Tag: neuroliberalism

The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists

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Some context: the new neuroliberalism and “behavioural insights”

The behaviourist turn in government administration – the use of targeted citizen behavioural conditionality in neoliberal policy making –  has expanded globally and is linked to the growth of behavioural economics theory (“nudge”) and a New Right brand of “libertarian paternalism.”  

Reconstructing citizenship as highly conditional stands in sharp contrast to democratic principles, rights-based policies and to those policies based on prior financial contribution, as underpinned in the social insurance and social security frameworks that arose from the post-war settlement.

The fact that the poorest citizens are being targeted with behavioural theory-based interventions also indicates discriminatory policy, which reflects traditional Conservative class-based prejudices. It’s an authoritarian approach to poverty which simply strengthens existing power hierarchies, rather than addressing the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK.

Some of us have dubbed this trend neuroliberalism because it serves as a justification for enforcing politically defined neoliberal outcomes. A hierarchical socioeconomic organisation is being shaped by increasingly authoritarian policies, placing the responsibility for growing inequality and poverty on individuals, side-stepping the traditional (and very real) political/structural explanations of social and economic problems.

Such a behavioural approach to poverty also adds a dimension of cognitive prejudice which serves to reinforce and established power relations and inequality. It is assumed that those with power and wealth have cognitive competence and know which specific behaviours and decisions are best for poor citizens, who are assumed to lack cognitive competence (because they are poor and therefore make “the wrong decisions”). Apparently the theories and insights of cognitive bias don’t apply to the theorists applying them to increasingly marginalised social groups. Policy has increasingly extended a neoliberal cognitive competence and decision-making hierarchy. 

It’s very interesting that the Behavioural Insights Team now claim that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be “counterproductive”. The idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from the behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place. 

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare conditionality in the Conservative’s Welfare “reform” Act, 2012. The current sanction regime is based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – an alleged cognitive bias we have called loss aversion.

It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of alleged behavioural deficits and poor decision-making. Hence the need for policies that “rectify” behaviour.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than libertarian paternalism, since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution. At the very least this approach indicates a slippery slope from “arranging choice architecture” in order to support the “right” decisions that are felt to benefit people, to downright punitive and coercive policies that entail psycho-compulsion, such as sanctioning and mandatory workfare. 

Psychology is being misused by the government to explain unemployment (it’s claimed to happen because people have the “wrong attitude” for work) and as a means to achieve the “right” attitude for job readiness. Psycho-compulsion is the imposition of often pseudo-psychological explanations of unemployment and justifications of mandatory activities which are aimed at changing presumed beliefs, attitudes and dispositions. The Behavioural Insights Team have previously propped up this approach.

Welfare conditionality and its experimental approach to behavioural change doesn’t operate within an ethical framework, citizens cannot withdraw from behavioural experiments, nor is this framework based on informed consent. The impact of state directed psycho-compulsion and potential harm that it may cause citizens is not being monitored. 

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is composed of mostly behavioural economists, who also claim the title of libertarian paternalists (and who have a clear and distinct ideological premise for their behavioural theories, while attempting to claim “objectivity”.)

They claim that while it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” Apparently, that proviso doesn’t apply to poor citizens.

The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of extremely coercive and punitive Conservative welfare sanctions.

When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive. It’s a cognitive bias, if you will.

And when one nudge theory fails, there are always lucrative and political opportunities to generate more.

Of course Dr Kizzy Gandy, a leading researcher at the policy unit says: “We are optimistic that behavioural science can help government departments to better design policies to help those who are ‘just managing’ in order to prevent and overcome poverty.”

In a new report released today from the Behavioural Insights Team, the authors say: “There is evidence that welfare conditionality in the UK – mandatory behavior requirements such as attending meetings with work coaches or providing repeated evidence of disability in order to receive benefits – is associated with anxiety and feelings of disempowerment.” 

“However, as far as we know no one has examined whether welfare conditionality has cognitive depleting effects.”

It’s particularly worrying that there is a proposal in the report for further experimental pseudo-psychological approaches to policies aimed at the poorest citizens. The researchers call on the Department for Work and Pensions to conduct experiments into whether welfare conditionality actually had any positive effects and suggested that “self-set” and “enforced goals” might be a better way of “helping people into work.” Although this allows for a little tokenist self-determination and permits a little autonomy, it is still an approach ultimately based on coercion and enforcement.

There is a clear distinction to be made between “behavioural science” – which is almost entirely about economic outcomes; what is politically deemed “best” for citizens and social conformity, and mainstream psychology – which embraces a much broader and deeper perspective of the complexities of human potential and wellbeing.

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – here is an interesting read: Employing BELIEF: Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, which is focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions.

(Update 27/10/17 – the link to the original document no longer works. But I found a copy with the same page layout here, luckily: – https://www2.learningandwork.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/CESI_employing_BELIEF.pdf).

Pay particular attention to the part about the alleged cognitive bias called loss aversion, on page 7.

And this on page 18: The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it,” and page 46: “Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (e.g.the sanctions regime).”

The recommendation on that page: We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit.”

The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as lone parents, sick and disabled people. 

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and the extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012. I wrote about this at length earlier this year, here: Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification.

The Behavioural Insights Team, (otherwise known as the Nudge Unit) was set up by David Cameron in 2010. In their most recent report called Poverty and decision-making: How behavioural science can improve opportunity in the UK, the nudge researchers now say that burdening unemployed people with responsibilities, using the threat of sanctions might actually be making it harder for them to get jobs.

