The naughty nation

Should the state force us to eat well, drink wisely and behave nicely on public transport, or should

Smoking, smacking, snacking and boozing: ours is a naughty nation. Billboard advertisements for St Trinian's, the UK Film Council-funded hymn to anarchy, were covered in the punitive lines: "I must not misbehave. I must not misbehave. I must not misbehave." It is not too difficult to imagine the Prime Minister setting the same lines for the country as a whole. From diets leading to obesity to alcohol-fuelled violence, reducing misbehaviour is now a political priority.

Politicians have historically been wary of appearing to pass judgement on our behaviour, but are becoming more outspoken as the impact of Brits Behaving Badly is more keenly felt. David Cameron has pledged to fix our "broken society", though the chances of a tax break for marriage curbing the behaviour of tanked-up teen agers have to be ranked as thin at best. Early this month, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, unveiled plans to give the police powers to seize alcohol from underage drinkers in response to research showing that young people are drinking more heavily - and that alcohol explains a rising proportion of violence among school-age young sters. Most 13-year-olds surveyed said they have had a drink. "This is a very interesting political space at the moment," says David Halpern, a former government adviser, now at the Institute for Government. "There is still a fear of being seen to be manipulating people. But Gordon Brown has long talked about the need for culture change."

Frank Field, one of the few politicians to speak fearlessly on the issue, has warned of a "new form of barbarism" and "the collapse of decent behaviour" in some of our poorest areas. Even a few years ago, Field sounded eccentrically Victorian. Now there is a chorus of commentators and columnists joining in. Broadsheet op-ed pieces follow a pretty fixed pattern: a first-person account of a shocking incident of antisocial behaviour (usually involving public transport) and next a rash of statistics suggesting that, far from being isolated, it speaks of a wider breakdown of codes of behaviour. Then - depending on the political leanings of the writer - a rant about either the collapse of the traditional family or the rise of rampant individualism. For many decades, an optimistic view of human nature has been in favour on left and right alike; now, the prevailing view is closer to the Hobbesian one of people's lives being nasty and brutish.

Policy concerns

While personal exposure to some social atrocity is often the spur for members of the commentariat (my own, for what it is worth, involves a van reversing along a pavement outside a school), politicians' concern over behaviour is being driven by clear public policy concerns. Fear of crime hobbles individual freedom; reckless driving kills people; poor diet and lack of exercise cause obesity and necessitate billions in extra NHS spending; binge drinking drives violence and petty crime. On a less immediate level, a failure to save causes poverty in old age and strain on the public finances. And, of course, meeting the challenge of climate change requires radical alt-erations in personal behaviour.

But the politics of behavioural change is difficult, at both a philosophical and a practical level. Politicians of all stripes are struggling with the failure of liberal democracy to cope with issues which, in the end, come down to the individual. They are fatally equivocating between two ir re concilable approach es: the paternalist desire to use the levers of the state to enforce better behaviour and the liberal instinct that people should be left alone, unless the actions in question are directly damaging to others. It is a strong liberal principle that activities which harm only the actor should not be interfered with. A gambler blowing his life savings at the baccarat table may be as foolish as the bank robber, but the foolishness of the former hurts only himself.

Behaviour leading to obesity is, in strictly liberal terms, beyond the legitimate reach of the state. If I eat badly and live as a couch potato, the only person who will get fat is me. That is why it is ludicrous to talk of an "obesity epidemic". It is hard to imagine genuine liberals such as the late Roy Jenkins getting worked up about weight gain. Nonetheless, the profound impact of obesity on health - some studies suggest obesity knocks a decade off life expectancy - has led to lots of political rhetoric on the issue.

Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, who (absurdly) compares obesity to global warming, judges that people are just as opposed to a "neg lectful state" as a "nanny state". Various small-budget, "cross-cutting" initiatives have been launched, and a few policies trailed - from changing planning laws to make it harder to open a fast-food outlet to compulsory school weigh-ins and warning letters to parents of chubby children. But the government has shied away from bolder options, such as a tax on fatty foods, or even a compulsory "traffic light" system to make it easier for shoppers to spot waist-threatening items.

Antisocial behaviour offers a clearer rationale for state intervention. Noise, public disorder and threatening behaviour are all harmful to others: the "neighbours from hell" really can make life hell. The truth is that only communities themselves can effectively regulate the low-level misbehaviour of their members - the state is too distant. As such, antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) have a mixed record; in many areas an Asbo has become a badge of honour rather than shame. As the late Linda Smith put it: "Don't knock Asbos - for some of these kids it's the only qualification they'll get."

