Wednesday, November 03, 2010
A message to Britain's illiberal Nudge Industry: push off
The ‘politics of the brain’ is a threat to choice, freedom and democracy – which is why spiked is declaring war against it
In earlier eras, the revelation that there was a Behavioural Insight Team at the heart of government, dedicated to finding ways to reshape the public’s thoughts, choices and actions, would have caused outrage. It would have brought to mind some of the darker antics of the Soviet Union, which treated certain beliefs as mental illnesses to be fixed, or maybe O’Brien, the torturer in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, who boasts that the human mind is ‘infinitely malleable’.
Yet the news that David Cameron has a Behavioural Insight Team inside Downing Street, and what’s more that it is increasingly influential within the Lib-Con coalition, has been treated as if were a perfectly normal, even admirable thing. Have we lost our minds?
If the distinctive feature of the New Labour government when it came to power in 1997 was its ‘nanny statism’ (not a perfect label for New Labour authoritarianism by any means), then the distinctive feature of politics today is nudge statism – the conviction amongst our leaders that they have both the right and the capacity to invade our brains and reshape how we perceive and interact with the world around us. They refer to it as ‘the politics of the brain’, and everyone from right-leaning supporters of Cameron’s Tories to liberal commentators, from Tory advisers inside Downing Street to trendy young thinkers at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) who run a sinister-sounding thing called the Social Brain Project, believes the politics of the brain is a good, morally upstanding, workable idea.
They couldn’t be more wrong. And just as spiked was at the forefront of the battle against New Labour’s politics of behaviour for 10 years, so we intend to rally our intellectual troops against the politics of the brain today.
The most shocking thing about the recent reports on Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Team is that nobody has been shocked by them. The existence of a team which, in the words of one Cabinet Office paper, believes that ‘people are sometimes seemingly irrational’ and therefore the state must ‘influence behaviour through public policy’, has been shrugged off or given the nod. The Guardian casually reported that ‘deputy PM Nick Clegg said he believed the team could change the way citizens think’. Criticisms of the ‘Nudge Unit’ (as it is also known) have focused on whether it will really follow through on its promise to clean up the citizenry’s muddled minds. There is ‘little of actual substance’, complained one left-leaning commentator, ‘begging the question [of whether] the Conservatives have wholeheartedly embraced this agenda’. Another hack advised the government that ‘nudges should be deployed sparingly’.
Forget that. The nudge unit should actually be stuck at the very top of the much-discussed bonfire of the quangos. Formally instituted by Cameron in September, the team is made up of people such as David Halpern, former adviser to Tony Blair and co-author of the genuinely freaky Cabinet Office Paper Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy, which comes complete with a cover illustration of the human brain with the words ‘habit’, ‘ego’, ‘priming’ and ‘incentives’ inside it; Paul Dolan, another brain expert; various neuroscientists and psychologists; and external advisers such as Richard Thaler, co-author of the hugely influential book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Wealth, Health and Happiness, from which Cameron and his brain cops derived many of their ideas.
The unit is shot through with social psychology and the new-ish discipline of ‘behavioural economics’, a mish-mash of politics and neuroscience which, as the Mindspace Cabinet Paper points out, has over the past 10 years ‘moved from a fringe activity to one that is increasingly familiar and accepted’. The team’s aim is to find subtle ways to change our behaviour, not through the old, Blair-style bossy approach of telling us what to do, but by offering incentives, by ‘priming’ us with subliminal messaging, by changing the ‘choice architecture’ of our daily lives so that we are influenced, sometimes unconsciously, to behave in what the government considers to be the right way. So flirting with such ideas as a new alcohol labelling system, changing local infrastructure so that we are encouraged (forced?) to walk more frequently, inviting problem gamblers to ban themselves from certain gambling haunts, and offering cash bonuses for healthy behaviour, the nudge unit aims to transform us through some Derren Brown-style mind trickery into the kind of people Cameron might like to hang out with: thin, sober, fit, responsible, boring, braindead.
