Nudgers vs. Nannies

The civil war between British busybodies


There is a new divide within Britain's political classes. It's not the old conflict of left vs. right, or a return of the 17th-century clash of Roundheads and Cavaliers. The new split divides those who believe the fat, feckless masses should be nudged toward better behavior and those who believe the fat, feckless masses should be nannied toward better behavior.

Prime Minister David Cameron leads the nudgers. He has established a Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) to furnish him with ideas for how to nudge the "illogical" masses (its word) toward the lifestyle approved by Cameron's government: nonsmoking, alcohol-free, slim, no fun.

Public health officials and their cheerleaders in the media lead the nannies. They believe nudging isn't enough and that, in the words of Catherine Bennett of The Observer, there will be "a surge in obesity and mass poisoning" by booze and junk food unless the government adopts rules forcing people to become more health-conscious. 

Thus far, the nudgers are leading the field. Having taken Downing Street in last year's general election, they promise to override the previous 13 years of New Labour nannying, which included smoking bans, legal restrictions on junk food advertising, and various anti-booze measures. But their alternative is anything but a renewed respect for individual moral autonomy.

Inspired by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Wealth, Health, and Happiness, Cameron set up BIT when he arrived at Downing Street last May. With Thaler and various psychologists as advisers, the BIT brain cops aim to use social psychology and behavioral economics to push people into adopting approved forms of behavior. The nudgers plan to do away with old-style Blair/Brown bossiness in favor of offering incentives, using subliminal messaging, and changing the "choice architecture" of our daily lives to influence us toward "healthier decisions and healthier lives." Instead of using taxes to make it more expensive to drive cars, for example, the nudgers will aim to rebuild public spaces in such a way that choosing to walk or ride a bicycle becomes easier than it currently is. In short, they will physically re-engineer public space with an eye toward socially engineering those who inhabit it.

Some of the team's propaganda is gobsmackingly Orwellian. BIT is built on the idea that people lack both the intellect and the free will to improve themselves and therefore must be secretly signposted toward approved behavior. A March 2010 Cabinet Office paper explaining the importance of 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; experts can simply toy with our gray matter instead. "Providing information per se often has surprisingly modest and sometimes unintended impacts," says the Cabinet Office paper. 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 deploy underhanded nudging techniques. The same paper informs us that the government ultimately aims to be a "surrogate willpower" for the public. Because we the people are so fickle and clueless, the state must become our will.

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 period of overeating and over-boozing, the nannies came 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 informed us that more and more public health officials 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" is not enough; people must instead be forced to change their habits through bans and the threat of legal sanction.

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 ads for these bad things as well.

The nannies' battle against the nudgers has encouraged sympathetic commentators 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 problem with nudging, she says, is "its feebleness in dealing with the biggest threats to health."

Both sides take for granted 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 have sex (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 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 the state should exercise our autonomy 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 the nudger-nanny clash. 

Brendan O'Neill (Brendan.ONeill@spiked-online.com) is the editor of Spiked.