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Social engineering: Are they all at it?

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Mark Easton | 17:47 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

Accusations of "social engineering" have been flying around in the past day or so over Conservative plans to use the tax system to encourage marriage. Two thoughts: first, social engineering is what all politicians aim to do and, second, they are usually not very good at it.

Traffic lights in front of Big Ben"Social engineering" has a sinister tone to it, conjuring the image of some evil despot attempting to reconstruct society around a warped personal philosophy. Examples might include Mao's Cultural Revolution, Hitler's Final Solution or Stalin's Five Year Plans.

But if social engineering is defined as efforts "to influence popular attitudes, social behaviours, and resource management on a large scale", then that, surely, is what all political leaders, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to achieve. Every law they pass, every adjustment to the tax and welfare systems, every information campaign, every speech is designed to change the way society behaves.

The philosopher Karl Popper drew a distinction between the principles of democratic social reconstruction (called "piecemeal social engineering") and "Utopian social engineering". While the first might be a "reasonable method of improving the lot of man", the second "may easily lead to an intolerable increase in human suffering", he argued.

Yesterday in the Sunday Telegraph, Children's Secretary Ed Balls accused the Conservatives of "trying to socially-engineer family life" by proposing to use the tax system to encourage marriage.

The Daily Mail responded in a leader that "(n)o government in recent history has been more obsessed with social engineering than New Labour", citing policies on immigration, the family and education.

The Telegraph echoes the criticism, arguing that Mr Balls has "spent the last decade trying to do precisely what he decries: that is, trying to re-engineer family life through tax policy". In Labour's case, says the newspaper, it is the Working Family Tax Credit, the effect of which has been to "increase the number of children raised by single mothers".

However, it is doubtful how much effect Whitehall policy wonks and zealous ministers can really have on family life. The rise in the number of lone parents probably has far more to do with contemporary expectations for domestic well-being than tweaks to the tax system.

The decline of marriage and long-term committed relationships in Britain is echoed across the Western world and has been described as a shift from "familism" to "consumerism". In other words, these days people tend to put a greater emphasis on individual autonomy than family life. Couples pursue careers to maximise income, postponing children and the long-term obligations that go with it - possibly indefinitely.

It has also been argued that people take a more "consumerist" attitude to relationships. They regard a marriage the same way they might view a contract with British Gas. If it doesn't deliver, just stop the standing order. Using the tax system to encourage people to tie the knot may push up the marriage rate, but it may also push up the divorce rate.

In England and Wales, the proportion of the married population who got divorced last year was down 7%, at the lowest level since 1984. That is not because couples found renewed commitment, but because those who were less committed were less likely to get married in the first place. Conversely, if people are pushed into getting hitched by the promise of extra cash, it is probable that more of those marriages will fail.

When the Austrian government introduced a £300 marriage grant in 1972, the divorce rate soared. The cash incentive was withdrawn a decade later. The conclusion would seem to be that you can bribe someone to the altar but you cannot buy commitment.

The so-called "tools of government" used to change behaviour come in three forms: carrots, sticks and sermons. All politicians use these tools to a greater or lesser degree. The Conservatives, anxious to encourage the development of "big society" rather than the "big state", are looking to plant carrots and preach sermons. That is why the shadow cabinet was encouraged to read Nudge a couple of years ago, a book looking at ways of changing behaviour without the need for new laws. However, trying to adjust social norms so that people live their lives more responsibly is "social engineering" by any other name.

Nevertheless, when it comes to welfare reform and anti-social behaviour, the Conservatives opt for "sticks" - just as Labour has done.

New research by academics at Nottingham Trent University examines the government's recent attempts at "piecemeal social engineering".

"Making People More Responsible: The Blair Government's Programme for Changing Citizens' Behaviour" pulls apart a long list of policies:

"[W]elfare to work, health promotion campaigns, a ban on smoking in public places, measures to combat antisocial behaviour and enforce school discipline, home-school contracts, community cohesion and neighbourhood renewal programmes, measures to encourage car sharing and use of public transport, and others to promote domestic waste recycling".

The research team defined 10 types of policy instruments to achieve behavioural change:

(1) Regulation - prohibition

(2) Regulation - administrative restriction

(3) Regulation - administrative conditionality

(4) Incentive - fiscally induced price increase

(5) Incentive - fiscally induced price reduction

(6) Practical support, counselling, in-kind resources

(7) Information - campaign to dissuade from a wanted good

(8) Information - campaign to persuade to use an unwanted good

(9) Manipulating environment - restricting opportunities for certain behaviours (will use tools of regulation, incentive, information, etc.)

(10) Manipulating environment - increasing opportunities for certain behaviours (will use tools of regulation, incentive, information, etc.)

The first three, the regulatory approaches, are described as "strong tools" and the research concludes that "those departments principally targeting people who have low incomes and/or are poor exhibit much higher strong tool ratios (0.23 compared to 0.11, which is significant at the 0.05 level)".

Perhaps politicians think the middle classes are more responsive to argument and bribery, while those in the most deprived households need a regulatory boot to get them to mend their ways. Or maybe they calculate that the poor are less likely to vote.

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