Thursday 25 November 2010

Nudging Is The Misguided Answer To A State-Imagined Problem

If you get a chance to 'listen again' to BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze programme from last night, please do so as it strikes right to the heart of what we talk about here.

Chris Snowdon took part and was aggressively interrupted by an advocate of this government's policy of 'nudging'. The fact that an opposing view should be seen as such a threat that the questioner didn't feel comfortable with it even being heard lends creedence to our perception that nudging has long since descended into bullying.

The audio shows quite clearly that what is currently being utilised by the state is far removed from the original concept as advanced by the authors - Richard Thaler even rocked up himself to highlight how Cameron's understanding of the premise is deeply flawed.

But then, nudging is the answer to a problem which has been artificially created by a fundamental failure of Blair's administration, which applied machine-like attributes to human beings.

In 2007, the three-part documentary, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, explained how game theory has been increasingly used as a tool of populationary control in post-war years, most notably by Blair's government. The idea was that the public will react 'rationally' to stimuli enacted by the state.

As a concept of social control, it fails miserably since it relies on people acting as a homogenous, computer-generated, mass of unthinking drones with no outliers or rebels.

Humans are not machines. They cheat, they avoid, and they self-administer in a society which has been accustomed to a semblance of freedom. In short, the British tradition of self-determination has never been compatible to the application of a one-size-fits-all measure of the perfect lifestyle. It just doesn't work. We're not the state's dream of a compliant and malleable population - we have our own thoughts, dreams and aspirations, and all interventions inevitably throw up unintended consequences which mess up the state's best laid ideological plans.

So it bombed.

Faced with the incontestable fact that government control isn't the panacea which was envisaged, and seeing people gleefully acting in what the state views as an irrational manner - as a human population is always going to do - which rendered game theory irrelevant, the response seems to be nudging. Because it will apparently 'correct' us and drive us back into the preferred position of being 'rational' about the choices they have determined on our behalf.

It's the discernible point at which nanny turns bully.

Instead of accepting that the nanny state - on the back of discredited game theory - has been an abject failure, politicians, rent-seekers and shroud-wavers instead chose a different path. They reasoned that an inherently diverse population could be forced back to the robotic thinking required for game theory to succeed by turning previously free-thinking (irrational) people into ones which fit their flawed eugenic agenda.

This trend began under New Labour with the politics of behaviour, where ministers explicitly said they considered it their business to force us to be healthier, more socially active, even happier citizens. The Lib-Cons are taking this politics to a new low by including not only our health and waistlines but also our thoughts and emotions, even our sub-conscious processes, under the remit of the Ministry of Good Behaviour (they don’t actually call it that, but why not?). Bereft of ideas for remaking the world, for boosting and improving society, our leaders take refuge in the brain instead, hoping that they can fiddle with the mental where they cannot get to grips with the social. Controlling individuals’ interaction with the world that currently exists takes the place of what counted for politics for thousands of years, from Aristotle to the Suffragettes: debating how the world should ideally look.

The second problem with the nudge state is that it’s alarmingly illiberal. Built on the idea that individuals are essentially irrational – ‘people are sometimes irrational’, says the Cabinet Office paper; ‘people are often systematically irrational’, prefers the RSA – the elitist politics of the brain treats the mass of the population as not worth seriously engaging with. Indeed its very premise is that we are not rational beings who can be reasoned with, but rather are simply collections of nerve endings and subconscious processes who need to be subjected to a mental MOT.
Machines who can, and should, be 'nudged' back to a position where the computer-modelled existence planned for us by the state will all of a sudden be viable.

It's a solution to a problem created by government's ridiculous and unnatural belief that all humans follow computer profiling, and that since we don't, the answer is to alter human behaviour rather than the flawed computer models they, and their quangoes, are invested in adhering to.

The initial premise has failed, so instead of accepting that and working out some way that the population is to be accommodated, our politicians have decided that the better option is to make us fall into line. Or, as the referred article eloquently put it.