According to the behavioural economist theorists authoring this highly jargonised report, government policies designed to help people are reducing and impairing people’s so-called cognitive scope and abilities.

However, it’s difficult to imagine how punitive sanctioning, which entails the removal of people’s lifeline income, originally calculated to meet the costs of only basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter, could ever be seen as “helping people.”

I don’t believe that Orwellian semantic shifts can ever provide a genuine and effective solution to poverty and inequality. 

Some major inconsistencies and incoherences in the report

In the latest BIT report, loss aversion is mentioned again:  “People dislike losses more than they like equivalent gains. Babcock, Congdon, Katz, and Mullainathan (2012) hypothesise that people may experience loss aversion if they consider taking a job paying below past earnings. Therefore, they may stay on unemployment benefits longer than they should. Unrealistic wage expectations may be reinforced when the social status and personal identities of workers are strongly tied to their previous job.” [My emphasis]

Note the phrase “unrealistic wage expectations” and later incoherent comments in the report about in-work poverty, which I will highlight.

The summary report states in the introduction: A third of the UK population spent at least one year in relative income poverty between 2011 and 2014.

Traditionally policymakers and anti-poverty organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) have focused on boosting people’s economic capital (e.g., income) and human capital (e.g., educational attainment) to reduce poverty. While investments in these areas have led to important gains in opportunity for many Britons, emerging research from behavioural science shows that other less tangible resources, which derive from psychological, social and cultural processes, significantly influence people’s ability to overcome disadvantage.

BIT was commissioned by JRF to examine the role of individual decisions in shaping people’s experiences of poverty in the UK and to identify the drivers of these decisions. This reflects JRF’s interest in looking beyond traditional, structural drivers of poverty. Our findings, based on a review of the published literature, are presented in a new report, launched today.”

 

Let’s cut to the chase. The entire document is framed by the use of a distinct and established narrative; it’s composed of a pre-loaded ideological language, references and signposts, using comments and phrases like “[…] we explain some of the ways that cognitive, character and social capital influence social mobility, via decision-making.”  

And a sub-heading:Character capital: Self-efficacy and responsive parenting.” Apparently, “home visits by health workers have had positive effects in preventing intergenerational poverty.” That’s quite a remarkable claim, given that the document acknowledges poverty is actually increasing in the UK.

The whole concept of character capital is itself founded on the notion that people with an “internal locus of control” tend to perform tasks better than those with an “external locus of control.” This is about where people place the responsibility for what they achieve – either “inside” individuals, based solely on notions of merit, specific skills and talents, or external to individuals – “outside” of them, based on environmental conditions such as competition, chance, opportunities, socioeconomic, employment market context and so on. However, the cited evidence to support this theory was later contradicted in the report.

It’s also worrying that it is implied those who believe that achievement is linked with structural conditions are “under-performers.” It reads a little like a Samuel Smiles Victorian treatise on “thrift, character and self-help.”

It’s also an almost subliminal method of dismissing the impact of structural constraints on the opportunities available to individuals. It serves to make invisible what was once a key consideration in public discussions about poverty: the unequal distribution of power, wealth, resources and opportunity.

Also of note: “low levels of financial literacy” was conflated with notions of “human capital”, which “potentially exacerbate the effects of depleted cognitive capital among low income groups when choosing between credit options.”  Nothing to see here, then, regarding the behaviour of lenders. I mean whoever heard of a bank offering an overdraft to people who actually need one. Still, thank goodness there are generous companies like Wonga, always ready to step up to the mark, with eye-watering interest rates to offer those on low incomes.

The research authors seem to think that the only human potential worth recognising is that of our economic decision-making. Yet when people are materially poor, budgeting and decision-making are invariably constrained – that’s intrinsic to the very nature of poverty.

Limited decision-making and reduced available choices don’t cause poverty: they are the subsequent exclusion effects of poverty.

It’s telling that none of the recommendations made in this document actually address the structural and political causes of material poverty and growing inequality in the UK.

There is a substantial incoherence in some of the claims made, too. For example: “The world of work is possibly the single most important policy area for maximising individual and household resources to prevent and overcome poverty.”

Yet: “Just under half of those in poverty in the UK live in a workless household (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2014)”. So work clearly doesn’t pay for over half of those people in poverty. 

In fairness, it is later acknowledged that: “However, simply being in work is not sufficient to prevent or overcome poverty. Nearly two-thirds of children in poverty live in working families.” 

This heavily jargonised rhetoric is, on the whole, about looking for cheap individualist “solutions” to poverty that disregard the need for improving people’s material and financial situations, by extending on an existing neoliberal narrative of alleged individual fault, character deficits, cognitive bias and decision-making flaws.

None of this will raise the profile of crucial issues such as the conditions imposed by austerity and neoliberal policies, socioeconomic organisation and political decision-making, that are having a profound impact on growing inequality and increasing poverty in the UK. The persistent use of the word “workless” rather than “unemployed” is another linguistic signpost for neoliberal competitive individualism, too. 

Geographer David Harveydescribes neoliberalism as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets. The report does not refer to the mode of political-economic organisation of which growing inequality and poverty are an intrinsic and inevitable feature.

Proposed solutions: more of the same

Summary of recommendations:

MINIMISING COSTS

Consumer credit

1 Make it easier to access low cost credit through extending access to interest-free Budgeting Advances; assisting credit unions to expand online services; and providing tax relief to individuals taking out payroll loans.

2 Further restrict practices by high cost credit providers that play on consumer biases, and test remedies that will improve consumer credit decision-making.

