INACTIVE PEOPLE, ACTIVE STATE – should the government change people’s behaviour?

Last week, the Lancet published a report into the levels of ‘inactivity’ around the world. It provides insights into the levels of inactivity, as well as claiming that inactivity is now one of the main causes of death in the world today. The report has been circulated in the vast majority of major newspapers across the world. However, much of the comment on the report discusses how governments can increase levels of activity; very few actually challenge the idea that individual behaviour – in this case leading the ‘couch potato’ lifestyle – needs to be changed at all, and that it should be the role of the state to lead this behavioural change.

The academics that produced the series of reports on ‘inactivity’ begin one of the papers with the opening statement “promotion of physical activity is a priority for health agencies”, claiming that one of the main aims of the study was to “identify effective, promising, or emerging interventions from around the world”. This is perhaps the best indicator of the thinking behind the report – and of the centrality of individual behavioural change to contemporary political thought. This report stands as one amongst many of example of how modern politics has become increasingly obsessed with the concept of individual behaviour as a determiner of societal problems. Nick Clegg, for example, sees unemployment as a problem of individual behavioural traits when he assigns companies the task of waking unemployed young people. Here, individuals are not lazy and unmotivated because they are unemployed; rather, they are unemployed because they are lazy and unmotivated. Economic conditions are no longer seen as the primary cause of unemployment, it is the unemployed themselves that are to blame for their condition.

Why the obsession with behavioural change? It is perfectly plausible to argue that the whole point of ‘governing’ is to change behaviour – this is exactly what laws are supposed to do. In many ways, laws are greater mechanisms for behavioural change than the informal ‘nudging’ discussed above, because incarceration or prosecution are the prices for non-conformism. The crucial factor about law-making, however, is that people really don’t like being subject to more laws; evident in the reaction to New Labour’s creation of 1000s of new criminal offences. The problem for the Coalition is that they are perceived as anti-state intervention, yet have their own concept of ‘The Good Life’ which they wish to promote. Instead, they deploy the art of ‘nudging’ (made famous by Thaler & Sunstein’s book), which provides an alternative to traditional legal restrictions.

Whilst most evidence suggests that ‘nudging’ is pretty ineffective at changing people’s behaviour, this is besides the point. There is a moral question here, and that is the extent to which we are happy for the government to attempt to manipulate our behaviour on the basis that it knows best. Whilst the political elite may hold one particular conception of ‘The Good Life’, there is no objective evidence that a non-smoking, non-drinking active lifestyle is the happiest to pursue. Whilst there are certainly compelling arguments to support the idea that these behaviours are good, there is certainly a significant proportion of the population for which this is not self-evident. If we hold the conviction that individuals are the best determiners of their own interests, then ‘nudging’ individuals into certain behaviours seems morally opposable.

Furthermore, the idea that ‘inactivity’- amongst other ‘undesirable’ behaviours – is a social problem resulting from poor behavioural choices, ignores the possibility that it is the nudging mentality itself that causes certain societal problems. A mentality of state intervention into people’s informal lives – stretching back to the Thatcher era – erodes people’s sense of responsibility to themselves and to others. Because so much of people’s informal lives have come under scrutiny of the state, is it not plausible that this intervention actually disrupts the process through which people work out which forms of behaviour are most appropriate for their circumstances? Rather than understanding social problems as the consequence of individual behaviour, perhaps the government needs to focus on creating environments in which individuals can realise their own interests, and not those prescribed by the state.