Tuesday 23 November 2010

Nudge and the Moral Maze

Tomorrow evening I'll be appearing on BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze programme which will be discussing 'libertarian paternalism' and the so-called 'Nudge agenda'. Details are here:

How far should we go to stop people doing something that's bad for them?

We know cigarettes are very likely to cause you serious illness and could even kill you. The tricky thing is many people find them extremely enjoyable and they're perfectly legal. The government, frustrated that some people still persist in choosing to exercise their right to pursue a perfectly legal activity, despite decades of health education, bans on advertising and smoking in public places, are looking at forcing tobacco manufacturers to sell cigarettes in plain packaging.

The problem is that all those people exercising their freedom to smoke are then clogging up the NHS demanding that the rest of us pay for the treatment of their self inflicted illnesses. It's a question not just for smokers. How do you feel about a fat tax, or a minimum price for alcohol?

Tax is a bit of a blunt instrument and unpopular with voters, so it's not surprising that politicians have latched on to "nudge economics". Behind the doors of Number 10 there's a unit called The Behavioural Insight Team that talks about finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves.

Is this an example of paternalist libertarianism - preserving people's freedoms while at the same time minimising their impact on the wider society? Or a worrying Orwellian development where politicians have given up trying to win the political argument and have instead just resorted to employing teams of psychologists and marketing executives to manipulate our behaviour?

If we're too stupid for our own good, why should we worry if politics becomes the equivalent of potty training? How far should we go to stop people doing something that's bad for them?

Expect plain packaging, smoking bans, temperance crusaders and other frequent offenders from this blog to get a mention.

I discussed libertarian paternalism in Chapter 14 of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist and also in the review of Nudge I wrote back in August. From the latter:

If politicians stuck to both the spirit and the letter of Thaler and Sunstein's philosophy, the nudge agenda would be largely benign and almost certainly beneficial. Far from supporting the kind of policies being pursued by the UK Faculty of Health, any British government that was genuinely committed to the Nudge agenda would have no choice but to repeal whole swaths of legislation that already cross the line between libertarianism and paternalism.


JJ said...

Nudge, Nudge say no more

It will be interesting to hear how much nudging you can do on our behalf.

We'll be listening.

SimonF said...

I do wish they would get round to putting MM on podcasts, I can't always listen in the evening and it is a good program.

Good luck.

George Speller said...

I'll be listening.

The witch from Essex said...

So we 'clog' up the NHS now do we ?
I would have thought that that 10 billion plus that we put in entitles us to treatment on the NHS .
Perhaps if smokers could be 'opted out' of the NHS as antis often suggest then that 10 billion per annum could buy the country's smokers some seriously good private healthcare !!

Mr A said...

£10 billion? Don't let them get away with downgrading the real number. Remember, that is tobacco duty only. Don't forget that, like everyone else,smokers pay VAT, income tax, NI and the rest.

So as well as the tobacco duty, as a higher rate tax payer who does 30,000 miles a year, drinks more than I should, has no kids, not been ill in 20 years etc, I have paid for any future medical care dozens of times over already.

Don't let them downplay how much smokers pay in total towards the NHS by only looking at the tobacco duty figure (which in itself pays for smoker care four times over (and even that is using their (biased) opinion of what a "smoking-related" condition is).

Of course if they really believe their bullshit argument about the financial costs of smoking there is only one solution - smokers to pay for their own health care. I'd be happy to do that..... if I had a commensurate reduction in my income tax and got my fags for 70p a packet since I'd no longer be using the NHS. No? System collapse without the smokers subsidising it? Then they should just shut the f*** up, then.

Trooper Thompson said...

I hope you are going to stick the boot in to the concept of 'libertarian paternalism' as an complete and utter oxymoron?

Unknown said...

I'll be tapeing it tonight.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that all those people exercising their freedom to smoke are then clogging up the NHS demanding that the rest of us pay for the treatment of their self inflicted illnesses.