3 Continue to evaluate financial capability programmes through initiatives like the Money Advice Service What Works Fund.

(Access to credit does not alleviate poverty in the long-term.)

Savings

1 Test ways of automating rainy day savings through employer enrolment, default savings accounts with banks, and Universal Credit payments.

2 Evaluate the effectiveness of financial apps for helping people save.

3 Optimise the Help to Save matching scheme, through testing auto-enrolment and prizes for regular saving, to encourage low-income groups to save.

(Poor citizens do not have sufficient funds to make savings. And research shows that absolute poverty is growing in the UK, which means that many people often don’t have sufficient funds for meeting even fundamental survival needs, such as for food and fuel.) 

MAXIMISING RESOURCES

Work

1 Use identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work in order to improve the quality and sustainability of jobs that people find.

2 Collect longer-term and more holistic outcome measures of labour market interventions to understand their full impact on poverty.

3 Develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs.

Entitlements

1 Develop a common “cognitive load stress test” that measures how easy it is for eligible groups to access government entitlements.

2 Use annual entitlement summaries to prompt existing welfare recipients to apply for other assistance they may be eligible for, and to help them budget.

3 Experiment with the design of welfare conditionality to boost cognitive capacity and self-efficacy, such as having claimants set their own payment conditions.

PREVENTING INTERGENERATIONAL POVERTY

Parenting

1 Provide families in or near poverty with free access to evidence-based online parenting programmes.

2 Develop community to strengthen social ties between parents from different backgrounds.

3 Conduct research into whether small and inexpensive adjustments to housing conditions can reduce cognitive load and improve parental decision-making.

Post secondary education

1 Make the application process for post-secondary education as simple as possible, for example, by pre-populating application forms.

2 Use personalised assistance and prompts to encourage students and parents to apply to post-secondary education.

3 Link formal information about returns to post-secondary education with informal information (from peers) about what post-secondary education will be like.

Every single intervention recommendation fails to address the structural causes of poverty, which lie outside of the control of people experiencing poverty. Yet most of these recommendations are aimed at prompting the state to act upon individuals.  

Proposals such as providing access to parenting programmes, “identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work”, “rainy day savings”, and to “develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs” all sound like a New Right blame-storming exercise. Again, the problem of poverty is regarded as being intrinsic to the individual, rather than one that is about material deprivation which arises in a wider political, economic, cultural and social context.

Post secondary education costs money and isn’t supported by the state. The Education Maintenance Award (EMA) was withdrawn by the Conservatives, and the cost of a university education is now far too much for many young people from poorer backgrounds because of the tripling of fees and reduction in maintenance support. It’s the government that need a nudge, here. This is a good example of how opportunities and choices are being limited for poorer citizens by cuts and constraints imposed by the neoliberal ideologues in office.  

The government never question the decision-making of the powerful and wealthy, yet it certainly wasn’t the poorest citizens that caused the global recession in 2007, nor was it the poorest citizens that imposed damaging austerity policies. The poorest people are burdened with a disproportionate weight of austerity cuts to their income and support. The wealthiest citizens have meanwhile been gifted with substantial tax cuts. 

Nudge is a state prop for neoliberalism, inequality and social control

Neoliberals argue that public services present moral hazards and perverse incentives. Providing lifeline support to meet basic survival requirements is seen as a barrier to the effort people put into searching for jobs. From this perspective, the social security system, which supports the inevitable casualties of neoliberal free markets, has somehow created those casualties. But we know that external, market competition-driven policies create a few “haves” and many “have-nots.” This is why the  welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, we must also concede that there are always ”winners and losers.”

Neoliberalism organises societies into hierarchies. Inequality is therefore an inevitable feature of the UK’s current mode of socioeconomic organisation. 

The UK currently ranks highly among the most unequal countries in the world.

Inequality and poverty are central features of neoliberalism and the causes therefore cannot be located within individuals.  

Neoliberals see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined outcomes are stigmatised, and outgrouped.

Shamefully, in a so-called first world, wealthy liberal democracy, othering and outgrouping have become common political practices.  

Replacing spent micro-managementspeak with more micro-managementspeak

The Nudge Unit, which was part-privatised in 2014, have now warned that some Government policies were reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help. So more theoretical psychobabble to overwrite the previous psychobabble which didn’t work when applied via policy.

This is bland neoliberal managementspeak at its very worst. The policies are causing profound damage, harm and distress to those they were never actually designed to “help”. Let’s not permit an evading of accountability and techniques of neutralisation: the use of rhetoric to obscure the real intention behind policies, as well as the consequences of them. It’s nothing less than political gaslighting. 

Of course the report attempts to apply “the latest findings from behavioural science to improve government services.” In a neoliberal framework, there are many lucrative opportunities for private companies to experiment in the psychological management of populations who have become the casualties of political decision-making, for political ends. The ethical relativity, moral entrepreneurship and sheer financial opportunism on display here certainly reflect some fundamental neoliberal values and principles. The main one being profit over human need.

Dr Kizzy Gandy proposes that cost-effective “simple tweaks” to services could help improve the way services worked. “Government policies should help people to have less on their mind, not more,” she added. 

However, I propose that government policies in democratic societies should also be designed to meet the public’s needs, including alleviating poverty, rather than being about impoverishing targeted social groups and then undemocratically acting upon individuals, without their consent, directing them how to behave in order to accommodate government ideology and meet politically defined neoliberal outcomes.

Material poverty steals aspiration and motivation from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival. Abraham Maslow (a real social psychologist) explained that when people struggle to meet their basic physical needs, they cannot be “incentivised” to fulfil higher level psychosocial needs – that includes job seeking.

