Alex Massie

Tory Authoritarianism: The Nudgers Approach

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Oh dear. George Osborne and his guru, Richard Thaler, have been at Davos. This means, sure as eggs is eggs, that there's a piece celebrating behavioural economics on the way. And, yup, it duly arrives in the Guardian today. I've mentioned the Nudgers before and few people doubt that there are some useful ideas that it can bring to bear on policy. Then again Thaler and Cass Sunstein call their ideas "libertarian paternalism" which, while confusing is at least vastly less confused than Tory policy seems to be.

Apart from anything else, David Cameron frequently rails against libertarianism (or, to be more precise, his idea of a libertarianism built of straw) which would seem to leave us with merely the paternalism part of the bargain.

And, indeed, that does seem to be the case. Consider the example of "good practice" Georgie Osborne chooses to highlight:

[B]ecause the behavioural sciences show that people often make bad decisions when they're excited by the prospect of immediate gratification, a Conservative government will impose a seven-day cooling off period for store credit cards, so shoppers can't immediately rack up debts on them when they sign up at the till. That's a far less intrusive way to tackle problem debt than banning store cards, for example, or introducing a new tax.

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And how does this jibe with the Tories' supposed commitment to localism and "empowering" individuals in their ballyhooed "post-bureaucratic age"? If I have this right, the Conservatives think (English) people should be trusted to choose where their children are educated while simultaneously not being trusted to open an account at John Lewis without immediately heading for Queer Street?

Even if you think their small-bore store-card policy might help some people, it clearly inconveniences many others and, more importantly, completely contradicts the Tories' supposed commitment to local and individual autonomy.

And why, in any case, stop at store cards? There are plenty of people who, excited by the prospect of immediate gratification, decide to purchase a bottle of whisky only to regret some of the consequences of that decision the next morning. Perhaps there should be a "cooling off period" before you can buy a drink too? If anything this might seem a more widespread, not to say serious, problem afflicting rather more people than the number terrorised by vicious store cards.

For that matter, what about a "cooling off" period between deciding who you want to vote for and actually being able to cast that ballot? Might help people avoid making bad decisions they'll later regret...

Note too, the fact that this is proposed as an alternative to banning store cards. From this one may presume that the Tories have considered the idea of banning store cards. You can't reject an idea you don't have.

A trivial example, you may say and perhaps you'd be right. But that's why it matters. Politicians often make great claims for the "broken windows" approach to crime prevention; voters should adopt a similar attitue to politicians' promises. Let them away with the small things and who knows where you'll end up. Nowhere good, that's for sure. And that's why this sort of caper is actually a Non-Trivial, Trivial Indicator.

Kinder, gentler, subtler authoritarianism is still authoritarianism and makes a mockery of Tory rhetoric. That rhetoric is quite appealling but when you actually look at what the Tories actually want to do then, more often than not, their plans bear little or no relation to the meaning of their words. So why should their words be taken seriously?

Then again, this should not be a surprise. As James points out in his excellent column this week, Cameron and Osborne run an unprecedentedly centralised operation inside the Tory party. There's little reason to suppose that their approach to government will be any different. Your freedom is severely constrained by their idea of that freedom. But that's ok because Muesli Authoritarianism is good for you!

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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