Nice of the 'impartial' BBC to lay their cards on the table right from the start.

Anonymous said...

It's a myth that smokers are a drain on the NHS, even without the tax. I'll try and send some references later.

Anonymous said...

In addition, don't forget the corporation tax levied on the profits of the tobacco companies and any outlet which sells tobacco products (pro rata), plus all the jobs that tobacco creates and the subsequent income tax and NI contributions connected, in turn, to them. The real income from tobacco dwarfs the £10 billion usually touted by pundits. Sadly there are those on our side that insist on quoting the £10 billion figure too (Forest for example) and this does us no favours at all!

Anonymous said...

Here is a Mail article on a Dutch study available in PLOS.


Look at the references at the end of this study. None of the others I've read conclude that smokers cost more. It is not surprising with the sharp increase in dementia and other old age illnesses when people get beyond 80. The claims that smoking costs the NHS only add up the cost of treating illnesses attributed to smoking. They do not subtract the savings from not treating the alternative conditions. You should really stress this.

Note that this takes no account of tobacco tax. Good luck for tonight.

Carl V Phillips said...

Whatever your government might be trying to pervert the concept into, I would urge you to be fair to what Sunstein and Thaler actually proposed. I understand that someone may well be trying to claim that, say, making you smoke outside the pub is a nudge. But the actual conceptualization would favor something like requiring that smokeless tobacco be more prominently displayed than cigarettes so that a smoker might try it. The concept has to do with breaking the inertia someone might have that drives them toward a bad choice, but without substantially interfering with that choice if it really is thoughtful and preferred.

I find it difficult to imagine how something that could be legitimately called a nudge could be used to push for smoking cessation (except by product switching). It is far too big a choice and based on far stronger desires than are appropriate for the concept. Whatever manipulation these government psychologists are proposing, it is not nudging, and by suggesting it is, it is indeed Orwellian in two senses: They are both trying to secretly control people's desires and they are redefining language to support their ends.

Anonymous said...

Go for it, Chris!

As Carl says, smokers are experiencing bullying and not 'nudging', in the knowledge that the evidence on which the bullying is based is weak (public ban) or non-existent (display bans)


Anonymous said...

Carl is absolutely right - how different it might be if snus was legally available in the UK (and the rest of the EU). It's one thing for a government to try and nudge one into less harmful behaviour -it's another to deny smokers access to the vehicle that might help them to do it. It's like trying to nudge those who overconsume alcohol towards modifying their behaviour, but at the same time banning low-alcohol beer and wine! I don't know what UK politicians are smoking, but it sure as hell isn't cigarettes!

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon above. Legalising snus will improve everybody's quality of life. You could point out tonight that there is no enthusiasm for this in most of the anti tobacco industry - it depends on the drug conmpanies who want a monopoly in nicotine delivery. Point out that ASH UK and the UK Government are therefore resposible for thousands of lung cancer deaths.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Great stuff, Chris. Your inquisitor didn't like letting you finish. Classic evasive behaviour.

Portillo seems to be a fan. :)

Anonymous said...

Well done, Chris, you had a hard task, especially against Clifford Longley who came out with all the usual sticky soundbites and MatthewTaylor who kept rabbiting on about "adicts".

I was impressed by Michael Portillo, however, who at least showed a far better grasp of many key issues.

John Gray

Unknown said...

Have recorded it Chris but not listened yet, am doing now. Will edit to take out the news etc at the beginning and want to publish it on the F2C blog. Email me at office@freedom2choose.info if you want a copy before I use the F2C badge for your blog just ask. I won't be doing anything before tomorrow evening.


Smoking Hot said...

Excellent Chris, truly impressive despite the efforts to talk over you.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Chris, for trying to show how 'nudging' can be part of a long-term sinister agenda.

The panellists seemed to think that, if polls show that 'people' want to change their behaviour, that should trigger an engineering policy without thought to the impact on those who don't want to change that behaviour.


Unknown said...

