This year, spiked will be upping the ante in our culture war against the new politics of nudging and in defence of individual autonomy. In this new essay, Frank Furedi takes the nudge-obsessed authorities to task for denigrating our right to make moral choices.
I have always had a visceral revulsion for the idea of ‘false consciousness’. As a student radical in the early 1970s, I was continually being warned about the dangers of this social disease. Many on the left argued that the general public, specifically the working classes, did not understand what their real interests were. The self-appointed carriers of true consciousness pointed to certain areas of plebian behaviour, such as seeking solace in football or voting for the UK Conservative Party, as proof of the widespread nature of ‘false consciousness’.
Herbert Marcuse’s claim that people are driven by ‘false needs’ was continually talked up by the apparently enlightened minority, who presumed to know what the ‘real needs’ of their fellow citizens were. In recent decades, this outlook has come to be astonishingly influential within the professional middle classes, particularly in the United States. Consider the writings of the American journalist Thomas Frank, who frequently espouses an updated version of the idea of false consciousness. His 2004 book, What’s The Matter With Kansas?, exemplifies this patronising outlook; it concludes that ‘people getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about’.
In recent years, the idea that people are too thick to know what is in their best interests has influenced and shaped policymaking on both sides of the Atlantic. In one sense, this diagnosis of intellectual poverty among the masses is simply a new expression of an old idea. Nineteenth-century social engineers regarded the targets of their work - the masses - as both irrational and easily suggestible. In the twentieth century, psychologists and advertisers argued that the world would be a better place if they could successfully manipulate the public to act in accordance with the latest ‘scientific’ insights. They expressed their assumption of moral authority openly and with little concern for insulting people’s sensibilities.
So in 1941, Dr Ernest Dichter, the president of the Institute for Motivational Research, stated that ‘the successful ad agency manipulates human motivations and desires and develops a need for goods with which the public has at one time been unfamiliar’. Today, manipulating human motivations remains a key aim of both the public and private sectors. Only now, the old-fashioned motivational techniques have been given a new boost by so-called behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology.
In the twenty-first century, motivational research has been embraced by governments that have effectively given up on the idea of morally or politically motivating their citizens. Policy advisers frequently complain that citizens refuse to acknowledge the wisdom that they are offering and instead adopt forms of behaviour that are antithetical to expert advice. In effect, these policy advisers, along with government officials and politicians, have concluded that the time for open debate and argument is over, since arguing with people who act irrationally is pointless. They claim that what is now required are new techniques of behaviour management and motivational manipulation, in order to encourage the public to act in accordance with best practice.
That is why both the British and American governments have embraced the doctrine of ‘nudge’, as most explicitly espoused by the American academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Relying on behaviour-management techniques, this doctrine, described as ‘libertarian paternalism’, aims to manipulate people into making choices which the powers-that-be consider ‘right’.
Bypassing public debate
In Britain, a Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team, otherwise known as the Nudge Unit, has been busy advising different departments of state about which psychological tricks are likely to achieve the best results. In a report published last month, it explained that the ‘traditional tools of government’ have failed to alter people’s ‘behavioural problems’, and therefore it is spearheading a mission to ‘help the UK government develop and apply lessons from behavioural economics and behavioural science to public policymaking’.
The main justification for displacing the ‘traditional tools of government’ with behaviour-management techniques is the apparently novel discovery that people do not always act rationally. The report states: ‘Many of the most pressing public policy issues cannot be addressed without thinking about the behaviour of individuals. Behavioural science and behavioural economics show us that, very often, we do not behave in a way that we would be expected to if we were perfectly “rational” human beings.’
As it happens, we don’t need behavioural science to ‘show us’ that people behave in ways that violate the dictates of expert advice and sophisticated cost-benefit analysis. We all know that human beings are subject to habit, slothfulness and passion. Some people take pleasure from indulging in activities that come with a health warning or which run counter to the latest expert advice. Sometimes we even display altruistic behaviour that might directly contradict our self-interest.
For centuries, these different forms of behaviour have kept moral entrepreneurs and experts - those concerned with understanding and remoulding our behaviour - in employment. In principle, of course, people who object to certain kinds of human behaviour are entitled to speak out and warn the public about the potential unhappy consequences of such behaviour. In a democratic society, argument and debate about the negative or destructive consequences of specific forms of conduct can help to encourage the flourishing of a vibrant public life. Tragically, however, the aim of today’s ‘libertarian paternalism’ is to bypass public debate and opt for psychological manipulation instead.