In society, in anyone's life, what's most difficult thing? The most difficult thing is to change a person.... How to change a person from cancer, from addictions to bad habit. But all these are happening, just everywhere, all cases are like this among our fellow practitioners in China.
The most difficult thing
In modern societies governments are constantly trying to alter the behaviour of their citizens, with campaigns for road safety, responsible alcohol use, drug probitions and so on. As Ming observed, these campaigns have often failed at great cost.
In Britain the Young People's Development Programme was designed to reduce teenage pregnancies. At a cost of £2,500 per participant, the programme saw the rate of pregnancy substantially increase instead. The programme also failed to reduce drunkenness or cannabis use.
The British example is not unique, another study from Canada's McMaster University found in 2002 that 26 sex education trials 'do not delay the initiation of sexual intercourse, improve use of birth control among young men and women, or reduce the number of pregnancies in young women.'
Much more ambitious and aggressive experiments in behaviour-control often faced similar failures. After decades of religious repression in Communist eastern Europe, the east European states were no less religious than those in the liberal west. According to Gallup's religiosity index (log-in necessary to access figures), respondents to a Gallup survey on religion were more religious in Poland and Romania than any other European Christian-majority country but Malta. West European states that made no effort to repress religious faith experienced collapses in religiosity.
Of course the same thing happened in Ireland as centuries of Protestant oppression left the Catholic Church utterly dominant while a few decades of independence saw it collapse. Meanwhile, well-intentioned attempts to reverse racial discrimination in the US with affirmative action may have worsened racial prejudice against black business managers.
Examples of failed interventions are all around us. I remember in secondary school one teacher giving an impassioned fact-heavy talk on tobacco use, explaining the known effects of carbon monoxide, tar, nicotine and so on. After this lecture a large minority of my classmates went straight to the school's handball alley for a smoke. More started smoking in the following years. The modern faith seems to be that teenagers, given information, will choose to make the correct decisions. I saw that this was rarely true.
Of course my teenage peers deliberately rejected top-down values coming from teachers or the government so the very act of outlining prohibited behaviour inspired them to embrace that behaviour. Even when information was given to my peers in thoughtful and unjudgemental ways many of them shrugged off the rational application of that information and still behaved like fools. Because it's hard to control people, and predict their behaviour to incentives.
That's not to say that incentives must fail, rather that it is extremely difficult to predict how individuals will respond to them. There are examples of success, like the road safety efforts that saw a 42% decline in road deaths in Ireland since 2005.
But too often education and top-down social engineering projects are seen as panaceas. Like the demand that 'the government should do more', commentators demand extra classes in schools to solve social ills or fines to enforce positive behaviour. I have even read people arguing that "citizenship classes" in Ireland would have prevented the economic collapse: education is seen as the heal-all!
Be sceptical of government plans to alter the behaviour of their citizens. Even if the policital will is strong, the application such plans is always difficult and unintended consequences are a-plenty.