Just listened to your segment on the Moral Maze Chris and I got madder and madder! You were put under intollerable pressure but aquitted yourself with aplomb. The other "testifiers" or whatever they were called, like James Delingpole, were not "got at" like you were. I guess that was because you said you were a smoker...they sniped at you.

Will need to listen to this over again a few times but I found the whole subject fascinating.

Once again, well done.


Mr A said...

Delingpole was on as well? Damn. Looks like I'll have to catch up on the F2C blog. Feedback here and at Taking Liberties seems to be that you did brilliantly even with many interruptions. I look forward to hearing it.

Fredrik Eich said...

Good one Chris!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant job Chris! Let's hope you get invited onto more such programmes and are allowed to expand/expound your case further.
Portillo seemed to 'get it' which surprised me. On the 'Daily Politics' in 2004, when the Irish ban came in, he welcomed it and said something along the lines of 'spitting used to be acceptable as well'.

Trooper Thompson said...

Just listened to it. Great stuff.

Brian Bond said...

Good work, Chris.

You used your limited amount of time very well and got over your points with eloquence and passion.

I did sense at one point that you felt like ramming your fist into Matthew Taylor's gob, but this is totally understandable. The man is a complete arrogant arsehole who seems to feel that he is born to be 'better' than the rest of us. Delingpole put him in his place with the "you and people like you vs a lumpen proletariate" line - and Portillo rowed in nicely behind that characterisation too.

All in all a good listen, marred only by the hysterics of Matthew Taylor and that silly air-head from the Roy Castle organisation, who showed her own true socialist colours by wibbling mindlessly about nasty Tobacco companies.

Now if only we could have such a programme on TV and with a lot longer to discuss the whole tobacco/smoking topic (as opposed to 'nudge' in general) and to properly debate every one of the supposedly 'undisputed' negative 'facts' about tobacco and smoking, then we may start to roll back the tide of lunacy that has washed over us over the past 20 years.

The boy done well, though!

Now its time for the Ashes (the useful, cricketing kind - not the anti-smoking pygmies!)

Junican said...

I have just listened to the programme via BBCi player. I have posted this also on Taking Liberties.

What a strange programme that was!

In the first couple of minutes, Prof whoever NUDGE as ‘helping people to achieve their personal goals’. Thus, if a person wishes to give up smoking, then ‘nudging’ is the process of helping them to give up. As regards organ donation, the ‘nudge’ is to provide opportunities for them to ‘opt in’.

After the first couple of minutes, the definition of ‘nudge’ changed. It became ‘force’. And then the discussion began to revolve around how much force was justified, and not about whether force was justified or not (although, occasionally, that idea almost intruded.

I feel for Chris Snowdon. He seems to have been briefed that the discussion was about Prof whoever’s book. He liked the book. But, in the event, the panellists changed the emphasis and turned the discussion into one about the right of the Government to interfere. The general idea was that, if the Government have the right, for example, to insist on ‘clean’ water, then it has a right to insist on ‘smokefree pubs’. But, ‘omne comparitudo claudicat’ (translated from the Latin, that phrase means ‘every comparison limps’). ‘Clean water’ and ‘Smokefree Pubs’ are not the same thing at all.

Throughout the discussion, I found myself constantly exclaiming, “Rubbish!”, “No!”, “Crap!”. Essentially, this was because of the AUTOMATIC ASSUMPTION that the enjoyment of tobacco is akin to heroin addiction, and that SHS is only slightly less damaging. ADDICTION!, the panellists repeated, again and again.

The other thing that struck me was the lack of definition of ‘children’. Again and again, the first woman who spoke (Roy Castle person?) said ‘children and.....erm..... young people’. Again, we see the lack of definition. No intelligent person would accept such a fudge.

The good thing is that the panellists did differentiate between ‘educate and persuade’ and ‘force’ overall. The impression that gained (vaguely) at the end of the programme was that ‘force’ is not a good thing.

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