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Behavior modifiers

In an age when political speech is closely regulated and pornographic materials not at all, the government's agenda of behavior modification seems increasingly exotic

Issue: "Rita: After the storms," Oct. 8, 2005

In August, Congress passed and the president signed a transportation bill giving states authority to allow hybrid vehicles-the cars that drive on a mix of gasoline and electricity-to use carpool lanes. California quickly approved the use of its 1,112 miles of HOV lanes by three brands, the Toyota Prius, Honda's Insight and Civic Hybrid. Close to 60,000 hybrids are on California roads already, with demand for the vehicles outpacing supply because of soaring gas prices.

California's decision followed an earlier one by Virginia that has allowed hybrids to use that state's carpool lanes since last year. The Washington Post reported in January that carpool veterans "inundated state officials with complaints about increased delays and congestion over the past six months. Many blame hybrids."

Detroit-both management and unions-is also opposed. The American car industry doesn't like the idea of giving preference to three vehicle models that are all made outside of the United States.

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This looks like social engineering squared. First governments impose restrictions on drivers in order to change their commuting behavior, and then use that scarcity to encourage the consumption of particular brands of cars. Given the rise of transponders and the data they collect, it won't be long before government figures out how to reward those who cumulatively drive less over the course of a month and penalize those who enjoy the freedom of the road.

It is a small irritant, but a noteworthy one. Once the government goes beyond its law-and-order functions to begin declaring some conduct virtuous and other conduct less so, it seems to expand constantly its effort to shape our decisions for us. In an age when political speech is closely regulated and pornographic materials not at all, the government's agenda of behavior modification seems increasingly exotic.

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