This week in social engineering

The French government has been in great shape lately and this week it has launched a number of policies to make the country a better place to live. I would complain however that they sound unimaginative, a disappointment coming from the country of nouvelle vague, nouveau roman, nouvelle cuisine and nouveaux philosophes.

For one thing the subjects — sorry, the citizens — have been reminded that they do evil things with their lives, in particular smoking and driving, which victimize public health and the planet respectively. Therefore the price of cigarettes (80 % of which consisting of taxes) is going to go up again by a large amount. And similarly, to save the planet (which presumably means making more room for the emissions of Chinese coal plants), the price of gasoline (80 % of which consisting of taxes) is also going to go up again.

I suppose Messrs Sunstein and Stern would happily argue that there is something like an optimal cigarette tax level and an optimal carbon tax level. But the governments here and there take it as meaning that these two things should ever be growing. First because once you have set a policy instrument at its optimal level, you have nothing else to do, and you won’t be in the media. Second because it would be so much nicer if nobody drove and nobody smoke at all.

In the case of smoking I have my little theory. Once a number of people have quit smoking, the remaining pool of smokers consists of those who are far more hooked. Therefore they are more price inelastic which makes it tempting to go for another round of taxation in order to generate revenues. Perhaps a similar story could be told for gasoline taxes. Once more people in cities have switched to public transportation, the remaining drivers are those that are “stuck” in the countryside.

First you tax the good because it is “bad” and you want to deter consumption (a “Pigovian” tax). Second you tax it again because your first tax has made demand inelastic (a “Ramsey” tax). There is always a theory out there which allows you to get away with whatever you planned to do in the first place. This is why theories exist.

Of course sometimes the theory goes wrong, even by the standards of those who use it opportunistically. It is  a bit mysterious, though, why educated people failed to predict that wheat could not grow in Siberia, or that organized crime would increasingly be involved in the French tobacco retail activity, as discussed in this fascinating web site (in French)?

Then considerable advances have been made on the front of “gender equality”. Too many men are involved in sports and too many women breast-feed. We need more men breast-feeding and more women playing rugby. For this reason the government has reduced the parental leave for mothers (now known as Parent 1) and increased it for Parent 2 (formerly known as fathers). And the government has decided that no “gender” will account for less than 25 % of the boards of sports leagues and associations. But since the government also tells us that “gender is a social construct”, and plans to teach it to 6 years old, because it is presumably as important as reading and writing, it is easy for sports leagues to comply with the law. They just have to socially construct themselves so as to declare that whatever proportion of people in their board are women (or whatever they call them nowadays).

Also the scope of the law imposing a quota of 40 % of women in corporate boards has been broadened and the associated penalties have been increased. This quota is good because the Norvegians have it. Obviously, everybody knows that whatever the Norvegians do should be imitated.

It is not obvious to pin down which theory is being used here, because most of the intelligentsia holds as self-evident that “gender equality” is good and similarly that whatever       the government does in the area indeed promotes “gender equality”. So we can only speculate.

There is the idiotic theory of gender equality, which states that the optimal proportion of women in whatever activity is 50 % regardless of the activity. This presumably explains why a fishing permit in France costs less than half for women than for men. Yet I don’t see many women fishing, perhaps one should pay them to do it? However I will have doubts about this theory until I hear about men quota in nursing or teaching.

There is the tautological theory of gender equality, which says that we need more women in sports, because sports are good, and sports are good, because this is what men do. This theory manages to be both tautological and self-defeating. It is counter-performative. Once you have increased the proportion of women in an area, it is by definition no longer good. If you believe in this theory you will always be unhappy and frustrated.

There is the patriarchy theory of gender equality, which holds that men dominate and exploit women. For example, men are more in executive positions than women, therefore the latter are exploited by the former. Let’s have more women in executive positions so that we will have more women dominating and exploiting other people. It is hard to see a mechanism by which not breast feeding or injuring oneself in a football match is a form of exploitation, but I’m sure there is a theory on that.

It must be depressing to be in government:  People constantly organize themselves to do the opposite of what you planned for them, and then you are forced to pass all those laws to correct that. Why don’t people just realize what is good and bad instead of giving the government such a hard time? This is unfair!


3 thoughts on “This week in social engineering

  1. Thanks, really good and funny – especially from a theorist.
    I now realize your last book is not properly titled. It should be: “The Rise of Parent 2-ism”…

    For the tobacco tax, the so called theory might suggest that the cost of feeding the organized crime is lower than the sum of two benefits: more tax revenues and less health expenses in the future.

  2. On tobacco, it would have been fair to mention that the fascinating website you point to ( is edited by the BAT, the world’s second largest tobacco company by sales: it is no wonder that it puts forward that taxes have had undesirable effects; not a very convincing source for that matter.

  3. Hi,
    As a norwegian, I can report that we apparently have taken up measuring the “happiness impact” of public discourse. It seems that discussing abortion makes people sad and upset, see links below.

    And thanks for a stimulating read on the Tyranny of Utility



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