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I've been thinking over the last few days about behaviour change policy, particularly around the division of responsibility between the government, business, the third sector, and communities.

I've been thinking over the last few days about behaviour change policy, particularly around the division of responsibility between the government, business, the third sector, and communities.

John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty in 1859 and argued for the need for the individual, rather than the state, to have sovereignty over himself. His exception to this rule, when people hurt others through their actions, provides the foundation of the harm principle.

148 years later in a speech at the RSA, David Cameron, quoting multiple recent examples of physical assaults, said “My belief in social responsibility is not a laissez-faire manifesto. I believe that government has a vital role to play in changing social behaviour”.

It's not just assault that he's talking about though. Back to Mill, who also writes:

“No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them.”

Some behaviours, like assault, directly harm others. But many others harm people indirectly. Wasting energy in your home contributes to anthropogenic climate change. Your unhealthy diet and lack of exercise puts the National Health Service under more stress. Government interest in encouraging behaviour change is more than political rhetoric. There's a great deal of interest in how behaviour can be effectively influenced.

The (excellent) recent pamphlet by Demos on the politics of behaviour change remarks that:

There is certainly something deeply unusual about a democratic culture in which government becomes preoccupied with altering the behaviour of citizens, rather than vice versa.

These issues are making us re-examine the respective role of government and people. Given that we need to change our behaviour to help tackle large and complicated problems, what's the right division between government, business, third sector and people?

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