Resist this nudge towards sobriety

The UK government’s decision to raise duty on high-strength lager in order to change our behaviour diminishes us all.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics

It’s a curiously contradictory thing, the Big Society.

This is the Conservative Party’s vision of the Good Life in twenty-first century Britain, an answer, as Prime Minister David Cameron put it, to the ‘enormous spiritual and social hole in our country around us’. It is meant to signal the end of New Labour’s officious, nannying state. In its place, the Big Society idea promises community and social spirit, the creation of a vibrant civil society in which people are helping each other and helping themselves.

Yet there’s one great, big autonomy-shaped problem with all this grand rhetoric. And it’s that the Lib-Cons think we’re idiots, as incapable of deciding how best we should live our lives as the nation’s supposedly gut-busting children.

How else are we to understand the coalition government’s continued obsession with how much we choose to drink? It’s almost New Labourish in its control-freakery. So it was that this week that the Treasury’s Review of Alcohol Taxation decided that strong lager should cost more than lower alcohol equivalents. Or, if you like your punitive pricing complex, it announced that a higher rate of duty will be charged on beer at or over 7.5 per cent and a reduced rate of duty will be charged on beers at or below 2.8 per cent.

And just to dispel any doubt as to the manipulation of people’s behaviour at work in this initiative, Treasury spokesperson Justine Greening stated: ‘The government recognises that in some areas taxation can have a role in helping to address the harms associated with problem drinking.’

Those with a vested interest in low-strength ale-quaffing were only disappointed that the government didn’t go further. But their response was revealing, too. Take Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, for example. ‘We need a duty system’, she said, ‘that nudges consumers to choose lower-strength, pub-based drinks such as beer’.

A method of pricing that ‘nudges’ consumers? In other words, those who know no better (that’s us) need to be nudged and prodded by those who know best (that’s them), into making the correct alcohol purchase. Could it be any more condescending? (That’s rhetorical, not a think-tank invite.)

Strictly speaking, this is not ‘nudging’ as understood by the assorted psychological experts currently making a killing flogging their meme-tastic wares to a craven, ideas-craving political class. It’s a bit crude for that. Proper high-concept nudging involves designing conditions in such a way that people almost subconsciously make the right decision. With booze pricing, it’s more like a low-concept kicking, where prices are such people can’t afford to make the wrong decision. In fact, as we’ve argued before on spiked, the political attempt to price the feckless out of making decisions is what nineteenth-century libertarian John Stuart Mill called a ‘sin tax’, a moral judgement sporting a fiscal face.

But while the methods are rather more old-fashioned stick than new-fangled psycho carrot, both nudging and kicking share the same basis: a diminished view of those who make up civil society. The suggestion is that we the people can’t be trusted to make decisions ourselves. Like the old Romantic critique of the Enlightenment philosophes, we are too irrational, our judgement too clouded by needs and desires, to be left to pursue unaided our life, liberty and, yes, happiness.

That some people’s decision to drink a lot a lot of the time might actually be an understandable, almost rational response to dire circumstances is ignored. No, in this dim view of civil society, such people are just not to be entrusted with their liberty.

How does the government get away with this Stella-splashed assault on our autonomy? It does so under the cover of snobbery. The particular object of state reform in all these nudging and winking and price-hiking policies never seems to be ‘us’ – it is always ‘them’, the problematic reprobates necking Tennants Super at lunchtime. The so-called problem drinkers, the ones doing proper harm to themselves and others, are rarely over here and almost always over there. That’s why politicians, who are not known for their abstinence, can temporarily forget the amount of time they spend in Westminster’s countless bars when passing a coercive, anti-booze policy.

But in essence, the nudging state is not that discriminating. Under its purview, no members of civil society escape its degrading, infantilising gaze. In its eyes we are all diminished, slaves to irrational impulses and desires that only psychologically-attuned experts can manage. So you see, no matter how much the government bigs up the Big Society, so terrifyingly manipulative is the state’s attitude to the little people’s behaviour that the basis of society – autonomous, resilient individuals – is completely undermined.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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