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Government brainwashing works – and it’s for your own good

May 29th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized by

It’s generally not good form to copy somebody else’s title verbatim. But some statements are such perfect self-parodies that it’s too hard to resist.

James Graham has today posted an attack on an article I wrote two years ago on the then-germane topic of Lib Dem policy attacking the enhancement of photographs, particularly in reference to “airbrushing” photographs of models.

It is of course flattering to see that my back catalogue is still essential reading among the Liberal Socialists. Unless, of course, it’s a slow news day!

Unfortunately, James’s falls into his usual trap of critiquing a straw man. He argues early on that

advertising works… [and]… It is the fact that advertising works that sums up why I am not a libertarian or classical liberal. Brains can be manipulated and even fooled; we aren’t rational beings. The libertarian assertion that if you just took state action out of the equation, people would act rationally simply isn’t backed up by any credible evidence. And of course they end up tying themselves up in knots attempting to prove it.

Actually, to my knowledge no classical liberal or libertarian argues that “if you just took state action out of the equation, people would act rationally”. Firstly, in as much as human action is rational, it remains rational even in the face of state action. One can see this very clearly in the economic sphere: government attempts to stimulate the economy through deficit spending fail because the population saves more to prepare for future tax rises; government attempts to raise more revenue by raising marginal taxes fail as individuals trade income for leisure.

Secondly, many classical liberals would argue that human action is driven by unique knowledge and subjective values. The idea that there is a single, “rational” response to any question (“Shall I smoke? Shall I exercise?”) is nonsense, but more importantly, it is nonsense that serves the interests of those who would be seen as our guardians, protecting us from ourselves.

What is more, there is a contradiction in James’s argument. In James’s view, the actions of consumers are distinctly irrational: an airbrushed body makes them feel insecure about their real body; a cowboy smoking makes them think that it’s manly to smoke. By comparison, the actions of the  advertisers are utterly rational: advertisers are happy to manipulate consumers and damage bystanders for their own selfish benefit. But (and here’s the kicker!) the actions of government are completely benign and altruistic: they want only to save us from harm, and are not in any way promoting their own selfish interests, say by reinforcing the image of government and benign and altruistic, or by seeking to appear sympathetic to a large group of current and soon-to-be voters who suffer from low self esteem.

Sadly, it is that latter attitude that represents the blind-spot in the paternalist’s mindset. Conservatives and socialists, no matter how liberal they consider themselves, seem reluctant to accept both the lessons of Public Choice Theory, that politicians pursue their own self interest rather than the public good, and the clear evidence that Government Failure is at least as harmful as market failure.

Thus for James it is perfectly reasonable to posit the question:

When the government produces an advert designed to encourage you to give up smoking, it is explicitly attempting to manipulate you. That doesn’t sit terribly well with classical liberals, yet why is it such a dreadful thing for a democratically elected and ultimately accountable government to be doing it but not a commercial company which is only accountable to its shareholders?

Frankly, (and I would have thought that this was one litmus test that all liberals would share) the onus should be on advocates of manipulation to justify their actions; the burden of proof should not lie with the defender of liberty. Indeed, it’s not just a question of the burden of proof. As John Meadowcroft notes:

individual liberty can be saved from the crushing weight of a multitude of well-intentioned government interventions only if there is a general presumption in favour of laissez-faire – that is, an assumption that government will not intervene, even if a good case for intervention can be made, other than as an absolute last resort. If such an approach is not adopted, freedom may be gradually eroded in the name of many seemingly worthwhile interventions until it has completely disappeared.

But even accepting James’s challenge, there is a significant difference between a government seeking to manipulate the public and a private firm or individual seeking to do so. The former does so with public money and coercive force: it taxes the smoker to demonise the smoker; it threatens those who breach its diktats with fines or prison. You can’t say that about Omnicom.

James’s statement that “It isn’t that the principles at the heart of liberalism are flawed, just that their real world application are inadequate” has been at the heart of the anti-liberal critique for well over a century. It is, I think, the closest I have ever heard him come to criticising liberalism as a whole. Liberalism is a broad church, but I doubt it stretches as far as allowing a third party – no matter how democratically elected – to manipulate people on the grounds that the third party believes it knows better than the individual does herself.

In 1937 Douglas Jay, who would later go on to become a Labour Minister, wrote The Socialist Case, in which he argued that ‘in the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves.’ I had hoped that we’d put that socialist nonsense to bed decades ago.

3 Responses to “Government brainwashing works – and it’s for your own good”

  1. Laurence Boyce Says:

    I was dismayed to learn that Lansley has reinstated the NHS advertising budget. I see these adverts on the buses all the time. They are banal beyond belief. A slogan says “Get Well,” and underneath a contact phone number. Basically it’s telling me to go to the doctor if I am not well. I swear I have been on buses where there are two of these ads, plus another two telling me to go to the dentist if I’ve got toothache, plus another two telling me to stop smoking, when I haven’t even started yet.

  2. Psi Says:

    So let’s test his idea out:

    People are irrational.

    Therefore for their best interests someone has to take charge of “manipulating” them into being rational. So governments, they are made up of, well, errr… people.

    Well that’s ok because they are accountable, that may help channel them in to more rational behaviour. They are of course accountable to, oh, hang on, to… errr… People.

  3. Tom Papworth Says:


    I utterly agree. I suggest that part of the problem is The Central Office of Information (COI), the UK government’s marketing and communications agency. Having been set up as a Trading Fund that derives all its revenue from selling marketing solutions to departments, it sole purpose and funciton is to convince government departments to spend money on advertising. No advertising; 450 fewer jobs.

    That being said, one should never discount the power of self-interest: politicians and civil servants have a huge incentive to convince us that they care about our welfare and that we should therefore be grateful for them. And for the things they direct us towards: the adverts you cite might as well say “Ain’t the NHS great!”


    Exactly. It seems that, to the paternalist, some people are more irrational than others!