17 October 2007

Intervention addicts must receive help

We can only deal with the compulsive behaviours of interventionist politicians and social theorists by first recognising their underlying motivation

Professor Gideon Anton
Tuesday October 16, 2007

Two important reports came out this weekend. One says the government’s preference for creating new laws and other forms of intervention will eventually cost the UK £45bn a year by 2050 if current trends are not reversed. Another shows the number of people admitted to hospital with depression caused by living in an authoritarian society has risen by 30% since 2002.

Banning sugary and fatty foods, railing against thin models, anti-alcohol legislation, prohibiting smoking in pubs, threatening compulsory medication, pursuing drug users: what do they have in common? In his report as chair of the Tories' Social Justice Policy Group, Iain Duncan Smith does not mention that they are the result of our "broken society". This omission isn't convincing, however. The addictions to intervention, prohibition and general meddling are wide-spread. Affluence or being highly educated is not a protection against them and may, in some cases, make people more vulnerable.

Addiction is compulsive behaviour. When the initially pleasurable experience of making up a new law or regulation becomes a fix, politicians have lost control of their behaviour. To regain the intensity of the initial high, they have to introduce more stringent legislation, or introduce legislation more frequently.

Why is the desire to legislate and prohibit so common in modern society? It seems to be linked to the increased scope for lifestyle choice. We are potentially freer now than 40 years ago to decide how to live our lives. Greater autonomy means the chance of more freedom of action, which many do not approve of. The other side of that freedom is the risk of interventophilia (colloquially referred to as bansturbation). The rise of interventophilia coincided with the great rise in global GDP commencing in the 1980s. Freedom became available without the need for approval from authority, even to those of relatively low economic status.

The fact that prohibition-addiction may have a political dimension might lead us to suppose that it should be separated from other compulsive behaviours. But that would be a false approach: all addictions have a common basis in compulsive repetition — habits that are hard to break because of their emotional content. The psychology of intervention-addiction is a relatively unexplored area but has become hugely consequential. How should the individual voter approach it?

To some extent this requires generalisation of existing attitudes. For instance, regulation and monitoring of interventophile politicians has to be stepped up — a process that is still in its early stages. Voters can try to persuade legislators to behave more conservatively. A great deal can be done to improve the quality of higher education, above all in the humanities, and to make it freer of statist ideology. What is taught at university has great influence on the orientation of graduate professionals who become active in framing legislation. Pressure on academics to produce only 'politically correct' (i.e. pro-intervention) material needs to be eliminated.

There are some principles to establish. One is to spend less money on government before legislation-addictions have a chance to be formed; the other is to orient public policy towards self-criticism. Intervention-addiction almost always goes with excessive confidence in the value of ‘public’ (i.e. government) policies. Whenever politicians’ or social theorists’ preferences are shaped by compulsive beliefs which they should learn to suppress, we are at the fulcrum of the relationship between domination and freedom. Individuals have been reluctant to question what politicians and other ‘experts’ get up to, but now they must.

• Gideon Anton is a Labour peer, and was formerly a serious sociologist.

h/t Tim Worstall