In the modern political era, it is supposed to be governments that shape themselves in response to what people want, not people who reshape their lifestyles in response to what the government wants. Democracy is meant to involve the formulation of a government that expresses the people’s will; it is about the people putting pressure on the authorities to believe in and pursue certain ideals. Under the nudge tyranny that is turned totally on its head, as instead the government devises more and more ways to put pressure on us to change.
Nudging shouldn't be a plank of coalition policy. It should instead be viewed as proof that our government has failed to represent our interests in a democratic society once, and that the solution is not to compound the same daft mistake by trying to rectify a failure entirely of the state's making.

But then, with the paucity of intellect in Westminster these days, it would appear they naïvely believe that two wrongs will result in a right.


JuliaM said...

"...and all interventions inevitably throw up unintended consequences which mess up the state's best laid ideological plans."

Case in point - today's mass sacking at the safari park.

Well, what did they THINK was going to happen when businesses are dictated to over who they should employ?

Anonymous said...

I think we should acknowledge that the politicians have hijacked a rather lightweight but common sense idea that ordinary people put into practice without realising, quite often. Cameron and Clegg have latched onto another catch phrase which impresses those who fancy themselves as scholars without having to spend 10 years studying. Those who worship BadScienceBen. "Evidence based policy" is another recent example.
Having an organ donation app and a fly to piss at (both examples of the original nudge idea)are harmless and helpful. Having presumed consent for organ donation is not. Are there hundreds of people on dozens of blogs in a permanent rage at the flies to piss at in Schiphol airport? No there aren't. But there are at the smoking ban. It is pretty clear what the idea of the Nudge is and how politicians are distorting it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Dick, you have ackowledged it.

Cherie said...

Read this post after I just left a (sorry) very long comment on the previous thread, but wow, it's exactly what I'm thinking. Well, I for one feel like a warrier tonight for standing up and fighting against it.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Just read it Cherie, well done for standing up for yourself. (Blondie and the Pretenders? Great taste, too) :)

If anyone hasn't seen it, Cherie's account of her encounter with an Aussie smoke Nazi is here and here

Anonymous said...

Anon 16:43
I agree that having a fly to piss at is pretty harmless though irritatingly patronising. On the other hand, I think that forcing people to make a yes/no decision on organ donation, when applying for a tax disc is appalling. Granted some people would answer without a second thought but for many it is a very serious decision that needs to be discussed at length with their next of kin, who might be a Jehovahs Witness for example. And it is now a difficult call for smokers to make

Many would also have a great aversion to their decision being irrevocably recorded in Big Goverment's database, not to mention having this passed via the DVLC.


Matt Nolan said...

I agree with the direction of what you are saying, but there are just a couple of points regarding the fact that it isn't game theory that is discredited - just the way it has been applied by government. Namely:

1) Government has ignored the very idea of values, and revealed value, when designing these "games" - in essence they define outcomes as good rather than letting individual choices show it. They have ignored that people respond to incentives, and if it is not how they expected it, this is because peoples incentives differ from their perception.

2) Government ignored that their perception on what "should" happen is value laden - and when these games illustrate that some of these "values" are false, they ignored it.

Anonymous said...

"And it is now a difficult call for smokers to make" (Tony)

Nope, not for me: if they're unwilling to tolerate my organs along with the rest of me, they ain't getting them when the rest of me is gone.


Anonymous said...

Tony, I think the tax disc thing is a Gov proposal, not from the authors of nudge. I would consider it a distortion of the Nudge idea, which would not demand a yes/no answer, but would have a space to tick yes. I'm not sure whether I agree with even this - why bring organ donation in particular into tax disc purchasing?
Anon 14.43

Anonymous said...

The organ decision is clear to me too - a definite NO - for exactly the reasons you outline.

Anon 12:36 (& 16:43)
I've just listened to the programme again and now realise that the notion of forcing a yes/no decision was an invention of Mathew Taylor rather than Thales so my criticism was miss-directed. Can we put a blue bottle on Taylor's head?