No such thing as society? Liberal paternalism, politics of expertise, and the Corona crisis

No such thing as society? Liberal paternalism, politics of expertise, and the Corona crisis

Jana Bacevic

In an interview in 1987, Margaret Thatcher famously responded: “There is no such thing as society…there are individual men and women, and there are families”. For years, this quote – itself possibly a paraphrase of Hayek – was seen as the embodiment of that particular mix of neoliberal and neoconservative ideology: a society composed entirely of individuals, organized into units corresponding to the heteropatriarchal family. Yet, ‘social distancing’ – the strategy the UK Government belatedly acknowledged as the best way of containing the spread of the Coronavirus – seems, at least in the short term, to have succeeded in creating something not too far off from this vision. Has the neoliberal dream finally come true?

Despite family resemblances with its neoliberal predecessor, the Government’s strategy is supposedly informed by a slightly different ideology – liberal paternalism, known as Nudge’, which gained notoriety after being enlisted by Blair, Cameron, and Obama administrations to advise on a range of public services. As a strategy of governance, ‘nudge’ draws on behavioural economics, a broadly heterodox approach that emphasizes limits to rational choice theories in understanding social dynamics. Three of its proponents – Daniel Kahneman, Robert Shiller, and Richard Thaler – were awarded Nobel Prizes, respectively in 2002, 2013 and 2017, but ‘Nudge’s’ most famous advocate is probably Cass Sunstein, an American legal scholar who led the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs between 2009 and 2012.

Not unlike neoliberalism, behavioural economics acknowledges two principal levels of social dynamics. One is the individual, on which people make decisions such as choosing what to buy, whom to date, where to travel, etc. Obviously, some of these decisions will have consequences for others – for instance, shopping for the entire family – but, at the end of the day, they are exercised by individuals. The other level is the aggregate – usually framed as the ‘Nation’, but, of course, can be scaled to any space of governance – from the city or municipality to a firm. Behavioural predictions concerning the aggregate (‘Nation’) are made on the basis of inference from behavioural observations in individual units; that is, the sum total of all individual choices. Yet, where liberal paternalism diverges from its neoliberal cousin as a strategy of governance is precisely on the question of choice.

Whereas neoliberalism privileges individual market choice to the degree it reduces all choices to market choices, liberal paternalism intentionally overrides people’s preferences to align them with the supposed interest of the collective. Both in the UK and the US, ‘nudge’ was famously enlisted to tackle the perceived obesity ‘epidemic’ (it is hard not to appreciate the irony of the choice of word), which was blamed on poor food choices – usually, and sometimes explicitly, of those from working-class backgrounds. The idea was that rearranging the environment in which people make choices (in the language of behavioural economists, ‘choice architecture’) – for instance, putting fresh fruit and vegetables closer to the entrance of the supermarket, and arranging them in ‘aesthetically pleasing’ ways – is going to ‘nudge’ people towards options that are, in the longer run, better for their health.

Importantly, ‘Nudge’ leaves many assumptions unperturbed. There is no mention of policies such as subsidies for local farmers and small-scale producers that would make healthy (and sustainably produced) food cheaper or more accessible; or, for that matter, employment, leave, benefits, or gender equality, allowing individuals and families to plan and prepare healthy meals. There is also no questioning of ‘markets’ or price-setting mechanisms. Responsibility is ultimately with the individual consumer: they can make the ‘right’ choice. Essentially, however, ‘right’ in this context relates not to what people feel or think is right, but what is ‘right’ for the Nation as a whole.

A similar logic can be traced in the management of the Coronavirus epidemic. ‘Nudge’ does not engage with the lack of hospital beds, or with the systematic underfunding of public health services. Neither does it stop to give any consideration to the potential moral obligations arising from the fact that, give and take all, most people would probably prefer fewer people to die. Rather, it accepts the projected – and, as we now know, under-projected – rate of casualties as inevitable, and decides to allow the virus to rip through the population, in order to build ‘herd immunity’. This involves ignoring insights and advice from scientists and medical teams in other countries, the WHO, and NHS staff themselves; it also involves denying access to vital information to the public. The assumption is that people are best off not knowing the true scale of the challenge; that they will panic; that they will suffer from ‘behavioural fatigue’ and thus interfere with the Government’s master plan.

The major difference between neoliberalism and liberal paternalism, therefore, is one of political epistemology. To behavioural economists, people are not rational – at least not in the classical liberal sense. On the contrary – they are prone to cognitive (information-processing) biases, as well as oriented towards short-term gain. This is why they have to be ‘nudged’ to make the right choices; and who better to guide them towards those choices, than the enlightened elite of…behavioural economists. Neoliberalism mistrusts (some) experts; liberal paternalism mistrusts ‘the people’. But whereas neoliberalism solves the problem of epistemic monopoly by outsourcing decision-making to ‘the market’, liberal paternalism channels it right back to its own epistemic community.

The problem with ‘nudge’ is thus not so much the science itself – all theoretical perspectives are necessarily limited by their own sets of ontological assumptions. It is the way in which its assumptions are being used to inform political decision-making. ‘Nudging’ relies on a dangerous mix of autonomy and ignorance: it assumes that people act autonomously but that they are best left in darkness about the political context that structures their action. In this view, humans are like cattle: they only see what is right in front of them, which is why they need to be steered. In other words, it is not only that humans are modelled as ignorant, irrational, and short-term-goal-oriented individuals: it is about informing policies that leave them no choice but to behave as such.

In some contexts, of course, human action does seem to conform to this pattern – the toilet paper rush is an example. Yet, humans also exhibit remarkable levels of solidarity, as reflected in Mutual Aid networks that have sprung up across the UK, immediate mobilization around providing pay and benefits to casual workers, or calls for pausing rent payments. This, in fact, is what society is: mutually overlapping, and sometimes conflicting or competing, networks of human (and, to some theorists, non-human) relations.

Even Mrs Thatcher recognized that. In her autobiography, she provided a clarification: “My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction…but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations”. Of course, this is still a strikingly conservative notion, not only for its heteronormativity but also for its infatuation with localism and curious obliteration of politics (unless ‘voluntary associations’ includes organizations as diverse as, for instance, unions, political parties, churches, and boxing clubs). But, as the current pandemic makes clear, these networks are remarkably resilient, not only because people rely on them in times of crisis, but because they are, fundamentally, what makes us human.


Jana Bacevic is a sociologist at the University of Cambridge. Her work is in the domain of social and political theory, and sociology and philosophy of knowledge. She teaches, among other things, on courses on advanced social theory and philosophy of economics-social ontology. She tweets at @jana_bacevic and blogs at   

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