An unhealthy nudge

Notwithstanding David Cameron’s infatuation with nudging, the in-vogue tool would appear to have little merit as a guiding principle of policymaking. The Department of Health’s new nudge-themed White Paper, Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our Strategy for Public Health in England, commits the coalition government to an unethical alcohol policy, an anti-obesity effort that targets a phantom menace, and scientifically illiterate anti-tobacco measures.

Self-styled “liberal” politicians are determined to save us from our own consumption decisions. The Prime Minister wants to dictate what we do through nudges that shepherd us towards “good” decisions. But nudging can be used to try to influence behaviour in any way that policymakers desire, whether it is to our benefit or not. Moreover, the behavioral economics research that nudging draws upon is closer to science fiction than first-class science. Many of its conclusions come from laboratory experiments which are very different from real marketplaces.

Proposals for a minimum price for alcohol, restricting the opportunity to consume it, and even restricting its availability, are justified as a means of reducing binge drinking. However, as the overwhelming majority of the population either does not drink or drinks in sensible moderation, how can we justify restrictions against anyone and everyone who drinks alcohol?

Childhood obesity rates are levelling off, yet somehow this justifies a ratcheting-up of taxpayer-funded propaganda and programmes to incentivise families into “moving more” while eating less “bad” food. Such a policy ignores the basic facts that there are no good or bad foods, only good and bad diets, and that there is no evidence that such exhortations have any efficacy in terms of weight loss or longevity in either adults or children (see Basham, 2010).

The government’s scientifically illiterate decision not to review the public smoking ban forsakes the liberty of a minority for the misinformed notion that we are protecting the majority’s health. The smoking ban has not led to a reduction in smoking. Is this deprivation of liberty, albeit only of a minority group, therefore justified?

The nudging of people to do the right thing is problematic on two levels. First, it is unethical, perhaps even immoral, to apply coercion, however softly delivered, in order to bias individual lifestyle choices.

Second, nudging runs up against the evidence problem: many of the conventionally held wisdoms of public health are, in fact, either scientifically incorrect or, at the very least, highly debatable within the scientific research community. When science becomes politicised, the “experts” are simply wrong on a troubling number of occasions. For example, the sciences of nutrition and disease, so deeply entwined with respective political, bureaucratic and special interest agendas, are error-filled.

Public health policy should reflect these facts: very few people do not already know the most effective strategies for a healthier, longer life; the evidentiary basis for additional preventive strategies is actually quite thin; most allegedly cost-effective prevention strategies are unproven; and, most importantly, state intervention frequently makes the public health situation worse.

I entirely agree. Governments should be looking for areas where they could STOP interfering, not looking for more areas to get involved. Haven’t they got enough on their plates already? This Douglas-Jay-like fallacy that ‘the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better’ is now more than fifty years old and has surely been proved wrong on innumerable occasions since then.I saw Kenneth Clarke on television yesterday, and the notion that any government of which he is a senior minister could sensibly lay down the law on obesity is grotesque.Lord Salisbury was right: “No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you never should trust experts.”

It seems the goverment’s nudges come with pointed elbows, delivered with the force of a steam hammer. It is the complete lack of scientific eveidence that sticks in the throat. The only medcial truism is that active smoking is bad for you. The junk science includes secondary smoking is a killer, the medical optimal consumption of alcohol is about 30-40 units a week and the longest living people are slightly tubby.The population are not fools and doctors and scientists may have major problems persuading us when something real comes along.

And it is the same in the pensions field. Young people are going to be nudged into pensions through auto-enrolment. They are being nudged into the wrong choice in many situations as they will have debts on which they are paying higher interests rates than the returns they will earn on their savings. Ironically, this whole debate was sparked off by the government making illegal (in 1988) freely negotiated contracts of employment which allowed employers to compel membership of schemes. In other words, the government makes illegal the private, freely agreed nudge and replaces it with a government nudge which will lead to the wrong people being left in these schemes.

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