Nudgers vs. Nannies

The civil war between British busybodies

There’s a new divide amongst Britain’s political classes, an explosive war of words over the future of our nation. It’s not the left-right divide come back from the dead, nor is it an old-fashioned prince-pauper split or a return of the roundhead-cavalier clash that so dramatically transformed Britain in the 17th century.

No, the divide today is between nudgers and nannies. Between those who believe the fat, feckless masses should be nudged towards better, healthier behavior and those who believe the fat and feckless should be nannied towards better, healthier behavior.

Yes, the nation that gave you a civil war between parliamentarians and a king, which staged a major stand-off between the elected Commons and the unelected Lords in the early 1900s, which had the world gripped with its war between the helmet-haired Iron Lady and angry striking miners in the 1980s, now offers you the sad spectacle of politicos divided on the question of how best to hector the populace. How low British politics has sunk.

Our prime minister David Cameron leads the nudgers. He has a distinctly Orwellian-sounding Behavioural Insight Team inside Downing Street, which furnishes him with ideas for how to nudge the “illogical” masses (its word) towards the kind of lifestyle approved by Cameron’s government: non-smoking, alcohol-free, slim, safe, and no fun.

Public health officials and their cheerleaders in the media lead the nannies. They believe Cameron’s obsession with nudging, with using subtle signals and mind manipulation rather than legislation to try to wean people off junk food, cigarettes, and so on, leads only to neglect. Without actual legislation forcing people to become more health-conscious, there will be “a surge in obesity and mass poisoning [through the consumption of booze and junk food]”, says one of the media supporters of the nannies.

Cameron’s nudgers are, of course, leading the field in this uncivil war over how to remould people’s minds and bodies. Having taken Downing Street in this year’s general election, the nudgers promise to override the previous 13 years of New Labour nannying, which including smoking bans, legal restrictions on junk-food advertising, anti-booze measures, and relentless and patronizing public-health advice. And they plan to override it, not with liberty, or with a renewed respect for individual moral autonomy, but with a political creed that is if anything even more insidious and allergic to the idea of individual responsibility than nannying ever was: nudging.

Inspired by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Wealth, Health and Happiness—that blasted book!—Cameron set up a Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) when he arrived at Downing Street in May. With Thaler and various psychologists as advisers, the BIT brain cops aim to use social psychology and behavioral economics to hypnotize people into adopting approved forms of behavior.

According to BIT propaganda, the nudgers plan to do away with the old-style Blair-and-Brown bossiness in favor of offering incentives, using subliminal messaging, and changing the “choice architecture” of our daily lives, in order to influence us, sometimes sub-consciously, towards what they call “healthier decisions and healthier lives.” So, for example, instead of using taxes to make driving of cars more expensive, as New Labour did, the nudgers will focus on rebuilding public spaces in such a way that choosing to walk or ride a bicycle becomes easier than it currently is. In short, they’ll physically re-engineer public space with an eye for socially engineering those who inhabit it.

Some of BIT’s propaganda is gobsmackingly Orwellian. Even the name—Behavioural Insight Team—sounds like something Big Brother might have devised to keep Winston and Julia and the rest in order and in shape. BIT is built on the idea that the mass of the population lacks both the intellect and the free will to become better persons, and thus they must be secretly signposted towards approved behavior. A Cabinet Office paper explaining the importance of developing nudge policies argues that “people are sometimes seemingly irrational” and therefore the state should “influence behaviour through public policy.” And because many of our behavior-related choices are made “outside of conscious awareness,” there is no point trying to convince us through public information to change our behavior—no, we must simply have our grey matter toyed with by those who know best. “Providing information per se often has surprisingly modest and sometimes unintended impacts”, says the Cabinet Office paper, and therefore government should “shift the focus of attention away from facts and information and towards altering the context in which people act.”

In short: never mind reasoning with people, just use pressure instead. Forget about debate and discussion, just deploy underhand nudging techniques. This is not only profoundly illiberal, it is profoundly undemocratic, as the nudgers explicitly circumvent the realm of information and law in their relentless campaign to reshape our apparently problematic consciousnesses.

Most strikingly of all, the Cabinet Office paper informs us that the government ultimately aims to be a “surrogate willpower” for the public. Because we the people are so fickle, so clueless, so fundamentally unconscious in the way we poison ourselves with cigarettes and hamburgers, the government must become our will. It’s straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, bringing to mind O’Brien, the jailor who tortures Winston and who says: “We create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.” Likewise, Britain’s ruling nudgers look upon the public as putty, as an easily reshaped blob.

Fortunately, a war of words has been launched against the nudgers. Unfortunately, it’s been launched by the ousted nannies, who only want to recover their old power to legislate against so-called bad behavior.

In the run-up to Christmas, that apparently wicked and destructive period of overeating and too much booze consumption, the nannies have come out of the woodwork to accuse Cameron’s government of failing to force through an immediate campaign to correct people’s behavior.

Under the headline “Nudge or Fudge?”, the Independent tells us that more and more public-health officials, influential doctors, and the like, are concerned that “tougher regulation of junk food, smoking and cheap alcohol [has been] cast aside by a government that prefers to ‘encourage’ public health.” Apparently such “encouragement” (which looks more like attempted mind-manipulation to me) is not enough; people must instead be forced to change their habits through bans and the threat of legal sanction.

So a spokeswoman for the British Medical Association says “what we need to see is more action on pricing, taxation and advertising.” That is, we should make bad things such as cigarettes and alcohol more expensive, to keep them out of the hands of the self-destructive poor, and we should curb or ban adverts for these bad things as well.

The nannies’ battle against the nudgers has encouraged some nanny-happy commentators—who are normally more guarded about their busybody instincts—to pipe up and demand tougher legislation to control the masses’ reckless lifestyles. A writer for the liberal Sunday broadsheet The Observer says the idea that “we can be gently pushed into self-improvement... smacks only of neglect.” The real problem with nudging, she says, is “its feebleness in dealing with the biggest threats to health.”

What is alarming about this debate is the taken-for-granted idea that it is the role of the state to tell people what to do in their private lives: what to eat, what to drink, whether to smoke, how to travel from A to B, even how to fuck (always “safely,” of course.) It is a testament to the lack of libertarian instinct in modern British politics that no one is standing up to say that, actually, these issues are none of the state’s business. Anyone who respects individual moral autonomy should reject both the nannies, who believe we exercise our autonomy in the wrong way, and the nudgers, who believe we are fundamentally incapable of exercising autonomy and thus the state should do it on our behalf. We need a third army in this unsightly war, one that chucks some serious intellectual hand grenades right into the middle of this clash between nudgers and nannies.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked in London. This column first appeared at Reason.com.





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