Liberal paternalism gets public and private the wrong way around

November 4, 2010

— Frank Furedi is professor of Sociology at the University of Kent. The opinions expressed are his own. —

One of the least attractive features of the recent New Labour government was its paternalistic contempt for ordinary people. When former Prime Minister Brown was overheard dismissing a mouthy pensioner as a ‘bigot’ he only expressed a prejudice that is widespread among our political elite.

The tendency to regard people as lacking a capacity to exercise moral autonomy was widespread among policy makers. During the past decades it led to what Labour Ministers called the ‘politics of behaviour’. Sadly the Coalition Government has fully embraced this approach. A ‘behavioural insight team’ otherwise known as the Nudge Unit is reportedly gaining influence in Downing Street. The team is devoted to the idea of ‘libertarian paternalism’ – a pernicious doctrine, associated with American academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

Relying on behaviour management techniques, libertarian paternalism aims to manipulate people into making choices that the powers that be consider ‘right’. Nudging people towards the ‘right direction’ has as its premise the idea that people lack the moral and intellectual resources to know what is in their interest.  In such circumstances society needs to rely on an expert group of nudgers to pressure people to do what’s best for them. Their lack of respect for individual autonomy is only matched by their contempt for people’s private lives.

The aim of the Orwellian sounding ‘behavioural insight team’ is the colonisation of private life. The main objective of libertarian paternalism is the colonisation of the private sphere. Society needs to prevent the institutions of the state from pursuing projects that seek to colonise people’s internal life. Human behaviour is a profoundly moral question.  The freedom to behave in a manner that allows the exercise of individual autonomy constitutes what drives the liberal imagination to promote a progressive and genuinely open society. We need  a more risk taking orientation towards the freedom of the individual. Far better to learn from our mistakes than to be nudged into a moral wasteland by know-it-all technocrats.

One final point. Liberal theory presupposes the existence of two very different jurisdictions –the private and the public. Its main objection to the expansion of state activity is to do with the significance it attaches to the integrity of the private sphere – and to the freedom of  individuals to exercise individual autonomy. Libertarian paternalism gets the relationship between private and public the wrong way around. It seeks to transform the private sphere into a jurisdiction managed by Nudgers, Relationship Experts, Social Workers and a bewildering variety of professionals. At the same time it attempts to privatise the public sphere to the point where the mercenary displaces the public servant. What we are left is the worst of both worlds.

Liberals want to get the relationship between the private and the public the right way around. That requires that the state withdraws from the private sphere and curbs its instinct to regulate the informal relations between people. It also means that it takes  public duty and public service seriously and resists the temptation to turn its affairs into activities run by private business. A ‘big society’ needs a robust public service ethos. Recruiting mercenaries to run public life makes about as much sense as relying on the nudging of behaviour therapist to sort out our public life.

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Big Society and Big Bank are purely propaganda. Big Bank is unnecessary as it is simply an arm of government with a brand name, nice and corporate. Indeed the Tories have some of the same financing methods for this as Labour’s government spending, only they are sending it through their ‘Big Bank’. One example is the £500 million in dormant bank accounts that Labour brought into law as being useable by the government. This policy has like many Labour policies simply been annexed and rebranded and instead of being spent by the government is spent by the government’s bank.

From your article it also seem the Tories have annexed policies from Labour that might have been originally inspired by the book, 1984.

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