Further criticism 

Labour Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “Even the government’s own Behavioural Insights Team now recognise the mountains of evidence that the widespread use of sanctions is not leading to better outcomes for people seeking work. Indeed, this government team’s report suggests that sanctions may be operating as a barrier to finding a job.

“This government should be ashamed of their persistent failure to act on this issue over many years, after I, and other campaigners, have provided evidence of the devastating impacts of their sanctions policy.  I have committed to putting an end to Tories’ cruel and unnecessary sanctions regime, as part of our work to transform the social security system.” 

In fairness to the BIT, the report does say on page nine, among the listed areas of proposed future research: “A significant portion of behavioural science research focuses on improving the decisions of end-users – in this case people in poverty. But what about the decisions of service providers and policymakers? How can we improve the quality of their decisions to support people [to] escape poverty? And how can we build their empathy with those whose opportunities are at stake?”  

But who is nudging the nudgers?  I would think nudgers are “incentivised” by those providing the contracts that pay their salaries, on the whole. The government part-own the nudge unit.

Researchers from a variety of universities across the UK, using qualitative longitudinal interviews with nine groups of welfare service users from across England and Scotland, aim at determining longer-term effects of sanctions. The first wave findings from this collaborative ongoing study regarding the effects and ethics of welfare conditionality were released last year 

It was found that linking continued receipt of benefit and services to mandatory behavioural requirements has created widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment. The impacts of benefit sanctions are universally reported by service users as profoundly negative, having severely detrimental financial, material, emotional, psychological and health impacts. Some individuals disengaged from services, some were even pushed toward “survival crime”.  

The most surprising thing about these findings was the general lack of surprise they raised.

A recurring theme is that sanctions are grossly out of proportion to “offences”, such as being a few minutes late for an appointment. Many reported being sanctioned following administrative mistakes. The Claimant Commitment was criticised for not taking sufficient account of individuals’ capabilities, wider responsibilities and vulnerabilities. Many saw job centres as being primarily concerned with monitoring compliance, imposing discipline and enforcement, rather than providing any meaningful support. 

Power relations, class and economic organisation have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty. Neoliberal anti-welfarism, amplified by a corporate media, has aimed at reconstruction of society’s “common sense” assumptions, values and beliefs. Class, disability and race narratives in particular, associated with traditional prejudices and categories from the right wing, have been used to nudge the UK to re-imagine citizenship, human rights and democratic inclusion as highly conditional.  

This is not just about shifting public rational and moral boundaries to de-empathise the electorate to the circumstances of politically defined others. It also obscures the consequences more generally of increasingly non-inclusive, anti-democratic, prejudiced and extremely punitive policies.  

The bottom line is that government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. 
 
However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies: euphemisms, superficial glittering generalities and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from aims and consequences of ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs. 

For example, the state has depoliticised disadvantage, making it the private responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach that encodes a punitive Conservative moral framework. 

According to the behavioural economist theorists, in their highly jargonised and fairly meaningless report, government policies are reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help.

That the government imposes additional “cognitive costs”, as well as material and financial ones, on low-income groups, is hardly a groundbreaking revelation. 

I can put it much more plainly, and strip it of neoliberal psychobabbling: imposing sanctions on people who already have very limited resources is not only irrational, it is absurdly unjust, damaging, distressing and spectacularly cruel. 

See also:

Benefit Sanctions Can’t Possibly ‘Incentivise’ People To Work – And Here’s Why

Two key studies show that punitive benefit sanctions don’t ‘incentivise’ people to work, as claimed by the government

Welfare, Conditional Citizenship and the Neuroliberal State – Conference Presentation

 

 

Worklessness is not a trait: why blaming and shaming is not a solution – Mireia Borrell-Porta

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The recent controversy around the book The Welfare Trait is part of a long-standing debate on whether poverty is caused by structure or behaviour, writes Mireia Borrell-Porta, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford.

Here, she offers her own reading of the book and explains why claiming benefits is not simply a question of personality; instead, a number of other factors – including structural economic and environmental – need to be taken into account.

Mireia also cites my own article – Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism  – and like me, she draws a parallel with Adam Perkins’s basic antiwelfarist proposition and the New Right supremicist thinking of Charles Murray.

She says: “‘The Welfare Trait’ by Adam Perkins is currently the subject of controversial debate on mainstream and social media. Having been praised (albeit with some nuances) by the Adam Smith Institute and the Spectator, it has been criticised by The Equality Trust and the Guardian among others. The book’s main argument is that welfare benefits are a ‘production line of unfit children’, and that the welfare state is gradually making new generations ‘resistant to employment.’  This is the result of two phenomena, according to Perkins. First, benefits have the effect of increasing childbirth in workless households more than in working ones. Second, individuals with ‘employment-resistant’ personalities are over-represented among welfare claimants, who then pass these ‘inconvenient traits’ on to their children, making them also less likely to work.”

Mireia goes on to say: “Perkins’ argument is also reminiscent of American conservativism from the mid-1970s. A prominent voice at the time was that of political scientist Charles Murray who, concerned with the fact that poverty in the 1970s did not decline and even rose slightly, grew convinced that the culprits were the decline of the husband-wife family and the drop in work levels among the poor. These trends, he argued, were to be traced to a shift in behaviour on the part of individuals who suffered from poverty. He suggested that individuals are generally rational and make their decisions on work and having children depending on the economic incentives of the time. By increasing or decreasing benefits, the welfare state affects such incentives.

