Selling the carbon tax: individual versus collective self-interest

Poverty of vision: the carbon tax is about more than individuals’ hip pockets. AAP/Julian Smith

July 1 has rolled past and Australia has a carbon tax. As Government Ministers prepare to hit the road to spruik the benefits of the tax, it’s worth shining a spotlight on the kinds of messages they love to tell the Australian electorate in an effort to promote support for their policy. After all, a lot rests on their ability to convince the public that the carbon tax is the best way forward. What are the strategies that the government are using to turn the tide against this unpopular policy?

The carbon tax message: no cost to you

Foremost among these is that the tax will not pose a personal cost or imposition to the individual. The Government has distributed leaflets to Australian households; there are advertisements for the compensation scheme on the television and radio (advertisements which were criticised for not bearing any mention of the carbon tax); and media coverage has been saturated with ministers wielding legs of lamb and visiting the supermarket. In an effort to mitigate political pain, the government are focusing its efforts on promoting the message that the tax will not “cost” or, at least, it won’t cost those who can’t afford to pay.

Greens Leader Christine Milne has lamented the focus being on compensation rather than the environmental issue that the policy is designed to address. In all the discussion over the form and content of the compensation package it has been easy to forget that this is a policy designed to address a collective problem, namely detrimental climate change. Putting aside the issue of whether or not you agree with human-induced climate change, evidence from the social sciences suggests that Milne probably has a point.

Appealing to collective good can have better results

Coal train in transit: sometimes it’s better to tell people where we’re going and why. AAP/Dean Lewins

Political communicators often assume that decision-making is determined by the weight of evidence but social scientists know that things are much more complicated. One distinction relates to the difference between what can be termed “individual self-interest” versus “collective self-interest”. This is akin to asking where the locus of responsibility lies: is it with myself as a unique individual? Or is this a problem shared across people, a problem relevant to, for example, a level of collective Australian engagement? People can and do differentiate between these levels in ways that are highly consequential for their support. Addressing the problem at one level (by appealing to individual incentives) can come at the detriment to another (collective will).

For example, one study showed that providing an explicit financial personal incentive to engage in charitable fundraising undermined performance: allocating participants just 1% of the money collected reduced their overall collection efforts by 36% compared with a group who had had no incentive offered. In a Swiss study, providing monetary compensation to residents for a nearby nuclear waste storage facility significantly reduced the number of people who were prepared to house the facility in their neighbourhood. Other studies show the reverse: If you can get people to focus on things related to a collective agenda then you can promote cooperation in difficult social dilemmas where individual and collective self-interest are in direct competition.

Political framing and social glue

In short, providing individual monetary incentives can undermine socially or collectively oriented behaviour: the so-called “crowding out” effect. Where you appeal to individual self-interest it can come at some cost to intrinsic motivation, people’s desire to do something because it is the right thing to do. The provision of incentives also implies a lack of trust, an important social glue: if you have to incentivise someone to do something then it implies that they wouldn’t have done it under their own steam. It may be no coincidence that public support for action on climate change peaked when Rudd (in)famously declared it to be “the greatest moral challenge of our time” – emphasis on the “moral” and the “our”.

This isn’t to say that it isn’t the right thing to do to give financial support to low-income households as the carbon tax transforms the Australian economy. Rather, the point is that emphasising the compensation payments to the detriment of a discussion of the issue – and particularly the truly collective nature of the problem – may be politically and economically costly. Political framing is important because it gives people a narrative of who is responsible, and why, and provides a lens for shaping political support. A single-minded debate on whether or not the Sunday roast will cost more will ultimately undermine support for the collective will that the government seeks to create. The government should be aware of the perverse and counter-intuitive effects of their political framing as they sell the tax.

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