Opinion & Thought

A bird in the hand…

Research has shown (regrettably I can’t find the source) that people value things they already have roughly twice as much as those they don’t. Groups of students were given the opportunity to purchase a mug, while other groups were given one free; some of the latter showed indifference to the gift. In both cases, they were later asked to part with the mug. Those who were asked to give it away widely refused, while those who were given the opportunity to sell it priced it at about double what the students had been prepared to pay for it in the first place.

The experiment shows the effect of Loss Aversion. It is human nature to guard things that we have acquired, since they may be useful to our survival: a basic instinct. In short, people make a lot more noise over losing something, than over something they never had in the first place.

It is also an instinct that seems to be widely distorting accurate assessments of where people’s best interests and real preferences actually lie. Obsessive hoarders are perhaps an extreme example of this – the inability ever to jettison anything eventually causes everyday functioning to be choked by vast piles of junk.

It operates at more consequential levels too. The county where I live was proposing a major cull of public library provision. There was a predictable outcry, which led to thousands going on marches, signing petitions and celebrities getting involved. It made national headlines. My local library was threatened, and local people were in the vanguard of the protests, vociferous about how important it is to have a local library.

Even as a non-library user, I supported the campaigns, because I genuinely believe that civic facilities are important, and disproportionately so for the less advantaged. The County Council responded with figures that showed a rapid decline in library use. (They were not all they seemed – not least because the decline correlated with cut-backs in library opening hours, and because of the particular measures they had chosen to use).

The Council eventually backed down – at least for the time being. In the aftermath of the campaign, there was a marked increase in library patronage. But recent anecdotal evidence suggests that this may have subsided, and we are heading back towards previous levels – which will only equip the County Council with further evidence to revisit the issue in due course.

We might call this the Radio Three Effect: there was a similar outcry to proposals for a radical overhaul of the highbrow classical music radio channel some years ago – by far more people than actually listen to it. With many items of cultural capital, people like to know they are there, even when they never use them; the loss of such things is a bigger issue than their practical benefit.

The problem with this comes when assessments need to be made about sustaining such institutions, particularly the funds they consume, which might arguably be better-used than maintaining largely-empty civic icons. There is, of course, the argument that says such things need to be provided so that they are there when people do need them (which I support) – but it is hard to sustain when overall usage levels remain low.

A wider problem with the bean-counting approach was exemplified by the Beeching Cuts to the railways (the closure of which routes was also vociferously opposed at the time – by people who often drove to the protests in their cars): by continually paring away things that appear not to pay their way when seen in isolation, we undermine the viability of services that more generally do.

I don’t wish to give the impression that I approve of the blinkered bean-counting approach to social and cultural assets. But it is nonetheless hard to present a reasoned argument against it when the case for such things is based on hypocrisy. It seems to me that the real problem is the duality between what we say we value – and what we actually do, as measured by things we really patronise. This – regrettably – is what a free-market philosophy is based on. And the problem behind that is a society that seems to be changing and evolving in ways that we are not happy with but seem powerless to alter, even when it comes to adjusting our own behaviour.

The logical conclusion of the popular-patronage approach to what is valuable is that we would end up with a nation full of large shopping centres, sports stadia, a few iconic museums and galleries – and not much else. Is that what we want? Maybe not – but it is certainly how we behave.

The same argument can be extended to almost all aspects of life: the means of transport we are prepared to use, and even the extent to which we are really prepared to change our behaviour in the face of the environmental emergency.

What’s more, I am expecting much of the outcry about Brexit to subside in the next year or two. At present, we are in the stage of defiant proclamation that after our loss we will change, that we will be faithful Europeans from now on and evermore, that we will return. This is not to dismiss the very real pain of those who genuinely appreciate and practise Europeanism, but what, for instance,  are the views of the 95% of remain voters who do not appear on the social media groups? What is one to think of those who apparently never even thought about Europeanism before it was to be taken away, let alone stood up to advocate or defend it? Time after time when I quite genuinely ask people what the significance of Europeanism is for their own particular lives, almost always I get silence, a non-answer, the usual platitudes about the principle of the thing (not unimportant – but see the foregoing argument) – or a change of the subject. Very few seem willing or able to expound on the subject: why is this, when they are supposedly so passionate about it?

I am left with the regrettable conclusion that many don’t know – or that the answer is nil. In many cases, I’ve also been left with the sad sense that real knowledge and insight is lacking, even amongst vociferous remainers. (In my own case, I am entirely conscious of Europe’s impact: this blog forms part of the evidence of that. I can also claim three decades of advocacy of the EU, even when it was deeply unpopular.)

Very reluctantly, I am coming to the conclusion that for quite a large proportion of those who object to Brexit, it may be little more about  a severe national outbreak of Loss Aversion,  than the deep, personal significance of Europeanism. The pattern of behaviour fits. Britons abroad constitute no more than a few percent of the population; for many still in the UK, Brexit will make few specifically-attributable differences, beyond fewer, more expensive European goods in the shops and more bureaucracy when going to the continent on holiday.

If that is the case, then the years and years of changed behaviour that keeping the European flame alive in this country will entail, will simply be too big an ask for many. The passionate outpourings of the past three years will then mean little more than similar ones against other closures of things that most people never use.

I hope I’m wrong – but only time will tell.

You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.

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