In his later writings, personal character was added to these explanations, leading to his claims that the welfare state not only generated perverse incentives, but also enabled certain people to behave as they ‘naturally’ wanted to behave (i.e. allowing them not to work if they did not want to). Personal character was therefore relevant, and at the same time welfare incentives could have a long-term (detrimental) effect on them. His solution was radical: abolish poverty programmes.”

She concludes: “Anyone studying the relationship between behaviour, character or personality and employment should take these variables into account before claiming that ‘the welfare state becomes a production line for damaged kids’. Because, with parental and children behaviour being influenced by the amount of financial resources in a household, the reasonable approach is not to decrease the level of benefits, as Perkins suggests; this is a case for increasing them.”

You can read this excellent artice in full on the LSE site.

Mireia Borrell-Porta is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford. She completed her PhD at the European Institute at the LSE and holds an MSc in European Political Economy from LSE and a BSc in Economics from Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Mireia’s main research interests focus on the interplay between social norms and economic incentives and their joint impact on individual behaviour. Her areas of interest are social policy, and family policy in particular, and political economy. 

assessment

The myth of meritocracy

Related

The poverty of responsibility and the politics of blame. Part 3 – the Tories want to repeal the 2010 Child Poverty Act

Essentialising marginalised groups and using stigmatising personality constructs to justify dismantling social security is not “science”, it’s psychopolitics

Antisocial personality and lack of conscientiousness is correlated with bogus anti-welfare research

This is an interesting take on Perkins’s book, (and also references my own work –  Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism.)

The article is by sociologist Daniel Nehring: Manufactured Controversy: Adam Perkins, the Psychological Imagination and the Marketing of Scholarship

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Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism

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Eugenics in a ball gown

I had a little discussion with Richard Murphy yesterday, and I mentioned that the right-wing libertarian think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, (ASI) has endorsed the controversial work of Adam Perkins – The Welfare Trait.” The ASI has been the impetus behind Conservative policy agendas and was the primary intellectual drive behind the privatisation of state-owned industries during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, and alongside the Centre for Policy Studies and Institute of Economic Affairs, advanced a neoliberal approach towards public policy on privatisation, taxation, education, and healthcare, and have advocated the replacement of much of the welfare state by private insurance schemes.

Professor Richard Murphy, a widely respected political economist and commentator, has written an excellent article: The Adam Smith Institute is now willing to argue that those on benefits are genetically different to the rest of us on the Tax Research UK site, which I urge you to read. 

He says “What you see in this is the deliberate construction of an argument that those on benefits are genetically different from other people. The consequences that follow are inevitable and were all too apparent in the 1930s. And this comes from a UK think tank much beloved for Tory politicians.”

The Adam Smith Institute say this in their review of Adam Perkins’s book:

“With praiseworthy boldness, Perkins gets off the fence and recommends concrete policy solutions for the problems that he identifies, arguing that governments should try to adjust the generosity of welfare payments to the point where habitual claimants do not have greater fertility than those customarily employed. The book no doubt went to press before the Chancellor announced plans to limit child tax credits to a household’s first two children, but such a measure is very much in the spirit of this bullet-biting book. The explicit targeting of fertility as a goal of welfare policy, however, goes beyond current government policy. Perkins perhaps should also have argued for measures to boost the fertility of those with pro-social personalities, such as deregulation of the childcare and housing markets to cut the costs of sustainable family formation.”

And: “Over time, therefore, the work motivation of the general population is lowered. This occurs through both genetic and environmental channels. Personality traits are substantially heritable (meaning that a decent percentage of the variation in these traits is due to naturally occurring genetic variation). Given this fact, habitual welfare claimants with employment-resistant personalities are likely to have offspring with similar personalities.”

Personality disorder or simply maintaining the social order?

Two things concern me immediately. Firstly, there is no causal link established between welfare provision and “personality disorder” or “traits”, bearing in mind that the “employment-resistant personality” is an entirely made-up category and does not feature as a clinical classification in either the ICD-10 section on mental and behavioural disorders, or in the DSM-5. Nor is employment status currently part of any clinical diagnostic criteria. Personality disorders are defined by experiences and behaviours that differ from societal norms and expectations.

Personality disorder (and mental illness) categories are therefore culturally and historically relative. Diagnostic criteria and categories are always open to sociopolitical and economic definition, highly subjective judgments, and are particularly prone to political abuse.

Drapetomania” for example, was a pseudoscientific definition of a mental illness that labelled slaves who fled captivity in the 1800s. Samuel A. Cartwright, who invented the category, also prescribed a remedy. He said: “with proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented. In the case of slaves “sulky and dissatisfied without cause” – apparently a warning sign of their imminent flight – Cartwright prescribed “whipping the devil out of them” as a “preventative measure.” As a further “remedy” for this “disease”, doctors also made running a physical impossibility by prescribing the removal of both big toes. Such abusive application of psychiatry and the medicalisation of distress and rational responses to ethnic degradation and dehumanisation is part of the edifice of scientific racism.

The classification of homosexuality as a mental illness was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1974, and was replaced by the subsequent categories of “sexual orientation disturbance” and then “ego-dystonic homosexuality,” the latter was not deleted from the manual until 1987. Medicalising and stigmatising the experiences, behaviours and beliefs of marginalised social groups, and attempting to discredit and invalidate those group’s collective experiences is a key feature of political and cultural oppression.