There are three serious problems with the emerging nudge state. First, it reveals the dramatic downscaling of what politics is about. Once upon a time, the lifeblood of politics was the question of how to create the Good Society. Politics was a struggle over how the world should be shaped or reshaped, and how we might create the conditions in which individuals could realise their potential and pursue their aspirations. Now it’s about remoulding individuals themselves. It’s about finding ways to change how individuals think and behave so that they conform to some preordained, elite-decided view of what a decent person is (booze-free, non-fat, eco-aware). Politics no longer has any macro-visions for society, so instead it aims obsessively to micromanage the way that individuals think.
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.
This is why the proponents of nudgism actively problematise the idea of information, the idea of giving people facts and evidence and political justifications in order that they might make their own decisions. So the Cabinet Office Mindspace report says policymakers have focused too much on providing people with info – about STDs, for example, or climate change – when apparently ‘providing information per se often has surprisingly modest and sometimes unintended impacts’. The report suggests that government should ‘shift the focus of attention away from facts and information, and towards altering the context in which people act’. Boiled down, this means: never mind reason, use pressure. And ideally an underhand, sly form of pressure.
The reason the nudgers are instinctively allergic to providing people with information is that they believe much of our behaviour takes place ‘outside conscious awareness’. Which means it cannot be influenced through such achingly old-fashioned mechanisms as moral debate and engagement but rather should be shifted with a bit of subliminal messaging and healthy-living handouts. Most shockingly of all, the nudge brigade sees it as its responsibility to exercise willpower on our behalf, because apparently we’re too fickle to do it ourselves. The government should become a ‘surrogate willpower’, says Mindspace; government action can ‘augment our freedom’ by pushing us to make the right choices. They don’t only want to remake our minds; they want to become our minds, Big Brother-style. It speaks volumes about the nudge statists that they cannot see what a whopping contradiction in terms it is to label government pressure as ‘freedom’ and external interventions into our brains as the exercising of ‘willpower’.
And the third problem with the nudge state is that it utterly rearranges the traditional democratic relationship. 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. And it is because spiked values things like liberty, democracy, choice and debate that we hereby declare war on these nudgers above us.
52 Dead in Baghdad Church Siege
Where is the media and interantional outrage at the murder fo Christians in Iraq?
The toll from the bloody siege of a Baghdad church rose Monday to 52 dead with dozens more injured, Iraqi officials said.
The standoff began at dusk Sunday when militants wearing suicide vests and armed with grenades attacked the nearby Iraqi stock exchange and then entered the nearby Our Lady of Deliverance church -- one of Baghdad's main Catholic places of worship -- taking about 120 Christians hostage.
Iraqi forces stormed the church after a tense hours-long standoff, freeing the hostages. It was not immediately clear whether the hostages died at the hands of the attackers or during the rescue.
Officials said at least one priest and nine policemen were among the dead. Many of the wounded were women.
The casualty information came from police and officials at hospitals where the dead and wounded were taken. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
There were conflicting accounts about the number of attackers involved in the assault, with Baghdad military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi saying Sunday night that security forces killed eight, while the U.S. military said between five and seven died.
Two police officers on the scene, however, say only three attackers were killed and another seven arrested afterwards.
A cryptically worded statement posted late Sunday on a militant website allegedly by the Islamic State of Iraq appeared to claim responsibility for the attack. The group, which is linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, said it would "exterminate Iraqi Christians" if Muslim women are not freed within 48 hours from churches in Egypt.
Iraqi Christians, who have been frequent targets for Sunni insurgents, have left in droves since the 2003 U.S.-le
The 1,000 steps to justice in Britain: How police and prosecutors must overcome a mountain of form-filling to solve just one burglary
Solving a simple domestic burglary takes more than 1,000 steps by police and prosecutors, it emerged last night. The police watchdog said the growing burden of bureaucracy means bringing a suspect to justice for a house break-in involves more than 30 people in 1,107 actions.
And excessive rules and a risk-averse culture could lead to ‘paralysis’ in the criminal justice system and officers being taken off the front line.
