Nudgers vs. Nannies

There is a new divide amongst Britain's political classes, an explosive war of words over the future of the nation – nudgers versus nannies. Between those who believe the fat, feckless masses should be nudged towards better, healthier behaviour and those who believe the fat and feckless should be nannied towards better, healthier behaviour, says Brendan O'Neill.

  • Prime Minister David Cameron leads the nudgers, with ideas for how to nudge the "illogical" masses towards the kind of lifestyle approved by Cameron's government: non-smoking, alcohol-free, slim, safe and no fun.

  • Public health officials and their cheerleaders in the media lead the nannies – they believe Cameron's obsession with nudging, with using subtle signals rather than legislation to try to wean people off junk food, cigarettes, and so on, leads only to neglect.

    Cameron's nudgers are leading the field in this uncivil war over how to remould people's minds and bodies. Having taken Downing Street in this year's general election, the nudgers promise to override the previous 13 years of New Labour nannying, which include smoking bans, legal restrictions on junk food advertising, anti-booze measures, and relentless and patronising public health advice, says O'Neill.

  • So, for example, instead of using taxes to make driving of cars more expensive, as New Labour did, the nudgers will focus on rebuilding public spaces in such a way that choosing to walk or ride a bicycle becomes easier.

  • In short, they will physically reengineer public space with an eye for socially engineering those who inhabit it.

  • This is not only profoundly illiberal, it is profoundly undemocratic, as the nudgers explicitly circumvent the realm of information and law in their relentless campaign to reshape our apparently problematic consciousnesses.

    What is alarming about this debate is the taken-for-granted idea that it is the role of the state to tell people what to do in their private lives, says O'Neill.

    Source: Brendan O'Neill, Nudgers vs. Nannies, Reason Magazine, January 4, 2011.

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    First published by the National Center for Policy Analysis, United States

    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 18 January 2011
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