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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

States of Reason: Freedom, responsibility and the governing of behaviour change

In this report we ask what the rationale is for state interventions in public behaviour and what principles should guide public policy when the state seeks to act. The report develops a framework setting out when and how government intervention in public behaviour is justified. It brings together insights from different policy areas but focuses in particular on three examples: anti-social behaviour, climate change, and personal finance.

Public behaviour has long been the concern of government. States need to maintain order, prevent citizens from harming each other and promote the public good. They often aim to foster behaviour that is thought to be good for individuals and society at large, such as voting, healthy eating, or more controversially, marriage and particular styles of parenting.

Along with families, communities and markets, governments can inform, educate, cajole and coerce people, contributing to the social and physical environment in which individuals choose how to live.

Social and cultural norms are deeply, if slowly, influenced by these signals. That is why debates about government strategies aimed at changing personal behaviour go to the heart of significant political and philosophical questions about the boundaries between the private and the public, the limits of state control, and the ability of individuals to act rationally and independently.

In this report we ask what the rationale is for state interventions in public behaviour and what principles should guide public policy when the state seeks to act. The report develops a framework setting out when and how government intervention in public behaviour is justified. It brings together insights from different policy areas but focuses in particular on three examples:

  • Anti-social behaviour
  • Climate change
  • Personal finance, specifically, people's ability to manage their finances.

It considers whether government policies in these areas are appropriate and how effective they are in meeting their stated aims.