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

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.


  1. Agree with you 100%. The advertising industry itself does not believe that people think rationally about what is in their best interests, because most adverts do not provide objective reasons why you should spend money on their product.
    If government advertising for health education used the same gimmicks that the private sector does it would be considered a scandal.
    So the old libertarian guilt-trip; “You must believe people are stupid”. Well actually you should lay that charge at the advertising industry. They clearly believe that they can influence people’s spending habits by appealing to people’s stupidity.

  2. James, I suspect it is the second half of your headline “it’s for your own good” that attracts more libertarian criticisms than the first. It is surely just as irrational to assume benevolence on the part of governments as corporate interests.

    No libertarian I know asserts as you put it that “if you just took state action out of the equation, people would act rationally”. That’s a characterisation of a utopian anarchist worldview.

    I hope you would agree equally that state propaganda can encourage mass participation in irrationalism, whether that’s promoting a Royal Wedding or fear of terrorism.

    Libertarians also reasonably object to being taxed in order to pay for state manipulation, should for example ASH or trade unions be paid by taxpayers through the government to lobby the government? Should the BBC be able to promote the licence fee on their own channels whilst opponents are banned from political advertising? Should the government be able to use civil service budgets for marketing their manifesto commitments whilst the opposition cannot?

    You also create a straw man parody of Tom’s quite thoughtful critique. I a straw man I could reverse with an headline “James Graham thinks women are stupid and must be brainwashed”, which would be equally uncharitable.

    The best summary of Tom’s position I think is this “Even if women are objectified and children are overly conscious of their bodies, there is no proven causal link between these phenomena and the practice of airbrushing. Jo is therefore committing one of the politicians cardinal sins: thrashing out with the one tool at her disposal – legislative coercion – based on a hunch.”

    The rejection of the campaign in this case is it certainly framed in the context of libertarian suspicion of bans and regulation, but the arguments are specific to the weakness of Jo’s case and whether an airbrush ban would be an appropriate response. On both I have doubts.

  3. This is also somewhat a characterisation of what I would interpret as the classical liberal, Mill etc. position, which would be that, “There are techniques that exist that allow people to be manipulated? The public must be educated to recognise them!”

    I’d also point out that there is a distinction between corporate advertising and state advertising. Corporate adverts compete against each other for your attention, and it is still within the power of the individual to determine which one to look at and make a purchasing decision on the back thereof. State advertising has no such competition. I think you’re as much in danger of overstating the case of human irrationality as libertarians are of overstating the rational.

  4. Andy: Your first paragraph might be right – but when I made a similar point to James’s post as an Adam Smith Institute debate a year or so ago, James Deringpole both said he was terrified by my views and then spent a good part of his next Spectator piece saying how awful I am.

    The impression I was left with was someone who really wasn’t that interested in talking about anything other than ‘you must be a cretin’ point James was rightly criticising.

  5. Glad to see you’re still reading my back-catalogue, James.

    At nearly 1,000 words, I thought that my rebuttal ought to appear as an article in its own right.

    Mark: I think both you and Andy are correct. Whether government brainwashing works is irrelevant in a debate about freedom. I would be interested to know what Deringpole’s problem was with that.

  6. Wow, I’ve inspired not one but two responses from Liberal Vision. I must be going something right. 🙂

    @Adam Bell
    Your distinction between corporate and state advertising is flawed. Of course two washing powders compete for our attention and ultimately the individual is left with a choice, but they both agree on the point that we need washing powder.

    It isn’t as if there is a cosmetics industry out there peddling idealised images of beauty and an anti-cosmetics industry out there extolling us to get ugly.

  7. While I am willing to accept, albeit hesitantly, that “airbrushed” advertisements contribute to girls having poor body image etc etc, my objection to this campaign is: where does it end? Surely exactly the same can be said of good lighting, the use of make-up, wearing dark clothes with vertical lines, all of which make people look better (and thus by Jo Swinson’s logic inspire observers to want to look better themselves) than sitting in nothing but white Y-fronts under strip lighting.

    There are limits to what the government can reasonably change, and there are thus commensurate limits in what the government can reasonably try to change – behaving as a Happiness Machine, a kind of statist Jim’ll Fix It, seems a grotesque abuse of government power.

  8. @Bolivia Newton-John

    That argument has no merit whatsoever. You’re saying that regardless of the merits of X, because Y is absurd you oppose it!

    Either you support an evidence-based approach or you don’t.

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