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.