The Untapped Power of Social Sanction


August 12, 2007


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Social sanction is a force that our policy makers, in the thrall of economic thinking, have neglected for too long.  It really is effective.  I once visited Calgary, in Canada, and on my first day experienced a “chinook,” which is a balmy wind that raises the temperature into the fifties in winter.   The temperature dropped from there to about ten below in about two hours.  I was downtown, waiting to cross the street, and freezing to my bones.  The signal said “Don’t walk” but there were no cars coming.  Of course I crossed.

Did I say “of course”?  The people waiting patiently on the other side did not feel that way.  In Calgary, I grasped quickly, you do not cross against the light. Their stony disapproving glares cut through me like the artic wind.  Nobody said a word.  For the rest of my visit, which was about a week, I waited patiently along with everyone else.  (I also paid my fares on the city’s transit system, which was on the honor system.)

This kind of social sanction works in many contexts.  It governs communities in actual life and on the Web. It is crucial to the functioning of local commons.  In community gardens for example you do not play loud music or take vegetables from your neighbor’s plot. Yet it is a force that has gone largely neglected in the conduct of public affairs in the U.S.  Our legislators think like economists; which is say, they think in transactional dyads.

There are two parties and two parties only.  The government offers a tax break to encourage certain behavior, such as buying a hybrid car.  The citizen – revealingly renamed the “customer” in “reinventing government” parlance – either accepts the offer or rejects it.  No one else enters the script.  The entire focus is the transactional dyad.  Society does not exist.

Yet society does exist, and the informal sanctions it imposes can be more effective than the governmental kind.  It is not possible to have police on every corner to enforce the laws against jaywalking.  But you don’t need them when the community sanction does the job for you.

I’m wondering why we couldn’t do more to activate this non-market force.  For example, when the government gives tax breaks for new investment, it ends up rewarding a lot that would have happened anyway.  Corporations still will go abroad if they can get a better deal there.  There is no cost for not investing at home, only a potential bribe that is easily outweighed by a bribe from somewhere else.

What would happen if the tax cut was social rather than individual?  That is, what if Congress and the president said that every company would get a sizable tax cut if – and only if – overall investment increased by a given percentage?

Then corporations would be in it together.  Executives and their shareholders would look at the world in a different way.  If another company shipped more production to China, then it would be jeopardizing the big tax break for other companies too.  Word likely would get back to the CEO in question, if only in the glares at the club.

Or what if  the government offered a five hundred dollar tax refund to everyone if gasoline consumption declined by a certain amount?  We’d look at our neighbor’s new SUV in a more focused way;  and he or she would know what we were thinking.   Our own energy waste would be a little like dumping dog poop on a neighbor’s yard.  In reality it already is of course. But that reality is clouded. A policy based on social sanction and reward would make the fact more immediate and compelling.

This approach would say to the supply-siders, “Put up or shut up. You say tax cuts will produce these wonderful results?  Show us the results first.  Then we’ll pay.”  Taxes are just one application.  There are other ways to activate social sanction, such as truth-telling about cigarettes in the form of public health campaigns that showed smoking to be the smelly and stupid behavior that it is.

Advertisers long have used the power of social sanction and approval in the cause of selling products, cigarettes included.  Why can’t we enlist it in a better cause?

Social sanction can work on the positive side as well as on the negative.   What if the parents of a class of first graders were told that every child would get a full scholarship to college – plus the parents would get a cash bonus —  if 80% of the children went on to  graduate from high school?   Then the parents would be concerned not just for their own kids but for everyone else’s too. Study and tutoring circles likely would evolve.

One problem with the “school choice” movement goes back to the dyad.  Choice speaks only to the me.  But me doesn’t work without a we to work with it. That’s one sports cliché that doesn’t seem to make it into Congressional speechifying; but it represents the next frontier in policy.  I’m talking about the activation of an effective social we, not the abstracted and bureaucratized version to which liberals have been inclined.

I’m looking forward to a Business Week cover line “The Sleeping Giant of We.”