Considering the English character and how the government might push citizens into certain actions

How governments should push or encourage their citizens to perform certain actions is a tricky question. Governments can use financial incentives, cajoling, and brute force, among other options.

The Economist makes the suggestion that “Britain has good reasons to seek a fresh debate on poverty and social mobility.” But in having this debate, it is suggested that the government consider the “English character”:

In the early 1950s a sociologist called Geoffrey Gorer set out to solve the mystery of England’s “character”. To be precise, how had the English gone from being a thoroughly lawless bunch—famed for truculence and cruelty—to one of the most orderly societies in history? Just over a century before, he noted, the police entered some bits of Westminster only in squads of six or more “for fear of being cut to pieces”. Popular pastimes included public floggings, dog-fighting and hunting bullocks to death through east London streets. As late as 1914, well-dressed adults risked jeering mockery from ill-clad “rude boys”, and well-dressed children risked assault. Yet by 1951, when Gorer surveyed more than 10,000 men and women, he could describe an England famous worldwide for disciplined queuing, where “you hardly ever see a fight in a bar” and “football crowds are as orderly as church meetings”. In a book, “Exploring English Character”, Gorer decided that two keys unlocked the mystery: the mid-19th-century creation of a police force of citizen-constables, and the curbing of aggression by “guilt”…

The squabble [between liberals and conservatives] is a waste of breath. Material poverty and character both matter. What is more, they are often linked. Bad choices can worsen poverty; and it is harder to make good choices when life is grim. A more useful debate about character would involve pondering this. How far can the judgmental analyses of the past be applied in modern Britain?…

In most British communities (and more for good than ill) disgrace is a greatly weakened force these days. Mr Cameron’s supporters talk of “libertarian paternalism”, or nudging people to make better choices. Perhaps that will work, though the “tough love” of the past involved sharp prods, not nudges. As each new government discovers, the English are a stroppy lot, and hard to help. It’s not their fault: it is in their character.

A few thoughts about this:

1. I tend to like discussions of character, whether this involves a country or a community or a group. This transformation Gorer described from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s is remarkable – from public violence to public disgrace.

2. But discussions of character can be very difficult to have because it requires summarizing ideas about large and diverse groups. Governments try to apply regulations to broad swaths of people and this can run into trouble. Making claims about all of the people in poverty in England can lead to negative and unfair stereotyping.

3. How many people in England, or other countries, want to be nudged to “make better choices”? Perhaps the key is to do the nudging without letting anyone know that there is nudging taking place.

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