One of the frustrations for policymakers is that many of the problems associated with in dividual behaviour are, by definition, beyond the reach of legislation. Only the most draconian laws could have any discernible impact on the problems of obesity, antisocial behaviour or alcohol abuse. Samuel Johnson knew this: "How small, of all that human hearts endure/That part which Laws or Kings can cause or cure."

The field of behavioural psychology has been supplemented by the burgeoning discipline of behavioural economics - but we are a very long way from a science of behavourial politics.

Manipulation

One ray of hope comes from evidence that patterns of behaviour can be changed quite significantly, especially in response to changes in surrounding environment. "When you suggest quite small policy changes, people make the accusation that you're just tinkering," says Halpern. "But in fact quite small changes can have quite big effects." A story from the US scholar Robert Cialdini's Influence: Science and Practice - a bible for behaviourists - showed how a restaurant reduced the rate of people failing to turn up for a table booking from 30 to 10 per cent by making an apparently tiny change to the conversation when a table was booked. Staff had always said something like: "Please let us know if you can't come." Now they were asked to say: "You will let us know if you can't come, won't you?" and then - crucially - pause and wait for a response. The answer sealed a kind of contract.

Is this a form of psychological manipulation? Cialdini argues that far from being manipulative, such techniques are simply about better com munication (though there is something creepy about the deliberateness of the ploy). What relevance does the number of no-shows at a restaurant in California have for British public policy? One in ten of us has failed to show up for a GP appointment and "failures to attend" cost the NHS £325m a year. Rather than fines (a policy occasionally considered), perhaps there is some way to increase the "contract" of the appointment.

It is not just Labour's policy wonks who are into behaviour. On the Conservative side, David Willetts is looking at game theory to see how institutional settings can encourage or discourage co-operative behaviour (while Lord Tebbit has been trumpeting his own solution for young black Britons trapped in a culture of gangs, guns and drugs: "a good game of rugger".

What Willetts and Halpern share is an appreciation of the environmental influence on individual behaviour. We don't make our decisions in a vacuum; they are hugely shaped by a range of factors, including mood and peer influence. There is now a considerable body of research literature showing that people's level of social helpfulness is more influenced by how they feel at a particular point in time than by their personality. In the most famous staged experiment, people were considerably more likely to help a stranger pick up the papers she had dropped if they themselves had been "lucky" enough to find a dime in the payphone they had just used. Out of 15 who got the extra dime, 14 helped the woman with her papers; of the 26 who did not, only two did. There are countless other examples of what might be labelled mood multiplier effect: someone who is offered a courtesy on the road is more likely to do the same for someone else, for example. Kindness seems to be contagious. This of course means that unkindness, too, is likely to be self-perpetuating.

Going round dropping pound coins in odd places would be a fun government job, and there would surely be a few candidates for minister of moodiness: but there is little the government can - or, indeed, should - do to improve our mood. A potentially more fruitful way into behaviour change is the influence of peers and communities. Social behaviour displays what David Hirshleifer, a professor at Ohio State University's business school, calls "localised conformity".

The human tendency to imitate is powerful; it makes both good and bad behaviour become normalised and hard to turn around. This also applies to appearance: people with a friend who becomes overweight are more likely to become overweight themselves, and judgements about what constitutes a "normal" body shape are changing almost as quickly as body shapes them selves, one reason why the parents of clinically obese children sometimes deny it.

The political right is correct to suggest that self-regulation - or character - is vital. A good society cannot be built without good people. But the left accurately identifies the role of collective life, and of institutions, in the shaping of behaviour. What both need to come to terms with is the impotence of the market and the state in bringing about behavioural change.

Killer question

The positions of government and opposition alike are riddled with inconsistency. Both are stuck between the rock of paternalism and the hard place of liberalism. The killer question, which is being universally ducked, is how far the state can or should save us from ourselves.

Labour's approach to obesity offers perhaps the best example. Alan Johnson has two intellectually respectable options. He could argue that the state must intervene dramatically on obesity and stop fiddling around with "cross-government initiatives". He should slap a tax on bad food and ban corporations from advertising junk food to children - a piece of paternalism that few except the firms themselves could oppose. Failing this, he needs to admit that individually caused obesity is not an issue a government in a liberal society can do very much about.

Johnson - as do politicians generally - needs to decide whether to be a good paternalist or a good liberal, rather than encourage the present awful hybrid of ineffective paternalism and false liberalism. Every parent knows that making threatening noises but failing to follow up with action is a recipe for domestic anarchy. The same is true of the state. The government does have a choice: do something, or shut up.

Illustration by James Fryer

Richard Reeves is the author of "John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand", published by Atlantic Books (priced £30)