This is what the new Norwegian Health Minister Sylvi Listhaug said that led to calls for her immediate resignation for “setting public welfare back decades.”
“People should be allowed to smoke, drink and eat as much red meat as much as they want,” Listhaug said on national radio.
“I do not plan to be the moral police, and will not tell people how to live their lives, but I intend to help people get information that forms the basis for making choices.”
Note, Listhaug, who has enough enemies as it is for her anti-immigrant views, did not say “Drink more akvavit, it’s great!”nor that smoking or obesity do not cause cancer, nor did she promise that she was going to do nothing to help public health – on the contrary, she announced a new anti-smoking strategy. She merely reaffirmed adults’ rights to consume substances that are perfectly legal, adding that “people know pretty much what is healthy and what is not healthy” and expressed a trust in most citizens to act responsibly towards their own health.
Yet her words are anathema to how public policy is conducted.
“Nudging” has existed as a term since 2008, but some of the underlying theories date back to the mid-20th century, and are aimed at manipulating you into being a better citizen. There are thousands of different ways to nudge – from placing that HPV poster in a prominent spot, to reframing a lung cancer statistic to sound scarier (three times the risk!) to asking an NHS doctor to bring up an unrelated subject during your next routine appointment, to lowering the “acceptable” amount of units of alcohol to be consumed on the basis of little scientific evidence, to making cigarette packaging unattractive and ostracizing smokers in little enclosures that make them feel like social lepers, something Listhaug mentioned specifically.
Nudge explained by Richard H. Thaler, the man who made it mainstream:
The democratic social contract with the state has never been as simple as “you pay your taxes and follow the laws, and we will provide you with public services” – the government always wants more control over how its citizens behave. The state needs more or fewer children, fewer litterers, more science graduates.
Most establishment politicians see no downside to these advanced methods of achieving these aims: it’s less illiberal than banning them, it’s cheap, and rather than telling people what to do, you make them believe they are making their own free choices. One suspects that for many leaders the perfect population is one that could be completely controlled in this manner.
There are notable successes already: the cuts in smoking rates across the Western world, or that the current generation of teens is drinking less than their parents. If you want an ongoing example, the intensive nudging towards upping flagging vaccination rates is almost bound to work.
The problem now is that the nudging is growing exponentially, it’s becoming better-calibrated, and it is leveraging all social communication tools. It’s grown too powerful for its own good.
It would be one thing if people were only nudged by the ministry of health to get life-saving treatment – few would object to such narrowly-defined, uncontroversial use, particularly if it was all evidence-based.
Instead people are constantly nudged by advertisers (don’t buy that, buy this – look there is a discount, also camo is in fashion) by the media (here is our new feature on a transgender couple bringing up their baby; we are SO HYPED for the new Marvel movies) by the school and the workplace (that sex ed class, that open plan office where you type fast because others are watching).
Operating together – particularly with the rise of information technology, and yes that includes your watch telling you it’s time to go for a run – the mechanisms blend into a metaphorical broadcast tower beaming tailored messages at you all the time. It tells you how to behave, what you can and can’t say, what you should believe, how you perceive the world around you.
Studies have shown that people are both aware of the social manipulation, and mostly in favour of it – though probably more for others who they believe to be more susceptible than their own independent-minded selves. But perhaps the best mind control is one that is willingly accepted by the populace.
After all, in the Soviet Union there were many who loved (or at least never questioned) the posters on every surface telling you to save electricity, films telling you to work extra shifts for the sake of your country, the political education classes in school, university and at work, where those with deviant hairstyles or proclivities for jazz music would be “nudged” through a public dressing down, guilt tripping and vague ultimatums.
But for those of us to whom this “paternalistic liberalism” looks all too similar to “paternalistic totalitarianism” with the same constant intrusion into the lives of private citizens and suffocation of public space, Listhaug’s desire to step back out of our lives is refreshing – and brave.
We will try to repay her faith in us by not destroying our own bodies.
By Igor Ogorodnev
Igor Ogorodnev is a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.