Dru Sharpling, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, added: ‘The criminal justice system has grown in a fragmented and bureaucratic way, slowing down the process, creating waste and stifling innovation.
‘All justice agencies involved are having their budgets cut over the next four years. There will not be enough capacity to sustain the service without reform.’ A breakdown of each individual step in the burglary investigation reveals the astonishing amount of form-filling and needless repetition of tasks.
Inspectors found 70 different forms which had to be filled in to prosecute a burglar. They also found police made 176 entries in the custody record for every suspect. Astonishingly, more than half of the steps involved data entry once a case file had been passed to prosecutors. Every entry was duplicated on up to five computer systems – three for the police, and one each for the courts and Crown Prosecution Service.
Booking in the suspect at the police station involved 38 steps, including 21 checks on their treatment and condition.
Only 98 steps were actually dedicated to investigating the crime. These include finding and labelling evidence, interviewing the suspect and examining the scene.
Each case file went back and forth between different agencies seven times and was copied six times for each agency present at court. Overly rigid rules on how victims were handled imposed more than 30 requirements for every case – even low- level offences such as a stolen phones.
Despite it having fewer criminals to process, the overall cost of the criminal justice system has spiralled by a quarter in just five years to more than £22billion.
HMIC blamed 14 pieces of criminal justice legislation in the past 15 years and a lack of controls for the ballooning amount of paperwork. It warned that the forthcoming cuts to police and CPS budgets meant reform was needed urgently simply to ensure the same number of criminals can still be brought to justice.
The report said: ‘The plethora of guidance has led to a culture of bureaucracy and too much information being prepared or demanded in cases. The overall impact has been multiple layers of requirements. Put simply, more tasks have to be completed to get the previously relatively straightforward job done.’
The report recommended that cases should go to court within 24 hours to speed up the system and defendants should be encouraged to plead guilty to cut the amount of paperwork required for abandoned trials. More trials should take place in video-linked or ‘virtual courts’ and the police and CPS encouraged to pool resources, it added.
Earlier this week it emerged that police must consult a health and safety checklist of 283 hazards before being called out in an emergency.
Australia: Building sandcastles on the beach is "unsafe"!
Is British safety obsession infecting Australia?
Surf Life Saving Queensland has thrown its support behind Sunshine Coast life guards, saying that digging holes and building sandcastles between the flags can pose hazards – but only in more extreme cases.
The Daily reported yesterday that children had been asked to fill in their hole and not dig or build sandcastles in the area between the flags.
Brisbane visitor Gary Roberts, told how he and other beach-goers were left gobsmacked on Friday when a life guard asked a young family to move on because they were playing in the sand in a patrolled zone.
He said the mother and two young children were doing nothing more than building a small castle between the flags and the life guard’s request was met with disbelief by on-lookers.
Mr Roberts said the case of bureaucracy gone crazy would not affect his decision to holiday in the region in the future, but he worried that it would reflect badly in the eyes of interstate and international travellers.
The story was picked up by media outlets around the country and sparked plenty of debate on the Daily’s website. An online poll found 72% believed building sandcastles was part of Australian culture and should be allowed.
Sunshine Coast council’s manager of life guard services, Scott Braby, said that although the council had no hard and fast rules regarding digging and sandcastle construction, it did have a general policy to move on beachgoers if they were posing a hazard to themselves or others.
Sunshine Coast Surf Life Saving services coordinator Aaron Purchase said SLSQ had a similar policy. “From our point of view it would only come into question if it was a big deep hole that was large enough to pose a risk to public safety,” Mr Purchase said.
He said if it was blocking life guard access or vehicle access or at risk of collapse then lifesavers would exercise their judgment and ask the beachgoer to fill the hole in and continue their activities outside the patrolled area.
“If it is posing a risk of sand collapse then they would need to step in,” Mr Purchase said. “We’ve had incidents of this is the past. A while back a guy was digging in a dune at Sunshine Beach and it collapsed – luckily the guys were able to dig him out and resuscitate him.”
But Mr Purchase said kids having a little dig and building small sandcastles within the flagged area was not a problem.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
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