Earlier today, a tweet by Ellie Sharman about a two year old Liberal Vision article almost prompted by to write about its wrongheadedness before I realised that I had already done so. That was that, I thought, until I read this article about how the beleaguered Health Minister had been forced to restore his cuts to the public health campaign budget after evidence emerged that the cuts had actually lead to an increase in flu deaths, as well as a decline in things like people joining programmes to give up smoking.
What does this have to do with airbrushing? Well, for me it highlights a pretty fundamental point: advertising works. Andrew Lansley has at least given us a bit of evidence we can now draw on in future to ensure that the mistake is not repeated.
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.
So it was that in his Liberal Vision article two years ago, Tom Papworth found himself implying that “airbrushing” doesn’t manipulate young women and that to assert that it did so was to suggest that it does is to brand them as “stupid”. The idea that people can be manipulated on a psychological level and not be cretinous does not sit well with libertarians. Yet the simple fact is that if psychology did not have a large part to play in advertising, it would not have evolved in the dramatic way that it did over the course of the 20th century, and people would not now be lamenting the delay of Season 5 of Mad Men.
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?
Psychology and neuroscience represent massive challenges for liberalism which it can’t afford to ignore. It isn’t that the principles at the heart of liberalism are flawed, just that their real world application are inadequate. This is what the new liberals realised at the start of the 20th century and it is something we must be continually alive to. Yet there remains a strand which defiantly refuses to acknowledge this and wraps itself in the easy slogans and notions about rationality of the Victorian Age.
As a result of the government spending millions of pounds encouraging people to live healthier lifestyles, people’s lives – and thus liberty – are improved in a tangible, measurable way. It is right that governments continue to do so, notwithstanding the fact that there is a real debate to be had over how far it should go. It is equally right that politicians such as Jo Swinson raise issues about advertising and body image with initiatives such as the Campaign for Body Confidence; again notwithstanding the fact that some of the conclusions they draw are liable to be problematic. To suggest that there is some simple, magic liberal litmus test which we can apply to difficult areas such as this is the ultimate act of illiberalism.