27 July 2008

Humanitarian genocide

The basic point of the mediocracy concept can be summarised as follows:

degradation of culture, law and politics, while maintaining the pretence that it isn't happening, aided by the Orwellian transformation of meanings.

Thus intervention becomes the new liberty, non-art the new art, anti-philosophy is the new philosophy, and so forth. The degradation is ultimately driven, in my view, by an ethos hostile to the individual — notwithstanding the claims of people like Anthony Giddens that we live in a profoundly individualistic society.

Usually the redefining is done surreptitiously. Several decades pass and, hey presto, the meaning of ‘philosopher’ has become: ‘person who is employed by a university to produce verbiage approved by other philosophers, which need not be comprehensible, let alone interesting or useful’. No one actually issued an edict that the definition had changed; the transformation was achieved gradually, by stealth.

Occasionally, however, the redefining process is made explicit. Last year, for example, Professor Ronald Dworkin came out with a book which asserted that the term democracy “doesn't mean just majority rule”, but depends on “whether the level of a community's redistribution of its wealth through taxation is legitimate”.

More recently, we have the strange concept of libertarian paternalism, invented by behavioural economists Thaler and Sunstein, and currently all the rage with politicians from Barack Obama to David Cameron. As many bloggers have already pointed out, the term is patently an oxymoron. Paternalism cannot be libertarian, any more than people can be forced, or manipulated, to be free (though some on the Left actually argue that they can).

The state, in coercing an individual, can claim it is doing it:
1) to prevent him injuring another individual,
2) to pay for a good which everyone wants, but from which he cannot be excluded (e.g. defence, street lighting),
3) to force him to redistribute his assets to others (in practice this mostly means to the state, which then purports to provide services to others),
4) to prevent him injuring himself (e.g. banning drugs), or
5) to force him to do himself good (e.g. compulsory education).

Now the interest value of Thaler’s concept, if any, seems to depend on whether the state manipulating people to obtain a desired result should be regarded as less objectionable than coercing them, particularly with regard to headings (4) and (5).

Personally, I prefer spades to be called spades. If we are to be pushed in directions favoured by the elite, let us have it out in the open. The Health Secretary believes people should eat more vegetables, therefore she delivers a speech to this effect, and the government throws a couple of million at a programme of fruit'n'veg propaganda. Or the Home Secretary believes children need to be indoctrinated with ‘British values’ (only the approved kind, of course), therefore we have compulsory ‘citizenship’ lessons in schools.

We may not like it, but at least we can see what is going on. The idea that it is legitimate to manipulate the decisions that individuals make, without them realising, so that they think they are exercising choice, while those in power smile to themselves knowingly, is not one we should encourage.

It is reminiscent of the way putative patient autonomy is promoted these days. For one thing, it is often superficial and cosmetic, in the manner of phoney consultations. Rhetoric about medicine being more ‘patient-centred’ is fairly meaningless, if a patient has no real power in the relationship. But, worse than this, the concept of autonomy is sometimes used explicitly to justify deceiving and manipulating people.

Here, for example, is bioethicist Gary Weiss in a 1985 paper*, ‘Paternalism modernised’, advocating this sort of pseudo-autonomy:

If the client will do better believing he is in control, the physician should encourage this belief and indirectly facilitate the right choice of action.
So the idea of libertarian paternalism — if not the dodgy phrase — is really not that new.

‘Nudging’ people to do what is supposedly desirable may seem innocuous and trivial in the context of (say) being told on your electricity bill how you compare with other users. It is potentially harmful in other contexts. For example, it is supposed to justify having opt-out organ donation, rather than opt-in. But this only makes sense if you leave out a number of other factors which may be more important, e.g. the fact that a mistake in the database has asymmetric effects on an individual depending on whether it is opt-in or opt-out.

Thaler and Sunstein’s original paper, like the whole cognitive-biases-justify-intervention philosophy, is riddled with dubious assumptions, some of them glossed over, others simply ignored. And the basic empirical findings about behaviour, such as framing, are angled in a particular policy direction, when they could easily have been used to make quite different points. It's a perfect example of pseudo-rationality.

There are various theoretical problems with the idea that an individual can make ‘bad’ choices, since it depends on what the individual’s objectives are, and no one except he can know what they are (possibly not even he, at least not consciously). More importantly, there are serious practical objections: why should we think other people are any good at working out what is best for someone, and why should we think that they would be motivated to do the best if they were given power over him, rather than the opposite?

However, it is no surprise that the il-liberal elite are lapping it up. Who do you think are going to be the people who get to decide what the rest of us should be manipulated into doing?

* Journal of Medical Ethics, vol.11, pp154-157.