Good and Bad Social Engineering

By Dom Nozzi

In American society, there is a near consensus that citizen behavior (or citizen purchases or citizen consumption) should not be manipulated (what some disparagingly call “social engineering”). It is utterly un-American to design communities or roads to nudge behavior in a more sustainable direction. Or establish regulations (or set prices) to reduce consumption of energy, cars, sprawl areas, etc.

There is, on the other hand, an enormous double-standard.

It is required and morally upstanding that we do everything we can to manipulate citizen behavior to be less sustainable (by, for example, obligating citizens to drive a car everywhere). It is necessary and ethical to induce Americans to purchase and consume more. It is appropriate and laudable to encourage people to consume more energy, buy more cars, live in a more dispersed and sprawling location, and so on.

Manipulation is good if used to have us consume more. It is bad if used to have us consume less.

And this is what we should expect in a market economy that depends on ever-growing consumption.

But is it sustainable?

When I lived in Florida and worked as a long-range town planner for Gainesville, people were often surprised when I tell them that the Gainesville area is on the road to ruin. This quote from the May 2005 Gainesville Sun says it all.

“[Ed] Braddy, who took pride in being called one of the most vocal members of the [city] commission, pledged at the [swearing in] ceremony to continue advocating the stances he has taken thus far, whichspaghetti highways include wider roads, a more streamlined development review process [i.e., ensuring that Gainesville continues to be a doormat] and more road construction.”

This from a man who was re-elected for a second term of office by a city that some people continue to insist is “progressive.” This from a man who vigorously opposes “social engineering.”

Except when it is to modify human behavior in a direction he favors.

Please.

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Filed under Energy, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

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