Personality traits are notoriously difficult to measure reliably, and it is often far easier to agree on the behaviours that typify a disorder than on the reasons why they occur. As it is, there is debate as to whether or not personality disorders are an objective disorder, a clinical disease, or simply expressions of human distress and ways of coping. At the very least, there are implications regarding diagnoses that raise important questions about context, which include political and social issues such as inequality, poverty, class struggle, oppression, abuse, stigma, scapegoating and other structural impositions.

An over-reliance on a fixed set of behavioural indicators, some have argued, undermines validity, leaving personality disorder categories prone to “construct drift,” as the diagnostic criteria simply don’t provide adequate coverage of the construct they were designed to measure. There are no physical tests that can be carried out to diagnose someone with a personality disorder – there is no single, reliable diagnostic tool such as a blood test, brain scan or genetic test. Diagnosis depends on subjective judgment rather than objective measurement.

A diagnosis of personality disorder is potentially very damaging and creates further problems for individuals by undermining their sense of self, denying their identity, experience and locating the problems, regardless of their origin and who is responsible for them, in themselves. This is in addition to exposing people to stigma and discrimination, both within the mental health system, quite often, and more broadly within our society. Medicalising and stigmatising human distress permits society to look the other way, losing sight of an individual’s social needs, experiences and context. It also alienates the stigmatised individual, and enforces social conformity, compliance and cultural homogeneity.

It may be argued that the concept of personality disorder obscures wider social issues of neglect, poverty, inequality, power relationships, oppression and abuse by focusing on the labelling of the individual. Rather than being concerned with the impact and prevalence of these issues, public outrage is focussed on containing and controlling people who challenge normative consensus and who are perceived to be dangerous. Because there is no objective test to make a diagnosis, this makes the basis of such diagnosis very questionable and highlights the propensity for its political and punitive usage. The “diagnosis” of many political dissidents in the Soviet Union with “sluggish schizophrenia” who were subsequently subjected to inhumane “treatments” led to questions about such diagnoses and punitive regimes through stigma, labeling, dehumanisation, coercion and oppression, for example.

Secondly, to recommend such specific policies on the basis of this essentially eugenic argument betrays Perkins’s intention to provide a pseudoscientific prop for the libertarian paternalist (with the emphasis being on paternalist) brand of neoliberalism and New Right antiwelfarism.

The taken-for-granted assumption that the work ethic and paid labor (regardless of its quality) may define a person’s worth is also very problematic, as it objectifies human subjects, reducing people to being little more than neoliberal commodities. Or a disposable reserve army of labor, at the mercy of “free market” requirements, if you prefer.

The government is currently at the centre of a United Nations inquiry into abuses of the human rights of sick and disabled people, and is also in breach of the rights of women and children, because of their anti-humanist, draconian welfare “reforms”. Human rights are the bedrock of democracy. The fact that some social groups are experiencing political discrimination and the failure of a government in a wealthy first-world liberal democracy to observe what are meant to be universal human rights ought to be cause for concern.

The rise of neoeugenics

Holocaust documention has highlighted that the medicalisation of social problems and systematic euthanasia of people in German mental institutions in the 1930s provided the institutional, procedural, and doctrinal origins of the genocide of the 1940s. Eugenics in Germany was founded on notions of “scientific progress,” and was about ensuring mental, racial and genetic “hygiene” and “improving” the German race, which ultimately led to eliminativist attitudes towards politically defined “impure” others.

Eugenics is a theory of the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a particular population. It encourages the reproduction of persons with socially defined “desirable genetic qualities” and discourages the reproduction of persons with socially defined “undesirable genetic qualities.” Taken to its most extreme form, eugenics supports the extermination of some groups who some others consider to be “undesirable” population.

One example of eugenic policy is the recent limiting of tax credit support for children in poorer families to two children only. Iain Duncan Smith said that this is to encourage “behavioural change” to prevent poorer families having “too many” children.

Eugenics is widely considered as a movement that endorses human rights violations of some social groups. At the very least, eugenic policy entails violations of privacy, the right to found a family, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to socioeconomic security and social protection, and at worst, violations of the right to life.

I have frequently referred to Gordon Allport in my writing. He was a social psychologist who studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. Allport’s important work reminds us of the lessons learned from politically-directed human atrocities and the parts of our collective history it seems we would prefer to forget.

In his research of how the Holocaust happened, Allport describes sociopolitical processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes tenable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards politically defined others, all of which advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.

The process always begins with political scapegoating of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as “undesirable” and as the Other: an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, extermination of the group being targeted.

Othering is recognised in social psychology as part of an outgrouping process that demarcates those that are thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream, most often using stigmatising to generate public moral outrage. It tends to reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination. Othering historically draws on essentialising explanations, culturalist explanations, behavioural explanations, genetic explanations and racialising explanations.

Hate crime, eugenics and Allport’s ladder

In the UK, much of the media is certainly being used by the right-wing as an outlet for blatant political propaganda, and much of it is manifested as a pathological persuasion to hate others. We are bombarded with anti-muslim rhetoric, “poverty porn”, headlines that condemn people needing social security as “workshy” and “scroungers.” The political scapegoating narrative directed at sick and disabled people has resulted in a steep rise in hate crimes directed at that group. By 2012, hate crime incidents against disabled people had risen to record levels, and has continued to climb ever since, rising by a further 41% last year alone. We are certainly climbing Allport’s ladder of prejudice.

