Trying to nudge us towards decency

The Lib-Con government’s obsession with nudging suggests it sees us as mere putty to be remoulded at will.

If one man captures the deep-seated continuity between New Labour and the current Lib-Con coalition, it has to be the slightly spoken, slightly shadowy figure of Dr David Halpern.

For a start, his career straddles both administrations. Between 2001 and 2007, Halpern was head of then prime minister Tony Blair’s Strategy Unit. Showing that the blood of administration is far thicker than the water of party-political allegiance, Halpern is still ensconced at Downing Street. This time, however, he is head of current prime minister David Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Team - or, as it is otherwise known, the Nudge Unit - a small, eight-man body dedicated to changing our behaviour by ‘nudging’ us into making the ‘right’ choices, whether that involves consuming less energy or imbibing fewer cans of lager.

In this obsession with our behaviour, the deeper continuity between New Labour and the Lib-Cons, embodied in the career of Halpern, becomes clear. Established in July 2010, the Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) is not, as some - including the chancellor George Osborne - would have us believe, a soft-toned antidote to New Labour’s petty authoritarianism. Rather, it is the culmination and continuation of the state’s relentless attempt to manage all aspects of our behaviour, from what we eat to what we drink. 

BIT’s first annual report, released last week, is a testament to small-scale political control-freakery. And, dismal credit where it’s due, there is no doubting BIT has been busy: it has trialled a new scheme to nudge people into signing up to the organ donor register by giving us the choice to do so when applying for a driving licence; it has sent out letters informing people that most other people in their area have paid their taxes, thus boosting repayment rates by 15 per cent; and it has devised a way to nudge us into energy-frugal lives by telling people on their energy performance certificates how much it would cost to heat a prospective new home. Alongside these and other policy wheezes, it has also sought to implement ‘a mnemonic that sets out nine of the most robust behavioural effects’ across Whitehall, so that policymakers are fully au fait with the basics of affecting behaviour change. As reports go, BIT’s is not lacking in self-justification or ‘mnemonic’ jargon.

When BIT was first established over a year ago, there was no shortage of scepticism. This, after all, was a unit seemingly inspired by a faddish behavioural-science book, Nudge, written by a couple of American academics, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Yet now even the most ostentatiously sceptical of sceptics seem quietly impressed by BIT’s work over the past year. For instance Ben Goldacre, the Guardian’s eviscerator of ‘bad science’, actually praised the empirical, scientific approach of BIT. For him, BIT’s work is evidence of evidence-based policymaking at its best. ‘It’s odd’, he waxed, ‘but the first good trials in UK politics for many years may be about to come from the wackiest and most vogueish corner of government’. A columnist at the Daily Telegraph was similarly impressed: ‘The Nudge Unit isn’t guaranteed to produce better, less coercive government policy – but it has a fighting chance of doing so, and that’s more than can be said of most political initiatives.’

But the real problem with BIT has nothing to do with the so-called science. In fact, I have little doubt that certain ‘nudges’ will be effective. Take limiting the display of alcohol in supermarkets, for example: if you hide booze from supermarket shoppers, perhaps putting it on the shelves above the pet-worming equipment, then fewer people are likely to find it. Some call that a ‘nudge’, I call it crap marketing.

But to focus on the trialled-and-tested efficacy of BIT’s plans is to miss the point. The problem with BIT is not what it does exactly (although a lot of its ‘nudges’ do have an objectionable objective). The problem is the regressive trend it symbolises. That is, BIT’s existence at the heart of government shows just how diminished we are in the eyes of our rulers. Under the gaze of the nudging and needling state, we are not what we were. We are no longer, to use the terms of Nudge, to be confused with the rational decision-making beings of Enlightenment thought. Instead, we are half-conscious, half-baked creatures routinely making bad decisions, much as moths are drawn to red-hot lights. And it is our – civil society’s – assumed irrationality which gives the nudging state its purpose: to right our error-strewn ways.

Of course, BIT’s main stated aim seems benign enough. ‘Its objective’, reads the report, ‘is to make a reality of the coalition government’s intention to find “intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves”’. In practice, however, ‘enabling people to make better choices for themselves’ is little different from depriving people of the ability to choose freely. Take BIT’s commitment to reduce alcohol consumption. This involves a whole raft of measures including: ‘price signals’, or fiddling with tax to determine alcohol prices; denormalising alcohol consumption by informing people of just how little others are drinking; removing prominent drink displays in supermarkets; reducing the strength of major-brand products; and introducing three-quarter-pint-size measures, or ‘schooners’. As far as I can tell, that set of multiple nudges is not ‘enabling people to make better choices for themselves’ – it is corralling people into making a particular choice according to the design of others, namely, the government’s so-called ‘choice architects’. 

Here, society does not consist of people capable of making their own decisions about their lives. Instead, under the gaze of the nudging state, society appears as an agglomeration of people incapable of living freely. And why is that? Why is freedom, once an aspiration for people, now deemed an impossibility? It’s because, according to behavioural science-spouting politicos, we are in thrall to the laws of human nature, inclined to seek short-term gains at a long-term cost, incapable of resisting temptation, and driven to make spectacularly bad choices.

What’s revealing about this elite worldview is the extent to which society is transformed into a semi-natural phenomenon not to be governed so much as scientifically managed. The ends of policy, from improving health to reducing energy consumption, are as little open to question as the reproductive process. Little wonder that in the government’s official response to a House of Lords Select Committee report on BIT, it said that it was considering appointing a chief social scientific adviser to sit alongside the already-existing chief scientific adviser.

In the possible appointment of a chief social scientific adviser, the profoundly anti-democratic consequences of the government’s obsession with behavioural science are apparent. Policies no longer have to be justified in the crucible of public debate. Providing they adhere to the seeming laws of human nature, policies just have to be signed-off by an expert in social science.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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