Amongst the many reasons to detest our former governing party was their propensity to tell people what they should be eating, drinking, thinking and doing. Their exit was greeted with a sigh of relief and the thought that such Nannying tendencies would be a thing of the past. Those of us who thought that (and I have to include myself in this) were wrong. Nanny is still there but has been renamed. Rather than hectoring us, our new government wishes to ‘nudge’ us.
Meet Richard Thaler from the University of Chicago, co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness and an economist who, as a leading exponent of ‘nudge theory’ has been advising David Cameron and his Orwellian sounding ‘Behavioural Insight Team’.
Nudge theory is described as being ‘libertarian paternalism’ and is, according to Wikipedia, about
help[ing] you make the choices you would make for yourself — if only you had the strength of will as well as the sharpness of mind. But unlike ‘hard’ paternalists, who ban some things and mandate others, the softer kind aims only to skew your decisions, without infringing greatly on your freedom of choice.
Well, they have the paternalism bit right, that’s for sure. All they have described is the process by which parents (should) raise their children without mentioning the inevitable discipline that is required when the boundaries are pushed too far.
One problem though – people who we legally consider to be adults are not children and thus should not be treated as such. Any attempt to skew my decisions towards something I don’t want to do is infringing on my freedom of choice. If I want to buy a round, eat food that isn’t health, donate my organs, give to charity or smoke I’ll bloody well do so because I want to – not because a politician such as Oliver Letwin has decreed that he would like to see me doing so.
This is not Libertarianism and can’t be. Libertarianism allows people to make their own choices (so long as they do not mean violence to another) and accepts that this will result in some mistakes being made. This is normal behaviour and is part of the how humans have learnt over the last x million years. You can advise that something that it is not a good idea but you can’t in anyway force them not to do it by removing that option.
Paternalism is control by another name. It is about reducing the level of choice available to someone simply because a busy body who thinks they know best has decided that some choices are ‘bad choices’ and that they should therefore be taken away.
The new government may have whitewashed Nanny and given her a new name but do not be fooled. She is still there, in the background, determined to interfere with and control the population and she must be resisted at all cost.