I’m thinking of making this the first post in a series on news that is not news but soon will be. The Washington Post is now reporting that the behavior of your peers influences how you behave. I…am…shocked. I never imagined that being surrounded by people eating pizza might make me want a slice. Even less did I suspect that hanging out with drunks might make it easier to get a drink. I think I need to quit my job, spend a week in the woods and reevaluate my life. Apparently my belief in a personal identity has been a lie.
In all seriousness, however, couched within this absurd restatement of the obvious is both a confession of bureaucratic ineptitude and an ominous signal that we’re probably in store for even more of the same:
“What all these studies do is force us to start to kind of rethink our mental model of how we behave,” said Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociologist. “Public policy in general treats people as if they are sort of atomized individuals and puts policies in place to try to get them to stop smoking, eat right, start exercising or make better decisions about retirement, et cetera. What we see in this research is that we are missing a lot of what is happening if we think only that way.”
Mr. Watts would probably feel very comfortable in a discussion of “libertarian paternalism” such as the one that took place at the Cato Institute recently (audio link here). I think Will Wilkinson, who took part in that event, has an excellent perspective on the issues (you can get a taste here). My own two cents is that the government is by its nature, slow-moving, inflexible, and unaccommodating so that it should come as no surprise that public policies trying to change peaceful behaviors are ineffective. The more we depend on bureaucrats, in place of our friends and family, for advice, the more we are likely to perpetuate foolish mistakes. Keep an eye on people that think they know how to lead your life better than you do. They don’t.