks such as a pandemic hence solve a coordination problem. Since everyone else’s behaviour and expectations are changing, it is suddenly more acceptable to rethink your own.
Perhaps it is time someone writes a companion volume to Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge called Shove. The subtitle could be: ‘How temporary shortages and artificially imposed constraints can accelerate innovation and improve human welfare.’
Some constraints are good. If you don’t believe this, consider how much better it is to be a bloke than to be a woman, sartorially speaking. There are no defaults in women’s fashion, and so every day involves decisions about what to wear. You need to change your wardrobe seasonally. Any event such as a wedding involves a trip to some overpriced clothes shop to buy something for which you then need matching shoes and a silly hat. By contrast, men have arrived at an equilibrium consensus which caps the effort required to be acceptably dressed. Provided you shower occasionally and dress like the late Roger Moore, you’re all set to attend anything from an orgy to a funeral.
Religions often work by creating a voluntary consensus around self-restraint. The same instinctive mechanism can be deployed to solve a large number of common resource problems, as the economist Elinor Ostrom repeatedly showed.
It’s for this reason that I am far better disposed to the environmental movement than you might expect. For all the hectoring, at its heart is an interesting and creative question: ‘How can we do more with less?’ It is much more likely to lead to new ideas than asking: ‘How can we do more with more?’ As Niels Bohr once said: ‘How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.’