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Why does the State want to govern our behaviour?

Histoire des jouets/Flickr/CC-BY-3.0

1ère_couv_Dubuisson“Eat, move”, “I eco-renovate, I economize”, “Generic medicines are great”, “Smoking kills”: What is the state doing when it thus interferes in our private lives and seeks to guide our practices? Sociologist Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier, author of the book “Gouverner les conduites” (governing behaviour), which has just been published by Presses de Sciences Po, addresses these policies that aim to shape both the citizen-consumer and the economy.

Lots of public messages regularly encourage us to adopt certain behaviours and avoid others. We are asked to not eat excessively greasy or salty food, to turn off the water faucet when we are brushing our teeth, to opt for generic medicines, and to be careful about our medicine use.

The state interferes in individual behaviour in the name of the collective interest

How is it legitimate for the state to interfere in individual behaviour? How does this intervention intersect with individual liberty and consumer sovereignty? What is the state seeking to accomplish? And how does it attempt to govern individual behaviour? Finally, what are the effects of these policies?

These are the questions that the book Gouverner les conduites explores. It analyses how the contemporary state seeks to guide the behaviour of individuals in several areas of public policy such as the fight against obesity, sustainable consumption, the fight against indebtedness, the fight against gambling addiction, the encouragement of entrepreneurship, and medical cost control.

This interference in individual behaviour is justified in the name of the collective interest: it is when individual choices create negative externalities* for society that the state sees a right to intervene. In order to remain compatible with the principle of individual liberty and sovereignty of choice, these interventions take particular forms. Indeed, the state favours the use of instruments that guide behaviour through assessments, incentives, and behaviour rationalization: taxes, nudges**, prices, labelling and information campaigns. Most of our behaviour can thus be subjected to symbolic or economic sanction principles even when it is not of a purely economic nature, such as diet, gambling and health.

But to govern behaviour is also to intervene in the economy

Can the goal of this governance of behaviour be distilled into a pure process of governmentalization? In reality, the governance of behaviour is not so much an end in itself as a means for the state to regulate business practices.

Indeed, the instruments of the governance of behaviour are often combined with more classical tools of public intervention such as legislation and contracting. They allow for intervention “through” rather than “on” demand in a bid to create normative references for the market. How? By rewarding the behaviour of the “responsible” patient, gambler or consumer, by capitalizing on individual interests, and by creating new symbolic profit opportunities for economic actors.

The governance of behaviour is therefore a form of state intervention in markets. It unfolds within public action in a broad sense that includes relying on private, associative, professional and militant actors to whom all or part of this governance of behaviour is delegated.
Policies with varying degrees of effectiveness

Finally, in view of the foregoing, the effects of these policies on both individuals and firms need to be examined.

With regard to individuals it clearly appears that responses to the governance of behaviour differ depending on social background. This governance is often standardized and prescriptive, and it tries to impose itself, with a certain degree of symbolic violence, in areas where weak educational and economic capital make it more difficult to link with other resources. It is a strategy that sometimes – and in spite of itself – deepens the social inequalities that this governance seeks to fight. For example, in the fight against indebtedness and in obesity prevention, working-class households are often considered completely inept in managing their money or diet, exacerbating these households’ disconnect from the norms of the governance of behaviour.

Meanwhile, businesses seek to renegotiate the terms of the governance of behaviour deployed by the state in order to stave off regulation. Thus, advertising professionals and the agro-food industry reject the vision of rational consumers who might be guided towards responsible choices better for their health or the planet. They assert another relationship between individuals and their consumption that emphasizes pleasure, comfort and community, allowing for the production of humoristic and offbeat messages aimed at consumers who are considered to be deeply fickle, schizophrenic and ungovernable.

* In economics, an externality refers to the positive or negative consequence that the activity of an economic actor causes for at least one other actor without providing monetary compensation. Pollution in all of its forms is a typical example of a negative externality.

** “Nudges” are non-mandatory encouragements aiming to make the consumer’s behaviour more virtuous.