Political commentators are currently expending much energy trying to explain (what we might call) the Nick Clegg phenomenon – including one contribution to this blog already.

Policy analysis offers an interesting perspective. Cass Sunstein has developed the idea of an availability (or social) cascade. An availability cascade takes place when very little information is generally known about a given topic, so that a small amount of widely-held information is constantly reinforced as people talk with one another and encounter few people who hold contrary views or possess alternative information. This available information then “cascades” throughout society until it becomes widely accepted, even though it may be incorrect or erroneous.

Recent concerns over the drug mephedrone would appear to be a classic example of an availability cascade. Most people know very little about mephedrone other than its apparent implication in some recent tragic deaths. As people speak to one another about this topic this one piece of information is reinforced and no contrary information is encountered. Hence, an availability cascade is created and government is pressured to act under the weight of public opinion.

A similar phenomenon would seem to happening in the case of Nick Clegg: before the first leaders’ debate the majority of the population probably had no clear opinion about the Lib Dem leader, but his impressive performance has led to an availability cascade in which this one piece of information is reinforced and not challenged.

The danger of an availability cascade, however, is that it can lead to poor choices if policy-makers act on the basis of, or in response to, limited or partial information.

Ultimately, this is a danger of political decision-making: a drug is banned or an individual may be elected to a position of extraordinary power on the basis of very little and possibly erroneous information.

The solution, as IEA authors have long pointed out, is to allow as many choices as possible to be taken by people in private markets guided by the information signals provided by the price mechanism. Of course, people will mistakes when choosing in markets, but these mistakes are not imposed on the whole of society and are more easily identifiable and therefore correctable when people’s actions are informed by the signals of profits and losses that exist in the marketplace.

Politics and markets are both imperfect and both prone to “fail”. The question, however, is whether political failure is more problematic than market failure? There is evidence to suggest that this is indeed the case.

9 thoughts on “Nick Clegg: this week’s mephedrone?”

  1. Posted 22/04/2010 at 10:18 | Permalink

    So is climate panic, after all, an availability cascade as well?

  2. Posted 22/04/2010 at 10:38 | Permalink

    A worrying aspect of the leaders’ debates is that they favour those gifted in shallow rhetoric rather than deeper thinkers who may come across badly on TV.

  3. Posted 22/04/2010 at 10:42 | Permalink

    Kris: I agree that ‘climate panic’ would certainly seem to have many of the characteristics of an availability cascade.

  4. Posted 22/04/2010 at 12:02 | Permalink

    I actually think that deeper thinkers can do rather well in this sort of debate as long as they have other skills – though people who are good rhetorically but not deep thinkers can too. Alas there is no material with which to test my hypothesis.

  5. Posted 22/04/2010 at 12:32 | Permalink

    “Political commentators are currently expending much energy trying to explain (what we might call) the Nick Clegg phenomenon”

    I don’t think its rocket science:

    People are disillusioned with Labour but are still very sceptical of the Tories – a combination of lingering Anti Thatcherism and the mess Major’s Govt got itself lost in.

    This sceptism was evident before Clegg’s rise of the last week by the large number of Don’t Knows in successive Opinion Polls for a long time now.

    Clegg played the usual “I’ve never done anything so I cant be blamed for this mess cos I have never been in govt”. This time its working better than before cos of people’s scepticism of the Tories.

  6. Posted 22/04/2010 at 12:53 | Permalink

    An allied problem is that politicians, and David Cameron in particular, have sought to limit the amount of debate and information, choosing instead to appear as the ‘change’ candidate. However, as no specific changes were ever specified by the Tories once a new ‘not-Brown’ turned up Cameron found himself in the shade.

  7. Posted 22/04/2010 at 13:59 | Permalink

    Richard, which “deep thinkers” as opposed to “those gifted in shallow rhetoric” appear on the leadership debate who you are worried about coming accross badly? Have they asked you or Philip to participate?

  8. Posted 22/04/2010 at 14:10 | Permalink

    @Nick – I’m not sure the three leaders that participated can be regarded as particularly deep thinkers, though there have been examples in the past.

  9. Posted 23/04/2010 at 17:11 | Permalink

    I’d like to see a new Enoch Powell. NOT the Rivers of Blood guy but the one that preceeded that speach and worked hard to align the Conservative Party with free markets thru a series of speaches in the early to mid 60’s.

    Sadly there doesn’t seem to be one on the horizon.

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