Paving the Cow-Paths: The Demise of Idealism and the Pathway to Pragmatism

In my recent visit to London, I attended a presentation given by Dr. Dan Lockton at the Behavioral Economics drinks. The topic of the presentation was “Paving the Cow-Paths” or simply put, helping people do what they want how they naturally do it.

Dan’s presentation made me think about what does “paving the cow-paths” actually mean from a broader point of view. At micro-level things are relatively simple. If people do something in a certain way, help them do it. The pictures below (taken from Dan’s website - Source ) illustrate very well the concept.

At a macro-level, however, things aren’t all that straightforward. Whether paving the cow-paths is a good idea or not is not entirely clear and it depends on the context. Moreover, paving the cow-paths implies giving up on idealism and embracing pragmatism.

Here’s an example: assuming that my book is sold by two shops. Shop A pays me royalties of 70% of the price of sales. Shop B gives me 100% of the price in royalties. Assuming both shops sell the book for the same price, my interest is to get as many sales as possible through shop B. However, Shop A(mazon) is more popular with the potential clients. Essentially I have two options. First, I can direct all my promotion effort to get sales through shop B and let whoever wants to buy from shop A to do so. Second, I could pave the cow-path and direct my promotion effort to encouraging people to buy from shop A, thus hoping that the higher volume of sales generated would compensate the lower percentage in royalties I get from each sale.

In the example above the decision of whether to pave the cow path or not is relatively uncontroversial and could be made through a simple computation. However, there are other situations in which paving the cow path is a lot more controversial.

Let’s take traffic and speeding as examples. Imagine that there are two roads, both within city borders, both two lanes per way wide and on both roads the speed limit is 50 km/h (30 mph). On both roads there are many (the wide majority of) drivers drive above the speed limit, say 80 km/h (50 mph). There is, however, a difference. One road is in the city center, while the other is somewhere at the outskirts between two abandoned industrial sights.

The last piece of information, essentially refers to the potential dangers of speeding on the road in question. On the road in the middle of the city, speeding is a lot more dangerous than on the one between two abandoned factories (where there is little pedestrian traffic).

On both of them people drive faster than the speed limit (probably because they are in a hurry) and if we would apply blindly the paving the cow path principle, the speed limit should be increased on both roads.

Obviously, raising the speed limit in the center of the city is not necessarily a good idea since this would only encourage people to drive faster than 50 km/h (30 mph) and this, in turn, is a cause for accidents. On the other hand, trying to get people to slow down to 50 km/h (30 mph) through traffic cameras, police, fines, speed bumpers etc. will be very annoying and a bit absurd when it comes to the road in the abandoned industrial area. Whereas it makes sense to slow down drivers (through any means) in a crowded area, it makes no sense to do the same in an area where the dangers of speeding are very low.

The example above brings into discussion the no harm principle of paving the cow-paths. Basically, if we would raise the speed limit from 50 to 80 km/h (30 to 50 mph) on the road between two abandoned factories, while keeping and enforcing the 50 km/h (30 mph) speed limit on the road in the city center, we would pave the cow-path where actual behavior that deviates from the desired behavior brings no harm.

Except for some advocates of speeding or firm believers of applying indiscriminate treatment in all cases, the decision to pave the cow-path on one road and not on the other would bring little controversy. In fact, I believe, that many people would be happy with it.

Paving the cow-paths can be applied in more controversial areas of social life such as legalizing or decriminalizing soft-drugs. Whereas most countries strive for the ideal of a drug free society, some countries have decriminalized to some extent soft-drugs such as marijuana. For example, in The Netherlands consumption and possession of small quantities of the drug are not offences. Moreover, there is a trade system through which one can purchase the drug legally.

Essentially, the Dutch government paved the cow-path for consumption of marijuana. It provided a regulated system for trade and consumption, thus allowing people who want to use the drug to do so legally. The outcome was a decrease in crime related to drug trafficking.

A couple of years back, there was an initiative to restrict the selling of marijuana to tourists. Decriminalizing the use of the drug transformed The Netherlands and particularly Amsterdam in a drug tourism destination. Moreover, the country’s southern provinces became a supply spot for Belgian and French users of the drug. After considerable debate, the three southern provinces bordering Belgium implemented the policy of not allowing the sale of marijuana to non-residents (tourists). The outcome, unfortunately was the occurrence of street trafficking and related crime.

The city council of Amsterdam opposed implementing this policy for the same reason. Although most people in Amsterdam are not delighted by drug-tourism, they acknowledge that restricting the access of tourists to the coffee-shops (where marijuana is sold) will only increase crime in the city.

Basically, the Netherlands accepted that it can’t be a drug-free society. It chose to pave the cow-path for the consumption of marijuana and to focus the law-enforcement’s resources towards tackling the trafficking and use of more dangerous drugs.

Whether this is a good approach for all societies remains to be answered. It works reasonably well for the Netherlands.

Paving the cow-paths implies giving up on ideals such as drug-free society and not speeding within city-borders. It is the path-way towards pragmatism and tackling the issues that generate the most problems. In the end, ideal situations might very well be utopic. Paving cow-paths can be a solution to minimizing undesired behavior and freeing up resources that can be directed to more serious issues.

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