A freedom of information request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) discloses that between 2010 and 2015 the government closed 1,041,219 alleged cases of benefit fraud put forward by the public. Insufficient or no evidence of fraud was discovered in 887,468 of these. In 2015 alone, of the 153,038 cases closed by the DWP’s Fraud and Error Service, 132,772 led to no action. People can use an online form on the DWP website to anonymously report “suspects,” listing their eye colour, piercings, scars, tattoos and other details they deem relevant. Suspicions can also be logged through the DWP benefit fraud hotline.

The inaccurate reports throws into question multiple government advertising campaigns, claiming that the public has a “role” in identifying “benefit cheats”. Television adverts, social media posts, letters and radio campaigns have been used to warn claimants about fraudulently claiming benefits. Government statistics show fraudulent claims accounted for 0.7% – or £1.2bn – of total benefit expenditure in the financial year 2012-2013. Some of that figure may also contain a proportion of DWP errors. An estimated £1.6bn was underpaid to claimants by the DWP. Yet people’s neighbours are being encouraged to engage in a McCarthy-style reporting of suspected benefit fraud. And a significant proportion of the public are reporting innocent citizens.

There is considerable incongruence between cases of genuine fraud and public perception: an Ipsos Mori survey in 2013 found the public believed 24% of benefits were fraudulently claimed – 34 times greater than the level seen in official statistics.

The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism) all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision.

The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing folk devils: establishing stigmatised, deviant welfare stereotypes and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public:

“If working people ever get to discover where their tax money really ends up, at a time when they find it tough enough to feed their own families, let alone those of workshy scroungers, then that’ll be the end of the line for our welfare state gravy train.” James Delingpole 2014

Poverty cannot be explained away by reference to simple narratives of the workshy scrounger as Delingpole claims, no matter how much he would like to apply such simplistic, blunt, stigmatising, dehumanising labels that originated from the Nazis (see arbeitssheu.)

The Conservatives have strongly authoritarian tendencies, and that is most evident in their anti-democratic approach to policy, human rights, equality, social inclusion and processes of government accountability.

Conservative policies are entirely ideologically driven. It is a government that is manipulating public prejudice to justify massive socioeconomic inequalities and their own policies which are creating a steeply hierarchical society based on social Darwinist survival of the wealthiest “libertarian” principles. We have a government that frequently uses words like workshy to describe vulnerable social groups.

Conservative narrative and eugenics

This is a government intentionally scapegoating poor, unemployed, disabled people and migrants. A few years ago, a Tory councillor said that “the best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.” More recently, another Tory councillor called for the extermination of gypsies, more than one Tory (for example, Lord Freud, Philip Davies) have called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people, claiming that we are not worth a minimum wage to employers.

These weren’t “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Tories believe these comments are acceptable, and we need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms” and research the consequences of austerity for the poorest and the vulnerable – those with the “least broad shoulders” – to understand that these comments reflect how many Conservatives think.

Occasionally such narrative is misjudged, pushing a little too far against the boundaries of an established idiom of moral outrage, and so meets with public resistance. When this happens, it tends to expose the fault lines of political ideology and psychosocial manipulation, revealing the intentional political creation of folk devils and an extending climate of prejudice.

In EdgbastonKeith Joseph, (1974) announced to the world that:

“The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened … a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment.”

And in 2010, the former deputy chairman of Conservative Party, Lord Howard Flight, told the London Evening Standard:

“We’re going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.”

In 2013, Dominic Cummings, a senior adviser to the UK Secretary of State for Education, provoked a flurry of complaints about his eugenicist approach, claiming that “a child’s performance has more to do with genetic makeup than the standard of his or her education.”

Steven Rose, Emeritus Professor of Biology, offered a more detailed analysis in New Scientist, concluding:

“Whatever intelligence is, these failures show that to hunt for it in the genes is an endeavour driven more by ideological commitment than either biological or social scientific judgement. To suggest that identifying such genes will enable schools to develop personalised educational programmes to match them, as Cummings does, is sheer fantasy, perhaps masking a desire to return to the old days of the 11 plus. Heritability neither defines nor limits educability.”

Pseudoscience has long been used to attempt to define and explain social problems. Lysenkoism is an excellent example. (The term Lysenkoism is used metaphorically to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, most often related to political objectives. This criticism may apply equally to either ideologically-driven “nature” and “nurture” arguments.)

Eugenics uses the cover and credibility of science to blame the casualities of socioeconomic systems for their own problems and justify an existing social power and wealth hierarchy. It’s no coincidence that eugenicists and their wealthy supporters also share a mutual antipathy for political progressivism, trade unionism, collectivism, notions of altruism and of co-operation and class struggle.

It isn’t what it ought to be

Adam Perkins wrote a book that attempts to link neurobiology with psychiatry, personality and behavioural epigenetics, Lamarkian evolution, economics, politics and social policy. Having made an impulsive inferential leap across a number of chasmic logical gaps from neurobiology and evolution into the realms of social policy and political science, seemingly unfazed by disciplinary tensions between the natural and social sciences, particularly the considerable scope for paradigmatic incommensurability, he then made a highly politicised complaint that people are criticising his work on the grounds of his highly biased libertarian paternalist framework, highly partisan New Right social Conservatism and neoliberal antiwelfarist discourse. 

The problem of discrete disciplinary discursive practices and idiomatic language habits, each presenting the problem of complex internal rules of interpretation, was seemingly sidestepped by Perkins, who transported himself across distinct spheres of meaning simply on leaps of semantic faith to doggedly pursue and reach his neuroliberal antiwelfarist destination. He seems to have missed the critical domain and central controversies of each discipline throughout his journey.

Perhaps he had a theory-laden spirit guide.

Einstein once famously said: “The theory tells you what you may observe.”

