Can the government solve all our problems?

When it comes to problems that are caused by individual action in a private space, the role of the government as a solution provider is very minimal


Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Violence against women is rising. Very few individuals pay income tax. Alcoholism seems to affect more and more people. Problems around us are on the increase. The big question is, who is primarily responsible for solving these problems?

Thanks to India’s socialist beginnings, the belief that the government is responsible for taking care of all aspects of its citizens’ lives is strongly embedded in almost every Indian’s mind. So when it comes to solving the problems in our society, from keeping garbage off our roads to mitigating the problem of child trafficking, we assume that the government alone is responsible for solving these problems.

All the problems in our society are not alike. When it comes to a problem like terrorism, there is no doubt the government is best equipped to solve the problem. When it comes to mitigating the problem of sexual molestation of children, can the government be accused of inaction?

The problems that we encounter can be plotted along two continuums. One continuum is about problems that occur in one’s personal space to problems that occur in public places.

The other continuum is about problems that happen because of individual action to those problems that happen because of group action. Based on this construct, the problems around us can be classified as those occurring because of individual action in private spaces (example: marital infidelity), individual action in public places (example: open defecation), group action in a personal space (example: honour killing), and group action in public places (example: spread of communicable diseases)

The state has a significant role to play in solving problems that occur in public places, and involve a group of people. But when it comes to problems like sexual violence, not filing tax returns, obesity, etc., that are caused by individual action in a private space, the role of the government as a solution provider is very minimal.

But due to our inherent tendency to lean on the government for everything, we expect the state to solve these problems too.

Alcoholism is a problem that occurs predominantly because of an individual’s action. Certain aspects of the problem—purchasing the product, and, to some extent, the consumption of the product—might happen in public places. But without realizing that alcoholism is predominantly an individual’s problem, governments are trying to solve the problem.

Governments do what they can. They prohibit or control the sale and consumption of liquor in public places. Across the world, what this has done is to push the purchase and consumption of alcohol into private spaces where the enforcement of law is difficult.

Managing several other personal problems has become complicated because the action in question is harmless and at times is considered good in the short term. For example, one cannot find fault with someone eating a chocolate. The action gets the “problem” tag only when the person overeats chocolate every day and combines this action with inaction—not doing enough physical exercise.

Do we expect the government to pass a legislation that prescribes the amount of chocolates one can eat every day or do we expect the government to enforce fines on people who do not exercise every day?

The truth is that the government cannot do much to solve problems caused by the individual in his personal space. The only person who can do anything about solving these type of problems is the individual himself.

How does one develop solutions to these problems?

First, we need to understand the contours of the problem well. Since the problem occurs in one’s personal space, it is not easy to study such behaviour. Studies show that in the cases of sexual exploitation of children, in more than 90% of the cases, the perpetrator is a close relative of the child. In the absence of an effective mechanism to go deep into the recesses of the problem and understand why a close relative could engage in such ignoble acts, we do what comes to us easily—ignore the problem.

Only when we understand why he does what he does can we develop interventions to effectively protect our children. To develop effective solutions, we should also be able to understand the deep emotional wounds the crime creates in the victim.

Developments in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics are now helping us to have a better understanding of the problems that occur due to individual action in personal spaces.

Many of the problems occur because of deficiencies and biases in the human brain. For example, the human brain has great difficulty in foreseeing the consequences of one’s action in the future, more so if the present action is seen as insignificant to the gravity of the problem. Before a person throws a plastic bag into a gutter, he cannot visualize how this act could contribute to global warming.

Another surprising facet about human behaviour is that anonymity of any kind reduces the sense of personal accountability and civic responsibility for one’s actions. In the assurance of an anonymous context, the Lucifer in all of us does surface.

Understanding these and other vagaries of the human brain reminds us that managing an individual’s action in a personal space is not an easy task.

Don’t expect much help from government on this front.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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