Spiked, 16th July 2012
Not content with already nannying and nudging us in various ways, and using sin taxes to regulate our consumption habits, Britain’s Lib-Con coalition government is now pursuing another policy of paternalism. It is aiming to gain access to the shopping habits of 25million people through the information saved on their supermarket loyalty cards, such as the Sainsbury’s Nectar card or Tesco Club Cards. That way, it can work out where we’re going ‘wrong’ in terms of what we buy and eat, and nudge us in the ‘right’ direction.
Supermarkets keep a complete record of all our purchases if we use a club card. But that information was traditionally only used to aim store promotions at customers, based on their previous purchasing habits. Now, prime minister David Cameron says he backs the idea that such information should be used to try to nudge people towards making better, healthier choices. Other senior Tories, however, including health secretary Andrew Lansley, are worried that this all adds up to government snooping.
By getting a glimpse into what people buy from the supermarket, right down to the last rasher of bacon and can of Carlsberg, the government hopes to devise ways to make our weekly shop healthier. People will be
targeted with specific health advice. So presumably, those who purchase a case of Stella on a Friday evening will be subtly alerted to the dangers of alcohol and kindly asked to refrain from drinking too much, while those who regularly purchase white bread will be asked to consider the wholemeal option. Parents might also be chastised if their supermarket shop suggests they aren’t providing their children with a ‘balanced diet’.
An O-word, named after a certain Eric Arthur Blair, comes to mind. The idea of a government agency poring over the public’s shopping habits, and then suggesting healthier options, is a strange and paternalistic one. It assumes the public are too stupid to decide for themselves what to buy and eat. In the government’s eyes, the only reason someone’s Tesco Club Card might show up a lot of beer-buying is because that person is oblivious to the health implications of drinking, and therefore needs a friendly ‘nudge’ in the right direction. It couldn’t possibly be that, despite knowing about the relationship between alcohol and health, he has decided to get pissed nonetheless.
It should come as no surprise that this latest attempt to change people’s choices comes from the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT). BIT, commonly known as the Nudge Unit, was set up two years ago to utilise behavioural economics theory to ‘nudge’ people into making what are considered to be the correct lifestyle choices. The Nudge Unit’s purpose is to find ways to ‘encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves’ – though what qualifies these policy wonks to know what the ‘better choices’ are is unclear.
The Nudge Unit believes that small nudges and external stimuli can encourage people to become healthier. This means it hopes to change the way we perceive and see the world around us, and how we interact with it, too. To the Nudge Unit, the public are a bit like Pavlov’s dogs – ring a bell, provide some new stimulation to the brain, and everyone will unconsciously start salivating at the mouth to make new and improved eating, drinking and lifestyle choices.
The central idea is that people can’t be trusted to make decisions on their own, and so the government must get stuck into our day-to-day lives. But if the average person can’t be trusted to know what the right choice is, why is the Behavioural Insight Team any different? How is it that these people know what the right choices are? Perhaps they view themselves as an enlightened elite who must lord it over the feeble-minded masses, gently nudging us in the right direction, like shepherds herding the sheeple to the land of correct thinking.
This elite mindset is antithetical to democracy. The idea of democracy is that people are able to decide for themselves how to live their lives and also what the future of their society should look like. That is, democracy is, or should be, based on the idea that people know what is in their own best interests. And so we have the right to elect people who we believe will shape society as we would like it to be shaped. The ideas of the Nudge Unit negate this basic principle of democracy; in fact, they call into question the very idea of democracy, which can’t really exist if people are seen as incapable of making good decisions even in the supermarket aisles, never mind the voting booth.
The idea that the government knows what is best for us redefines the democratic relationship, the relationship between free citizens and those who govern. Rather than being viewed as active and conscious agents who should get to say what society should look like, we are turned into a mass to be manipulated by officials who believe they know best what we should look like. Elected politicians are turned from representatives of the demos into shepherds overlooking their fickle flock.