The Future Cities project

against technical solutions to political problems

In a Right State

Martin Earnshaw | 20 October 2009

Is being fat a lifestyle choice or is it caused by circumstances beyond your control? Will the recession create a nation of alcoholics? 

Across a range of issues, it seems, the recession is taking a devastating toll on our well-being. One in ten have been drinking more heavily because of the recession the Telegraph reported in June while a Which? survey reported in March that the recession could undermine the fight against obesity as one in four made healthy eating less of a priority.

Most people may now have lost confidence that the government knows what it’s doing over the handling of the economy, but they can rest assured that the authorities have wasted no time in tackling the effects of the economic downturn on the nation’s well-being. On obesity, for example, the government is rolling out its ‘Change4Life’ campaign across the nation and is encouraging corner shops to stock more fruit and vegetables. A tax on fattening foods and fizzy drinks has been mooted.

There have long been those who have criticised attempts to make us eat less, exercise more, and stop smoking arguing that it is not the state’s role to tell us how to live. There are good reasons why the state shouldn’t be involved in the choices of individuals. Having the freedom to make one’s own choices isn’t simply about doing what one likes as is commonly supposed, but about being a full participant in society. Why, then, is this view in decline?

With the decline of traditional associations such as trade unions, churches, and community associations over the past thirty years, the state has filled the role that the community and other institutions have played. The relationship between the state and the individual is more direct, personalised and frequently therapeutic. For example, the Young Foundation think-tank has set itself the task of ‘mapping emerging and unmet needs in the UK’. Psychological needs, it argues are as important as material needs.

Furthermore while problems like obesity are often discussed as a lifestyle issue, it is a commonplace observation that to be fat in developing countries is a sign of relative poverty. In this sense, many argue personal behaviour can be treated as a social problem just like bad housing, or unemployment.

While it is true that obesity is linked to unemployment, low pay and bad housing, why do we need to talk about fat children before we tackle these problems? Sometimes, part of this is the tendency to scapegoat an underclass, but regardless of whether one would blame the so-called underclass or not, individualised intervention to change behaviour is inevitable if the state is the only actor capable of dealing with social problems.

Earlier this year, the government’s social mobility white paper ‘New Opportunities’ recommended mentoring for children in communities with poor educational outcomes which, although they were close knit, were judged to lack aspiration. In this case, the government wanted to by-pass the community itself to get a behavioural outcome that it wanted. It’s fair to ask though, that if the communities themselves had dealt with the issue would they have identified lack of aspiration as the cause of their problems? Perhaps, but such communities might still have a latent sense of pride that may lead them to identify different sources for their problems.

Similarly, the Young Foundation’s ‘Mapping Needs’ project treats society in a very individualised way. Psychological needs like loneliness, loss of trust, and feelings of depression are all things that can be identified, tracked, and dealt with by the welfare system, instead of families, friends or communities.

Even critics of this interventionist approach often do so entirely within the assumptions of behavioural politics. A recent book The Spirit Level, argued that what accounts for poor outcomes in mental health, crime, obesity and teenage pregnancy (among other things) is the level of overall equality in a given society. When countries reach a certain level of income, say the authors, becoming even richer does not make people happier or better off. Instead it tends to be countries that are more equal that have happier populations. The Spirit Level makes the case for a fairer distribution of income and argues for greater freedom for communities.

The Spirit Level, however, does not present such a radical break from behavioural politics, but rather exemplifies it. The authors argue that inequality leads to poor mental and physical health because we are hard-wired to be both highly conscious of our social status and have a highly evolved sense of fairness.

Being lower down on the social scale leads to status anxiety and resentment. This leads to poor health, depression, and ultimately destructive behaviours (of both self and others). The authors assume that if we, as communities, had greater autonomy we would choose to reject consumerism. The presumption is that peoples’ current preferences are wrong and science can tell us how to put them right. Like the current vogue for ‘nudging’, a form of psychologically influencing behaviour while keeping our capacity for choice intact, the authors speak the rhetoric of autonomy, but the desired outcomes are framed by policy.

So, the relationship between the state and the individual has changed from being mediated through peoples’ involvement in their communities or public involvement more generally, to a more direct and therapeutic one. But it would be wrong to say that ‘New Opportunities’, ‘Mapping Needs’, or The Spirit Level are necessarily hostile to community. They all talk about autonomy and supporting communities. The problem is that their approach assumes that only the state can provide this support, and this frames the choices that individuals and communities can make within narrow parameters.

In so far as it is possible to form an alternative to this approach, it may sound paradoxical to argue that reclaiming individual choice may be the best way to form communities that are autonomous from the state. The concept of free choice is degraded today to what one decides to wear, eat, or buy. It is therefore possible to argue that you can preserve peoples’ freedom through framing their choices through psychological manipulation.

However, as we noted earlier, free choice is about being a full participant in society, to make moral choices, form associations, and change society for the better. Reclaiming this sense of freedom may form communities and institutions that may form a counterbalance to the therapeutic state.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue Communities Special issue October 19 – 25 2009