On reading Perkins’s central thesis, the is/ought distinction immediately came to mind: moral conclusions – statements of what “ought” to be – cannot be deduced from non-moral premises. In other words, just because someone claims to have knowledge of how the world is or how groups of people are – and how mice are, for that matter, since Perkins shows a tendency to conflate mice behaviour with human behaviour – (descriptive statements), this doesn’t automatically prove or demonstrate that he or she knows how the world ought to be (prescriptive statements).

There is a considerable logical gap between the unsupported claim that welfare is somehow “creating” some new kind of personality disorder, called “the employment-resistant personality”, and advocating the withdrawal of support calculated to meet only the basic physiological needs of individuals – social security benefits only cover the costs of food, fuel and shelter.

Whilst Perkins’s book conveniently fits with Conservative small state ideology, behaviourist narratives, and “culture of dependency” rhetoric, there has never been evidence to support any of the claims that the welfare state creates social problems or psychological pathologies. Historically, such claims tend to reflect partisan interests and establish dominant moral agendas aimed at culturally isolating social groups, discrediting and spoiling their identities, micromanaging dissent, and then such discourses are used in simply justifying crass inqualities and hierarchies of human worth that have been politically defined and established.

It’s truly remarkable that whenever we have a Conservative government, we suddenly witness media coverage of an unprecedented rise in the numbers of poor people who have suddenly seemingly developed a considerable range of personal “ineptitudes” and character “flaws.” Under the Thatcher administration, we witnessed Charles Murray’s discredited pseudoscientific account of “bad” and “good” folk-types taking shape in discriminatory policy and prejudiced political rhetoric.

Social Darwinism has always placed different classes and races in hierarchies and arrayed them in terms of socially constructed notions of “inferiority” and “superiority.” Charles Murray’s controversial work The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life presents another example of a discredited right-wing ideological architect, funded by the right-wing, who was then used to prop up an authoritarian Conservative antiwelfarist dogma that was also paraded as “science.” Murray had considerable influence on the New Right Thatcher and Reagan governments. Critics were often dismissed, on the basis that they were identified with “censorious political correctness,” which of course was simply a right-wing attempt to close down genuine debate and stifle criticism. The Bell Curve was part of a wider campaign to justify inequality, racism, sexism, and provided a key theme in Conservative arguments for antiwelfarism and anti-immigration policies.

A recent comprehensive international study of social safety nets from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard economists refutes the Conservative “scrounger” stereotype and dependency rhetoric. Abhijit Banerjee, Rema Hanna, Gabriel Kreindler, and Benjamin Olken re-analyzed data from seven randomized experiments evaluating cash programs in poor countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.”

The phrase “welfare dependency” was designed to intentionally divert attention from political prejudice, discrimation via policies and to disperse public sympathies towards the poorest citizens. It is used to justify inequality.

Adam Perkins does nothing to consider, isolate and explore confounding variables regarding the behaviours and responses of people needing social security support. He claims our current level of support is too high. I beg to differ. Empirical evidence clearly indicates it is set much too low to meet people’s physiological needs fully. Poverty affects people’s mental health as well as their physical health. There is a weight of empirical evidence confirming that food deprivation and income insecurity is profoundly psychologically harmful as much as it is physiologically damaging. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example.) Describing people’s anger, despondency and distress at their circumstances as “antisocial” is profoundly oppressive. The draconian policies that contribute to creating those circumstances are antisocial, not the people impacted by those policies.

If people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will either have the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to find work and meet increasingly Kafkaesque welfare conditionality requirements.

However, people claiming social security support have worked and contributed to society. Most, according to research, are desperate to find work. Most do. It is not the same people year in year out that claim support. There is no discrete class of economic freeriders and “tax payers.” The new and harsh welfare conditionality regime tends to push people into insecure, low paid employment, which establishes a revolving door of work and welfare through no fault of those caught up in it.

There is a clear relationship between human needs, human rights, and social justice. Needs are an important concept that guide empowerment based practices and the concept is intrinsic to social justice. Furthermore, the meeting of physiological and safety needs of citizens ought to be the very foundation of economic justice as well as the development of a democratic society.

The Conservatives (and Perkins) claim that the social security system, which supports the casualties of neoliberal free markets, have somehow created those casualties. But we know that the competitive, market choice-driven Tory policies create a few haves and many have-nots.

As I’ve pointed out many times before, such political rhetoric is designed to have us believe there would be no poor if the welfare state didn’t “create” them. But if Conservatives must insist on peddling the myth of meritocracy, then surely they must also concede that whilst such a system has some beneficiaries, it also creates situations of insolvency and poverty for others.

Inequality is a fundamental element of the same meritocracy script that neoliberals so often pull from the top pockets of their bespoke suits. It’s the big contradiction in the smug meritocrat’s competitive individualism narrative. This is why the welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, there are always winners and losers. Inequality is a central feature of neoliberalism and social Conservatism, and its cause therefore cannot be located within individuals.

It’s hardly “fair”, therefore, to leave the casualties of competition facing destitution and starvation, with a hefty, cruel and patronising barrage of calculated psychopolicical scapegoating, politically-directed cultural blamestorming, and a coercive, punitive behaviourist approach to the casualities of inbuilt, systemic, inevitable and pre-designated sentences of economic exclusion and poverty.

That would be regressive, uncivilised, profoundly antidemocratic and tyrannical.

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This work was cited and referenced in Challenging the politics of early intervention: Who’s ‘saving’ children and why, by Val Gillies and Rosalind Edwards, here.

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