Enforcing Mindsets and Lifestyles?

There is a widespread view that a liberal state may prevent people from harming others but that it should not promote certain comprehensive doctrines about the good life. In environmental policymaking this means

  1. that the state may prevent us from harming others (by limiting or taxing our emissions)
  2. but that the state may not prescribe by which means we should reduce emissions, whether this be eating less animal produce, travelling less, buying less stuff in general, etc. — that’s a matter of personal choice
  3. and that the state may not prescribe to reduce our emissions out of a certain motivation; as long as we reduce our emissions, the state should not care whether we do so grudgingly, whether we do so out of love of nature, whether we do so by embracing a lifestyle of simplicity, whether we embed this change in a religious lifestyle, etc.

Here is one specific way to challenge the 2nd and 3rd aspect of this widespread view. It is just terribly cumbersome if the state refrains from enforcing certain means of reducing emissions and refrains from engendering certain motivations in the citizenry. It is inefficient to let individuals decide individually on their preferred ways of reducing emissions. Coordinating lifestyle change would save costs. Changing mindests and motivations is simply much easier and needs less willpower, when it’s done together. The state could save each of us lots of trouble by using tax money to celebrate green changes in mentality, by inculcating new green paradigms in schoolkids, by coercively enforcing the normality of reduced mobility rather than letting us commit to this goal in isolation, by publicly creating momentum for a change in diet, etc.
Given that in the long run we have to change our mindsets and lifestyles anyway in order to refrain from harming others and given that travelling this road together is just much less pain, one might argue that the sheer cost savings of the community doing this with state enforcement and state encouragement justifies the accompanying curtailment of liberty.
I am making this point very hesitantly. It’s more of a question: How far do the mere psychological cost savings — the size of which is often  underestimated in my view — go in allowing illiberal environmental policy measures?

3 responses to “Enforcing Mindsets and Lifestyles?

  1. Deliberately cultivating a change in mindset might indeed be a relatively low-cost way to change behaviour. Would the state telling individuals *how* to act increase efficiency? Liberal theory commonly assumes that it’s most efficient to create the right incentives (e.g., by taxing externalities) and then allow the invisible hand to determine how individuals respond to them: that markets allocate efforts more efficiently than can the state. Perhaps that’s not always true but if not, why not–and under what conditions?

  2. Interesting! It sort of strikes me that #1 cannot be achieved alongside #2 and #3… and I wonder if liberalism is really the best way anyway. Or at least it strikes me that it needs to be a re-configured version: where the purpose of liberalism is the well-being of all. In which case liberalism is curtailed at a point of ‘optimal liberalism’, after which the extra liberty of some (a few) would start to encroach on the liberty/well being of others….

  3. Thanks for these thoughts!

    Matthew, you’re absolutely right to point out that the default assumption should be that it’s *more* costly when the state starts to intervene and that if I deviate from this default opinion then it’s me who ought to provide arguments.
    I guess I was so preoccupied with certain examples in my head that this didn’t occur to me. So, here are some examples, where state action to enforce certain specific ways&motivations for reducing emissions *increases* efficiency:

    — 1 — Some emission reduction strategies have the character of *coordination problems*. And markets are not always good at solving those (see, for example, the different formats for video tapes in the US and Europe or the different sound carriers that were on the market simultaneously (DAT, MiniDisc, CD, etc.)). To make the point overstylized: If we assume that it would be enough to solve climate change if we all *either* became vegetarians *or* all stopped flying, then it would be very helpful if we could *collectively* decide on one of the two (and a collective decision would seem much better achievable with the help of the state). A collective coordination would help because being vegetarian is much easier when a large fraction of society is so, too. Similarly, refraining from flying is much easier when nobody else does because in that case everybody is forced to develop relationships locally.

    — 2 — Some of the lifestyle changes might amount to *preference changes*. For example, switching from carnivore to vegan is psychologically very costly in case we continue to love meat. But if we manage to make ourselves be fascinated by the vegan diet, then the switch to veganism stops being costly. Markets might not be good at cost-savings that come in the form of preference change (indeed, economic theory typically takes preferences as *given*).

    — 3 — This last example brings me to a third point. Some of the lifestyle changes have “public goods” character (and free markets don’t supply public goods optimally and state provision can therefore increase efficiency). If, for example, some people opt for the mitigation strategy of a simple lifestyle and organic farming, they have lots of externalities for others. By living like that, they develop knowledge that is not only useful for themselves (e.g. about ways to have fun even without wealth or about types of vegetable that grow well in organic farms) but that is a “positive externality” for others. And if it’s a positive externality, then markets will provide too little of it.

    …..OK, this should become a million times more systematic. I guess what I intuitively had in mind is that certain motivation/preference changes go down much easier when one can go with the masses and that certain lifestyle changes are cheaper when done in coordination with others.


    Sam, thanks also for your lines. Here’s one thing I would say: I think that a liberalism whose *core* concern is the *well-being* of all is no liberalism at all anymore. The heart of liberalism is about the *liberty* of all. (Interestingly, I wouldn’t say the same thing about free markets: In contrast to liberalism, free markets routinely get justified with respect to either or both of two values: liberty and/or welfare).

    But I fully agree that one cannot avoid asking questions about the form liberalism should take in the future — a future that is characterised by environmental challenges.

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