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Policy interventions that affect or are mediated through the family typically assume a behavioural response. Policy analyses proceeding from different disciplinary bases may come to quite different conclusions about the effects of policies on families, depending how individuals within families behave. This paper identifies the implications of five theories of family and individual behaviour for the likely success of policy intervention. Anthropology documents not only the universality of the family, but also its many forms. Economic theory illustrates the capacity for well-intentioned policy to be thwarted by individual rationality. Evolutionary biology suggests that a number of fundamental drivers of behaviour are genetic predispositions and can be difficult to influence through policy. Sociology emphasises the role of social norms but recognises that individualism limits the influence of society generally on individual behaviour. Understanding the theories of the family emanating from different disciplines can enrich policy analysis by identifying how and why behaviour can be influenced. It also can serve to remind researchers of the resilience of the family and the limits of government intervention.
The authors are grateful to Paul Christoffel, Duncan Mills, and Susan Robertson for their assistance in the preparation of this paper. The paper has benefited from comments received at the 32nd conference of the Economics Society of Australia, Canberra, 29 September-2 October 2003 and from participants at Treasury seminars. Particular thanks are due to Jan Pryor, John Creedy, Chris Pinfield, Grant Scobie and Bronwyn Croxson for specific comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper.
The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Working Paper are strictly those of the author(s). They do not necessarily reflect the views of the New Zealand Treasury. The New Zealand Treasury takes no responsibility for any errors or omissions in, or for the correctness of, the information contained in this Working Paper. The paper is presented not as policy, but to inform and stimulate wider debate.