The insidious rise of Nudge Theory as a form of social control.
We’ve been living with Nudge Theory long before there was a name for it. You might say that the increasing restrictions on smoking – from health warnings to high taxes to advertising bans to plain packages to smoking bans in public places – are a classic example of the concept, at least how we’ve come to know it in political terms: if something is deemed to be bad for people, or simply disapproved of, but can’t realistically be banned outright, then you instead make it as difficult as you can for people to consume those products. Every hefty price increase, every restriction on availability or use and every control of promotion will make it harder and harder for the consumer, cutting numbers accordingly. When it becomes easier to quite than to carry on, you’ve achieved your goal.
Nudge Theory as an actual thing rather than political instinct came into popular use as a term in 2008, and was eagerly embraced by David Cameron and Barak Obama as a method of social engineering. If people wouldn’t do what was good for them by choice, then they would be pushed in the right direction, while still allowing our politicians to maintain that we continued to have freedom of choice. Nudge Theory is at the heart of Cameron’s Porn Block legislation, and indeed from the moment that porn was legalised in the UK in 2000. Restrictions on mail order supply and hugely excessive sex shop licences meant that while porn was legal, it was still pretty hard to get hold of. The internet changed that, so came the demands that ISPs turn on filtering by default – knowing that many people would be too lazy or too embarrassed to turn it off – and then the porn block laws that mean you’ll effectively have to register as a porn user to access it. Similarly, restrictions on alcohol have consistently increased – minimum pricing, local council restrictions on the strength of alcohol available in shops (not legally binding of course, but which shop will ignore the ‘advice’ knowing that they’ll have to apply for a licence renewal at some point soon), new health warnings on labels and made up ‘safe’ drinking levels… all designed to make alcohol less appealing and less socially acceptable. There are already demands for plain packaging to be extended to alcohol, which would be disastrous – as the campaigners know, hence their insistence on it.
The Nudge is popular because you can maintain the illusion of free choice while actually imposing swingeing restrictions. If you make something illegal, the issue becomes a black and white one – either people obey the law or they don’t. Look at cannabis use, perhaps (alongside cycling on the pavement) our most ignored ban. There are no grey areas in the UK on cannabis use – it’s illegal full stop, so there are no packaging restrictions or advertising controls. And so there are no nudges in place to put people off. But with legal but undesirable products, the nudge is highly effective. It’s death by a thousand cuts. You don’t ban something outright, you simply make it eyewateringly expensive, restrict where and how it can be sold and advertised and constantly run campaigns – eagerly reported by a compliant media that is all too keen on stopping people enjoying themselves – to both demonise the products and soften people up for yet more restrictions. Every new restriction is grumblingly accepted in a way that an outright ban wouldn’t be.
There’s a prime example of modern Nudge Theory at work in the news today. The Soft Drink Industry Levy – that’s a sugar tax to you and me – came in last year after a carefully co-ordinated scare campaign against sugary drinks. This meant an increase in prices or a reduction in sizes of soft drinks – just try to find a 2 litre bottle of full fat Coke now, for instance. Now, you may think that a reduction of sugar in soft drinks is a good thing. You may be right. You may also think that a ban on advertising ‘junk’ food during children’s TV is also sensible. But both are classic nudges, pushing people away from what is bad for them. And both are classic Trojan Horse moves, designed to soften up opinion. Today, we are told that the tax of sugary drinks has had minimal impact and what we really need is action on confectionary – cakes, chocolates and sweets. More specifically, what we need, according to researchers from the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine and the University of Cambridge, is a tax on sugary foods in order to make them less attractive. So the idea of one sugar tax failing isn’t to see that is was perhaps unnecessary, but instead to demand it be expanded. This is how nudges and slow build restrictions work.
We should be very cautious at the idea of a food tax – food is one of the few things that is currently zero rated for VAT, and opening that door is not something that we should encourage. First, it’s sugary snacks and ‘junk’ food (which are not necessarily the same thing), and then what next? We’ve already seen the definition of ‘junk’ food expanded, and we can expect that to continue. It is, after all, a nicely vague term.
The major fault of the nudge is that it is a blunt object and doesn’t offer alternatives – it nudges away, but not towards. It effectively punishes people for making the wrong choices, while not telling them what they should do instead – we don’t see grants offered to health food shops or vaping suppliers* to help them sell their goods at bargain prices, thus attracting people away from the bad stuff. We have the stick, but not the carrot. Punishing people for their pleasures without rewarding them for making the ‘right’ choices feels almost religious in its prohibitionist fervour.
And the scare stories can only have so much effect outside the closeted world of the press and the policy makers. People are increasingly aware that the current recommeded drinking levels and five-a-day fruit and veg suggestions in the UK are figures plucked from the air – well intentioned, perhaps (or perhaps not), but not based on any real science. And people know only too well that life is both short and a crapshoot, and that you could get hit by a bus – or develop cancer – even if you’ve led the healthiest of lives… or alternatively, you could live to a ripe old age on a diet of booze, fags and chocolate. It’s the luck of the draw and possibly good (or bad) genetics.
We’re certainly not saying that you should go out and live a wildly unhealthy life – though in the end, that’s your own choice – but the cynical social engineering of nudge culture and the adject miserablism that seems to go with it is something that we should be suspicious of. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may well die.
*The signs are, of course, that vaping is about to move from being a good way of moving people away from smoking to becoming the next public health panic. Already, certain US states are banning flavoured vapes and other countries and regions are imposing their own restrictions.