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Are David Cameron's big ideas... big enough?

A question asked by The Economist:

"David Cameron, the Tory leader, has talked reverentially about “social norms” in speeches about the family, the environment and the voluntary sector. He has referred glowingly to two catchily titled books: “Influence” by Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University, and “Nudge” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago. Just published in Britain, “Nudge” argues that, in areas such as organ donation or pensions provision, governments can legitimately change their citizens’ “default” options, or coax them into making choices they might otherwise avoid. George Osborne, the clever but excitable shadow chancellor, bragged in a recent newspaper article that the Tories were “at the forefront of this new intersect”, extolling this enthusiasm as “yet more proof that the Conservative Party is now the party of ideas in British politics”...

In fact, the authors of “Nudge” acknowledge that their approach is both limited—“I don’t think we’re going to nudge Osama bin Laden,” Mr Thaler says, “but maybe we can make progress on litter”—and old, in practice if not theory. Lots of the techniques they recommend are commonplace in retail and advertising. Deals that begin with free samples, then require customers to opt out to avoid paying, rely on inertia. Adverts that cite the popularity of their brands harness “social norms”. Politicians are already at it too: “Nudge” is as much descriptive as prescriptive, adducing, among other initiatives, the opt-out organ-donation schemes in some countries, the cap-and-trade system of emissions control and a wheeze that improves aim in Dutch urinals.

So it is perhaps not surprising that when the Tories try to set out the practical applications of their new thinking, the list seems short. They want a cooling-off period between a shopper signing up for a loyalty card in a store and his getting to use it. They want household-energy bills to let consumers compare their usage with the average. They want to use the tax system to signal society’s approval of marriage (as it formerly did)."


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