A nudge away from freedom

The signs were there. While talking publicly about his big society, behind the scenes Cameron was urging colleagues to tuck into Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Indeed, this publication, marking one of the more sinister developments in social policy, was required reading not just for the Tories but for the political class as a whole. But surely this had nothing to do with the big society?

Nudging is all about the state finding clever new ways of getting us to make the ‘right’ choices, for example not smoking, eating healthily, and recycling like good ‘active’ citizens (as Matthew Taylor, chief executive at the RSA likes to see us).

The big society, so I thought, is based on people getting on with it and doing things for themselves, not relying on the state to make decisions for them. Well, I got that wrong.

At a discussion late last year, the great and the good of the voluntary sector assembled to hear Taylor turn what was generally regarded as inconsequential into something more worrying. He explained, without a dissenting voice, that the big society is all about changing people’s behaviour.

Behaviour change couldn’t be more in vogue. Public health advocates might have pulled out of the government’s public-private ‘responsibility deal’, and some have even expressed doubts about the effectiveness of nudging. But their enthusiasm for telling us how to live our lives goes on unabated.

None other than the RSA is running a project on nudging us to engage in ‘prosocial’ behaviour. The result is a disturbingly one-eyed and amoral perspective on a vast array of social problems, from murder rates to organ donation. It’s not about argument and persuasion, economics or politics, apparently. But about creating the sort of environment that encourages us to scurry rat-like in this or that direction.

Nudging is all about pulling our levers until the desired policy outcome is achieved. But as Paul Ormerod acknowledges in N Squared (pdf), sometimes just nudging isn’t enough. We have the annoying habit of doing our own thing. And yet, rather than pointing to this as a fatal flaw he implies that this tendency to stray doesn’t make us – at the risk of mixing my metaphors – any less sheep-like. We can still be made to follow the herd or obey the ‘network effect’ as he would have it. Thus, the humble nudge might be amplified into something more akin to an almighty shove.

So much for the idea of the citizen (active or otherwise) with a mind of his own, and goodbye to any notion of personal freedom. Whatever the big society is, this diminishing of the political subject can mean just one thing. We are not being engaged in it. We are being nudged towards it.

I’ll leave the last word to Andy Gibson of Mindapples, something of a nudging enthusiast. He thinks it has an ‘important role to play in improving the design of public systems and spaces’. Yet even he is disturbed enough by the ‘implicit paternalism’ that underlies it to ask the one question that nobody else seems to be asking: ‘How can we be trusted to run our communities, deliver public services and control local planning decisions when we cannot also be trusted to make informed decisions about feeding ourselves or raising our children?’. Quite.